Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A doomed quest inspired by “Fargo”


On one cold day of 2001 November, a Japanese woman named Takako Konishi was found dead in a field outside Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. Around that time, it was widely rumored that she came to Minnesota to search for that famous suitcase in “Fargo” (1996) while not knowing that its opening statement saying that it is based on a true story is no more than a small wry joke (To be frank with you, I also thought the movie was really inspired by a real-life incident when I saw it for the first time in early 1997).

Although this rumor turned out to be totally false (Konishi’s death was just a simple case of suicide caused by depression), it is utilized as an odd interesting premise in “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter”, a sad, despairing fictional tale of personal downward spiral. Its ill-fated heroine’s quest is already doomed as she sets her preposterous goal to get away from her miserable reality, and we can only observe her hopeless journey gradually taking its inevitable route to more despair and madness.

Kumiko is a 29-year old Japanese office worker in Tokyo, and we see how she barely endures her unhappy and unremarkable daily life. At her workplace, this young introverted woman is mostly separated from her co-workers, and her direct boss, an ineffectual guy who seems to be merely occupying his position, treats her like his personal maid while considering replacing her with a younger (and prettier) employee.

She does not get much consolation from her personal life either. She has no particular close friend around her, and she is not so glad to see her old schoolmate when they happen to come across each other on the street. She sometimes speaks with her mother on the phone, and her mother keeps emphasizing to her that she really should find and marry someone before she becomes too old to be eligible for marriage. She is living alone in a squalid one-room residence, and her cute pet rabbit is the sole bright spot in its gloomy interior.


It is quite clear from her aloof, passive appearance that she has been in the serious need of some psychiatric help, and that is more apparent when she becomes obsessed with something very unreal. As shown from the opening scene unfolded in a beach area outside the city, she discovered a ‘clue’ hidden inside the beach cave through some crude map in her possession (the movie is rather vague about where the hell she got that map from), and she adamantly comes to believe that it will lead her to a certain treasure.

That ‘clue’ in question is none other than an old VHS copy of “Fargo”, and Kumiko frequently replays the scene where Steve Buscemi’s bumbling character buries a suitcase filled with money in a snowy field of Minnesota just for keeping it all to himself. She goes to a local library to get more information about Minnesota, and her misdemeanor involved with an atlas in the library leads to one deadpan confrontation with a library security guard. When she faces a serious problem familiar to anyone who has ever used VHS player, she buys a better equipment for her deranged shot-by-shot analysis. It never occurs to her that she is watching a mere fiction, and we cannot help but be amused to see her measuring and calculating the width of the wire fence shown in the scene for finding the exact spot where the suitcase is buried.

She eventually flies to Minnesota after she gets an opportunity by chance, but, not so surprisingly, she becomes lost and confused as soon as she sets her foot on this alien world, and her situation gets worse despite the kindness of a few strangers she meet on her way. While she walks along the road alone under the cold, harsh winter weather of Minnesota, she comes across an old lady, and this generous lady takes Kumiko to her cozy country house. She gets some momentary comfort there thanks to the old lady’s warm hospitality, but that does not last that long due to her increasing obsession on her treasure.


As stubbornly continuing her journey on the road, Kumiko encounters a local policeman later in the story. Genuinely feeling sorry for her, he tries to get her out of her incorrigible delusion, but she defiantly remains fixated on going to Fargo for finding that suitcase (does it ever come to her misguided mind that Fargo is not in Minnesota but in North Dakota?). After one dryly amusing moment at a local Chinese restaurant, the policeman tries to help her more, but his sincere intention results in an awkward and painful moment of misunderstanding, which ultimately seals her fate in the end.

The director David Zellner, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Nathan Zellner (they also appear as substantial supporting characters in the film, by the way), did a good job of establishing two contrasting atmospheres for his story. While its first half in Tokyo feels drab and clinical, many scenes during the second half chill us through that cold, forlorn beauty of the wintry landscapes of Minnesota, and Rinko Kikuchi, who looks more dour and plain than her feisty turn in “Pacific Rim” (2013), gives a strong performance to hold the movie, though her character is difficult for us to emphasize with even during the finale where her character goes further with her dark impulse.

Compared to “Fargo” or the recent TV series inspired by that great film, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” is a minor work, and I watched its narrative progress from the distance while occasionally amused by its small whimsical touches, but I guess it is probably worthwhile to watch for its good mood and Kikuchi’s performance at least. Our poor girl wishes to escape from her purgatorial world, but, alas, she only comes into another kind of purgatory – and she would rather be stuck in it.


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The Second Mother (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): When her daughter comes to the town

thesecondmother01Can they possibly connect with each other after those long years of separation between them? “The Second Mother”, Brazil’s official submission to Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in the next year, is a calm, gentle family drama revolving around a plain working-class woman who has worked hard for her daughter but never been around her for many years, and it tenderly observes how her mundane life happens to be stirred by one unexpected change. While not hurrying itself, the movie patiently generates subtle human moments to engage us, and it is touching to watch what has been changed inside its main character at the end of the story.

The opening scene of the film reflects its original title “Que Horas Ela Volta?”, which means “When Will She Be Back?” in Portuguese. Val (Regina Casé) works as a maid for one upper middle class family living in a suburban neighbourhood of São Paulo, and we see Val taking care of her employers’ little son Fabinho in the absence of his busy mother. Val is more like a mother to Fabinho as shown from this warm scene, and we learn later that Val left her young daughter Jéssica in her rural hometown because she thought that would be better for her daughter.

She might have initially expected that she would work just for a few years to earn enough money and then return to her daughter waiting for her, but we see Val still working in the same house when the movie jumps forward to 13 years later. Fabinho (Michel Joelesas) now grows up enough for the upcoming college admission examination, but he still looks like that little boy he once was when he is with Val, who lovingly caresses him as if he were her child.

thesecondmother04We see the other people in the house. We meet Val’s fellow employee/best friend Edna (Helena Albergaria), and we watch the distant relationships among Fabinho and his parents during their dinner time. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli), who was once a painter, looks flaccid and detached as aimlessly going through his uneventful domestic life, and Barbara (Karine Teles) is busy with her work as before. While the movie does not tell much about her job, one scene involved with a TV interview held at her house suggests a lot about her prominent social/professional status.

On one day, Val gets a surprise news from her hometown. Her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), who grows up a lot just like Fabinho, will come to São Paulo for the college admission examination, and she is going to stay with her mother for a while until she finds some other place to stay. Although she has not somehow talked with her daughter much during recent months, Val cannot possibly be happier to hear this news.

She meets her daughter at the airport a few days later, and she is more surprised to see how much her dear daughter looks different than before – and how much she disregards the social boundaries inside the house of her mother’s employers. She behaves more like a guest of the house rather than a maid’s daughter, and she instantly accepts the offer when Carlos kindly suggests that she study and sleep in the guest room instead of Val’s stuffy room. Val is understandably nervous due to her daughter’s casual direct attitude in front of Carlos and Barbara, but Carlos and Barbara are not so upset about Jéssica. After all, she does come here for the exam as she says although the chance is pretty low for her, and she is not going to stay forever in their house, so it does not hurt much for them to be nice and generous to her.

thesecondmother03But then her presence creates a certain kind of tension below the surface as she spends more time in the house. We begin to notice something from how Carlos looks at Jéssica, and so do Val and Barbara, who is usually self-absorbed but is not oblivious at all to what is going on inside her house. While he may look like a big baby when he sneaks into Val’s room and spends the night on her bed, Fabinho is not a child any more, and there is a playful moment when he and his friend have some naughty fun with Jéssica in the house pool.

While such a situation like this could be easily developed into overwrought melodrama, the director/writer Anna Muylaert instead chooses a more thoughtful path for her sensitive storytelling, and her movie delicately moves around the spoken and unspoken feelings around its characters. We come to feel more of the quiet desperation behind Carlo’s detachment, and we are not surprised when he becomes a little more direct that before at one point. The movie also pays considerable attention to Barbara, who is not mean and heartless despite her many human flaws. When the camera looks at her face when she sees that her son is more attached to Val than her, you can feel how much it hurts her, even though she is not that close to her son enough to give him any nice comfort he needs.

And the movie is firmly anchored by the heartfelt lead performance by Regina Casé, who is effortless as a woman who eventually comes to realize that things may be changing for herself as well as her daughter. Camila Márdila, who won the Special Jury Prize along with Casé at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is also wonderful as the daughter who turns out to be not very different from her mother, and the final scene of “The Second Mother” is quietly moving thanks to these good actresses. They say blood is thicker than water, and there will be probably plenty of time for this mother and daughter to get their relationship thickened more.


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Listen to Me Marlon (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Brando on Brando

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Marlon Brando lived a curious life to amuse and baffle us. While this legendary Hollywood actor gave us a number of great performances to behold and admire, he often seemed to be drifted away with no particular interest in acting, and that resulted in some embarrassing moments to tarnish his illustrious career. He has also been remembered for many episodes about his erratic behaviors, and they surely added another layer of intrigue (and notoriety) to an elusive talented actor who was extremely private about himself.

Mainly consisting of the private audio recordings left by Brando himself, Stevan Riley’s documentary “Listen to Me Marlon” gives us a sensitive and compelling portrayal of Brando’s life and career. As its uncanny narrator, Brando reveals himself to us far more than before here in this documentary, and we come to pay attention to his candid musings on himself at the various points of his bumpy life story.

With the opening scene featuring Brando’s 3D digital face which was actually made with his cooperation during the 1980s, the documentary effectively sets its tone as we listen to Brando’s recognizable voice. When he talks about his early years, he tells us how unhappy his childhood years in Nebraska was due to his problematic parents, and we comes to sense his old deep resentment toward his father, who was not a very good father at all and did not regard highly of his son even after he became a famous movie actor.


After finding his interest in acting, young Brando went to New York, and he was taught by Stellar Adler, who was one of the early method acting teachers inspired by the Stanislavski System. He fondly remembers how much he learned from his encouraging mentor during his studying years, and he explains how he applied his method acting technique to his first film “The Men” (1950), directed by Fred Zinnemann and produced by Stanley Kramer. To prepare for his injured war veteran character struggling through rehabilitation processes, he spent a considerable amount of time at an army hospital, and he consequently made a solid debut even though the movie was not a hit.

With his very next film, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), Brando galvanized Hollywood with his raw, electrifying method performance, and everything was changed both for Hollywood and Brando as a result. Hollywood began to be shifted toward more realism in acting, and Brando, who got his first Oscar nomination for his ground-breaking achievement (he lost to Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen” (1951), by the way), quickly became a new Hollywood star to watch. His subsequent Oscar-nominated performances in “Viva Zapata!” (1952) and “Julius Caesar” (1953) further solidified his stardom, and then he finally won an Oscar for his another great performance in “On the Waterfront” (1954).

However, as he went higher with more fame and success, he also began to gain notoriety as a difficult actor to work with, and there eventually came a career downturn around the 1960s. In addition to being a major flop, “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962) considerably damaged his reputation as he was blamed for its troublesome production and eventual box office failure, though he was at least glad to find his own private place to live during the shooting in Tahiti. While distancing himself more from Hollywood after this very unpleasant experience, he subsequently found himself wandering into several bad films, and we see one very awful scene from “Candy” (1968), which looks like his version of “The Love Guru” (2008).

listentomemarlon04He also went through a fair share of personal troubles. His divorce with his first wife Anna Kashfi in 1959 was followed by their bitter custody battle over their young son Christian, and he married and divorced twice after that. As some of you know, Christian later committed that infamous killing at his father’s residence in the Hollywood Hills, and it indirectly resulted in another painful incident in Brando’s life several years later.

While frankly admitting that he made really bad choices in his life and career, Brando also shows his more thoughtful sides as talking about his personal belief. He openly participated in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, and he showed considerable interest in the American Indian Movements – and that led to that memorable moment at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony when he won his second Oscar for “The Godfather” (1972).

With his superb comeback performances in “The Godfather” and “Last Tango in Paris” (1972), Brando proved that he lost none of his talent at all. He details on how he was initially reluctant but eventually went very deep into his iconic character in “The Godfather”, and then he confides to us about how much he felt drained and exhausted as hurling himself into “Last Tango in Paris”, where he had to push method acting techniques to the extreme for his emotionally naked performance in that great film. Although he was sometimes merely content with taking paycheck roles at during his later years, Brando was still a consummate actor dedicated to his profession none the less, and there were indeed a few shining points including “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “A Dry White Season” (1989), “The Freshman” (1990), and “The Score” (2001), which was his last film.

“Listen to Me Marlon” is a captivating tribute to its subject, and the director Stevan Riley did a superlative job of assembling his materials together into a fluid, cohesive narrative to engage us. The result is both insightful and entertaining as honestly presenting Brando as not only a fascinating actor but also a complex human being, and it will give you some valuable understanding on a man behind some of the greatest movie performances of the 20th Century.


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Inside Men (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): They are all together…

Insidemen01I watched South Korean thriller film “Inside Men” with bitter amusement on some of its darkest moments. Although it is a work of fiction as emphasized in its end credits, its dark, uncomfortable picture of power and corruption is not so far from the real ugly sides of the South Korean society, and it is often horrifyingly amusing to watch the cynical and ruthless depravities of the most rotten characters in the film. They all together in their power and corruption, and nothing seems to stop their reach for more power over the South Korean society, as they are served by others willing to do anything for what they will get.

In the prologue scene, we meet Ahn Sang-goo (Lee Byung-hun), a gang boss who once worked for some of the most powerful men in South Korea. While surrendering himself to the prosecution, he exposes their corruption right in front of a bunch of journalists, but the people denounced by him do not seem to worry much about that as Sang-goo’s disclosure becomes a new hot focus of the media. It is a big trouble indeed, but it looks like they still can pull some strings for getting away with it.

The movie goes back to two years ago to show how everything started, and another important character is introduced into the story. Woo Jang-hoon (Jo Seung-woo) is a young ambitious prosecutor, and he has been frustrated with his career going nowhere due to the lack of any helpful social connections, which are always very, very important for your life and career in South Korea. So he is hoping for a possible breakthrough to boost his position, and that is why he has been investigating the shady connection between the chairman of a very powerful conglomerate and Jang Pil-wo (Lee Kyeong-yeong), a prominent congressman of the governing party who is probably going to be the next president of South Korea.

Insidemen02As Jang-hoon tries to acquire an incriminating financial document for his case, the movie shows us how things work through the intricate connections surrounding his targets. Lee Kang-hee (Baek Yoon-sik), the editorial columnist of a very influential conservative paper, is another close associate of the chairman, and he can write anything to swing the public opinion for the chairman or their current favorite politician, who will surely pay them back once he is chosen as the presidential candidate of his party and then wins the election later. Henry Kissinger once said power is the ultimate aphrodisiac, and these despicable guys proves that quite well as they are drunk with their booze and power at the chairman’s private place where a group of beautiful girls are ready to do whatever they desire.

Sang-goo has been the one usually handling any dirty or bloody business for them below. After snatching away the very evidence Jang-hoon wants to get, he gets an idea about what to do with it. He wants to go up from his present position, so he makes a copy of that evidence for his own benefit, but, unfortunately, that turns out to be a very serious mistake considering how mighty the guys above him are – and how merciless they are if they decide someone must be taken care of (one particular moment inside some warehouse will definitely make you cringe for a good reason).

And that is just the beginning, and the screenplay by the director Woo Min-ho, which is based on the Internet graphic novel by Yoon Tae-ho, throws many more things in its busy plot as Sang-goo and Jang-hoon are approaching to their eventual converging point. Now stuck in the bottom two years later, Sang-goo is looking for any chance of revenge on the people behind his misery, and Jang-hoon, who has been watching on Sang-goo, senses that something is going on behind Sang-goo’s back. Especially after his career happens to be struck hard by one shocking incident in the middle of his ongoing investigation, Jang-hoon sees that Sang-goo may be the only chance for him, and the same thing can be said about Sang-goo, who becomes more cornered than expected as his own plan goes awry and eventually depends on Jang-hoon.

Insidemen03The rest of the story becomes predictable as it goes through familiar moments of ups and downs besides a number of implausible scenes to test your suspension of disbelief, but the movie keeps us entertained although it loses its pace at times during its middle part. Its finale may be a little too unrealistic, but it works as a satisfying ending anyway, and I enjoyed it even though I recognized its improbable aspects.

Many of the characters in the film are not very likable for their abrasive or impertinent male personalities, so we frequently watch their seedy conflicts from the distance, but the main cast members give performances strong enough to hold our interest on the story itself. While Lee Byung-hun and Jo Seung-woo play well against each other as two different characters who come to stick together for their common goal, Baek Yoon-sik and Lee Kyeong-yeong play their slimy characters with gusto. Kim Hong-pa is arrogant and malicious as a man at the top of almost everything in the South Korean society, and the other supporting actors including Jo Jae-yoon, Bae Seong-woo, Kim Dae-myeong, and Jeong Man-ski are suitably cast as the characters who compromise with their corrupt system in each own way. Lee El is under-utilized as the sole substantial female character in the film, and this is a shame considering that it could be really nice to have a female perspective on the boys’ dirty rotten fight.

Although I had some difficulty in following its busy plot and various characters, but “Inside Men” compensates for its weak points through its thrilling moments powered by solid performances. I know too well that the reality darkly reflected in the film will not be changed so easily like that, but the movie is an entertaining stuff with some biting points, and it is not a bad thing to enjoy a fantasy at least for a while.


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Tangerines (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4): His house as a neutral zone

tangerines02“Tangerines”, a Georgian-Estonian film which was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film early in this year, is a small war fable accompanied with some humanistic messages to deliver. While its intention is apparent right from the beginning, it takes its time in building story and characters, and it simply lets us get its points for ourselves just like its wise, reticent hero, who subtly and gradually brings some common sense into two troublesome strangers staying in his house.

At the beginning, the movie draws our attention with its background details. When the civil war between the Georgian government and the Abkhaz Separatists began in 1992, many of Ethnic Estonians in Abkhazia fled to Estonia for safety, but Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak), an aging Estonian farmer, does not leave his rural village unlike many of his friends and neighbours. The village is almost empty now, and the war is still going on outside, but he does not seem to care much about that while continuing his daily life as usual.

We watch him carefully working on the wooden crates for a nearby orchard belonging to his close friend Margus (Elmo Nüganen), who also chooses to remain in the village just because he does not want to leave his tangerines unharvested. While Ivo is willing to help Margus as much as he can, it definitely takes more than two old guys to handle those thousands of tangerines ready to be harvested, and they can only hope that they will get some help from the outside although that does not look very possible in the current situation.

tangerines03And then the harsh reality of the ongoing war breaks into their small world on one day. A couple of Chechen mercenaries fighting with Abkhaz Separatists stop by Ivo’s house, and Ivo, who does not want any trouble, lets them take whatever they need from his house. Not long after these soldiers leave Ivo’s house, they happen to come across three Georgian soldiers riding on a van, and a shootout instantly happens near Margus’s residence. When Ivo comes to the scene, it is already over, and then he and Margus find that one of the Chechen soldiers, named Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), manages to survive alone while being injured during the shootout.

For avoiding any further trouble, Ivo and Margus promptly take care of the messy aftermath after taking Ahmed to Ivo’s house, but then they discover that one of the supposedly dead Georgian soldiers is actually alive, though he is not very well due to a serious injury on his head. He is also taken to Ivo’s house, and that is certainly not welcomed by Ahmed, who is angry about what happened as much as Niko (Mikheil Meskhi).

The first direct confrontation between these two opposing soldiers is not so friendly to say the least, but Ivo makes it very clear to both of them that he will not allow any act of violence in his house, and both Ahmed and Niko agree to this temporary cease-fire. Ahmed has already given his words to Ivo, and, as a devout Muslim with the sense of honor, he is not a guy who will change his words later. In case of Niko, he has no other choice mainly because his weak body, which has barely recovered from his injury, still has to depend on Ivo’s generosity.


From this typical setting, we can clearly see where the story is heading to, but the movie thankfully does not resort to easy clichés. It instead observes how Ahmed and Niko get more accustomed to each other’s presence bit by bit with Ivo and Margus functioning as a sort of buffer between them, and we see how they slowly come to regard each other as a human being despite the distance remaining between them. During one scene, Ahmed helps maintaining Niko’s disguise when a group of local militia members drop by Ivo’s house, and the mood between Ahmed and Niko subsequently becomes more relaxed than before. Their neutral zone is expanded a little more later, and it looks probable that they can help Margus’s orchard work together.

The director/writer Zaza Urushadze, a Georgian filmmaker who got a career breakthrough with this film, steadily keeps the low-key tone of his story as drawing nice understated performance from his four main cast members. While Giorgi Nakashidze and Mikheil Meskhi complement well each other, Elmo Nüganen is amiable as a simple, good-natured man who cannot possibly imagine the life without what he has grown for years, and Lembit Ulfsak is quietly engaging as the calm, dependable center of the film. Although we merely get a few bits of information about Ivo’s private life including his absent granddaughter, Ulfsak effortlessly embodies many years of life experience in his plain appearance, and it is a small pleasure to watch how tactfully and patiently Ivo handles his two uninvited guests while never trying too hard on the surface.

I have some reservation on a sudden narrative turn around the third act, which may be inevitable but feels rather abrupt, and I think the movie could gone longer and deeper with what is established well with its story and characters, but “Tangerines” works on the whole thanks to good direction and fine performances. Compared to its fellow Oscar nominees including “Leviathan” (2014), “Wild Tales” (2014), “Timbuktu” (2014), and “Ida” (2013) (the last one won the award, by the way), it is the least impressive one of the bunch, but the movie has a sincere human story to tell, and it did its job mostly well.


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Virunga (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Guarding their park from human greed and violence


My fellow film critic Michael Mirasol often uses a phrase when he informs me and his other Twitter followers of some infuriating cases of how people ruin nature for greed or other despicable reasons: F*cking humans. Oscar-nominated documentary “Virunga” will probably make you utter the same phrase a lot as you watch its exasperating sights showing how one of the famous nature preservation areas in Africa has been endangered by human greed and violence, but it also powerfully presents some brave, decent people who have selflessly dedicated themselves to its protection and preservation.

They are the rangers of the Virunga National Park in Congo, which has been a safe haven of many animal species including mountain gorilla, one of the most endangered species in the world. The park has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979, but, as shown during the prologue sequence, there have been many problems threatening the park besides poachers. Since its independence, Congo has gone through several political upheavals for many years, and the recent local conflict between the Congolese government and a rebel military group called M23 becomes another serious trouble for the park. In addition, a big British oil company named Soco International is eager to drill into a big region containing the park after getting the concession from the Congolese government – and it will not step back easily because of the potentially enormous profit to be acquired from the area.

We meet some of the rangers in the park. Rodrigue Katembo, a calm, peaceful man who is the warden of his area, talks about his painful violent past as a man who went through horrors of war as a young soldier, and we see how he and other rangers doing their duties around the park. They frequently patrol amidst those vast, beautiful landscapes, and one scene shows them raiding upon a spot abandoned by poachers and then arresting one remaining guy.

virunga01André Bauma is the caretaker of the facility for orphaned mountain gorillas, and he tells us the sad stories behind four young gorillas which are safe and happy now under his tireless care. One of them, which is incidentally the only male member in the group, is without his right hand, and one gut-wrenching archival footage scene shows several massacred mountain gorillas including the one which was the mother of two gorilla sisters in the facility. They were killed just because some guys did not like the park, and it is sadly touching to see local people treating these innocent gorillas’ unjust death with proper respect.

Emmanuel de Merode, the Belgian director of the park with a quiet but assuring sense of authority (he is from a prominent Belgian noble family, by the way), is not going to let the park damaged by the local conflict or Soco International, and he is surely not very popular to certain groups of people in Congo. Under de Merode’s order, Katembo approaches to a number of local people associated with Soco International, and what is shown through his hidden camera feels like scenes from Hollywood thriller films. He pretends as someone who can be bought, and these corrupt guys are willing to bribe him for working against de Merode.

Meanwhile, freelance journalist Mélanie Gouby gives us a wider view of how Soco International has been trying to undermine the park by any dirty means necessary. Like the Congolese government, the M23 rebel group is also interested in getting money because, after all, war is a pricey business, and Soco International has no problem with exploiting this volatile political circumstance in Congo if that helps drilling more for oil.

Through Gouby’s hidden camera, we watch another bunch of rotten guys associated with Soco International, and we cannot help but be amazed by their callous and condescending view on local people and environment. At one point, one Soco employee, who unintentionally became her main source of information in spite of knowing her profession from the very beginning, makes a crass, disgusting racist argument on why they should recolonize the country as before, and the other guy who is incidentally not shown on the screen cannot possibly agree with him more.


When they were making their documentary around the Virunga National Park and the eastern region of Congo, the director Orlando von Einsiedel and his crew found themselves in the middle of the ongoing conflict, and the latter half of the documentary is a vivid record of that dangerous time around the park and its surrounding areas. As the park is being unsettled by the sounds of battles heard from the distance, de Merode, Katembo, and the other people in the park hope for the best while fearing the worst, and we see Bauma guarding the facility alone with more concerns about his dear gorillas.

Even after this perilous situation was over with the park remained mostly intact, things were still difficult and dangerous for de Merode and his rangers. Katembo was brutally bullied by contractors working for Soco International while held in captivity for more than 2 weeks, and de Merode was almost killed by an ambush during his duty right before “Virunga” was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in last April. It is not surprising at all that the filmmakers were concerned about whether the distribution of their documentary would be inhibited by Soco International, which, of course, did not recognize any of the shady activities suggested in the film.

However, there was also a notable change after the documentary drew more attention to its subject. In last June, Soco International halted its oil exploration around the Virunga National Park as being pressured by many environmental organizations including World Wildlife Fund, and the corporation recently gave up its license on the area early in this month. This is indeed a small but precious victory for one of the most invaluable nature reservation areas in the world – and those courageous people who are guarding it not only for us but also for our fellow species even at this point.


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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): So it ends here

thehungergames3202So it ends here. After the intermission of one year, we finally get “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”, which starts right from the point where the first part was over. While the end of the war is indeed coming, there are still so many things our feisty heroine has to endure, and the movie grimly follows her another rough quest with less interest and excitement compared to the better films in its franchise. It sort of delivers the ending as promised, but it is also hampered by trudging pace and weak characterization just like the first part, though its lead actress’s irrepressible presence is fully functional as before.

As many of you know, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a young, brave girl from District 12 with exceptional archery skill, found herself becoming the symbol of rebellion in her dystopian world while enduring and surviving her two perilous struggles in “The Hunger Games” (2012) and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013). As she drew more attention in public, things began to fall apart, and, despite his oppressive and manipulative tactics, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the cunning and ruthless dictator of the Capitol, could not hold the center while 12 surrounding Districts started to stand against the Capitol one by one.

In “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1” (2014), it turned out that there was a secret rebel force hiding in District 13, which was thought to be annihilated by the Capitol a long time ago. Because District 12 was nearly wiped out from the Earth along with many of its residents due to what happened in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, District 13 became a new place to stay for Katniss and her family who were luckily rescued in advance, and Katniss reluctantly stood beside President Coin (Julianne Moore), the rebel leader of District 13 who may not be as supportive of Katniss as she seemed at first. While President Snow is a common evil enemy for both of them, President Coin is not without her own ambition, and she certainly does not want Katniss to stand on her way to…. you know.

thehungergames3205Anyway, after painfully experiencing what the Capitol has done to her fellow survivor and official lover Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss becomes more determined to get her revenge on President Snow, who has so far successfully destroyed nearly everything in her humble world as she knew before the Hunger Games. While the fall of the Capitol seems to be imminent especially after the surrender of its last loyal District (I still find it hard to distinguish one District from another in this dystopian world, by the way), Katniss wants to take care of the matter with her own hands, so she goes to the front line near the Capitol under siege.

She sneaks into the Capitol along with her friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and other Rebel soldiers, and dangers are hidden everywhere in the city because President Snow planted countless deadly booby traps here and there in the city. Katniss and her comrades are prepared for that in advance, but there is always the possibility of being ambushed by undetected traps.

As they advance into the Capitol block by block, we often see some of those CGI traps got sprung out onto them. The first several ones are pretty simple enough to evade, but then there is a big elaborate trap which begins to be operated mercilessly right after one wrong step. When our fighters go underground for safety later, there are also a fair of surprises waiting for them, while one action scene reminds me of how much I have been tired of a certain horror genre.

thehungergames3203So this looks like another version of the Hunger Games, but the movie does not generate much tension or interest in its bland combat situation. While there was usually that uneasy tension between Katniss and other participants who could be turned into someone to kill her in the first two Hunger Games films, she is fully backed in this time by the people willing to help and protect her by any means necessary, and this is certainly a less compelling situation in comparison. The movie attempts to inject extra tension into its plot as Peeta is later sent to join the team even though he has not fully recovered from his problematic brainwashed state, but then the relationship between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale has not been a very interesting thing from the beginning, and Katniss’s eventual choice between her two men feel contrived to say the least (no, it is not her fault).

As a result, again, we get an overlong feature film which could be compressed into at least one hour without any serious problem. Without the style and flavor shown in the first two Hunger Games films, it is tedious and monotonous at times, and its final act actually could be more impactful in dramatic sense if Suzanne Collins’s novel, which was adapted by Danny Strong, Peter Craig, and Collins herself, were just made into one film instead of two films.

Nevertheless, Jennifer Lawrence diligently carries the film on her shoulder with her natural star qualities to appreciate. Despite the weak plot, Katniss remains as a strong female character, Lawrence aptly conveys her character’s feelings and thoughts through her open expressive face as Katniss faces more tragedies she will live with for the rest of her life. This remarkable actress who has constantly impressed us with several fabulous performance including her Oscar-winning turn in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) makes an admirable exit for her character in the end, and she will surely move onto better things to come after this.

thehungergames3201The supporting performers revolving around Lawrence do their jobs as much as their respective roles demand. While Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth stand around Lawrence, many familiars performers including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Mahershala Ali, Willow Shields, Elden Henson, and Donald Sutherland come and go as having at least one moment for acting. Sutherland has a usual snaky fun with his villainous character who ultimately gets his last laugh in the spirit of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), Moore is untrustworthy as a coldly zealous leader capable of drastic measures just like her opponent, and Hoffman’s final performance is seamlessly presented on the screen although he died in early 2014 before the shooting was completed. I do not know whether his silent facial expression in the climax scene is CGI or not, but we can see how this intelligent actor who left us so early can find something interesting to play even during such a brief moment like that.

The director Francis Lawrence, who previously directed the first part as well as “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”, and his crew made a slick, well-made product to satisfy its target audiences, but “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” does not end with a bang unlike the last Harry Potter movie. After “The Hunger Games” came out, several imitators soon followed, and it is not surprising to see that even this mostly solid franchise comes to lose its personalities in the end. Like Katniss at the end of the movie, maybe we should just keep remembering its good things including Lawrence.


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