Movie Review – Girl’s Blood

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EXPECTATIONS: A trashy, sexy and fun experience.

REVIEW: For those who want to get down to the nitty-gritty, here’s the basis of the story in the film, Girl’s Blood. It involves women kicking ass in cages, with ridiculously tragic backstories of most of the characters and a lesbian love story. Now for the kicker: this is all set and wrapped up in a backdrop of female empowerment.

Now I know what you’re thinking. A film with a story such as this could only possibly be seen as a trashy and prurient experience that would feel right at home back in the 1980’s. But this film came out in 2014 and it is actually based on a novel, written by Kazuki Sakuraba, the author who also wrote My Man, which was made into a critically acclaimed film of the same name, starring Fumi Nikaido and Tadanobu Asano.

So you would now expect the film to be more conservative. BUT, the screenwriter of Girl’s Blood is Takehiko Minato, who’s responsible for many pinku films such as Be My Slave, What’s Going On With My Sister, Flower and Snake: Zero and of course, Legend of Siren XXX. But he has also written the screenplay of Bitter Honey, which is basically an adult version of Ponyo.

Moreover, the film is directed by Koichi Sakamoto, who’s famous for directing tokusatsu series like Kamen Rider, Power Rangers and specializes in fight stunt-work. So potentially, we have a film that is directed by a former stuntman, which has a story that could have a tone of both equal prurience and puritanism (sort of), based on source material from a critically-acclaimed female author, written for the screen by a screenwriter who specializes in pinku films. Will this film be a trainwreck or will it somehow transcend its origins to be more than the sum of its parts?

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The story starts by introducing four of our main characters. The first one is Satsuki (Yuria Haga), a woman who has a sexual identity crisis. The other character is Miko (Ayame Misaki), who is a S&M queen who has a haunted backstory involving being estranged from her family. The third character is Mayu (Rina Koike), a young woman who has psychological problems due to her youthful image and lastly, Chinatsu (Asami Tada), a fighter who, through numerous attempts, tries to run away from her abusive husband (Hideo Sakaki).

All four women are competing in a cage fight tournament after a martial arts faction threatens to take over the territory of Girl’s Blood. But their differences make them more like foils rather than comrades.  To make matters worse is the fact that the faction is run none other by Chinatsu’s husband. Bonds will be made, minds will be tested, demons will be unleashed; will the women overcome all obstacles and win?

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First off, it is really quite a miracle to say that this type of story actually has a sizable budget and it shows. The production values, the cinematography, the music are all well-done. Special credit goes to the sound design, which is quite striking and adds to the brutality of the fight scenes.

And now the cast. All of the main actresses acquit themselves to their roles with such sincerity and straight-faced conviction, that they give the story a lot more credibility that it ever requires. Yuria Haga is convincingly tough and conflicted as Satsuki and it must be said that she deserves credit for her brave decision to go nude for her love scenes.

Ditto to Asami Tada, who plays Chinatsu as a interesting, enigmatic presence and is quite a good sport in the fight scenes. The chemistry between the two is subtly present as they make glances and eventually become intimate with each other. Ayame Misaki is very charismatic as Miko, as she certainly has a fun presence about her; while Rina Koike is cute, but almost to a fault. Few stand out of the supporting cast, including Misaki Momose (who stood out in Gothic Lolita Psycho) who again combines cuteness and sadism in an entertaining fashion.

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As for the men, they all go over-the-top to the point that bounces between cartoony and pantomime. Hideo Sakaki is beyond sickening (in a good way) as Chinatsu’s husband while Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi is a hoot as the manager of Girl’s Blood, whenever he shows up.

It’s a credit to the above that it is as stellar as it is, since the story is incredibly ridiculous, bizarre and blatantly empowering/exploitative to the female gender. The backstories of the characters are so outlandish (one of them is haunted by her past involving cosplay while another is haunted due to confinement and, ahem, spillage) that it is a minor miracle that the film manages to become mildly poignant and affecting in the final act.

And it is because that every aspect of the film plays it out as sincere as they can. The story is told completely straight, without a sense of irony or any amount of winking from the actors. It also helps that the characters have clear motives as to why they choose to fight in the ring and they all pay off in a satisfyingly cathartic fashion.

Or the film can be seen as the ridiculous story that it is and can be unintentionally laughable when it passes its plot points and backstories as a source of drama. Fittingly, that type of shoddiness is expected from the pinku genre, but it stands out more due to its sizable budget. Either way, entertainment is still entertainment.

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And best of all, the fight scenes. Director Koichi Sakamoto knows his way around filming action and the fights are well-choreographed and well-shot, considering the numerous stunt doubles on display. The approach to the fight scenes focuses more on brutality and grappling, rather than grace and fluidity, as the editing and sound design clearly dictate, and they are thrilling to watch.

And now with the flaws. With a running time that is close to two hours, the film is overlong and could use some trimming during the character moments. Also, as much as the film is sincere in its storytelling, the tone shifts can be quite abrupt at times i.e. a scene of brutal violence can lead up to a comedic scene involving BDSM.

Also, it is quite leery and exploitative, although it is expected from the genre it inhabits. We see the women participating in mud wrestling, cosplay, shower sessions, lesbian sex scenes, training montages, BDSM sessions, sex dreams and of course the congratulatory moments that involve the use of the garden hose. If the film had a pillow fight, it wouldn’t be out of place at all, to be honest. But despite all of that, the film never goes into vulgar territory, despite a scene of sexual violence that fortunately the filmmakers convey as just that: a sickening display.

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Overall, Girl’s Blood is a bizarre mix of prurient pinku tropes and conventions told in an ultra-sincere manner that somehow makes it better than it should have been. With committed performances, brutal fight scenes, fun exploitation and outlandish characters, the film certainly earns its reputation as a guilty pleasure.

Quickie Review

PROS

Committed performances from its female leads

Well-executed fight scenes

Ultra-sincere approach to its story is surprisingly cathartic

CONS

Quite exploitative

May engender unintentional laughs

Overlong running time

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yuria Haga, Asami Tada, Ayame Misaki, Rina Koike, Misaki Momose, Hideo Sasaki, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi
Director: Koichi Sakamoto
Screenwriters: Takehito Minato, based on the novel “Red x Pink” by Kazuki Sakuraba

Movie Review – The Innocents

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EXPECTATIONS: Something special along the lines of the 2013 Polish film, Ida.

REVIEW: Films based on true events are usually met with mixed reactions. So much to the point that the audience will question the validity of the liberties the filmmakers take. Whether it renders the films as potentially predictable or even unbelievable; some can potentially be inspiring and heart-wrenching. In the case of The Innocents, the film belongs to the latter camp.

Films of a similar nature however can tend to be blatant and insistent that it can alienate may people, like Schindler’s List and The Flowers of War, but some can be quietly powerful, thanks to a subtle approach to storytelling and assured direction. Thankfully, The Innocents fits in with the latter.

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Set in Poland at December 1945 (after World War II), the film starts off in a church and Sister Maria (Agata Buzek) sneaks out to find someone who can tend to the needs of the convent; someone other than a Russian. She finds a French Red Cross doctor, Mathilde (Lou de Laage) and she tends to the nuns, who are discreetly pregnant.

Through her time there, she uncovers some very dark secrets that can possibly destroy the very foundation that the church is built on. And now, with the support of the nuns, Mathilde brings it upon herself to help the nuns, the newborns while balancing her work with the French Red Cross and also evade the Soviet soldiers.

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Not to provide spoilers but the story is incredibly tough going. One of the things that is refreshing about The Innocents is that unlike the films of its type where the backdrop would usually be set during the war; in The Innocents, the story is set in the aftermath of the war, and its consequences.

Another refreshing thing about The Innocents is that we see a story like this from a female’s point-of-view. Rarely do we see stories of war and how it impacts females dealt with such conviction and depth. Director Anne Fontaine applies nuance and sensitivity to the story, making the film very eerie, poignant and shocking, without resulting into scare tactics, nationalism and hopelessly tugging the heartstrings. And in doing so, the story becomes a lot more humane, which makes it a lot easier for the audience to immerse themselves.

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Characterizations and development are also stellar. Told in the point-of-view of Mathilde, her character is a non-believer of faith and religion, but eventually she opens up to the beliefs the nuns hold dear and when she embraces the times that a shining light beams through, it becomes extremely rewarding. Every positive that Mathilde earns or feels is guaranteed to affect the audience in a way that feels rightfully earned.

It also applies to the nuns themselves. They all seem like ciphers at first in both look and personality. But throughout the course of the film, as the revelations are revealed, we notice how distinct they really are. One of them reacts with extreme guilt; another is in complete denial while another chooses to deal with it extensively, but one thing is for certain: their faith is no longer ironclad.

There’s even a scene in the film where one of the nuns questions their faith by asking whether God let their troubles happen to them. Although the theme of religious belief may irk some, Fontaine again, examines it with nuance that it never comes across as judgmental and somehow becomes a mark of change in character.

The production values certainly hold up by their end of the bargain. The cinematography by Caroline Champetier is hauntingly sterile (a simple shot of a nun running up a hill and through a forest will linger) while the musical score by Gregoire Hetzel is very effective in conveying mood and tension, even when sparingly used.

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And of course, the actors are all wonderful. Lou de Laage, who has been fantastic in films like Respire and The Wait, delivers top work as Mathilde, as she conveys her character progression convincingly. Agata Buzek (who plays another nun after the Jason Statham drama, Hummingbird) delivers with conviction as Sister Maria and she shares a nice, understated chemistry with de Laage, as the two bond over their differences in life.

Agata Kulesza (who was in Ida, another film involving nuns) is great as Mother Superior, as she balances both her faith and care for her sisters and the conflicts that she experiences. And Vincent Macaigne is very good as Samuel, a fellow doctor with Mathilde who happens to be Jewish. He provides some much-needed levity to the film, which provides some relief from the grim nature of the story.

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As for flaws, the ending is a little too neat given the events that happened prior and the pacing can be quite glacial at times, but the film is so well-executed in every other regard, it becomes quite easy to ignore them.

At last, a war film The Innocents may be quite a harrowing experience due to its subject matter, but the subtle, sensitive storytelling, the assured direction by Anne Fontaine, the complimentary production values and the fantastic performances ensure that The Innocents is a film is worth the effort.

The fact that this is a war film made by women and it is about women is remarkable and that alone makes it a must-see.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Nuanced, sensitive storytelling

Anne Fontaine’s direction

Fantastic performances

No nationalism

CONS

Ending is a bit too neat

Glacial pacing

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Lou De Laage, Agata Buzek, Agata Kulesza, Vincent Macaigne, Joanna Kulig, Eliza Rycembel, Anna Prochniak, Katarzyna Dabrowska, Helena Sujecka, Dorota Kuduk, Klara Bielawka, Mira Maludzinska
Director: Anne Fontaine
Screenwriter: Sabrina B. Karine, Alice Vial, Anne Fontaine, Pascal Bonitzer, Philippe Maynial

Movie Review – Their Finest

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that is hopefully better than the last film I saw from Lone Scherfig: One Day.

REVIEW: Lone Scherfig is a film-maker that has always frustrated me. The reason for it is that her filmography is always up-and-down; going from a film I like to a film I dislike and so on. Her Dutch films were great, but apart from An Education, her films were just flops, especially the turgid One Day.

So I wasn’t really looking forward to Their Finest, but I found out that it was a comedy as well as a drama, I had my hopes up quite a bit, since Scherfig‘s Dutch films were majorly comedies. And with a cast consisting of Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan and Jeremy Irons, I thought that maybe this film would be worthwhile after all. Does the film cast and crew live up the title?

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Set in London in the 1940’s, Gemma Arterton stars as Catrin Cole, a scriptwriter who is hired by the British Ministry to lend a “woman’s touch” to their latest propaganda film, writing the dialogue of the women present.

Although her artist husband, Ellis (Jack Huston) thinks she can do better, Catrin’s sheer talent and moxie gets her noticed by cynical, witty and possibly misogynistic lead scriptwriter Buckley (Sam Claflin). Catrin and Buckley set out to make an epic feature film based on the Dunkirk rescue starring the incredibly arrogant and pompous washed-up actor Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy).

As bombs (figuratively and literally) are dropping all around them, Catrin, Buckley and their variably talented cast and crew work furiously and tenaciously to make a film that will hopefully warm the hearts of the nation.

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Despite my low expectations, I am happy to report that Their Finest was a consistent delight from beginning to end. Director Lone Scherfig shows why her talent and film-making was acclaimed in the first place, as she deftly lays out comedy and drama with an assured hand that it never becomes too cutesy nor does it ever become overly melodramatic (although it does come dangerously close).

There are scenes in the third act that come dangerously melodramatic that it threatens to derail the true point of the story as well as it does feel like it just happens to occur in the film for the sake of drama. Adding to the fuel is Rachel Portman‘s score, which certainly does milk the sentiment all of its worth, but thankfully, it works it never truly hinders the film thanks to the film’s old-fashioned tone but mainly it is because of the appealing cast.

I remember Gemma Arterton in blockbuster roles that always felt like film-makers were trying to stuff her into roles that Rachel Weisz would play early in her career. But seeing her in much more substantial roles like the titular role The Disappearance of Alice Creed to  the seductive vampire in Byzantium to a talking apparition (don’t ask) in The Voices, she clearly has talent. And in Their Finest, she may have given her best performance to date. Conveying inner strength, charm, wit and grace so effortlessly in the leading role, I knew that the film was in good hands the second she appeared on-screen.

Sam Claflin is an actor that I have not been impressed with. Not that he is a bad actor or anything but in roles like The Hunger Games films, the awful Snow White films and the execrable Me Before You, he is not the actor that I would put in a very positive light. Until now. Finally, he is in a role where he has true personality and verve and Claflin plays Buckley with a great sense of dry humour and heart that I almost could not believe that it was him. Arterton and Claflin share great chemistry that grows from disdain to respect and eventually, love. And while the romance could have been perfunctory, the chemistry alone makes it worth the inclusion.

The supporting cast are all great in their roles (including Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory, Richard E. Grant, Stephanie Hyam and others), with Bill Nighy being the most Bill Nighy in the history of Bill Nighy. In other words, he brings another dimension to the term “self-mockery” and he brings out the most funniest parts of the film. While Jake Lacy is a hoot as the Air Force hero turned token American in the film (within the film) and even Jeremy Irons gets in on the fun in a cameo role as the Secretary of War who enforces government “guidelines” to the film.

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Although the sentimentality of the film does go a bit far for some, director Scherfig surprisingly deals with the story’s feminist message with a light touch i.e. like how men are scared of women who do not want to go back to their domestic roles after taking on some other workplace. The themes are still present enough that it adds to the character arc of Catrin and to the entertainingly meta moments of the film within the film, but they are never hammered to the point that it becomes obnoxious or annoying.

Aside from being a romance, a drama and a comedy, the film is also an entertaining look behind film-making in the old, practical days. It is quite fascinating and very amusing to see how the crew handcrafts the on-screen effects like a scene where the crew are recreating the scene of Dunkirk or how scenes on boats are made on set, rather than in the ocean.

Overall, Their Finest is a definite crowd-pleaser that is sure to please audiences with its insanely likable cast, its old-fashioned film-making (whether its own or the commentary) and its high amount of charm.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast

Old-fashioned tone/storytelling

Entertaining look at past film-making

Very funny and emotionally satisfying

Deals with themes of feminism with subtlety

CONS

May get too sentimental for some

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Helen McCrory, Eddie Marsan, Jake Lacy, Rachael Stirling, Henry Goodman, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
Director: Lone Scherfig
Screenwriter: Gaby Chiappe, based on the novel Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans

Movie Review – Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (OAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: None whatsoever. Chose to watch it based on the poster.

REVIEW: Break-ups are incredibly hard. While some of them can be done like quickly taking off a band-aid, some of them take ages to get over. In those latter break-ups, not all of the are arduous, but are actually dealt nonchalantly as if the break-up never happened.

And that’s how the current film fits in. In a conventional film, break-up films are either usually about the break-up itself or how one rises from the ashes of said break-up. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii fits in the latter category and there have been great films in that category like the Korean non-rom-com Very Ordinary Couple and the surprise Chinese blockbuster Love Is Not Blind. Will the film be as good as those mentioned or will it be an entry that is easily forgotten like a used band-aid?

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Aya Ayano stars as Rinko, an office worker who currently lives with Isamu (Kentaro Tamura), a graduate student, but the two are in a bit of an unusual dilemma: the two have actually broken up. Rinko still resides in the apartment that Isamu is currently paying for and ironically, the two get along much better than they ever did as a couple.

But Isamu has feelings for a young girl, Kasumi (Kato Aoi), whom also has feelings for him. But when Rinko is made aware of that fact, she too realizes that she still has feelings for Isamu, which causes quite a conundrum that affects the delicate equilibrium of their unorthodox relationship.

But rest assured: this film is not about a love triangle at all. It is about how one’s apathy towards a break-up until one realizes that they are going through a road of denial. And the film succeeds in conveying that dilemma very well. There’s a scene in the film that almost reminded me of a scene in the 2011 dramedy Frances Ha, where Rinko basically wants to take a vacation “from herself” despite her financial situation. But like Frances Ha, it doesn’t turn out the way it’s planned out to be and it ends up being depressingly funny, with all the long waits to connect with someone.

Speaking of funny, there is a nice touch of humour peppered throughout, and it is all based on character. Whether it is about characters being unable to articulate their feelings or how they want to avoid the “big issue” or how friends of the characters judge the situations of the couple, all of it is nicely done and never derails the storytelling.

Like the majority of Japanese cinema, films are dealt with subtlety it is because of that approach that Love and Goodbye and Hawaii succeeds. There are no scenes of dramatic contrivances, no scenes of histrionics and definitely no scenes of cloying music, which makes the dramatic components of the film surprisingly realistic and down-to-earth. And thankfully, the approach is held throughout, particularly in the ending, where it is both low-key and satisfying in its conclusions of its character arcs.

One of the film’s surprises is that we never truly know why the couple have broken up, but in this case, it makes perfect sense within the film’s scope, since the film never places judgment on any of the characters; which makes the audience active to judge for themselves.

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And thankfully, the cast are up to the task. Kentaro Tamura is good as the indecisive Isamu, as he makes a nice impression as to why Rinko liked him as well as why there was tension between the couple. Momoka Ayukawa is hilarious as the sister of one of Rinko’s friends, who in a serendipitous way, becomes the voice of reason.

But the biggest standout is Aya Ayano as Rinko. Whether coming up with an analogy for her break-up or feasting on fast food to ease herself on her living situation or simply having hiccups while she becomes nervous, Ayano shines as the lovelorn woman in the odd situation.

With any relationship, they all have flaws and this film has some. But with the relationships that are long-lasting, it is the supposed flaws that people usually remember the most. Love and Goodbye and Hawaii usually drags a bit in its pacing and it can be a bit too understated for some to truly appreciate, but like Rinko herself, you will end up remembering this film endearingly, hiccups and all.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the cast

Nice, understated storytelling

Refreshing changes in its approach to the relationship genre

CONS

May be too understated for some

Some slow spots

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Aya Ayano, Kentaro Tamura, Momoka Ayukawa, Aoi Kato, Risa Kameda
Director: Shingo Matsumura
Screenwriters: Shingo Matsumura

Movie Review – Colossal

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EXPECTATIONS: Something original, audacious and surprising.

REVIEW: Nacho Vigalondo has always been an exciting film-maker for me. Ever since I saw his first film, I’ve always wanted to see more of this work. His handling of genre film and melding it with themes of humanity or topical themes has always fascinated and thrilled me.

Timecrimes was a great time-travel film that revolved around infidelity; Extraterrestrial was an entertaining sci-fi movie that just so happened to be a rom-com; while Open Windows was a nail-biting thriller that happened to revolve around the invasion of privacy.

So when I heard that Vigalondo was making a film that featured a kaiju monster, I was in. And having the biggest star to date with Anne Hathaway (as the lead actor and producer), the film has some big expectations to fill. And knowing nothing about the genre it is executing for, will Vigalondo live up to the bonkers premise?

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Anne Hathaway stars as Gloria, a trainwreck in human form. Because of her relentless partying and drinking, she has been dumped by her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens), has lost her job as an online writer and has no place to live. So she reluctantly moves back to her hometown.

Struggling to stay awake, let alone trying to get her life back on track, she finds her way into Oscar (Jason Sudekis), a childhood friend of Gloria who may or may not have feelings for her. As he helps her get back on her feet, a giant monster is attacking Seoul, Korea and through some strange coincidences (or maybe the drinking finally has long-term effects), she strangely has some sort of connection to said monster.

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As much as I want to go into extreme detail about the story, I know I can’t because not only do I want to spoil the many surprises, but the film is best if you know absolutely nothing about it, beyond the premise. Even the trailer doesn’t spoil much, which is surprising. But what I can say with utmost honesty is that Colossal is one of the best films I have seen this year so far.

The film is basically a female self-empowerment story that just happens to have a giant monster in it. And it is these mix of genres that meld together is what makes the film so original. But none of it would be effective if it weren’t for Nacho Vigalondo‘s direction.

Executing the film’s tone as straight as possible, finding the sincerity in all of its grounded themes and wringing the best out of his actors, Vigalondo just knocks it out of the park. The themes here, including coming to terms with ones’ self and overcoming addictions, are all dealt with in surprising ways. Like how the monster can be a metaphor for our destructive selves and how they can harm others. Even something as minor as a playground fight, where Gloria puts up her dukes, can have such strong meaning behind it.

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Speaking of putting up dukes, there are many monster scenes in the film, which are very well done considering the budget and the way the story combines both the human story and the monster story together in the climax is absolutely satisfying, both emotionally and cinematically.

A lot of the credit goes to actors, which include Anne Hathaway, who gives her best performance since Rachel Getting Married. Funnily enough, the character of Gloria is quite similar her character in Married due to the fact that they are both trainwrecks; they both repel everybody close to them and they both refuse to take responsibility for their own actions.

But in Colossal, Hathaway manages to find a sweet, relatable side to her character that makes it convincing that people would want to be around her as well as the audience wanting to root for her. It also helps that Hathaway still has her comedic chops (evident in The Princess Diaries that made her a star in the first place) and the film gives her ample opportunities to utilize them.

As for Dan Stevens (whom I like to call the new Cary Elwes), he isn’t in the film that much (probably due to being in Legion and Beauty and the Beast) but he does show a panicky wide-eyed side to his character that did make me laugh, like when his character confronts Sudekis‘ character.

Speaking of Sudekis, his performance is one of the most surprising things in the film. Without spoiling anything, his character is charming, if a little clingy. He is also quite generous, if a little intrusive and he is very laid-back, if a little uninitiated. But it is these “ifs” and many more that makes his character compelling and when he gradually reveals who he really is, that is when Sudekis shows he is more than just his comic persona.

As for flaws, there are scenes where you can nitpick logical errors (like how can one character forget or repress such an event) and abrupt tone shifts (which is quite befitting considering the drunk state of Gloria), but neither is enough to knock down the solid, yet unorthodox foundations that are surprisingly down-to-earth: seeing the humanity within the monster and how one’s self-empowerment can be the greatest gift one’s self can give.

Colossal is one of the best movies of the year and for those who are complaining that we do not see original films in the cinema lately; well this is one of them. I really do hope that a lot of people see it, just so we can have more films like this. The very fact that this film exists is fantastic enough, but for it to work as effectively as it does, it just seems miraculous to me.

Like a fellow film critic of mine once said: If we don’t see the movies that deserve it, we get the movies that we deserve.

Colossal

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting

Thematically sound story

Constantly surprises and keeps the audience off-guard

Incredibly satisfying ending

CONS

Tone shifts and logical errors

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Screenwriter: Nacho Vigalondo

Movie Review – Eternity (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something at least worthwhile on a visual and aural level.

REVIEW: For those who don’t know my nationality, I am Vietnamese. And because I was raised in Australia for all of my life, I never really experienced much of Vietnamese culture, but there were some films that I had watched that had always stuck with me. And those were the works of Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung.

Showing the true beauty in the slices of life in Vietnam, his works were always amazing on a visual level as well as an aural level. Immigrated to France at a young age, he clearly took to the customs of the country as well as its film-making style.

In other words, his films were always graceful and soothing, even during moments of realism and nihilism. Famous examples are The Scent of the Green Papaya, Cyclo and Norwegian Wood. You can’t dislike a man that introduced to you critically acclaimed Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Chiu-wai, can you?

So when I heard that he was making his first French-language film with three of the best actresses in all of France, I was excited beyond belief. Counting the fact that this was the first film of Tran‘s that I have see on the big screen, did the film meet my expectations?

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Spanning through a century, showing two generations of a family, the film starts off following Valentine (Audrey Tautou) and her life, involving her husband Jules (Arieh Worthalter) and her children, including Henri (later played by Jeremie Renier).

After finding Jules and giving birth to more than half a dozen children, Valentine then watches as nearly all of them die untimely deaths of unspecified illnesses or leaving the family home, at which point the focus shifts to Valentine’s daughter-in-law Mathilde (Melanie Laurent), who is married to Henri, being the first generation to continue the bloodline.

The story also spans on to Mathilde’s childhood friend, Gabrielle (Berenice Bejo) and her husband Charles (Pierre Deladonchamps), whom both couples live comfortably as they raise their children together.

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As you may have assumed from the synopsis, the film does not have a plot. But for those who are accustomed to Tran‘s films, those were never in service of a plot. They were all in service of mood and atmosphere and thanks to Tran‘s sheer skill, Mark Lee Ping-bing‘s stellar cinematography and great musical choices, supervised by Elise Luguern, Eternity is truly a tone poem brought to life.

The actresses rely more on their physical acting rather than their dialogue delivery, and they all do very well. Audrey Tautou makes the most out of her patriarch role as she convincingly carries the emotional turmoil of her character with nary a word of dialogue.

Melanie Laurent is the most likable and vibrant out of the three, as she gracefully lights up the screen with hope and optimism as soon as she appears on-screen. Berenice Bejo is the tempered and taciturn of the three and she makes a good impression, as her interactions with Laurent are quite good.

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And of course, what would a Tran Anh Hung film be without the director’s muse (and wife) Tran Nu Yan Khe, who not only serves as the narrator of the film (who thankfully adds a sense of pragmatism to the proceedings), but is also the art director of the film.

The film deals with death and birth in a way that is quite poignant as well as illuminating. Scenes of the children, either through birth and death, for the most part, emotionally hit their mark. But due to the numerous times that we go through, the message that Tran wants to show the audience is clear: Birth is a miracle no matter how many times we see it and death is, deep down, meaningless no matter many times it happens and hits us. It really is a simple message, but a profound one nonetheless.

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And while the film certainly accomplishes what it aims for, for viewers who are looking for something else like a plot or conventional narrative will be bored. The film would probably be defined as “installation art”, along the lines of films of Hou Hsiao-hsien. Not to mention the languid pacing, the few sets and locations and the repetitious events.

But for those who are initiated to Tran‘s body of work and those who are willing to step outside the norm of conventional film-making may find Eternity to be a sensual delight that would most likely cast a spell of wonder and poignancy that one would definitely appreciate.

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Quickie Review

PROS

CONS

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Audrey Tautou, Berenice Bejo, Melanie Laurent, Jeremie Renier, Pierre Deladonchamps, Arieh Worthalter, Tran Nu Yen Khe
Director: Tran Anh Hung
Screenwriter: Alice Ferney (based on the novel, L’Elegance des veuves), Tran Anh Hung

Movie Review – Being 17 (Alliance Francaise French Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something as good as Girlhood.

REVIEW: This will be my first review from of a few entries for this year’s Alliance Francaise French Film Festival and if Being 17 is any indication, the festival is off to a great start. Coming-of-age films are a genre that I deeply appreciate. With no need of a strong reliance on plot, seeing the progression of a protagonist through young adulthood can be compelling on a cinematic level.

So when I heard of Being 17 showing at the festival and all of its critical buzz, I was intrigued. But what sealed the deal for me was the co-writer of the film, Celine Sciamma. Having seen her last directorial project, my hopes skyrocketed, since I absolutely loved Girlhood, with its mature approach to young adulthood, showing how it feels to briefly belong somewhere and its sheer realism. So does Being 17 live up to the hype?

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The film starts off with Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein), a taciturn yet intelligent student who lives with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlein), a doctor. His father, Nathan (Alexis Moret) is a military pilot who often gets called into mission reports.

During school, Damien gets picked on by Tomas (Corentin Fila), a classmate who trips him over for no reason. Thus begins a series of violent confrontations within the school faculty.

Tomas, who is a bi-racial son of sheep and cattle farmers, has to spend 90 minutes traveling to school. During one of her house calls, Marianne gets called to Tomas’ house to lend aid to Tomas’ mother, Christine, who has been through a series of miscarriages. Hearing that Tomas is struggling with his grades at school, she takes it upon herself to invite Tomas to her home to study. With the pressing of his parents, he reluctantly agrees.

Having no say in the matter, Damien has to suck it up to reside with Tomas, but little do the two realize, that this would end up being the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

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When I was watching the film, I found the catalyst of the relationship very hard to swallow. A mother inviting a bully of her son to live together is a hard thing to shake off and it is understandable that it would turn some people off. But if you get over that, Being 17 is really a compelling film that like Girlhood, is honest, non-judgmental and emotionally satisfying. But it isn’t as good as the latter, due to some flaws that are quite unfortunate.

Director Andre Techine, whose work I’ve never seen but I’m willing to rectify, takes a subtle approach to the storytelling, with very little of the histrionics that usually accompanies the genre and it pays off beautifully. Working with less-than-usual dialogue and more reliant on physical expressions, we see the angst and confusion of the characters; like in a scene where the two boys are fighting each other in the snow.

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The film is also split into three trimesters (a name given to the terms in French schools and is also a reference to Tomas’ mother’s pregnancy status) and the seasons reflect the progression of the characters brilliantly, while the settings in Pyrenees, France are beautifully capture by DOP Julien Hirsch.

The performances certainly hold up their end of the bargain, with the two leads showing great nuance and maturity to their performances. Klein and Fila share great chemistry, whether it is hostility or intimacy, they both give life to their characters while making them truly genuine.

Sandrine Kiberlain is fantastic as Marianne, as she shows warmth, charisma and (without spoilers) is very convincing in the later stages of the film. Despite her character’s questionable actions, Kiberlain makes them believable that the character would do such a thing.

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But there are flaws that prevent this film from being truly great. Alongside the morally questionable foundation of the story, there are scenes in the film that are present for the sake of foreshadowing, but it leads to nothing. In one case, there’s a scene where Marianne has a dream about a certain character that is morally bizarre. How it adds to the story is very questionable and it should’ve been left in the cutting room floor.

But overall, Being 17 is a thoughtful coming-of-age story with great performances, honest storytelling, beautiful cinematography and subtle direction that is sure to delight. If you can overlook its questionable morals, the emotional journey that the characters go through is sure to emotionally satisfy.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Honest, emotionally satisfying storytelling

Beautiful cinematography

CONS

Morally questionable moments

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Sandrine Kiberlain, Kacey Mottet Klein, Corentin Fila, Alexis Loret, Jean Fornerod, Mama Prassinos, Jean Corso
Director: Andre Techine
Screenwriter: Andre Techine, Celine Sciamma

Movie Review – The Eagle Huntress

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EXPECTATIONS: An informative documentary about eagle hunting.

REVIEW: Now I admit, I do not watch a lot of documentaries, but the ones I did watch were all great. And yet somehow, there are documentaries that I’ve seen in the past that don’t feel like documentaries at all, mainly because the stories behind them are a little too hard to believe. Films like Super Size Me and Bowling for Columbine have been accused of being false, manipulative as well as misleading.

I start off with this because the documentary, The Eagle Huntress, has been accused of being staged, scripted and even acted. But even factoring all of this, does that clench the final verdict that the documentary is a bad viewing experience? In this case, yes and no.

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The documentary follows Aisholpan Nurgaiv, an incredibly optimistic 13 year-old girl, who long has been fascinated by the practice of eagle hunting, as demonstrated by her father as well as her grandfather.

They of course encourage her interest, despite the fact that she spends weekdays at a school far from the family home, due to the lack of dorms in the Altai Mountains region. At her school, she is practically known as a tomboy, where she both excels academically as well as athletically.

Her father then takes her out to capture an eagle chick off a cliff face and after the ritual, we see the progress between Aisholpan and the bird to the point where she enters unannounced in a eagle hunting competition, being the only female competitor.

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From the subject alone as well as its political implications, it’s a surefire winner. Aisholpan is a wonderful subject that is sure to inspire many due to her empowerment, her strength and her sheer will to succeed in what she wants to be, and the filmmakers milk it for all their worth.

Aisholpan doesn’t seem to go through many obstacles throughout the film despite a few  negative outbursts from the townspeople due to traditionalist (i.e. sexist) values, like how a woman should stick to staying home.

And what makes the film problematic is that the editing is constructed in a way that it makes the events feel staged, instead of organic. The musical score (including the closing song from Sia) unfortunately adds to the issue as well, feeling like the filmmaker is force-feeding an agenda, rather than just document the subject. Even the narration from Daisy Ridley (whose voice I love to hear) is quite unnecessary.

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The film is definitely well-shot (thanks to Simon Niblett), with all of the crane as well as drone shots, showing the wide scope of the mountains and the valleys in Western Mongolia beautifully. And there are moments where there is actual suspense, like in a scene where Aisholpan and her father are riding their horses through incredibly deep snow that is almost shoulder-high.

Don’t get me wrong, I truly admire the message and found the journey of Aisholpan very inspiring and if it inspires one person out there to be more like her, then the film can’t possibly be bad. But the morally questionable film-making just distracts me to the point that I can’t possibly fully give it total credit.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Inspiring story

Aisholpan is a great heroine

CONS

Questionable film-making

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Aisholpan Nurgaiv, Rhys Nurgaiv, Kuksyegyen Almagul, Boshai Dalaikhan, Daisy Ridley (narrator)
Director: Otto Bell
Screenwriter: N/A

Movie Review – Pieta in the Toilet

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EXPECTATIONS: A long, understated drama held together by its two appealing leads.

REVIEW: Terminal affliction dramas have been a long trope in films, with such classics like Love Story, Bright Star, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Biutiful and Sunny; either handling the subject manner in an understated manner or wringing all the dramatic juice out of it for all of its worth.

It is definitely used as an easy in for audience sympathy, which some filmmakers have taken advantage of to the point that there have been some horrific films like My Sister’s Keeper, P.S I Love You, Restless and of course, Me Before You. Those are examples that are exploitative, insistent and borderline offensive.

So when I was planning to watch Pieta in the Toilet, I was a bit nervous as to how the film would turn out. But I had an open mind when I read that the director of the film, Daishi Matsunaga, was a documentary filmmaker who decided to make this film his first narrative feature. His background in documentaries could be a positive factor in making the approach to the terminal affliction genre as realistic as possible. So did the film put my mind at ease and impress me, despite my doubts?

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Yojiro Oda stars as Sonoda, a former art school graduate who currently works as a window-washer. After lightly berating a new employee over fainting on the job, he himself faints, and consults a doctor about. In a blunt fashion towards Sonoda (as well as the audience), the doctor says that he is suffering advanced stages of stomach cancer and he must commence stages of chemotherapy to increase the chances of beating it.

Gradually, we learn more about Sonoda and his past, which includes his ex-girlfriend Satsuki (Saya Ichikawa), who is also an artist, but unlike Hiroshi, she was able to become a success, exhibiting one-woman shows of her samples of artwork. As Sonoda learns about his illness, he decides to hold off on telling his family and tries to get Satsuki to pose as his sister. But after a fight between the two, Sonoda spots Mai (Hana Sugisaki), an impulsive high school girl who is berating an older gentleman for accidentally tearing up her school uniform.

Sonoda agrees to pay for the damages if she would pose as his sister and she reluctantly agrees. It is then that the two start an unlikely relationship that we gradually see that they might have more in common than one would think.

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Now how does the film rank alongside other terminal affliction entries? Pretty damn high, I must say. Pieta in the Toilet is a seemingly simple story effectively told with fantastic direction, top-notch performances, a well-written script and indescribable cinematography that is reminiscent of the cinematography in Linda Linda Linda (both lensed by Ikeuchi Yoshihiro).

First off, the direction. As mentioned earlier, director Daishi Matsunaga had directed documentaries before this; one being about an actual famous artist, and it clearly shows in his latest effort. Aiming for the tone to be realistic yet extracting beauty throughout the mundane settings like a swimming pool or a hospital, Matsunaga strikes the perfect balance that makes the film a lot more hopeful that one would think of its grim story.

The storytelling is also very understated and never resides to tugging heartstrings or playing sappy music to get its emotions across. Sometimes, it is a bit too understated to the point that it makes one wonder if the film is as clinical as the hospital setting. Fortunately, Matsunaga bides his time, gradually building up the momentum of the story as well as developing his characters that it creates a genuinely cathartic pay-off.

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The actors deserve massive credit for making the film as credible as it is. Yojiro Oda (part of RADWIMPS, a rock band that is responsible for the score in the animated blockbuster, Your Name) gives an effective performance as Sonoda that might be a bit muted at first, but like the film, gets more emotional throughout the running time.

On the contrary, Hana Sugisaki is fantastic as the brash and impulsive Mai, who may have a tough exterior, but would eventually reveal a more vulnerable side. Her interactions, whether she’s being flirtatious or antagonistic, are always nuanced and she never goes cutesy to get the interest of the audience. There’s a scene in a swimming pool where she and Oda confront each other and it is a compelling experience of anger, acceptance, naivety and stubbornness that is strongly poignant.

As for the supporting actors, Lily Franky is a delight as a pervert/hospital patient who befriends Sonoda. Not only does he bring some much-needed humour to the proceedings, he also brings credibility to the dramatic parts alongside Oda, making the progression of Sonoda very easy to believe. He also shows his bare ass (not on the titular toilet, fortunately), which alone earns extra points. While Rie Miyazawa, a great veteran actress, does wonders with her small role as a mother of a cancer patient, and she even has a scene to herself that is one of the best scenes in the film.

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Speaking of best scenes in the film, the climax is a thing of beauty that perfectly encapsulates the arcs of the characters, the beauty of its story and even surprises with its daring final shot. It may last a few seconds and it proceeds past the point where it would seem obvious to a normal storyteller would end their story, but without going into spoilers, there is something about it that really pays off in retrospect.

Despite its strange title that would understandably turn people off, Pieta in the Toilet is a wonderful piece of film-making with fantastic performances, assured storytelling, a well-written script and surprisingly beautiful cinematography that not only adds hope to the story itself, but the genre as well.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its cast

Wonderful direction/storytelling that balances beauty and realism in a grim story

Surprising cinematography that finds beauty in the most mundane settings

CONS

May be too understated for its own good in the first two acts

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: Yojiro Noda, Hana Sugisaki, Lily Franky, Saya Ichikawa, Shinobu Otake, Rie Miyazawa
Director: Daishi Matsunaga
Screenwriters: Daishi Matsunaga, Osamu Tezuka (original concept)

Movie Review – Silence

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EXPECTATIONS: An impressively mounted yet disarmingly esoteric tale.

REVIEW: If there’s one film-maker off the top of my head that, in my opinion, hasn’t made a bad film, that film-maker would be Martin Scorsese. Venturing from genre to genre with ease (Who can go from the family fantasy Hugo to the dark comedy The Wolf of Wall Street just like that?) and always applying professional care and passion within his projects, Scorsese is a film-maker whose work I will definitely watch, no matter what the subject is.

In the case of his newest film, Silence, the film explores themes of religious debate and how far faith can go within our lives. It’s not the first time Scorsese has explored these type of themes, with his earlier films The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun variably show, but Silence has been in the making close to 40 years; which is clearly a passion project for him. Has the time spent paid off in spades, or will it just end up being a footnote in an otherwise, sterling filmography?

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Set in 1635, the film opens with Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) being shown captive in Japan over the fact that Catholicism is outlawed there, leading Ferreira to be tortured (through the use of scalding hot spring water) to renounce his faith.

Back in Macau, two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) receive word of Ferreira’s story, and are shocked in disbelief. Willing to see the truth for themselves, they set forth to Japan to try to find their mentor as well as spread the word of Catholicism. But little do they know about the world they venture in, the things that they see and experience will change and challenge their beliefs forever.

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I have to admit, due to the subject matter, I was quite hesitant about this film. Not being a religious or devout person myself, and having little to no prior knowledge about the themes shown, I was afraid that I would be left distant throughout. While it may not be the masterpiece that people were expecting, Scorsese hasn’t let us down as Silence is clearly his most heartfelt and personal.

All of Scorsese‘s films have great production values and Silence is no exception. Looking as if Scorsese is doing an homage to Japanese cinema by using all of its film-making tropes (deliberate pacing, very little edits, lack of musical score etc.), the film crew are all capably up to the task. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto and production design by Dante Ferretti (whom previously collaborated with Scorsese for The Wolf of Wall Street) is spectacularly naturalistic, capturing the vistas of Taiwan (substituting for Japan) beautifully, while also capturing the period details as well the chaos of the ideological conflicts in the story.

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The editing by Scorsese veteran Thelma Schoonmaker is admirably restrained, which may look like a surprise when you compare it to her contribution in The Wolf of Wall Street. The faint musical score is thankfully isn’t as bombastic as the music in the trailer (like the scenes of torture), although for those who are not knowledgeable about the subject matter will find it hard to know how to emotionally engage themselves at some particular moments i.e.  a scene in the third act where a certain character is being forced to do something he or she doesn’t want to do. The themes of the film are quite thought-provoking and certainly adds to the value of the film i.e. the juxtaposition of pride and faith, the questionable reliance of God (hence one of the reasons of the film’s title).

The actors certainly are up to the task to support Scorsese‘s vision. Andrew Garfield has had a good year in 2016 with both this and Hacksaw Ridge, and he gives a great performance as Father Rodrigues, as he shows the many facets of the character (the passion, the pride, the obliviousness) very well, which is quite a feat considering that his character isn’t unlikable in the slightest.

The Caucasian supporting cast, consisting of Liam Neeson, Adam Driver and Ciaran Hinds are all good with the parts they are given, especially Neeson, whose presence is felt throughout the film despite a small amount of screen-time. But it is the Japanese cast that make the biggest impression.

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Yosuke Kubozuka essentially plays the Judas-like role in the film as Kichijiro, and he nails it, showing the feral instincts of humans perfectly whilst also showing conflicting views on how to look at faith. Shinya Tsukamoto, who is well-known as a fantastic director, gives a committed performance as Mokichi, a villager whose absolute faith in Catholicism could lead to certain danger, while Tadanobu Asano is low-key menacing as the interpreter for the Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata.

Speaking of Ogata, his role is the biggest standout of the Japanese cast. Whether that is a good thing will be up to the audience. Unsure of whether he is meant to be menacing or comedic (or both?), his performance is quite reminiscent of Christoph Waltz‘s performance in Inglourious Basterds. The performance can deflate dramatic scenes at times, while in contrast, the comic relief could also be just that: a relief. Which is quite suitable considering the grim subject matter.

For those who are into Japanese cinema, there are many cameos from famous stars and character actors that they will appreciate i.e. Ryo Kase, Nana Komatsu, Hairi Katagiri, Asuka Kurosawa, AKIRA EXILE, SABU, Shun Sugata, Yoshi Oida and many others.

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As much as I like to brand this film as a masterpiece, there is just too many flaws for me to do so. The subject matter is told too esoterically to the uninitiated; the pacing is too slow for the film to be engaging throughout; the lack of music does hurt the film due the lack of pushing and telegraphing the film’s dramatic moments and it is the result of these two that Scorsese fans will probably think that Silence is too subdued for them.

Funnily enough, the violence in the film, while it is intense in how detached the film dwells on it, shouldn’t bother people much, since the similar thematic film, The Passion of the Christ, was also very violent, but much more unrestrained when compared to Silence.

Overall, Silence is not one of his best films, but if you like his earlier films that dwell upon religious themes, this compares favourably and is clearly a passion project for Scorsese that is well worth checking out. It may not be entertaining per se, but it is most certainly an illuminating experience.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances

Glorious production values

Many themes provoke ample food-for-thought

CONS

The subject matter is too esoterically told

Lack of emotional engagement

The pacing can be too laborious for some

SCORE: 7.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka, Nana Komatsu, Ryo Kase, Hairi Katagiri, Shun Sugata,  AKIRA EXILE, SABU
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriter: Martin Scorsese, Jay Cocks; based on the novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo