No, I Haven’t Seen It Until Now: Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ran’

I pride myself on having a vast knowledge of movies. While my many of my friends stumble across a movie they don’t recognize, I am usually quick to name it even if I have never watched it before. Everyone is amazed at how I could know such things. Still, when it comes to older movies and the great filmmakers who ever lived, there are still many I need to catch up on.

One of those filmmakers I really need to catch up on is Akira Kurosawa who is considered by many to one of the greatest of all time. Until I saw “Ran,”, the only movie of his I had previously watched was “The Seven Samurai” which really is one of greatest movies ever made. Of course, I got exposed to the American remake, “The Magnificent Seven,” beforehand, but anyway.

“Ran” was the very last movie Kurosawa made on such an epic scale, and as amazing as it looked when it was first released, this is even more the case more than 30 years later. Kurosawa clearly had the power to request literally thousands of extras, and it is easy to see well-dressed studio executives looking at him to where, had he made this movie today, would have asked him:

“Can’t you just add all these people in with CGI? Wouldn’t it be easier and cheaper just to hire like 50 guys instead of 1200?”

If they didn’t ask them that, they would obviously come up with the obvious solution:

“We’ll solve it in post!”

Looking at the title and scenes from the movie trailer, I figured the title “Ran” meant the main characters were running from certain doom throughout like it was a big chase. This should show you what I know about the Japanese language, and that is not much. “Ran” actually means “revolt” or “chaos,” and Kurosawa’s movie is filled with so much of both to where this is ends up being a cinematic experience both physically and emotionally draining.

Kurosawa based the story on the legends of the daimyo Mori Motonari and of how he had three sons who were intensely loyal to him. This led him to look at the story a little differently and say the following:

“When I read that three arrows together are invincible, that’s not true. I started doubting, and that’s when I started thinking: the house was prosperous and the sons were courageous. What if this fascinating man had bad sons?”

Of course, anyone familiar with William Shakespeare will say that “Ran” is heavily influenced by the tragedy of “King Lear.” Indeed, the story very much resembles that of “King Lear” as we watch a powerful leader abdicate his throne, and he ends up being betrayed by his own blood in the process.

The powerful leader at the center of “Ran” is Hidetora, leader of the Ichimonji clan. The story starts with Hidetora abdicating his throne to his three sons Taro, Jiro, and Saburo. The majority of the power is given to Taro who is his eldest son, and Jiro and Saburo are ordered by their father to support him no matter what. Saburo, however, does not agree with Hidetora’s decision to disperse all of his powers, reminding him how his kingdom came about through his own treachery and massacre of others. Hidetora starts acting all uppity as if he’s a superstar celebrity who is not used to hearing the word “no” much, and he banishes Saburo from the clan as well as his servant Tango who speaks in Saburo’s defense. It’s amazing what breaking three arrows together can do to a man’s ego.

From there, it is a vicious downfall for Hidetora as he is banished from his kingdom ever so coldly. Many characters here profess to believe in a god, be it Buddha or someone else, and they pray for their assistance in this little world which is quickly collapsing. If there is a god watching over them, he, or she, is blind to their sufferings or deaf to their endless prayers. Hence, this is quite a bleak movie from a thematic and visual standpoint.

After watching “Ran,” I was compelled to learn more about it. While researching the movie more deeply, It turns out “King Lear” never really entered Kurosawa’s mind until he was deep into pre-production. Along the way, he did incorporate different elements of the play into it, and he had this to say about Shakespeare’s classic tragedy:

“What has always troubled me about ‘King Lear’ is that Shakespeare gives his characters no past. … In Ran, I have tried to give Lear a history.”

Now this is what gives Hidetora, among others characters, such gravity throughout the nearly three-hour running time. He was not a leader who earned his kingdom through family succession, but through the pillaging of villages and murdering those who were against them. Perhaps he would like to forget this, but his power and family are forever stained by his deeds, and he is reminded of this in the most painful of ways.

With this in mind, it is no wonder two of Hidetora’s three sons end up turning against him. What his legacy has taught them is you can’t get anywhere in life without beating the crap out of the other guy and stealing everything he and his followers have. Only Saburo is fearless and selfless in telling him this and of pointing out the fact he will always be seen as a killer. Saburo at least cares enough to tell him this instead of just sucking up to him like his brothers do. Some people hear the word “yes” once too often when they need some others say “no” every once in a while.

As we see Hidetora losing his mind and in a state of disbelief, I was reminded of Will Munny, Clint Eastwood character from “Unforgiven.” Both these characters become sick, and in their feverish state they become haunted by the lives they ended ever so coldly. They have tried to convince themselves they are not the same people they once were, and Hidetora appears to develop amnesia in an effort to block his mind of his past deeds. But nightmares abound in his sleep reminding him of the price he has yet to pay. You could even compare this character to Anakin Skywalker who becomes the very thing he fought against in “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.” In the process of trying to prevent the love of his life from dying, he gives up everything he believes in. Hidetora believes that by passing the leadership duties to his oldest son his clan will continue to prosper. The more we fear of something bad happening, the more likely that bad thing will happen.

Taking this into account makes me realize one of the most important elements in the Kurosawa movies I have seen; they are very dependent on the depth of their characters as much as they are on spectacle. Granted, this is only the second movie of his I have seen, but it feels like just enough to understand why his cinematic works made such a strong impression on Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (“The Hidden Fortress” is said to have been a huge influence on “Star Wars”). Most movies today are just about spectacle, and the characters are usually a distant second to it. But it is this focus on character which makes “Ran” so involving and gives its epic scope much more meaning.

But let’s talk about the spectacle of “Ran” which is incredible to say the least. One of the key sequences is the horrific massacre which takes place at the third castle where Hidetora takes refuge. What really struck me was how Kurosawa put Tōru Takemitsu’s music score over the sounds of violence perpetrated by his sons as it gives what is being presented to us with far more emotional power. Takemitsu’s music further illustrates the immense tragedy tearing this powerful clan apart which leaves Hidetora in an endless state of shock. Without the music, it would still be a cinematic high mark of capturing battle on celluloid, but it would not have the same effect.

The bloodbath of the massacre is made all the more vivid by Kurosawa as “Ran” was made long before the advent of CGI effects. With this sequence, Kurosawa brilliantly captures the ugliness and viciousness of war, and of the cruel nature which dominates these characters’ humanity.

All the acting is nothing short of excellent from as the entire cast invests each of their characters with various complexities which allow them to surprise us in unexpected ways. Hidetora is played by Tatsuya Nakadai, and he immerses himself completely into playing a man whose own pride and self-righteousness proves to be his undoing. Without saying a word in the last half of the massacre, Hidetora communicates his utter regret of his thoughtless decision making which has led to the decimation of what he once had. Nakadai makes Hidetora’s eventual descent into madness all the more vivid, and his performance never ever descends into camp.

I also loved Mieko Harada’s performance as Lady Kaede, Kurosawa’s version of Lady Macbeth. Through her deceitful ways, viciousness and endless manipulation, she always seems to get her way and turn the men around her into quivering jelly. Harada’s moments onscreen are among my favorites as she exploits the fears of the men around her and seduces them despite their mistrust of her. Never let it be said that Kurosawa ever writes weak roles for women because it certainly isn’t the case here. Lady Kaede wants to maintain her high status in the clan, and she is ruthless in how she pursues it.

You could say they don’t make movies like “Ran” anymore, but it did come out in a time when they weren’t being made much. For many, it serves as the culmination of all his talents, of what he has accomplished in his career, and of all the struggle and tears he shed while making this movie. During the making of “Ran,” Kurosawa’s wife passed away. By the time he got around to shooting the movie after working on the script for ten years, he was almost completely blind. Regardless of these setbacks, nothing stopped him from making this movie.

Years after its release, “Ran” stands as one of the classic movies from one of the best filmmakers ever. No one can or should doubt the heart and soul Kurosawa put into it for years and years, and getting to see it on the silver screen was a real treat. When all is said and done, the silver screen is where this movie belongs.

* * * * out of * * * *

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Vortex’ – An Unflinching Descent into Oblivion

This movie starts off simply enough with an elderly couple outside of their apartment in northeast Paris, having what looks like lunch and some wine as they are enjoying the long life they have had together. The wife then asks her husband, “is life a dream?” He responds, “life is a dream within a dream.” Seeing these two together in such a simple setting spoke to me of a couple who have lived what looks like a very successful life. It also proves to be the happiest scene this movie has to offer.

Vortex” is the latest piece of cinema from Gaspar Noe, a filmmaker I very much admire and have no problem nor hesitation in defending. This particular movie is his most mature one to date, but do not for one second think he has lost a single ounce of his audaciousness here. With “Vortex,” he takes us on a cinematic journey which I can best describe as being unflinching as we follow this couple as their mental and physical health are on a permanent downward slope. Gaspar begins this movie with a dedication which states: “To all those whose brains will decompose before their hearts.” This is then followed by Françoise Hardy singing “Mon Amie La Rose,” a song about going from life to death. Suffice to say, you know from there that this movie will not have a happy ending, and there is no music score from Thomas Bangalter to elevate us out of the bleakness on display.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar goes out of his way to utilize the split screen approach, which Brian DePalma used to great effect in his movies, and a line is slowly drawn down between these two characters to where their existence together will never be the same. They go about their daily activities in what seems like the usual mundane way as the husband works on a book he calls “Psyche” which deals with movies and dreams, and the wife goes shopping at local stores near Stalingrad Station where they live. But as she travels through the aisles of one store, we see on her face how lost she is to where it quickly become clear she has no idea where she is at. Keep in mind, this is just the start of the story. We have yet to see how truly bad things will get.

As for the husband, the work on his book is constantly being undermined by his wife’s deteriorating condition which shows itself in the most horrifying of ways. In addition, he is suffering health problems of his own as his heart condition has him checking his blood pressure every other day. Their only hope is the help they get from their son, Stéphane (Alex Lutz, playing one of the few characters here with an actual name), but he can only deal with so much as he has problems of his own which includes raising his son, Kiki (Kylian Dheret), and recovering from his mental breakdown and a drug addiction which threatens to overtake him in the face of inevitable mortality.

We know Dario Argento best for being one of the best horror filmmakers ever which such classics as “Suspiria,” “Deep Red” and “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” among others. As for Françoise Lebrun, she is a highly acclaimed French actress who has appeared in a plethora of movies, most notably in Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore.” Together, these two do not act their roles as much as they inhabit them. With the split screen setup, this makes perfect sense as every single moment in this couple’s time together counts for everything. Even the most mundane of details carries a lot of meaning as these two experience a deterioration neither is prepared to accept or fully deal with.

I also have to give Alex Lutz a lot of credit as well. Not only does he inhabit his role alongside Argento and Lebrun, but he never overacts in the slightest as his character of Stéphane has to carry the weight of his parents’ mental and physical demise all on his shoulders, and anyone who has been through a similar situation can certainly relate. Still, the scene where he relapses without even knowing his son is watching him freebase proves to be quite devastating.

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to pass judgment on these two characters or those around them. Instead, he makes us follow them are inevitable journey to death which we know is coming. Is it cruel of him to do this? No, not really as we have a certain denial when it comes to the finality of life. We know it is coming, but who is prepared to deal with it? While we say we will be there for our loved ones when they breathe their final breath, who exactly looks forward to that?

Watching this movie, I was reminded of some dialogue from one my favorite television shows, let alone one of my favorite HBO shows, “Oz:”

“Let me tell you, dying is a lot harder on the living than it is on the dead. Death really only hurts those left behind.”

“Do we care for people when they’re sick because we actually care about them? Or do we care for them because when our time comes, we want someone to care for us?”

“The state’s attitude to the elderly, any elderly, in or out of prison is… hurry up and die.”

With “Vortex,” Gaspar is not out to suggest any course of action, but to instead offer us an unflinching look at a couple’s last moments before they expire. Even if I felt the urge, I could never look away from the screen as these two individuals breathed their last breaths. Now while it might sound like I am spoiling this film for you, I am not. Some films you watch to enjoy, and others are meant to be experienced. “Vortex,” like all of Gaspar’s films, is meant to be experienced more than anything else, and I applaud it for that.

I would also like to add how “Vortex” makes me want to look at my parents and tell them the following:

“If you ever get dementia, I will kill you. You understand?”

Filmmaker Lars Von Trier was once quoted as saying the following:

“A film should be like a rock in the shoe.”

That is certainly the case with “Vortex.” This is not the first Gaspar Noe film to give you this feeling, and it certainly will not be the last.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Mandibles’ is Not Your Usually Hollywood Fare, Thank Goodness

I came out of Quentin Dupieux’s “Mandibles” (French title: “Mandibules”) not sure what to think of it right away. Part of me was expecting an uproarious comedy, but while there are some good laughs to be had, this is not a laugh riot like “Airplane” or “The Naked Gun.” Moreover, the screenplay is a bit flimsy to where the film really shouldn’t work. But even if “Mandibles” is not quite what I expected, it is certainly never boring, and I cannot deny that I enjoyed it.

We are introduced to the main character of Manu (Grégoire Ludig) when an acquaintance spots him sleeping on the beach even as the water washes over him. This acquaintance offers Manu a job; pick up a suitcase and deliver it to a mystery man for a nice big wad of cash. Manu, who has just been recently rendered homeless, jumps at the opportunity, steals a beat-up car which happens to be unlocked, and he brings his longtime friend Jean-Gab (David Marsais) with him for backup. On their way down the road, however, they hear a buzzing coming from the rear. Upon opening up the trunk, they discover there is a housefly the size of a suitcase residing there, and it is the kind you have to check in because it will not fit in the overhead bin.

Now in any other movie, the characters would be wondering where this fly came from and how it got so big, but Manu and Jean-Gab are as interested in asking these questions as Dupieux is in answering them for the audience. Instead, they look at this oversized creature as something they can train for their own benefit to where they can get it to steal food and money for them. From there, we watch as these two characters, who are far too simple-minded for their own good, fumble about in training their new pet fly (Jean-Gab eventually calls it Dominique) while stumbling into various situations they have no business being in.

Dupieux is working with absurdist comedy here as he gives us two male characters whose collective IQs are not very high to put it mildly. They end up kicking an old man out of his trailer so they can train the fly in it, but Manu accidentally burns it to the ground. Seriously, these two are the kind who jump at any get rich scheme in a heartbeat to where their unbridled enthusiasm overwhelms any real thoughts or plans they could possibly put together. They would have been over the moon had they found that advertisement which promised 11 records for a penny, and I take great pleasure in knowing their SAT scores are far worse than mine ever were.

“Mandibles” then shifts into high gear when Manu is met by a beautiful blonde named Cécile (India Hair) who mistakes him for someone she went to school and eventually made out with. Manu cheerfully plays along, and he and Jean-Gab find themselves as guests at a beach house which comes with great vistas, a nice swimming pool and tons of food for the starving duo. Of course, they still have to keep the fly a secret from their hosts, but we know their cover will eventually be blown and their pet discovered. Or will it?

Watching Ludig and Marsais here is endlessly entertaining as they try to stay one step ahead of their suspecting hosts. That they are able to do so speaks more of dumb luck than anything else. They also have their characters saying “toro” to one another in the same way Johnny Depp kept saying “forget about it” in “Donnie Brasco.” “Toro” takes on different meanings for Manu and Jean-Gab as they explain to others how it works for them, and this helps to cement the strong connection they have with one another even as they insult one another, pretending they are brighter than the other.

Another performance worth noting is the one from Adèle Exarchopoulos. She portrays Agnès, a young woman who cannot help but speak at an ear-splitting volume due to a skiing accident she endured which left her with brain damage. Basically, she is like a certain character Will Ferrell played on “Saturday Night Live” who suffered from Voice Immodulation Syndrome, and every word she utters is magnified to an alarming extent. While this threatens to be a one-joke character, and this is a hit and miss comedy, I have to give Exarchopoulos credit for not making Agnes too broad. She could have easily fallen into an acting trap but does not, and the realization when she makes a certain discovery (you will know it when it comes) is worth the price of admission.

I also have to say the fly itself is wonderfully realized by the filmmakers. It looks real without ever coming across as some chintzy special effect. Kudos to actor and puppeteer Dave Chapman for portraying the fly as he makes this creature more than just something which could have easily turned into a wisecracking sidekick. As much as I would have loved for this fly to have down to earth conversations with Manu and Jean-Gab, it’s just as well it did not happen here.

When it comes to Dupieux, he is best known for his film “Rubber” which is about a tire which comes to life and kills people with psychokinetic powers. I have not seen that one, but I did watch his film “Wrong Cops,” a black comedy I could not quite get on the same wavelength with even when I wanted to as its cast gave their material their all. With “Mandibles,” however, I found myself appreciating the conflicts he gleefully subjected these characters to throughout.

“Mandibles” isn’t quite what I hoped it would be, but what unfolded before my eyes on the silver screen, and it was very nice to see this or any other movie on the silver screen in this age of pandemic, proved to be entertaining from start to finish. Some may enjoy it more than others, but there is more to a movie like this than many of the summer blockbusters currently inhabiting the local multiplexes around the world. When all is said and done, it is always welcome to have a piece of cinema which does not conform to Hollywood formulaic standards.

* * * out of * * * *

Corpus Christi Fearlessly Questions Our Beliefs in Religion and Redemption

Corpus Christi” was one of the five films nominated at this year’s Academy Awards for Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Film). While it was destined to lose to “Parasite”, this does not in any way speak to its overall quality. In fact, I hope people get a chance to check out this import from Poland if and when they get the chance. While its plot might make it look like a remake of “Sister Act,” “Corpus Christi” is a deeply thoughtful look at religion and of how the road to redemption is a rough one for the average convicted felon.

We are introduced to Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia), a 20-year-old man who has spent several years in prison for a violent crime, as he serves as lookout for the guards while a fellow inmate is being assaulted. But soon after that, we see him taking part in a religious service with the prison chaplain, and we can see he has found a spiritual awakening while behind bars. He aspires to become a priest, but his criminal conviction prevents him from ever becoming one. I always find it interesting how when a convicted felon does his time and is released from prison, but for some odd reason he or she is never fully free. They always seem forever defined by a past which no one will ever let them completely atone for. Like the DMV, people never forget.

Upon his release, Daniel is sent to a remote village where a job as a day laborer awaits him, but he sees a church in the distance and decides to walk over to it. Once there, a quick lie allows him to be mistaken as the church’s new priest, and it is a role he jumps into with little, if any, hesitation. But while he proves to have a strong and positive effect  to where the church seats are filled up more than they were previously, we know his past will eventually catch up with him. Moreover, he knows it will as well, and a scene where we hear a clock ticking loudly alerts us to how his time is running out.

For a time, “Corpus Christi” plays like a comedy as Daniel seems ill-equipped to be a priest. During a confession where a mother talks about the troubles she is having with her teenage son, he furiously looks at the internet on his cell phone to get an answer, any answer. In one of his sermons, he repeats the words the priest in prison spoke to him and his fellow convicts such as “I’m not here to pray to you mechanically” and “each of you is the priest of Christ.” Clearly, he is stumbling about, but he eventually inspires the local community to where the church finds its attendance increasing to an astonishing degree.

Director Jan Komasa, working from a screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz, is never quick to reveal every aspect of this small-town Daniel resides in. We eventually come to discover how a tragedy has long since engulfed the town in a never ending state of grief, and we are with Daniel every step of the way as he uncovers the devastation which has left the residents in such an infinitely mournful state. While he is essentially doing a “fake it till you make it” act a, the efforts Daniel makes to heal the town of its deep emotional wounds is truly moving, and I found myself rooting for him to have a positive effect.

Bartosz Bielenia gives a powerful performance as Daniel, and he inhabits this character with a truly fierce passion for his newfound calling. While Daniel is in lying about being qualified to be a priest, he quickly proves to us how his spiritual awakening is no joke. His methods may not always be sound, but his willingness to help those in his parish comes from the heart. Even when he is eventually exposed, and this is really not spoiling anything, I was left enthralled by Bielenia’s portrayal as Daniel because his religious calling is never in doubt to him or those who have flocked to his church.

At the heart of “Corpus Christi” comes a number of questions: What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to be a religious person? Does redemption ever get fully realized by the society which surrounds the sinner? Does any individual deserve to recognized by their past more than their present? While this church, or any other church, may have rules about who can and cannot a priest or a nun, one wonders if those rules should be so stringent after watching this movie. Daniel’s spiritual awakening is no joke, and I personally would rather converse with a priest who was a sinner than one who has a “holier than thou” attitude.

Seriously, the more I think about “Corpus Christi,” the more I am reminded of a routine from George Carlin’s classic comedy album “Class Clown” entitled “The Confessional:”

“I wanted to get into Father Byrne’s confessional one Saturday maybe a half hour before he showed up and get in there and hear a few confessions, you know? Because I knew according to my faith and religion that if anyone came in there and really thought I was Father Byrne and really wanted to be forgiven…and perform the penance I had assigned…they would have been forgiven, man! ‘Cause that’s what they taught us; it’s what’s in your mind that counts; your intentions, that’s how we’ll judge you. What you want to do. Mortal sin had to be a grievous offense, sufficient reflection and full consent of the will. You had to WANNA! In fact, WANNA was a sin all by itself. “Thou Shalt Not WANNA”. If you woke up in the morning and said, ‘I’m going down to 42nd street and commit a mortal sin!’ Save your car fare; you did it, man!”

When it comes to Daniel, he may not be a priest, but he is willing to hear you and help you out. While he may be breaking sacred rules, at least he is making an effort to get you past your sins.

“Corpus Christi” ends on an ambiguous note as Daniel may have found a salvation he may not have expected to find in the direst of circumstances. Unlike the average faith-based movie, this one is not out to prove or disprove the existence of Jesus Christ. All that matters is Daniel believes such a person exists, and this may have very well saved him from a horrific fate. Some questions deserve an answer, but others deserve to be pondered on for a long time.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

CLICK HERE TO CHECK OUT MY EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JAN KOMASA AND BARTOSZ BIELENIA ABOUT “CORPUS CHRISTI”

Exclusive Video Interview with ‘Corpus Christi’s’ Jan Komasa and Bartosz Bielenia

In a year filled with many great foreign films like “Parasite,” “Corpus Christi” is another one to keep an eye out for. Directed by Jan Komasa (“Suicide Room” and “Warsaw 44”), it stars Bartosz Bielienia as Daniel, a 20-year-old man on the verge of finishing his sentence at a youth detention center for second degree murder. While there, he experiences a spiritual awakening which inspires him to enter the priesthood, but because of his felony conviction, no seminary will ever be able to accept him. Upon his release, he is sent to a small village to do manual labor. However, Daniel quickly discovers the local church there and ends up lying his way into becoming the town’s new priest. His passion and unconventional methods come to inspire its residents in a way they have not been in a while, and in the process he comes to discover a terrible tragedy which has engulfed the town in endless sorrow. As he digs deeper into the tragedy and the town’s deepest secrets, some of the townspeople become increasingly suspicious of his methods, and it is only a matter of time before the past catches up with him.

Now the above plot description might make “Corpus Christi” sound like a remake of “Sister Act,” but it really proves to be a thoughtful and compelling motion picture as it ponders what it means to be a person of faith, of the possibility of finding forgiveness in a realm where sadness and anger seem infinite and irrevocable, and of finding redemption even when society will not easily permit its criminally convicted to do so. What results is an enthralling film which is now Poland’s selection for the Best International Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.

I was lucky enough to speak with Komasa and Bielienia while they were in Los Angeles to do press for “Corpus Christi.” Komasa recently won the Best Director award at the Gdynia Film Festival for his work here, and Bielienia has picked up Best Actor awards at the El Gouna Film Festival, the Chicago International Film and the Stockholm International Film Festival.

Be sure to check out “Corpus Christi” when Film Movement releases in American theaters in 2020. My full interview is up above, and you can also watch the movie’s trailer down below.

‘Parasite’ May Be the Cinematic Masterpiece of 2019

Parasite movie poster

Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is a movie I would definitely screen as a double feature with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifting.” Both of them deal with characters on the low end of the economic totem pole who resort to deceitful ways in order to survive in an especially harsh and unforgiving world. But while they start as one type of movie, they eventually take a very sharp left turn to give audiences something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Also, they each won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in different years, and this should give you a clear idea of just how incredibly brilliant these movies are.

The story opens up in a shabby semi-basement apartment where the Kim family resides and struggles to survive. Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin) are unemployed, and along with their children, son Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and daughter Ki-jung (Park So-dam), they work low-paying jobs which include putting together pizza boxes for a local company. The area around them is squalid to say the least, and they can never rid themselves of the stench of urine and vomit coming through their window even as they struggle to take advantage of their neighbor’s Wi-Fi. When an exterminator arrives to fumigate the area, Ki-taek encourages his wife to leave the window open so they can get the apartment fumigated for free as it threatens to be overtaken by unwanted insects.

But then one day, the family is visited by Ki-woo’s friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), who is currently a university student. While there, he encourages Ki-woo to take over his job as an English tutor for Da-hye (Jung Ji-so), daughter of the wealthy Park family. Ki-woo is initially hesitant as he does not have a degree, but Min encourages him to fake it. With the help of Ki-jung, he is given forged documents which look quite real, and he is off to the Park household for his interview.

“Parasite” is insidiously clever in showing how different the Parks’ living arrangements are from the Kims’. Upon arriving at their glamorous household, he is made to go through a door which opens with a very ominous sound as it sounds like the rest of the world has been shut out to keep anyone from squatting on such valuable territory. It is a modern building and the kind you pass by on the road where sarcastically tell yourself, “yeah, I can afford that.”

From there, the movie turns into a wickedly black comedy as Ki-woo wins over Mrs. Park who watches him tutor her daughter ever so confidently as he encourages her to keep a check on her pulse during exams. When he learns the Parks have an artistically inclined son who is in need of an art teacher, Ki-woo tells her he knows just the person. That person is, of course, his sister Ki-jung, but the siblings have their act together to where they will not reveal their true identities, and it is hilarious to watch how infinitely prepared they are before they ring the doorbell.

It is also sublime to see how Ki-woo and Ki-jung win the trust of this wealthy family as they come up with clever ways of getting their parents hired as a driver and a housekeeper. Of course, this involves getting some longtime employees fired, and the ways they accomplish this are brilliant. Suffice to say, there is now more than one use for a packet of hot sauce.

When the Parks go away on a weekend camping trip, the Kim family spends this time in the lavish home, and they revel in drinking their expensive alcohol as they comment on how gullible rich people can be. I have to admit I found much joy to be taken in this family infiltrating the land of the rich as there is a perverse pleasure of seeing people acquire this lifestyle by fooling others. Boon Joon-ho invites us to share in this giddy deceit, and then he pulls out the rug from under you.

During their inebriated celebration, the Kim family suddenly hears the doorbell ring, and they are greeted by the housekeeper they got fired, Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), who begs to be let inside as she has to retrieve something from down in the basement. I cannot give anything away from here, but everything goes to hell in a handbasket as secrets are revealed, and the characters will do anything to keep them from being discovered. By that, I mean anything.

I am not overly familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s work which includes “Okja,” “The Host” and “Mother.” I have, however, seen his English-language debut “Snowpiercer” which involves its characters going from the lower-class cars of a train to the ones where the elite reside in comfort, and like that one, “Parasite” observes the vast divide between the haves and have-nots which continues to grow in this day and age. Even after the Kim family has successfully deceived the Parks, they wonder if they can ever truly belong in the realm of the wealthy. Ki-woo even asks Park Da-hye if he could really exist in this society, and she simply shrugs.

I love how Joon-ho gets us to delight in the Kim family’s deception as we too deep down would love to worm our way into a level of society which tantalizes us with the possibility of joining even though we never can. But therein lies the trap as he makes us see there are consequences for such conniving actions, and you can be sure that blood will be spilt. Whether or not the Park family belongs to the 1% remains to be seen, but perhaps you should treat this movie as though they do.

From start to finish, I was deeply enthralled with “Parasite” to where I never once took my eyes off the screen. While the jarring twists and turns the movie takes may throw some audience members off, they all make perfect sense and enhance the feelings of tremendous guilt we are forced to endure as these characters suffer great consequences, some of which are worse than death.

The acting all around is superb, and there is not a weak performance to be found here. Song Kang-ho is especially effective as a man who is afflicted by a certain smell he cannot shake, and it is the kind the rich associate with poor people. We see this wear away at his soul as the Park family comments on it without realizing where exactly this smell comes from, it is almost no surprise to see him snap when he does.

My hat is also off to Choi Woo-shik and Park So-dam as they make their characters seem so infinitely clever to where you have to be in awe of their talents. Seeing them worm their way into the lives of the Parks ever so easily and calmly is an utter delight as we can only wish to be as clever as they are in this instance, and they keep this act up to almost to the last minute.

Seriously, “Parasite” may very well be the cinematic masterpiece of 2019 as there are only a few other movies from this past year which come close to reaching this level of brilliance. For those of you with an irrational fear of subtitles, I advise you to put those fears to the side as the most adventurous of filmgoers would do themselves a disservice to miss out on seeing this one on the big screen.

One other thing, Min-hyuk gives the family a large rock which is supposed to bring them wealth, and Ki-woo has several scenes in which he describes the rock as being “metaphorical.” This rock, however, proves to be nowhere as metaphorical as the Indian/Native American hats a couple of characters wear towards the movie’s end. Watch the movie and you will see what I mean.

* * * * out of * * * *

Emmanuelle Riva Faces the Subject of Death Head On in ‘Amour’

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

French actress Emmanuelle Riva has given us astonishing performances in movies like “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Blue,” but now she has received the greatest acclaim of her career at age 85 in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” In the movie she plays Anne Laurent, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, and we watch as her body and mind slowly deteriorate. The performance Riva gives is magnificent and not the least bit melodramatic, and she more than deserves to be among the nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

“Amour” actually marks the first movie Riva has headlined years as she tends to be picky about the projects she chooses. In talking with Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, Riva said she only wanted to work on projects which were good, and she ended up doing more work in the theater than in film. However, she did not hesitate at the opportunity to be in Haneke’s movie as she responded strongly to the screenplay and found that the role came to her at the right time.

“I’m sure you know that roles for older women in cinema are not that numerous. And when you’re 84 years old? It’s not very often that you find a role that matches you. I felt that since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me,” Riva told Feinberg.

“Fortunately for me, my own age corresponded exactly to the age of the character that was going to be portrayed in the film. It was really a very miraculous kind of thing that this role should come to me when it did,” Riva continued. “I thought that the script was very, very strong. The writing was very powerful, and it was very authentic, and it was the authenticity that touched me very much.”

Considering how “Amour” does deal with the theme of mortality and is an emotionally draining movie to sit through (many said they cried during the movie and after it had ended), this must have made it seem like the kind of project actors would be quick to shy away from doing. No matter how good the screenplay is, this movies deals with questions many of us don’t want to know the answers to for a long, long time. While humans can suffer from a stroke at just about any age these days, most people still believe they only happen to the elderly. But in an interview with Sharon Waxman of The Wrap, Riva said she accepted this role without any hesitation.

“Afraid? No, not at all,” Riva told Waxman. “Why would I be afraid? This role presents the subject of the film that touches each of us, every human on the planet. As an actress, it’s so exciting to be engaged in a role like this. I would never have felt fear for this. If an actress is afraid, she should head for the door right away.”

“I was so happy in the work,” Riva continued. “Every day, every day. Two months of work. It was such happiness-a feeling of complete fullness. Of life, of death, of love. I never lost the excitement of the work. I was so infinitely happy during this shoot. So serious, but it wasn’t sad at all.”

It’s also easy to assume the mood on the set of “Amour” must have been very tense considering the grim subject matter. You might also think the cast and crew would approach each day with a stone faced serious as they dealt with characters who are at death’s door, and this especially seemed to be the case with Haneke directing. His films “Cache,” “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon” have dealt with the darkest parts of the human existence, and on the surface “Amour” looks to be not much different. Riva, however, told Xan Brooks of The Guardian of how things on the set were not severely strict, and that the mood at times was actually quite playful.

“The subject matter is obviously intense. But we had a lot of fun along the way,” Riva told Brooks. “So much laughter, so many funny things. I remember once, when I was playing dead, I had to stay quite still. But when the crew went to look at the monitor, they came back laughing. I said, what’s so funny? And they told me that my toes were wiggling. My toes! I didn’t even know they could see them. So, I had to do the whole scene again and concentrate very carefully. I think my feet have a will of their own.”

Indeed, it’s movies like this one which test not just our emotions, but also how we see and treat diseases of any kind. Riva has spoken very highly of Haneke as a director and said he knows exactly what he wants and is not a bully about making his vision become a reality. And while this movie may seem infinitely sad, Riva never saw it as a scary one to be in or watch. She made this abundantly clear while talking with Tracy McNicoll of The Daily Beast.

“Because it is about a lady who becomes very sick, people believe it is difficult [to play]. But no, no. We incarnate a role and voilà,” Riva told McNicoll. “I knew people stricken like this. I knew, I saw; there are many. And performing that seemed fascinating. Sure, it wasn’t easy. But there is a rigor, there is a conductor in Haneke, a conductor who knows the right note to strike in things. He told me, ‘no sentimentality.’ So, I understood right away. No sentimentality. So that becomes really very interesting to perform. Because there is a restraint, a distance that is a pleasure to experience.”

While “Amour” remains the least watched of all the Best Picture nominees of the year, many are still rooting for Emmanuelle Riva to win the Best Actress Oscar. Right now, the front runners look to be Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but this is a year where anything could happen at the Oscars. It would certainly be a great cap to an extraordinary career for this French actress who has appeared in many classic movies throughout the years, but Riva right now is taking all the acclaim and potential job offers in stride.

“If by chance people would still offer me roles, I’d still like to do them. But if not, that’s OK. I love life,” Riva says. “I love life to death. If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great.”

SOURCES:

Scott Feinberg, “‘Amour’ Star Emmanuelle Riva, on Brink of Making Oscar History, Looks Back at Career,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 17, 2013.

Sharon Waxman, “Oscar’s Oldest Nominee, Emmanuelle Riva, on ‘Amour’: It’s a Gift in the Last Stage of My Life,” The Wrap, February 13, 2013.

Xan Brooks, “Emmanuelle Riva: ‘You don’t say no to a film like Amour,'” The Guardian, November 8, 2012.

Tracy McNicoll, “Oscar’s 85-Year-Old Darling: A Talk with Emmanuelle Riva of ‘Amour,’” The Daily Beast, February 15, 2013.

‘Cold War’ Beautifully Contemplates The Things We Do for Love

Cold War 2018 movie poster

It has now been over a week since I watched Paweł Pawlikowski’s “Cold War,” and it is rightly described in the production notes as being “an impossible love story in impossible times.” Indeed, there is something about love which forms a bond which cannot always be described in words. The two star-crossed lovers we see here share a love for music, but their differences come to the surface more often than not to where you wonder why they keep reuniting time and time again. Pawlikowski never tries to provide an absolute answer as to why these two individuals cannot end their deep affections for one another, but he doesn’t need to as some things cannot be put into words.

Thinking about “Cold War” somehow brought to mind one of my favorite songs by Howard Jones entitled “What is Love?”. This song was released back in the 1980’s which marked the start of America being seduced by infinite greed, but I was just a kid who had yet to have his innocence ripped away from him. The music really took me in as the synthesizer melodies were a big favorite of mine back then, but the lyrics have since taken on a deeper meaning for me:

“I love you whether or not you love me

I love you even if you think that I don’t

Sometimes I find you doubt my love for you, but I don’t mind

Why should I mind, why should I mind?

What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?”

“Cold War” seeks to ask those same questions as it transports us back to post-war Poland in the 1950’s where we meet Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot), a musical director at Mazurek, a nascent folk arts ensemble which, as one of its instructors makes very clear, deals with the music of “pain and humiliation.” In the process of auditioning new singers, he comes across the young Zuzanna “Zula” Lichoń (Joanna Kulig) who is fearless in continuing her performance even after she is told to stop. It’s a thrilling scene as these two individuals from different parts of life are quick to lock eyes and create a connection not easily formed in the average Nicholas Sparks cinematic adaptation.

Wiktor comes from a more refined and educated world while Zula comes from, as some may say, the wrong side of town. Their attraction to one another is instant. Is it a fascination with a person’s past history? Wiktor is told Zula stabbed her father with a knife, and this of course makes him wonder why someone would do such a thing. When he asks her why, her answer is blunt and to the point, “He mistook me for my mother and a knife showed him the difference.” We never even learn which part of the body the knife pierced.

Their differences are strong, but there is an unmistakable bond between them which will not break. As “Cold War” moves on, their relationship stretches over a decade and several different locations including Poland, Warsaw, East Berlin and Paris. They become involved with others, but the love they have for one another will not die an easy death. You keep waiting for one of them to tell the other “I wish I knew how to quit you” because they cannot get themselves to leave the other be. Wiktor tells Zula to find “another normal guy” who can support you to which she replies, “Such man is not born yet.” This happens around the movie’s midpoint, and by then it is unlikely such a man will ever be born.

Is this real love, or is it just obsession? Such answers do not matter because all you need to know is how strong Wiktor’s and Zula’s bond is. You can question it all you want, but the love is there even if it exists in a state of emotional torture. John Lennon once sang of how love is real, but Nazareth made it clear that love hurts, and the love these two mismatched souls have for one another seems to exist in a space between those two thoughts.

Just like Mike Leigh did with “Mr. Turner,” Pawlikowski does a brilliant job of taking us back to a time and place to where I felt truly transported to another era. I never questioned the authenticity of what was being presented because it all felt so real to me, and Łukasz Żal’s black and white cinematography is simply gorgeous to take in. It makes me wonder why we don’t get more black and white movies these days. While the lack of colors may seem limiting to filmmakers in general, there is something about the monochrome look which gets everything just right.

What’s especially commendable about “Cold War” is how epic this love story is, and yet Pawlikowski fits everything into a running time which is just below 90 minutes. The movie felt so much longer than that, and yet I came out of it feeling like I saw something immense and wide-ranging.

Tomasz Kot is one those actors who has this smoldering intensity about him. I remember William Petersen having this same kind of intensity in “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Manhunter,” and it’s as if he doesn’t have to do much to generate any kind of charisma. I am envious and, I have to admit, a bit resentful of actors who can pull this off, but he also lets you see what is going on in his mind as his character of Wiktor suffers through a maddening heartbreak and career setbacks which have him trading the music he loves out for something more politically friendly. You have to admire the subtle acting he does here as it is never easy for anyone to pull off.

Joanna Kulig is every bit Kot’s equal as Zula, and it is fascinating to watch her take this character from being a young student to an adult in an equally subtle way. Kulig also excels at spelling out what is going through Zula’s head to where she needs no dialogue to spell out her feelings, and she is fearless in portraying the character’s constant struggle to escape the confines of a life which keeps putting her into a corner.

“Cold War” is one of the most immersive cinematic experiences I got to witness in 2018, and I hope any phobias you have about movies with subtitles do not keep you from seeing it. The love story is harrowing, but the visuals are beautiful. It’s hard to find movies these days which suck you into their settings the way this one has, and it serves as a reminder of how powerful cinema can be.

Pawlikowski has said this movie is semi-autobiographical as it was inspired by his parents who kept splitting up and getting back together time and time again. Why do couples do this to themselves? It seems unhealthy, and yet some cannot tear themselves away from a mad love story. But once again, he is not out to answer what he believes love really is. I guess he just wanted to know their love was real in some unspoken way. With “Cold War,” I believe he has accomplished just that.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Shoplifters’ is an Emotional Rollercoaster and One of the Best Movies of 2018

Shoplifters movie poster

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Shoplifters” is one of the most emotionally resonant movies I have seen in 2018, and it is a real gem in a cinematic year dominated by, big surprise, superhero blockbusters and endless sequels. The hope and warm emotions which emanate from it feel like the kind I have not been witness to on the silver screen in ages, and the movie dares you to ponder what the word family really means. While many see families being bound by blood, “Shoplifters” suggests there is more to it than that.

Things start off with Osamu Shibata (Lilly Franky) arriving at a supermarket in Tokyo, Japan, and we will eventually see how this movie got its name. With him is the young Shota (Jyo Kairi), and they use hand signals with each other to indicate when the coast is clear to take what they want and need. Put aside the fact no parent or adult figure should ever be teaching a child to steal; these two have an effective system which leads to them obtaining the goods they need without going through the checkout line or setting off an array of alarms. More importantly, it shows the strong connection between these two, and it is not one which is easily formed.

Upon arriving home, we see they with several other people in a cramped apartment which was made for two people at best. Among them are Osamu’s wife, Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), who works an unforgiving and low-paying job at a local laundromat, their daughter Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who performs sex shows for anonymous customers, and grandmother Hatsue Shibata (the late Kirin Kiki who steals every scene she is in) whose residence they all reside in. Everyone here is suffering through an unsteady economy dominated by recession, so these characters are forced to steal items such as food and clothes in order to get by. Yes, Hatsue does have her late husband’s pension to fall back on, but it is never enough to fulfill their needs.

Then on one cold evening as Osamu and Shota are returning after another successful day of shoplifting, they come across Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), a 5-year-old homeless girl sitting all alone by herself. As the temperature decreases rapidly, and you could do a drinking game for every time a character says “it’s cold,” they decide to take her home for the night. With their apartment overcrowded, Nobuyo suggests they return Yuri home, but a visit to her residence reveals her parents are abusive to one another and to Yuri as well. As a result, Osamu and Nobuyo find themselves informally adopting her.

What struck me most about “Shoplifters” is how genuine its emotions feel. From a distance, the description of the plot might make it seem something along the lines of “Three Men and a Baby” or maybe even “Raising Arizona,” both of which featured characters who become parents in unorthodox ways. But Kore-eda is not out to manipulate our emotions for a single second as he lets life unfold before us in a way which feels real and unpredictable. No one appears to be acting here, and every single actor inhabits their roles to where you are seduced into the movie’s wonderful atmosphere with what seems like relative ease.

The affection everyone in the small apartment has for Yuri feels wonderful and hopeful to take in, and her presence has a profound effect on them all. The scene where Nobuyo and Yuri burn the 5-year-old’s clothes in an effort to start fresh in life speaks volumes. The two share scars of past abuse, and Nobuyo cuddles her and says how people show their love for one another through hugs, not violence. If there has been a more genuinely sweet scene in a 2018 movie, I missed it.

As for the others, Osamu and Nobuyo find an intimacy in their relationship which has eluded them for far too long, and Aki yearns to get closer to one of her customers as she can no longer keep him at a distance. Shota slowly begins to bond with Yuri to where he feels comfortable calling her sister, but this later leads him on a journey to find himself in a way which will have inevitable consequences for everyone that we don’t really see coming.

Revealing more of what happens in “Shoplifters” would be criminal, but I can tell you the last half is truly devastating as everything we thought we knew about these characters is turned upside down. One of Kore-eda’s masterstrokes as a writer and director is he never judges the characters, and as a result, neither did I. Even as the local news reports of Yuri’s disappearance, Osamu and Nobuyo justify their actions by saying they did not kidnap her since they never asked for a ransom. It’s a weak defense to be sure, but seeing the connection these characters have with one another deeply moved me to where I actually found myself giving them a pass which I never would have in real life.

With “Shoplifters,” Kore-eda aims to look at what makes a family. While we collectively believe it is blood which makes a family, he wonders if there is more to a family than that. At a key moment, one of the characters says if having a baby automatically makes you a parent. Well that goes without saying, but considering the love and affection these characters grace Yuri with, I had a hard time finding enough of a reason to separate her from them.

Kore-eda was also influenced by the Japanese recession, and he uses this to deal with the declining social statuses many are forced to deal with in the country. Then again, “Shoplifters” could be about any country where greed continues to wreak havoc due to corporations valuing the size of their profits over the rights of the workers who helped get them those profits. We Osamu trying to get whatever work he can, and the work he gets never pays enough. Nobuyo’s job offers her a pathetically low wage, and then later we get a scene where her boss forces her and her co-worker to decide amongst themselves who should get fired when it is determined there is only enough money to keep one of them on the payroll.

“Shoplifters” is a movie which will stay with you long after you have watched it. I was deeply moved by it from start to finish as its humanity really made me appreciate the value of family in a way no other movie has in a long time. We are at a point where there are far too many movies to keep up with, but this is one I highly recommend you check out above others. This one took me for quite the emotional ride and left me fully wringed out by its end, and the experience was one of the most rewarding.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest’ Provides an Imperfect but Satisfying Finish to the Millennium Trilogy

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest movie poster

The journey of Lisbeth Salander came to an end (in Sweden anyway) with the release of the third and last film in the Millennium Trilogy, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.” Picking up where the last one left off, we watch as Lisbeth (the ever superb Noomi Rapace) slowly recuperates from the injuries inflicted on her by less than caring family members. Soon after, she is forced to stand trial for murders and crimes we all know she did not commit, so Mikael Blomkvist (the late Michael Nyqvist) and his staff at Millennium Magazine work to prove her innocence. Still, Lisbeth’s cold bastard of a father Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov) vows to silence his daughter for good, and he threatens to expose the corruption he is fully a part of. All the while, Lisbeth’s panzer tank of a half brother Ronald Niedermann (Micke Spreitz) is on the run, laying waste to everything in his path.

Of the three films in this trilogy, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is easily the weakest. This one has more talk than action and, like the second film, it keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart from each other more than we would like. But if you get past the problematic things about this third movie, there’s still a lot to appreciate. We have traveled along with these characters for two movies now, so it should be clear as to how emotionally invested we are in their collective fates. While society may view them from a distance, we see them for the individuals they are.

At the center of attention is Lisbeth Salander, far and away one of the strongest female heroines in literary history. We see Lisbeth beaten to a pulp, left for dead, and we watch as she endures a slow and painful recovery and seeks a long overdue justice for all the wrongs inflicted on her throughout her lifetime. With this third movie, we see fully why she is such a damaged human being and how she was rendered a victim through false imprisonment and abuse which forever wrecked the trust she could allow herself to put in others. We started this trilogy off by looking at her from a distance, thinking we knew what kind of person she was at first sight. By the end, we saw her as a very complex human being who will no longer be manipulated against her will. Lisbeth no longer cares if you like her. She just wants you to know that if you mess with her, the payback will be vicious as she demolishes you without any remorse.

Watching Noomi Rapace in her last go around as Lisbeth is a never ending thrill. Once she heads into the courtroom, all decked out in full punk regalia with a mohawk to boot, we cheer her on as she spits in the face of a world which has tossed her out like garbage. Those intense glares she shoots off at the prosecutors across the room penetrate right through the silver screen and pin us to our theater seats (which were hopefully comfortable to sit in). Throughout this trilogy, Rapace has walked a fine line with Lisbeth in making her both brilliant and being just one step away from becoming a full-on sociopath. Whatever you make of Lisbeth, Rapace makes us care deeply about this deeply wounded character, and we revel in her persistent abilities to outthink those who wronged her. Seeing those who deluded themselves into thinking they had her under their complete control get their just desserts is immensely satisfying.

But as great as Rapace is here, we shouldn’t forget to mention Michael Nyqvist and his understated work as the relentless reporter Mikael Blomkvist. Instead of making Mikael out to be this heroic figure searching for truth and justice for Lisbeth without fear of reprisal, Nyqvist makes him completely human with all the flaws we like to think we don’t have. Not once in these films do you ever really catch Nyqvist acting this role as much as he inhabits it. Michael gets the audience to be fully invested in this character as Mikael struggles for an end to Lisbeth’s unfair character assassination while risking his own livelihood as well as those who work for him. We root for him on his quest, but we also feel his pain and confusion when these escalating threats threaten to tear his magazine apart.

“The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” also features other strong performances from its supporting cast. Annika Hallin is great as Mikael’s sister Annika who agrees to represent Lisbeth at her trial. This is another strong female character who holds her own with her anti social client and a group of corrupt men who are about to be justifiably obliterated during her very direct cross examination.  Anders Ahlbom exudes the Bjurman-like slime of his character Dr. Peter Teleborian, the man who changed the course of Lisbeth’s life and unforgivably so. Lena Endre also returns as Millennium Magazine editor Erika Berger who acts as the conscience Mikael needs to hear from time to time. Her face a mask of devotion and fear, Endre gives life to another strong female character in a movie full of them.

But yeah, overall this does feel like a weak ending to this film trilogy which was thrust into American movie theaters all in the space of a year. It’s not an utterly frustrating conclusion the way “The Matrix Revolutions” was (I’m still trying to get over that one), but it feels like “The Hornet’s Nest” could have been stronger even if it meant taking liberties with Stieg Larsson’s novels. It also would have been great to have Rapace and Nyqvist share more time onscreen together as their chemistry and tension were among the main reasons “Dragon Tattoo” was so damn good. Plus, the character of Ronald Niedermann is left to wander around the movie without much of a reason to be there, and his need to eliminate his half-sister feels somewhat unmotivated.

Still, “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” is a very engrossing experience which is anything but boring, and there’s no way fans of this trilogy can pass this one up. The fully developed characters give this film its dramatic power, and we are with them all the way to the end in the hopes of finding some fairness in a world crueler to some more than others.

* * * out of * * * *