Friday, 30 March 2012

FILM REVIEW: The Good, the Bad, the Weird (좋은 놈, 나쁜 놈, 이상한 놈, Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom) (2008)

Director: Kim Ji-woon
Starring: Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun and Jung Woo-sung.
Running Time: 139 minutes
Genre: Action adventure

Kim Ji-woon is quickly becoming one of my favourite directors. He reinforces this notion with The Good, the Bad, the Weird, a film so purely entertaining, enjoyable and uniquely Korean (perhaps a reason it has yet to be remade by Hollywood) that it will have you laughing at the often hilarious humourous parts and in awe at some fantastic set-pieces that put those US$150 million dollar American blockbusters to absolute shame (this film only cost US$10 million). To put it simply, this film is a fun thrill ride.

The Good (Woo-sung), a bounty hunter, The Bad (the ever excellent Byung-hun), a bandit and the Weird (Kang-ho), a mysterious thief become embroiled in an adventure to seek out a treasure map that may have the payday of their lives on it. As simple a premise as it is, Ji-woon keeps things moving at a tremendous pace, with the opening train robbery that sets the story up a great sample of the visual flair and thrilling moments of action and humour that the following two hours (which fly) will contain. While my knowledge of Korean/Chinese/Japanese relations in the 1930s is far from good, the film sets up the conflicted Manchuria area as a great setting for the film, with plenty of shady characters and oddballs thrown into the mix. The Ghost Market in particular stands out as a wonderfully designed set which main objective is no doubt to be eventually destroyed, the design is consitently wonderful throughout, and scenes of violence (which are surprisingly strong given the light overall tone of the film) pack a punch. In every film I've seen him in, Lee Byung-hun has been terrific and again here he is the top man, with a devilish charm and obviously cherishing the rare villain role.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a film that would never get made in America, purely because of it's quirky and balls out approach to the fun on display. This is a good thing, as the more people that will hopefully see this gem are in for a treat and not a toned down rehash. To summarize simply, The Good, the Bad, the Weird is one of the most enjoyable pure entertainment films I've ever had the pleasure of watching. It never takes itself too seriously, but yet keeps tone pitch perfect for the action/humourous elements to compliment each other perfectly. So much fun.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

FILM REVIEW: Detachment (2011)

Director: Tony Kaye
Starring: Adrien Brody, Christina Hendricks, James Caan, Lucy Liu, Sami Gayle and Marcia Gay Harden
Running Time: 100 minutes
Genre: Drama

Detachment is an astonishing film. Plain and simple. It is an emotionally devastating and unapologetic look into the American schooling system and powerful critique of it. For anyone who has not heard of Tony Kaye, he is the man who made the legendary American History X and then disowned it. Yet again, he has crafted a harrowing, brutal and poignant film that is already on my Top 10 of 2012 list.

The film follows Henry Barthes (Brody), who is a substitute teacher, over the space of three weeks in an underprivileged High School. What will follow is Henry's encounters with a new love interest (Hendricks), a young prostitute (Gayle) and a troubled social outcast (Kaye's daughter Betty). Firstly, both Gayle and Kaye are extraordinary. Gayle in particular (who I mistook as Emma Watson initially), whose role as Erica and her misconstrued feelings for Henry and adolescent naivety as essentially a child in a horrible and disgusting world is heartbreaking. Kaye's tragic Meredith is a character we have all seen in our own lives, someone weighed down by ridicule and unhappiness, but with Henry's arrival she feels a connection, yet again tragically misconstrued. Adrien Brody carries the film, he is immense and gives a performance of emotional substance and sensitivity. Henry is a man caught in-between his job and his humanity and Brody excels with aplomb. The second leads are a quality bunch and each shine through their relatively minor roles, with Lucy Liu and James Caan in particular standing out and extra kudos to Marcia Gay Harden (she's always wonderful) as the Principal under pressure (at work and home). Basically, the level of acting on display is fantastic.

What Detachment lacks in big explosions and CGI, it more than makes up for in emotionally powerful and challenging material. While not an easy film to watch, Detachment is a harrowing, but totally engrossing film from Kaye that will leave you as angry with the events it portrays as it will satisfied at the wonderful film-making and acting talent on display. An absolute must.


FILM REVIEW: The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Director: Uli Edel
Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl and Bruno Ganz
Running Time: 150 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction drama

Before this film I had never heard of the Baader-Meinhof gang (or of the Red Army Faction), but this often shocking and expansive German-language drama covers ten years of the RAF's troublesome and morally ambiguous attacks on German society. What follows is a highly complex, often confusing and very often a shocking and harrowing look at the horrific actions of the RAF and moreover, a look into Ulrike Meinhof's (the fantastic Martina Gedeck) tragic fall from left-wing journalist to a terrorist.

The film accurately captures the groups plight from left-wing wannabe revolutionaries to full-on terrorist monsters with a series of ever-sickening attacks. Gudrun Ensslin's (Johanna Wokalek) pushing of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) to commit more and more serious crimes in the name of the RAF and their mutual flawed ideologies are the stuff of monsters, but it is Meinhof's tragic plight that is the centrepiece of the film, between the moments of shocking and deplorable violence, her mental plight is the most shocking of all. Familiar to Western audiences for his portrayal of Hitler in 2004's Downfall, Bruno Ganz offers a touch of contemplative class to proceedings as a contrast to the wild and impulsive actions of the gang. While it is a journey and drags out, especially in the final act, it is still scathing and its convictions and the collapse of the leaders of the gang on the creation of something they could not handle.

Edel captures late 60s/early 70s Germany without ever looking overly tacky and the central performances are good and rather than being a film that glorifies the actions of the group, it highlights the shocking brutality and senseless violence of the group mixed with the leaders mental decline. It is a difficult watch, but for the most part a highly engrossing, and very often shocking look at one of the most fascinating and horrific post-war Germany periods.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Putting things in perspective...

On Saturday afternoon, I watched my team Fulham F.C. get obliterated at Craven Cottage 3-0 by Swansea City. It was safe to say I was furious, angry and upset at our display, despite how good a team Swansea have been this season, it annoyed the life out of me. To make matters worse, I made the decision to watch the Six Nations Ireland versus England rugby match on RTÉ live at Twickenham. Ireland were soundly beaten by the English and thoroughly outclassed on the day. It was just a bad day at the office until a tragic event at White Heart Lane put my little tantrum and silly selfishness into perspective.

23-year old Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest on the field and from what I have heard from people who were watching, that they were certain that he had died then and there on the field. But miraculously he survived that trauma but is still fighting for his life in intensive care. Over the years as a football fan, names like Marc-Vivien Foé, Miklós Fehér, Antonio Puerta and Dani Jarque have stuck in the memory as players who tragically lost their lives on the field and on Saturday night, I thought there was going to be another name added to that list. I wish all the best to Mr. Muamba and his family at this time. What this event has highlighted more than anything is how football fans can unite as a force of good and positivity and the heartfelt notes and kind words for Mr. Muamba was nothing short of astonishing.

Football supporters have more often than not received bad press for their antics; racist chants, fighting, throwing stuff, all sorts of carry-on by the minority has so often overshadowed the vast majority. At White Hart Lane on Saturday, a group of supporters who are well known for their fierce loyalty to Spurs united in chants of "Muamba" to the fallen player, unaware of how seriously the man was hurt. It was a touching gesture and highlights the vast majority can overshadow the disgusting minority. Even a team I have openly criticized for their lack of kindness and overly-aggressive behaviour in the past, Real Madrid, made a point to wear shirts offering their thoughts to both Muamba, and Barcelona player Eric Abidal, who will have to undergo a liver transplant this week. So often in sport, we let fierce passion cloud our judgement and say or do horrible things all in the name of winning or trying to get one over on the opposition. But, on Saturday night, life and football were put on the stage together and when it came down to it, only one thing ever really mattered.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

SONG REVIEW: Plan B - ill Manors (2012)

Artist: Plan B
Song: ill Manors
Label: 679/Atlantic
Genre: Hip hop/rap

Many people have mistaken Ben Drew (also known as Plan B) as a smooth crooner with a cheeky side. When in reality Plan B is a talented rapper who just also happens to be able to sing rather well. 'ill Manors' can be seen as a return to his roots of his 'Who Needs Actions When You Got Words' output, with devastating critiques of every facet of British society. Strickland Banks this is not. While obviously going to be misinterpreted as a pro-rioting/chav nation song, this song is as critical of the rioters as it is of the politicians inability to diagnose the plight of British society. The beat is at its best when the strings are involved, the drum and bass segments don't do it for me, but is venomous throughout and compliments the politically charged material. While some we see this as a new side to Plan B, older fans will see this as a welcome return to his roots.


FILM REVIEW: R-Point (알 포인트) (2004)

Director: Kong Su-chang
Starring: Gam Wu-seong, Son Byung-ho, Oh Tae-kyung and Park Won-sang
Running Time: 111 minutes
Genre: Horror

Set during the Vietnam war, Kong Su-chang's R-Point has its moments and is a thoroughly entertaining and often highly unsettling fictional take on a horrific war. What is notable early on in the film, is not a unique Asian horror film feel, but rather a film highly influenced by American horror/war films such as Predator and Apocalypse Now and with Japanese ghost story beats throughout.

Lt. Choi (Gam Wu-seong) leads a group of Korean soldiers into an island strategically known as R-Point in search for a missing Battalion who have made their first radio contact in six months. Early on in their journey into hell, the signs are ominous for the soldiers with some effective scares and psychological chills provided with a menacing visit from a group of U.S. Soldiers that turns out to be not what it seems. There is a slump midway through the film, where the tension sags and the supposed trained group of soldiers become so irrational and annoying that you have little sympathy for their plight, bar Lt. Choi, whose battled and calm head presents the only truly likeable character in the film that you vaguely hope survives. But despite this slump midway, the film picks up pace for a fantastically devious and thrilling finale that is worth bearing with through the drawn out middle section.

Drawing from a range of influences, R-Point is an effective Korean horror film, with enough tension and a genuinely creepy atmosphere to keep the viewers interest. If you can survive the lacking middle-section and make it to the immensely enjoyable finale, you are in for a treat in effective horror.


Friday, 16 March 2012

TV REVIEW: Game of Thrones: Season 1 (2011)

I put off watching this show for a long time I must admit. The medieval fantasy setting and what some people were calling Lord of the Rings style set-up and talk of supernatural and dragons did not appeal to me. But what did appeal to me and what led me to watching it was HBO's involvement. Now, name-branding does not guarantee a quality final product, but HBO have always been up to a standard that the show will be watchable at some level, and Game of Thrones is that and much, much more.

Based on George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Fire and Ice' series of novels, what immediately captured my imagination with this show was the wonderfully fleshed out characters and deep mythology rooted into each House. Sean Bean's Ned Stark leads the cast as the House Stark family patriarch, whose loyalty to the new king Robert Baratheon (Mark Addy) begins to unfold a tale of lies, deceit, backstabbing, violence and betrayal in finding out what happened to his predecessor John Arryn. There are a wealth of side stories intertwining throughout the season, with the shady Lannister family, the Night Watch, the exiled Tagaryen's and the tribal and brutal Dothraki's all having fascinating and contrasting storylines. All the season is alluding to is the coming winter, a darkness that will bring monsters that are only glimpsed throughout the season, but have the potential to cause havoc in upcoming seasons as well as tensions between families hitting murderous levels. Bean's Stark is a noble hero, whose stubborn-ness leads him down a dark path, while characters that stand out during the season are Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage, who won multiple awards for his role), Petyr Baelish (the ever-immense Aidan Gillen) and Stark's wife, Catelyn (Michelle Fairley) who is the doomed matriarch of the Stark family, seeing her family disintegrate right before her.

There is too much going on in Game of Thrones for it to be accurately summed up in a few short paragraphs. If you are in the mood for something completely unique and in a fully realised and visually stunning universe, this show will do it for you. Add in the trademark HBO style, with plenty of violence and adult themes and top notch production values and talent behind the camera and on screen too, then Game of Thrones is an absolute must-see television event.


Wednesday, 14 March 2012

FILM REVIEW: In Bruges (2008)

Director: Martin McDonagh
Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes and Clémence Poésy
Running Time: 107 minutes
Genre: Black comedy/thriller

Martin McDonagh's first feature-length film is an absolute joy. He has crafted a film with such wonderful moments of comedy, tension and upsettingly despairing moments that confound expectations for a film of this supposed genre. In part to the terrific cast, the witty dialogue mixed together so effortlessly with more emotionally challenging scenes make this one of the best darkly comic thrillers I have ever seen.

And what this even more enjoyable to watch is how the film plays with peoples expectations of what they expect with a film of this type. Marketed as a cheeky-comedy (at least to us Irish viewers) and without has moments of subtle and more often-than-not hilarious laugh out loud moments, it is not what makes this film such a joy. Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) play two hit-men dispatched to Bruges to await a new assignment. Not a complicated set-up by any means, but as the plot plays out and we discover how the duo came to be in this situation, it comes as a heartbreakingly bleak and ominous tone, completed by mob boss Harry's (Ralph Fiennes) statement that "he wasn't such a bad kid, was he?". The relationship between Ray and Ken is ever-changing, but there is a clear camaraderie between the two that is tested as the film progresses. For anyone that has read Harold Pinter's "The Dumb Waiter" will see more than a few similarities between the leads, but albeit with expanded backgrounds and different circumstances.

In Bruges is quite simply a wonderful film, with a breathtakingly great score by Carter Burwell to boot. Bruges is a visually stunning city and McDonagh makes the best of the unique environment to create a wonderfully entertaining, but yet far deeper than your ordinary run-of-the-mill crime caper. This film is a must see.


Friday, 9 March 2012

ALBUM REVIEW: Mark Lanegan Band - Blues Funeral (2012)

Artist: Mark Lanegan Band
Album: Blues Funeral
Genre: alternative rock
Length: 55:27

Veteran Mark Lanegan's seventh solo album has finally arrived eight years after Bubblegum and it is well worth the wait. His work with bands like Screaming Trees, Mad Season, In the intervening years, Lanegan has kept himself busy with a host of side projects, with albums made with Soulsavers, as part of The Gutter Twins and three albums with Isobel Campbell. On paper this album should simply not work, mixing Lanegan's trademark howl with a synth-blues inspired backdrop, but listening to this album through comes as a complete revelation.

Lanegan has always been one of the more soulful musicians out there, his voice is worn and defeated sounding, but wonderfully distinct and powerful and makes even the slightest songs on this album work. 'Ode to Sad Disco' is a stand-out track on the album, a six-and-a-half minute expansive synth opus, with Lanegan's melodies sounding more exposed and sincere than usual. While being a downbeat album that often plays like a funeral procession (the title Blues Funeral hardly being the most joyous of titles), there are so many moments of poetic poignancy, as Lanegan is a man from a bygone generation, but a survivor none-the-less.

This can't be called a return to form for Mark Lanegan, as he has never really left. While there are still elements of his more rock-oriented roots on tracks like 'Riot in my House' and 'The Gravedigger's Song', this is very much new territory for Lanegan. What this is really is a wonderful reminder of the power of music from one of the best musicians not afraid to try something new and expand into new territory. An unheralded success.


(review written on 9/3/12)

'Awards season has arrived' - published in 'An Focal' newspaper (7/2/12)

Find the article here! (page 17)

Thursday, 8 March 2012

'Are you really so amazing Spiderman?' - published in 'An Focal' newspaper (8/3/12)

Find the article here! (page 20)

Bouncers - review published in 'An Focal' (1/2/12)

Find the review here!

FILM REVIEW: Outrage (Autoreiji) - (2010)

Director: Takeshi Kitano
Starring: Takeshi Kitano, Kippei Shiina, Ryo Kasse, Tomokazu Miura
Running Time: 109 minutes
Genre: Yakuza/crime thriller

I must confess that I have not seen all of Takeshi Kitano's work (he is an actor, director, poet, painter, comedian, presenter and singer to name but a few) such as his critically acclaimed Hana-Bi (Fireworks). Known mainly to people this side of the world as the guy from Takeshi's Castle, or maybe as the evil teacher (named Kitano) in Battle Royale. From what I have seen of Kitano's writing and directing; he is a wonderful film-maker. Zatoichi was my first experience with his work and it make a lasting impression on me and Outrage has left me feeling the same, in total awe of a wonderfully entertaining experience.

Outrage is a highly effective Yakuza crime thriller, with a good solid cast of two-faced, evil, conniving characters with plenty sprinklings of blood and violence throughout (a visit to the dentist has never been so painful). Kitano plays Otomo, who provides muscle for Ikemoto (Kunimura Jun) and eventually this leads to a bitter and ultra-violent gang war. His crew are are not merely the usual filler stereotypes either, with Kippei Shiina's Mizuno in particular a highlight and Ryo Kasse as the sneaky Ishihara. As the film progresses, rather than focusing on Otomo, we get a more detailed and expanded view of his crew and this does wonders for setting up the final act.

The film looks fantastic, highly stylistic throughout, with the shiny clean cars, the finest of suits to the Japanese setting being visually magnificent (maybe just to my Western eyes) and unique. Once things go sour, there is no let up and the violence hits brutal levels and the tension becomes palpable and the final pay-off is well worth the wait and unexpected. Kitano has crafted a highly entertaining crime thriller that contains many moments of brilliance that will leave the viewer gasping in awe.


(review written on 8/3/12)