The Salvation (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Western Revenge

thesavation06“The Salvation” looks and feels like an authentic American western film, and you will probably be surprised to know that it was actually made by a Danish director in South Africa. Drive by its terse storytelling coupled with harsh, remorseless violence, this dark, compelling western drama works as an earnest homage to its genre, and it also injects a number of interesting variations into a familiar revenge plot revolving around good and evil.

Its story is about a Danish immigrant named Jon (Mads Mikkelson), who has tried to settle in some American frontier area during the late 19th century. After the war in their country was over seven years ago, Jon and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt), who were soldiers participating in the war during that time, came to America for starting a new life for them and Jon’s wife and young son, and the opening scene shows them waiting for Jon’s wife and son to arrive at the train station in a nearby town.

Jon is happy to see his family again after long years when they finally arrive, but, unfortunately, his joy does not last long because of their accidental encounter with two strangers who happen to ride along with them in a stagecoach. It is soon revealed that these strangers are dangerous criminals, and then they eventually kill Jon’s wife and son during their savage robbery. Devastated by this shattering loss, Jon subsequently executes his revenge on these criminals after tracking them down, and he and Peter begin to prepare for their departure after the burial of his wife and son.

thesavation01However, they soon face the consequence of Jon’s vengeful action not long after they arrive at the town. One of two criminals killed by Jon turns out to be the brother of Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and Delarue, an ex-soldier who leads a bunch of intimidating armed goons while extorting the town people in the name of protection, is naturally very angry about this. He wants to catch a man responsible for his brother’s death, and there is no one in the town who can stop his urge for vengeance. Keane (Jonathan Pryce), the mayor of the town who also works as an undertaker, is a spineless guy who cannot possibly say no to Delarue while gladly taking any chance for more benefit, and Mallick (Douglas Henshall), the helpless sheriff of the town who is also supposed to be its spiritual leader as a pastor, has no choice but to bend to this evil, ruthless man’s will – even when he and others in the town are forced to make an impossible choice during one sad, shocking moment of violence.

And we also meet Madelaine (Eva Green), a scarred mute woman with elusive and unnerving intensity. While belonging to Delarue’s dead brother after being saved by him from Indians a long time ago, Madelaine has also worked as the financial accountant for Delarue’s growing criminal business associated with some big oil company, and Delarue does not mind becoming her new man at all even though his brother was buried not that long ago.

The screenplay by the director Kristian Levring and his co-screenplay writer Anders Thomas Jensen gradually builds tension step by step as Jon and Delarue inevitably take their collision course. Like many other western films, the movie ultimately arrives at the climax decorated with gunshots and other kinds of violence to strike us, and Levring deftly handles this part with taut efficiency and emotional impact. He also utilizes his South African locations well to create the alien but believable ambience of the Wild West on the screen, and his cinematographer Jens Schlosser provides several wonderful shots which clearly evoke the impression of classic western films in their thoughtful composition.

thesavation02The actors in the film look convincing as inhabiting the world their characters belong to. Mads Mikkelsen, a stoic, resilient master of understated feelings as shown in Oscar-nominated film “The Hunt” (2012) and recent TV series “Hannibal”, is well-cast as a tragic hero who silently grieves and suffers along the course of his unfair plight, and he is compelling to watch even when his face barely expresses pain, sorrow, fury, and many other dark feelings churning inside his taciturn character. While generating a real sense of brotherhood between him and Mikkelsen, Mikael Persbrandt has his own small moment when Peter slowly manipulates his opponent for a certain purpose, and that scene is certainly better than when this good Swedish actor was rather wasted in “The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies” (2014).

On the opposite, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is effectively menacing as the main villain of the story. It goes without saying that Delarue is a vile, vicious man, but he seems to have his own miserable side as indirectly suggested at one point, and his lonely, barren lair surrounded by burned buildings further accentuates his wretched status full of murder and corruption. Eva Green, who was one of a few real good things in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” (2014), always draws our attention with her terrific wordless performance while her ambiguous character constantly holds the cards behind her back as a potential wild card in the story, and other actors including Jonathan Pryce, Eric Cantona, and Douglas Henshall bring some personalities to their stock characters.

Compared to Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” (2014), another modern western film which incidentally came out in the same year, “The Salvation” feels less polished and resonant in comparison (Its occasional use of CGI is a little too blatant at times, for example). I think it could have dug deeper into its subjects, but it is still an engaging genre piece, and it certainly confirms us again of Mikkelsen’s undeniably captivating screen presence.

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Wyrmwood (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Road of the Dead

wyrmwood01Australian movie “Wyrmwood”, a.k.a “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead”, is a little horror film mainly consisting of familiar spare parts borrowed from other zombie movies. As you have probably guessed right from my first sentence, the movie has your average grim apocalyptic background where its few human characters must survive for themselves amid the walking dead, and it also serves us with typical bloody or disgusting moments you can expect from those pale zombie extras wearing lots of make-ups and emitting inhuman sounds. This is nothing new to you especially if you are a connoisseur of horror movies or a fan of TV series “The Walking Dead”, but it is equipped with local humor and style to distinguish itself from countless zombie movies, and that certainly leaves some impression on the whole.

After the opening scene showing a number of characters ready for taking care of their imminent zombie problem, we are told about how their normal world gets suddenly turned upside down. In case of Barry (Jay Gallagher), an ordinary mechanic with loving wife and little adorable daughter, he gets a frantic late night call from his sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), who was doing a photography work with two friends at her warehouse around the time when a meteor shower occurred in the sky. For some unknown reason which may be associated with that meteor shower, people begin to be turned into zombies, and Brooke finds herself being cornered by her zombie friends while stuck in her warehouse.

Alarmed by what her sister tells him, Barry soon finds that the same horrible thing is also happening in his neighbourhood. He quickly drives out of his house with his family, but it turns out that it is not safe for them at all even if they avoid zombies. It seems this zombie plague can also be spread through air, and Barry, who happens to be immune to it (as told later in the story, the plague somehow does not affect the population of blood type A-), comes to face a very difficult circumstance when his wife and daughter eventually become zombie on the very next day.

wyrmwood04Devastated after doing what he must do for them, Barry comes across other few survivors who luckily survived the night like him. One of them is Benny (Leon Burchill), and this sweet but bumbling Aboriginal guy gradually becomes a sort of comic relief/sidekick to Barry during their perilous road journey to Brooke’s place. At one point, they learn that there is a strange fuel problem which inexplicably happens along with the zombie outbreak, but then they come to find an amusing solution for that, which is something you have to see yourself for appreciating how the director Kiah Roache-Turner, who wrote the screenplay with his brother/producer Tristan Roache-Turner, adds one refreshing touch a la “Mad Max” (1979) to the genre they enthusiastically play with.

Meanwhile, Brooke is not in a very good condition although she managed to survive her first encounter with zombies. She is taken by two masked soldiers to some hidden facility not long after that, and that is where she meets a sadistic doctor who has been cheerfully doing his pervert scientific experiment on zombies as well as normal human beings. Again, this mad scientist’s deranged savagery will not surprise many zombie movie fans, but this gruesome part is decorated with morbid humor like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films or Peter Jackson’s infamous gory comedy film “Dead Alive” (1992), and I must point out that a loony biological experiment accompanied with a certain famous song by KC & the Sunshine Band is something you cannot see everyday.

While it is inevitable that these two plot threads will come together around the final act, the Roache-Turner brothers did a competent job of maintaining mood and tension on the screen. Establishing the grey, barren atmosphere well through their effective use of rural outback locations, they provide a couple of intense moments when their characters have to defend themselves against the living dead, and I also enjoyed several little humorous touches in the film which certainly lighten up the mood a bit.

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In case of the zombies in the film, well, they do look as hideous as required while going back and forth between only two modes which can be applied to any zombie movies in the past and future. Sometimes they just slouch like their old seniors in George A. Romero’s zombie movies, and then they become quite fast and rabid like the ones in Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later…” (2002), and that is all I can describe about them.

As I think more about zombies, they are not particularly scary or interesting horror creatures to me, but I must admit that, despite my increasing tiredness with zombies, “Wyrmwood” is a good zombie movie even though I was constantly conscious of many other zombie movies including the aforementioned ones during my viewing. Its borrowed elements are mixed well together along with a number of new enjoyable ingredients, and, in spite of its fair share of limits and deficiencies, this low-budget movie is a commendable debut work to watch for skill and enthusiasm put behind the screen.

According to IMDB trivia, it took 4 years for the Roache-Turner brothers to complete their film because they had to work only during weekends, and, considering the positive responses to their labor of love, they surely get what they reached for through their debut work. As implied during its last scene, they are planning the sequel at present, and it will be interesting to see what they can do in the next step of their burgeoning career.

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Kill the Messenger (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : The devastating price of reporting a truth

small_killthemessenger05The tragedy of Gary Webb, the ill-fated journalist hero of “Kill the Messenger”, was that he was not exactly in a good position when he happened to get a big chance for the scoop of his lifetime which ultimately shattered his life and career in the end. If he had been in a more advantageous position with more supports and resources from his peers and other journalists who should have stood by him, he might have survived his plight – and he might have been saved from his eventual doom.

In 1996, Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who worked as a reporter of the San Jose Mercury News at that time, drew considerable attentions and criticisms through the series of his articles on the connection between the drug trade in LA and a covert CIA operation, and the first half of the movie gives us a fictional account of how he came across that unbelievable scoop. While continuing his reporting job on a local drug business, Webb is approached by an arrested drug dealer’s girlfriend on one day, and she gives him the first lead for his investigation, a sensitive government file which reveals a hidden connection between the US government and a major cocaine/crack supplier in US.

After finding that this supplier in question, who is now a major witness covered and protected by the government, was associated with CIA, Webb keeps digging into this matter, and he eventually unearths a dirty deal between CIA and the Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s. For preventing Nicaragua from becoming another communist threat after Cuba, the Reagan administration sought for any other possible way to fund the Contra rebels due to the domestic opposition to direct funding, and CIA let the Contra rebels get the money for weapons and other supplies through the massive supply of drugs into US, which accordingly caused serious drug problems around the poor neighborhoods of American major cities.

killthemessenger03As Webb gets more information in Nicaragua and Washington D.C., it also becomes apparent that some people are not so pleased about what he is doing. A high-ranking government official he meets in Washington D.C. still does not want talk directly about what he failed to stop a long time ago, and Webb soon faces the pressure from the US government. While paranoia begins to grow inside him, he becomes more convinced that he must print his story no matter what will happen, and Anna Simmons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt), his bosses in the San Jose Mercury News, give him a full support while also being cautious about their situation.

When his articles are printed on the paper at last and shake the whole nation, this initially looks like a proud journalistic triumph for Webb and everyone around him in the San Jose Mercury News, but then it is followed by a long, gloomy downfall for Webb. While the public relations guys at CIA begin their damage control, many other journalists of more prominent newspapers such the Los Angeles Times are pretty pissed about how they get themselves beaten by a minor newspaper reporter, and they start to focus more on the other thing: the legitimacy of Webb’s articles.

Unfortunately, Webb’s articles are pretty easy to be smeared and criticized thanks to several reasons beside his unreliable sources who instantly change their words after his articles were printed, and things quickly become nightmarish for Webb. Constantly blasted by other newspapers, he becomes more frustrated day by day as the media pays attention more to him rather than what he tries to report, and his relationship with his family also gets strained as reflected by a small hurtful moment when Webb has to talk about his old personal fault to his teenage son.

killthemessenger02Around that point, the director Michael Cuesta tries too hard to hold our attention as his movie becomes incoherent in its overall tone. Although the thriller mood pumped up during the first half serves well Webb’s investigation process, this blatant approach does not mesh well with the somber, despairing second half, and the frequent insertion of archive footage and rough flashback shots throughout the film sometimes looks like a distracting overkill. The screenplay by Peter Landseman, which is based on two non-fiction books respectively written by Nick Schou and Gary Webb, delivers the message as intended, but it spins its wheel in its jumpy depiction of Webb’s downward spiral, and the ending particularly feels weak along with the following lackluster epilogue.

Despite its notable flaws including the under-utilization of its good supporting cast, the movie works mainly because of the intense lead performance by Jeremy Renner, who previously impressed us a lot with his breakthrough performance in Kathryl Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film “The Hurt Locker” (2008). While capturing well Webb’s focused determination, Renner also does not flinch from showing Webb’s abrasive sides which partially contribute to his ordeal. Webb could just step back a little as his colleagues tactfully advise to him, but he stubbornly continues to go on his way as ruining several professional relationships, and that results in the irreversible damage on his journalistic career as well as his life.

Uneven and heavy-handed at times, “Kill the Messenger” often stumbles, but its bitter chronicle of Webb’s rise and fall is worthwhile to watch for its topic still relevant at present, and the movie is mostly held well together by Renner’s compelling performance which is one of better turns in his career. As told in the epilogue, Webb never got a chance to clarify his tarnished reputation even when what he reported was fully exposed in public later, and we can say that they surely did a heck of job on him. Telling a truth sometimes comes with a price for that, and it was really unfortunate for Webb to realize belatedly how big it was in his case.

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Focus (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Romance or Con game?

focus01As a comedy movie about con artists, “Focus” is entertaining enough to overlook its several weak points. Mainly because there is always a possibility that its main characters are holding something behind their back, we come to look at them with a certain level of distrust and accompanying distance in the end, but the movie cheerfully handles its tricky plot with the sense of fun, and it is also supported well by the nice chemistry generated between its two likable lead actors.

When Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) come across each other for the first time during one evening at a fancy New York restaurant, something clicks between each other as they enjoy their time together, but their Meet Cute moment is far from being ordinary. As a first-class con artist, Nicky sees through Jess and her intention right from their first minute, and Jess eventually learns that she still needs more skills and experiences for being a very good con artist like Nicky, who later gives her a nice little lesson on how to distract target’s focus.

Fascinated and thrilled by Nicky’s skills, Jess wants to learn more of the art of con game from Nicky, and she soon finds herself joining Nicky’s big team consisting of various professional con artists including Farhad (Adrian Martinez) and Horst (Brennan Brown), Nicky’s two dependable – and crafty – lieutenants. A big football championship game is going to be held at New Orleans, and Nicky and his accomplices do not mind having another member to assist them in their many various schemes to snatch money and many other expensive goodies from thousands of small and big targets visiting New Orleans for the game (and Nicky’s crew is not the only ones coming to this big, lucrative hunting ground, by the way).

focus04As shown in “The Sting” (1973) or “House of Games” (1987), it is always fun to watch how smart con artists get away with their devious schemes while taking money or something valuable from their unsuspecting targets, and “Focus” has a number of exciting moments as showing how Nicky and others handle their criminal operations with quick timing and smooth effortlessness. During one wonderful sequence in which Jess has to show that she is good enough to work with Nicky’s crew, this sequence fluidly follows the series of her sly movements around a bunch of targets on the busy street of New Orleans, and we cannot help but admire every step of her deft choreography which sometimes depends on a couple of clever improvised acts.

While they and other accomplices have lots of fun and thrill along with money during their successful operations, it looks like some feeling has been developed further between Nicky and Jess, but there is always a reserved attitude on Nick’s side for a very good professional reason. They are surely enjoying each other’s company regardless of whether they are working or not, but their way of living is based on lies and deceits, and trust is naturally not something easily earned in their deceptive world. Although he is nicknamed “Mellow”, Nicky is too experienced to fully accept the adoring approach of Jess, who may have some other thoughts behind her back even if she really likes Nicky.

The screenplay by the directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who previously directed “I Love You Philip Morris” (2009) and “Crazy, Stupid, Love” (2011), takes a left turn around its second act and then enters a new situation in which Nicky and Jess encounter each other again three years later. In Buenos Aires, Nicky happens to be hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a billionaire guy who also owns a leading world-class motorsport team. As a guy who will not mind any dirty tactic necessary for his win, Garriga wants to make it sure that his team will beat other competing teams in an upcoming race, so it is Nicky’s job to disguise himself as an angry Garriga’s employee willing to sell the crucial information to Garriga’s main opponent team.

focus05However, when everything is ready for his first step into this scheme, Nicky sees Jess appearing along with Garriga at the party. While they must hide their past from Garriga, they are again drawn to each other as Nicky approaches to her more actively in this time, but nothing looks simple between them as usual despite some sparks still remained between them. Is this another part of Nicky’s plan? Did Jess really say goodbye to her former career to be Garriga’s girl?

The movie loses some of its interest as it continues to toy with that uncertain possibility in its increasingly unreliable plot, but the engaging interactions between Will Smith and Margot Robbie keep their film being floated amidst its lightweight mood during most of its running time. Compared to his very bland and regrettable turn in “After Earth” (2013), Smith is back in his element here with his intact star presence, and he and his co-star Margot Robbie, who held her own small place among the dirty rotten boys of “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), play off each other well with that tantalizing possibility of romance – or another con game. There is always a sort of heat between their characters, but we are never entirely sure about where it will lead them, and Smith and Robbie are clearly enjoying their performances on the screen.

They are also supported well by good actors having a small fun with their colorful archetype characters. B.D. Wong is flamboyant as a Chinese high roller during one turning point in the middle of the story, and Rodrigo Santoro is suitably obnoxious as a rich prick who deserves to be suckered, and Gerald McRaney is stern, formidable as Owens, Garriga’s right-hand guy who slowly begins to corner Nicky and Jess with his suspicious stare. As Nicky’s main accomplices, Brennan Brown and Adrian Martinez are amusing to watch in each own way, and Martinez is especially dexterous in his comic timing during his small conversation scene with Robbie.

Although its resolution is weak and predictable compared to the rest, “Focus” works as a breezy entertainment on the whole. Its story and characterization are thin to say the least, and there are many plot holes you can notice even during the viewing, but I liked its style and performances although it did not distract my focus as much as intended. I could often see through its moves, but I enjoyed how it made its moves anyway.

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Citizenfour (2014) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4) : A close, gripping look into one big expose

Russia Snowden Thanks to the rapid development of communication and information technologies, we can freely exchange or share information and opinions with many other people around the world, but then there are also dark possibilities in this technological advance. Through its close look into the cautious steps leading to an expose which shook the whole global world in last year, Oscar-winning documentary “Citizenfour” soberly presents a fearful fact we should worry about more. It is really unnerving to see how easily our life can be monitored by government agencies, and it is all the more disturbing to think that we are possibly in the middle of the ongoing process to a brave new world where personal privacy is no longer possible. You may have nothing to hide at all, but, seriously, can you possibly imagine freedom with no privacy?

At the beginning, the director Laura Poitras, who previously directed an Oscar-nominated documentary “My Country, My Country” (2006), tells us how she got connected with Edward Snowden in early 2013 when she was planning a documentary about the War on Terror. As a Booz Allen analyst loaned to the National Security Agency (NSA), Snowden had a government secret which he thought should be known to the public, and he also warned her that she had to be far more careful than before. While making “My Country, My Country” and the following documentary film “The Oath” (2010), Poitra got herself included in the Department of Homeland Security’s watch list just because of these two documentaries on the ramifications of the aggressive foreign policies of the US government after 9/11, and she understood too well Snowden’s carefulness in their secret communication.

While showing her several occasions of clandestine correspondence with Snowden, Poitra gives us the basic background information on how far the US government has gone into dark areas in the name of national security during recent years. More concerned about domestic security since 9/11, the US government has let the National Security Agency (NSA) expand its surveillance network further along with other intelligence agencies including the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHG) in UK, and that trend has been continued as reflected by one short scene which shows one of its new major facilities being built on the field. There are a number of global mass surveillance programs including PRISM to filter and analyze the vast amount of information collected from not only America but also other foreign countries, and, as many of you already know, they have monitored internet/telephone communications through the cooperation of several prominent Internet and telecommunication companies such as Google Inc. and Verizon Communications.

citizenfour02 William Binney, another well-known whistleblower from NSA, has openly expressed his concern over how this nearly uninhibited surveillance system can be a serious threat to the civil rights as well as the US constitutions, and we see him giving a sincere talk on that disconcerting topic to others. At a meeting of Occupy Wall Street protestors, one expert is invited to tell them how easily they can be profiled when they are targeted by government agencies. Only with your credit/traffic card and mobile phone records, it is already more than enough to know many things about you, and they also can get every detail of your online activities – from your private e-mail communications to trivial keywords you type into web search engines.

Several months after their first contact, Poitras and Snowden eventually had their secret rendezvous with two Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill at the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong, and Poitra’s camera looks closely into the series of their secret meetings at Snowden’s room. As Snowden shows the scale of global mass surveillance by NSA to Greenwald and MacAskill through many classified government files he acquired, it becomes pretty clear to everyone in the room that they must be really careful and watchful about every step they are going to take, and the mood surrounding them begins to resemble John Le Carre’s espionage novels as the time goes by.

There is always that nagging uncertainty on how NSA and the US government will react to their expose (“Assume your adversary is capable of one trillion guesses per second.”), and it seems NSA begins to smell something suspicious about Snowden, who is currently on a ‘sick leave’. When the talk in his hotel room is suddenly interrupted by a minor disturbance within the hotel, it turns out to be nothing to their relief, but then it keeps throwing an uncomfortable discord into that moment as they continue their talk as before.

citizenfour04 Regardless of whatever you think of Snowden, this young man is presented as a smart, decent ordinary guy in front of Poitras’ camera. Believing in what he is going to do, he seems to be ready for the personal cost of leaking classified government files to the outside, but he also looks nervous at times as spending more time with Poitras and others in his hotel room. Although he and others are very cautious about planning how they should present their news in public while damaging him and others as little as possible, that does not change the fact that he will be instantly labeled as a criminal and traitor by the US government, and he certainly looks agitated as preparing his checkout right after passing the point of no return on June 3, 2013

As Snowden managed to find a temporary shelter in Russia in the end (he is still staying there, by the way), Poitras and Greenwald got a fair of troubles as expected because of their involvement with Snowden. Greenwald’s partner David Miranda was unfairly detained for hours at the Heathrow airport, and Poitras had to move to Germany for completing her documentary under a more protected environment coupled with security precautions. When her completed documentary was selected to be shown at the New York Film Festival in last year, she and the festival staff members were very discreet about its screening for apparent reasons until it was included in the festival’s screening schedule in the last minute.

While it is maddening to see how the US government has tried to smear Snowden by any means necessary after what may be the biggest leak scandal in its history since Daniel Ellsberg, it is also frightening to observe that not many things have been done since that, and that is why “Citizenfour” feels more chilling as I reflect more on its story and message. I did some search on the Internet for preparing this review, and now I am wondering whether someone is watching me right now as I am typing the last paragraph of my review. Maybe I am a bit paranoid, but you will probably never laugh about that after watching this gripping documentary which is also one of the scariest films of 2014.

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My prediction on the 87th Annual Academy Awards

birdman06 We used to complain that the Oscar season became too predictable, but now we are grouching about how the Oscar season in this year has become the most unpredictable one compared to previous seasons. In the beginning, Richard Linklater’s masterpiece “Boyhood” looked like the definite front runner, but then Alejandro González Iñárritu’s whimsical work “Birdman” became the new favorite of the town as reflected by its consecutive victories at SAG, PGA, and DGA, and then BAFTA slapped its wing while giving its Best Picture award to “Boyhood”. In such a dizzy confusion like that, you will not be surprised to see “The Grand Budapest Hotel” or “American Sniper” or “Selma” win the award in spite of their low chance at present.

While the Academy Awards made one of its biggest snubs in the history as giving no more then 2 nominations to “Selma”, we can say that the Academy Awards in this year managed to distinguish itself with its three unconventional front runners at the spotlight. Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Wes Anderson have all pursued each own artistic vision for long years, and all of them now reach to the peak of their career as incidentally spotlighted by the Oscar season of this year. In the other words, this year is as fine as other years despite several egregious mistakes and omissions in the nominations.

Meanwhile, thanks to the diligence of many award season experts on the Internet, we already have pretty good ideas on who will likely win or who may make a surprise upset win at the ceremony on February 22th, and I have my own prediction based on what I have observed during this award season – and a bit of my intuition. As I said before, I have never been entirely correct in my prediction, but that is where fun comes from, you know.
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The Tribe (2014) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4) : A tribe of deaf criminals

thetribe03 Ukrainian film “The Tribe” attempts its audacious storytelling experiment right from its very first scene. While there are sounds on its soundtrack, there is no spoken dialogue in the film as it observes the interactions between its main characters who are the students of a boarding school for the deaf, and it does not even provide us the subtitle for understanding their sign language. This is not a comfortable experience at all for many other reasons besides that, but it is also a simple but compelling work fueled by its tense, uncompromising look into the gloomy criminal world of its main characters, and you may come to admire more how skillfully the movie did its job under its plain, restrained attitude.

Its story is mostly told through Sergey (Hryhory Fesenko), a young deaf teenager who has just enrolled in his new boarding school, and we get the first glimpses into the school while watching him arriving at the boarding school alone. Its students and teachers and others are beginning their another year with a ceremony we only observe from the distance with the camera, and Sergey looks like a guest very late for the party at the end of this scene.

The school does not look that bad at first, but it soon reveals its hidden side as Sergey starting his first day. There is a criminal system operating inside the school, and he has no choice but to obey to its rules while being coerced by a group of older students in the school. Like any new young gang member, he goes through an initiation ritual after enduring some humiliation, and he soon gets actively involved in several criminal activities of his gang, which is turned out to be also associated with a couple of the faculty members in the school.

thetribe02 As firmly holding its objective view, the movie calmly shows us how things work in their closed world – and how they get money from the outside. They sometimes sell stuffed toys on train, and we see how ruthlessly they can be when some other deaf guy happens to come into their territory at one point. They also often slip out of their dormitory at night, and there is a quiet but chilling nocturnal sequence which gradually reveals what Sergey and other gang members are going to do to some unfortunate citizen.

And we also meet two deaf school girls who have worked as prostitutes for the school gang. With one gang member and the woodwork school teacher as their handlers, they are frequently taken to a local resting place for truckers, and we witness how their seedy business is operated. It is revealed later that these girls will be sent to Italy for an apparent reason, and, probably because of their desperate wish to get out of their world, the girls do not seem to think much about what kind of fate may wait for them there.

Filling the empty position after a very unlucky accident of his predecessor (that darkly funny moment is one of a few humorous moments in the film, by the way), Sergey becomes unwisely drawn to one of these girls. Yana (Yana Novikova) is officially a girl belonging to the leader of his gang, but Yana and Sergey begin their secret affair after one poignant scene in which they literally bare their feelings to each other. They become closer to each other as the time goes by, but then Yana is being ready for going to Italy, and Sergey is clearly not very pleased about this change – and there comes a big trouble for that.

thetribe01 While not giving any background information on Sergey or any other main characters in the film, the director/writer Myroslav Slaboshpytsky keeps us engaged in his story through his austere storytelling solely based what is shown and felt through mood and body language. Many scenes in the movie are presented through long, uninterrupted shot, and the cinematographer/editor Valentyn Vasyanovycy’s camera flawlessly alternates between fixed position and fluid movement as steadily accumulating tense beneath the screen, and the stark, realistic mood on the screen further emphasizes the bleak environment surrounding its characters with no visible hope.

Unless you are familiar with Ukrainian sign language, you will have no idea on what exactly the deaf characters say to each other during their many mute conversation scenes in the film, but we are slowly drawn to their silent drama as curious spectators thanks to Slaboshpytsky’s deft direction. We are not entirely sure about everything in the story, but the movie evokes that simplicity of silent movies while letting you infer what the characters feel or think from their facial expressions and body movements, and the unadorned performances by its deaf non-professional actors add considerable power and authenticity to the film. Some of them enter the areas which are even challenging for professional actors during several demanding scenes, and the movie is as unflinching as its actors in its direct, unpretentious handling of these difficult scenes.

“The Tribe” is the first feature film by Slaboshpytsky, and he received many praises when it was shown at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s International Critics’ Week section (it won three awards including the France 4 Visionary Award in the end). This is surely a cold, tough stuff to some of you, but my eyes were fixed onto the screen by its dark, unsettling drama until it finally reached to its devastating finale with sad fury and despair, and I was constantly intrigued by its fascinating approach to story and characters. They are silent, but, as you will see, they speak volumes through their silence – and their bodies.

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