Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Letters From Iwo Jima

The verdict: Complex, dark and harrowing, this movie will make you battle-weary, but it deserves to be seen.

The rating: 8/10

Two weeks ago, I was somewhat unimpressed by 'Flags of our Fathers', the first of a sort of twin set of Clint Eastwood directed movies about the American forces' invasion of Japan at Iwo Jima in 1944. That movie delved into the political complexities of war, and how symbolism can be worth more to the people of a nation than the often painfully inglorious realities.

Letters from Iwo Jima is the far superior companion piece to that movie, the difference being: the events are confined to the battle on Iwo Jima island, and this time, we see the events unfold from the perspective of the Japanese forces.

Clint is a veteran of the odd war movie himself and, to his credit, has recognised something fundamental to anyone looking to add to the already swollen ranks of the war movie genre: if you're going to make one of these babies, you gotta have an angle. 'Flags of our Fathers' was flawed and far from perfect, but at least it had that shot of originality to set it apart from something contemporary but derivative like, for example, 'Jarhead'.

The Letters referred to in the title were written by Japanese soldiers in 1944, and uncovered from the network of tunnels dug in preparation for the battle many years later. Many of them are quoted in the movie, and give a unique twist to proceedings.

Telling a war story from the perspective of 'the enemy' is not a new idea, indeed it was done in the 1930's, when 'All Quiet on the Western Front' gave an anti-war message from a German perspective at a time when Nazism was on the rise in der Vaterland during the inter-war period. Due to the political context though, that film had propaganda value, and this was recognised by a certain Dr. Goebbels. (ah, that lovable rogue... - Ed). Goebbels ordered the film banned in Germany, and encouraged followers of national socialism to disrupt screenings of the film wherever they found them.

More recently, 'Downfall' ('Der Untergang') told the tale of the last days of Nazism at the end of World War II from the Nazi perspective, and this story is perhaps a little closer to the siege mentality also found in 'Letters From Iwo Jima'.

Both of those movies put us in the uncomfortable position of seeing the human side of our enemies' actions, and in Iwo Jima, this message is delivered extremely well, from two differing points of view. The first perspective is of General Kuribayashi, pleayed excellently by Ken Watanabe. Kuribayashi is aware almost from day one that his mission, to hold Iwo Jima from the American forces, is essentially a suicide mission. (Let's be real for a second here folks, remember who won world war two? Ok, we're on the same page then... - Ed). His mission is made more complicated by dissent among the ranks, a lack of any real support whatsoever from mainland forces, and more than a hint of conflicting emotions at the prospect of fighting America, a country he visited before the war.

This officer's perspective is supplemented by that of Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya. Saigo was drafted, leaving behind a pregnant wife, and in one of his first scenes is beaten by his superior officer when he questions the need to defend an island as apparently worthless as Iwo Jima. His point has an element of truth to it, as the Japanese forces all seem to be suffering from the effects of the Iwo water, with dysentery spreading through the ranks like a hot... well, you get the picture.

So, the forces are ordered to prepare for the American invasion, and hold out until death, a grim enough prospect in anyone's book. This situation leads the soldiers to consider all sorts of war-time craziness, such as: is it more honourable to kill yourself or surrender to the enemy? (... um, can I phone a friend? - Ed).

'Letters from Iwo Jima' borrow from the gritty and unpleasant reality of military life that 'Platoon' presented so well, and the scale of events is brilliantly evoked, with the claustrophobia of 'Das Boot' springing to mind more than once. Also, the futility of the mission, and the choice of protagonists, evokes 'Downfall' as previously mentioned.

Eastwood doesn't shy away from presenting the complex situations faced by these men, and presents many difficuly moral questions in 'Letters from Iwo Jima'. However, the sentimentality is kept to a minimum, and by choosing to follow the paths of four distinct and separate lead characters, he holds the audience's interest right to the end.

At two and a half hours, it's a little long, and there isn't much light relief on offer, but Iwo Jima is a truly excellent addition to the war movie genre. It's understated and intelligent, wise but unsentimental, and with a very powerful message about the futility of war: not the idea of countries fighting each other, but of the insane realities and choices men are presented with in war-time situations.

PCMR reckons Clint now needs to follow his Iwo Jima tag-team tale with the story of an Irish invasion of another Japanese island: 'Saipan the Movie' anyone? With its high-profile deserter, and the political implications, this story is just about right for the Hollywood treatment... now, who would play Keano then?! (Think of the children, Roy! - Ed)

Monday, May 28, 2007


The verdict: Another mind-blowing animated fable from Studio Ghibli, whose output routinely bursts with imagination.

Craziness: Hmm... quite a lot really. How about.. giant insects taking over the world with berserker rage? Don't worry though there's waay more!

The rating:

If you're going to sit down in front of a few movies to try and get a flavour of what Asia really has to offer, it would be remiss to omit an animated tale. Most of us late twenty/early thirty-somethings will have grown up with Saturday morning cartoons imported from Japan, and if you have kids of your own, you may routinely wonder how your weans aren't fitting and frothing at the mouth while watching the strobe effects in some of the more recent offerings.

Japan has a history of quality animation, and a formative movie-watching experience of mine growing up was a Japanese animated classic, a certain 'Akira'. I can safely say that the reason I watch so many movies these days is to try and catch the sensation that Akira produced on the first viewing. The words 'awesome' and 'mind-blowing' have lost currency these days, being used to describe everything from 'The Incredibles' to , somewhat predictably, 'Shrek'. However, Akira was that most unique of movie experiences, creating images that even your unconscious brain had never conceived, and delivering them in a package of confusing adrenaline-fueled action - a heady mix for a twelve-year-old, I tell thee!

As far as Japanese popular animation went, the category of Manga promised much, but delivered little to be honest. The advertising would have you believe it was edgy, dark, and mature, but in reality, the majority of manga was puerile or silly, with the animation coming nowhere near the quality of Otomo's masterpiece. There are certain exceptions though, and I'd heartily recommend dipping your toe into the Manga pool of insanity with 'Blood: The Last Vampire', 'Perfect Blue', or perhaps a little bit of existentialist fun provided by 'Ghost in the Shell'. Heed my advice here though folks, and stay away from the 'Legend of the Overfiend' franchise ... it's just perverted and bizarre. (Ah yes, featuring the extremely dodgy penis demon, almost definitely post-watershed stuff that is - Ed)

While wading through the questionable delights of what Manga had to offer though, I somehow remained ignorant of Studio Ghibli, until recently going to see Miyazaki's Spirited Away when it was released in cinemas here, and I was instantly hooked. Ghibli's output is altogether more wholesome and rewarding, and I've indulged in a couple more of their offerings since, (Princess Mononoke and Kiki's Delivery Service). So, I was looking forward to watching - and I'll give it it's full title here - Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Incredibly, this film was made in 1984, four years before Akira, and is entirely hand-drawn. This is a signature of Studio Ghibli, which has only recently begun to embrace computer-aided animation.

It's not easy to summarise the story, but Nausicaa tells the story of a planet which has survived a great war. The people of the valley, led by Princess Nausicaa, live close to a poisonous jungle, that is slowly spreading across the earth. The jungle is populated by insects, and these babies are big. In fact, one single 'ohmu' - as they are known - would wipe out the entire valley if it went on a charge. Unfortunately, other kingdoms want to wipe out the forest, but Nausicaa believes that if they try to burn the forest, they will anger the insects, and bring about the destruction of humanity.

So, 'Nausicaa' is a fable about being part of a community and man's relationship with the earth. Most of the people of the valley have a fear of the insects, but the princess seems to have the ability to empathise with, and communicate with these creatures.

But that description doesn't do justice to the visual feast on offer. 'Nausicaa' really is a pleasure to watch, with the landscapes of the valley, and the poisoned forest providing fantastic natural backdrops to the action, and constantly surprising with their level of detail and imagination.

The characters, too are various and good to watch. Our hero has an little animal companion - which seems to be a signature of Miyazaki's - named Teto, a little yellow squirrel who should at least keep the kids happy. (given that he looks like a skinny bearded Pokemon - Ed). In addition though, Nausicaa's valley is populated by an array of decent folk, including of course Lord Yupa, the great old swordsman.

The bad guys are represented too, but they're not properly frightening really, the main threat in this movie comes from the insects to be honest. We're told that when the Ohmu are about to go into a berserker rage, their eyes turn red, so when this signal is up there on screen, we know something bad is about to happen.

Kids should relate to Princess Nausicaa's ability to talk to animals, and you would expect that they'll tap into the fear of the insect swarms quite quickly! The message in Nausicaa is very positive though, and good for kids to be exposed to. It's all very Al Gore really, but in the current climate, it's very relevant, and not to be found anywhere in Pixar's movies. This is a big difference between Pixar and Ghibli, and one which I reckon reflects a major cultural difference between the U.S. and Japan. Where Japanese animation is all about man's influence over nature and vice versa, U.S. animated features are just about how being an individual is a good thing. The Japanese have always considered their place in their environment, and this comes through very strongly in 'Nausicaa'.

The two hours flew for me to be honest, and I'd recommend it for actual kids too. It's imaginative, beautifully animated, and delivers a whole lot of positive messages, including environmental ones. What more do you need from a kid's movie really? (Er, how about computer graphics!? A terminator? Light-sabers? Harry bleedin Potter!?) - Ed)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Blades of Glory

The verdict: Cracking stuff, Heder and Ferrell are a superb double-act, and this is laugh-out-loud funny.

The rating: 7/10

Man, just lately it seems Will Ferrell can do no wrong. He's top of PCMR's list of Hollywood funny men, with 'Talladega Nights' and 'Stranger Than Fiction' both providing seriously good entertainment in 2006. Next off the production line is a movie that sounds so formulaic that it just couldn't be any good.. right? The premise of 'Blades of Glory' is really quite simple: two men figure-skating as a pair. Now, there is the potential for a comedy turd here, and in the hands of the wrong cast, this might have been an offensive Rob Schneider vehicle waiting to happen. Thankfully, some inspired casting, an excellent script, and just the right dose of Ferrell's brand of improvisation have turned Blades of Glory into what might just be the best comedy of 2007.

Ferrell's co-star, Jon Heder, is probably best known for his iconic performance as 'Napoleon Dynamite', but here he plays the skating wunder-kind Jimmy MacIlroy. Jimmy was plucked from an orphanage age 4, adopted by a millionaire horse-trainer turned human-trainer, and given the kind of training montage Rocky would be seriously proud of.

Jimmy's main rival is Chazz Michael Michaels (Ferrell), a sex addicted tornado (his words) and the only champion figure skater to win an adult movie award. Whereas MacIlroy's routines are graceful and delicate, with Sarah Brightman's voice to accompany his twirls and pivots, Michaels' is all about tha masculinity, baby. His moves are all pelvic thrusts flame-throwing and fist-punching, and are more likely to be accompanied by something by Aerosmith than Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The two are naturally fierce rivals, but fall from grace when they are banned from the sport for fighting on the Olympic winner's podium, when they tie for a Gold medal. Disgraced, they each follow their own downward spiral until three and a half years later, when Jimmy's stalker points out that he has only been banned from figure skating in his own division... meaning pairs skating is an option.

A chance encounter between MacIlroy and Michaels leads to another public scrap, and this one is caught on tv by MacIlroy's former coach. When he sees these two idiots throwing each other round a room backstage in some regional ice-rink, he gets the idea to pair the two of them up, and things start kicking off from there.

These two characters couldn't be more different, but the spark between the two leads is excellent, and they work extremely well together. No-one does angry bickering quite as well as Ferrell, and for the first half of the movie, his scenes with Heder are just a constant sequence of jibes and digs, with not all of them making perfect sense. Heder holds his own though, and this performance bodes well for his future, which looked bleak when 'Benchwarmers' was released.

The bickering scenes in this one reminded of the scene in 'Talladega Nights' where Ferrell's Ricky Bobby sparred with Sacha Baron Cohen's gay French Nascar driver, and the two were barely restraining their genuine laughter. I got the same sense of enjoyment from the two main actors on this one.

Ferrell's moments of improvisation are dotted around this movie, but the script is also genuinely good, with many memorable moments - the sex addicts meeting springs to mind, or Chazz Michael Michaels describing his love for his hairbrush, or the JFK and Marilyn Monroe routine, all quality. Also, the direction and special effects are excellent, capturing the details of the performances on the ice brilliantly, including close-ups of the two leads disgusted faces during some of the more intinmate moments of their routines. This part of the comedy, which could have been a homophobic disaster, is subtle and never over-played.

There are some recognisable faces in the support cast too. Rob Corddry from the Daily Show has a wee part, Romany Malco from 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin' also turns up, and 'Arrested Development's Will Arnett has a great turn as one half of MacIlroy and Michaels' main rivals: the creepy and weird Stranz Van Waldenberg.

Ferrell seems to be working his way through popular sports for his source material at the moment, with NBA basketball next on the list. Semi-pro is out next year and sees Ferrell star alongside Woody Harrelson (excellent! - Ed) and André Benjamin, otherwise known as André 3000 from Outkast (hmmm - Ed). Heder's been busy lately too, with three more movies coming out this year. (And he can draw ligers... mwa haaa - Ed)

In the mean-time, PCMR is bigging up 'Blades of Glory' as a comedy of genuine quality, and wonders, how long can Ferrell's dynamite run last? He's overdue a turkey, but this ain't it. Two hearty thumbs-up from me and a recommendation to go see this one.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


The verdict: Cheesy Hollywood-style action from Korea.

Craziness: Buddy-cop action, shootouts and explosions. Oh, wait, that isn't crazy at all...

The rating: 5/10

There's a song from 'Team America: World Police' that tellingly reveals a device oft over-used in movies: the montage. When you need to move things along, the song goes, you need a montage.. and of course fading out from the montage shows that time is passing... Shiri opens with a training montage, with a nameless female soldier graduating from a rain-soaked uber-badass military training school in North Korea. The montage shows us in around 90 seconds that she's a sharp-shooter, separated from her family, and so damn hard that she's graduating top of her badass class. Then, a second montage shows us what she's managed to achieve since graduating, and it's a pretty impressive hit list. Cut to present day, and agents Ryu and Lee are secret agents, partners, and on her case.

Shiri, features two veterans of Chan-Wook Park's revenge trilogy: the instantly recognisable Oldboy himself Min-Sik Choi, and one of the leads from 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' Kang-Ho Song. Their presence in this movie is proof, at least, that paycheck movies aren't just a Hollywood phenomenon. This isn't just any paycheck movie though, as it is still the highest grossing Korean movie in history.

Ok, the story goes: a dissident North Korean regiment, led by Oldboy, are using grasses in the South to gain access to confidential military information about a new technological development: CTX. CTX is a liquid explosive with identical properties to water, bar one rather important one: when it is exposed to enough light and heat, it explodes with a force ten times greater than any other explosive previously seen.

As the secret agents investigate the movements of the North Korean bad lady, named Hee, they uncover evidence linking her to this regiment, and things really start kicking off.

Shiri is pretty action-packed, but the action sequences are out-of-the-box and everything in here has been done many times before, with bigger budgets and more imagination, by the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, for example. The action tends to take the form of prolonged confusing shoot-outs between goodies and baddies, and the body count starts mounting right from the opening scenes.

The two partners are buddies right from the start, and this relationship has a conclusion to it that is so inevitable it isn't funny. If you've seen an action movie before in your life, you'll see this coming from about ten minutes in... All that is missing from this element of the film is someone screaming: 'NOoooo!!' (Er, in Korean though - Ed)

Where Shiri almost gets away from cliché is in the love interest, but the dialogue between Ryu and fiancée Hyun is genuinely nauseating. She runs an aquarium and talks about a type of kissing fish called 'Kissing Gourami'. These fish live in pairs, and if one dies, so does the the other. This, if you are asleep, is called a metaphor. It would be a nice one if it wasn't repeated so bloody often throughout the movie.

There is a political context to Shiri, that is possibly the reason it attracted so much domestic interest. The action set-piece that frames the finale of the movie is an historic friendly football match between North Korea and South Korea. The presidents of both Koreas are attending, and Oldboy's dissident military unit want to blow up them both up and start a war.

So, it's laden with action movie clichés, and the love interest side of it is sickly sweet, but is it any fun? Well, there is the occasional moment of comedy, but a movie this ridiculous should have its tongue firmly in its cheek... think 'Face/Off' and how the two leads hammed it up so much that the premise actually became a bit of fun. Unfortunately, Shiri takes itself a little too seriously for that. Possibly due to the importance of the political element to the story, and the desire to make the plot laden with emotional connotations, it just gets tiresome, and long before the end.

Perhaps a guest appearance from 'Team America's' Kim Jong-Il would have livened things up... (I'm so rone-ree... mwaa haa! ... ahem.. - Ed) but given that he's a renowned film fanatic, I think he would have taken offence at his image being used in a film that is quite simply a below-par popcorn actioner.

Monday, May 21, 2007


The verdict: Stylish honest-to-goodness unapologetic comic book science fiction. And it's pretty damn good to boot.

Craziness: Not much, really. Bullet-time effects?

The rating: 6/10

Is it nerdy to like science fiction? I would say… not always. You see, in any area of life where nerds are involved, there is a certain hierarchy in place, and in reality, there are often very explicit rules to guide you as to when activities are nerdy or not. Once this is established, you can then use any number of benchmarks to find out who is nerdier than you. For example, to like the first Matrix movie is fine, but to like the second movie almost definitely makes you a nerd. And as for the third one, well if you like that, you actually enter into geek territory, which even nerds sneer at. (A geek is worse than a nerd? – Ed)

But then there are science fiction movies that transcend the Nerd Circles, such as Richard Linklater’s recent 'A Scanner Darkly', the universally lauded 'Donnie Darko', and even more recent movies such as Stephen Soderbergh’s 'Solaris' and Danny Boyle’s 'Sunshine'. These movies should be good enough to move out of the student science fiction club and into the mainstream. Also, some of the Hollywood event movies in recent years (Terminator 2, Independence Day, Transformers this year) have been science fiction at it’s overblown best and worst.

So why the stigma? Well, first off, it’s kind of a lads’ genre. Girls just tend not to go for science fiction, especially if it’s called sci-fi. Donnie Darko somehow manages to be an exception, possibly because that Zoolander guy is in it (Jake Gyllenhall?! – Ed). Also, science fiction is not quite like any other genre, in that the merest flaw will make the whole enterprise seem ridiculous. A defining characteristic of a nerds is to take glee in the smallest plot points of science fiction movies, so in this genre, credibility is only established by scoring 100%. 2001 achieved it, but Kubrick was an insatiable, obsessive perfectionist. Tarkovsky’s Solyaris also managed it, but these guys are the best of the best... Lastly the main problem faced by sci-fi relates to suspension of disbelief. The writers are telling us that this android has travelled back in time to save the world from self-aware Commodore 64s and we’re prepared to accept that, but if the guy’s motorbike manages to jump the exploding truck, we’re all 'awww, come on!'. There’s a difficult balancing act here, and in general, it has to be said, science fiction rarely gets it all right.

So where does Returner fit into the genre? Well, first off it’s a Japanese science-fiction movie, so I’m already a nerd for telling you about it. (Ha ha! – Ed). Returner is definitely more comic-book sci-fi than science-fiction, so the girls might not go for it. The plot – girl sent back in time to save planet from alien invasion – suspension of disbelief, and there are some rather large holes in the plot, but it does have a great deal of stylish action scenes, right from the kick-off, so these are somewhat forgiven.

The opening scene sees Milly arrive in 2002 just as Alfa-Romeo-driving, spaghetti-eating Europhile Miyamoto has finally cornered his nemesis Mizoguchi, a Japanese member of a Triad, and a harvester of homeless children's organs (guess he might be the bad guy so? – Ed). Miyamoto is pretty much kicking some serious Triad, and is about to finally do away with his nemesis when Milly drops into the scene, startling him into accidentally shooting her, and letting the bad guy get away.

So the scene is set for a kind of sci-fi by the numbers. Milly’s mission is to prevent the war, and she enlists Miyamoto’s reluctant help, because his ass-kicking looks pretty useful. The idea is to find a crashed alien spaceship and kill the instigator of the human-alien war – a certain alien named Daggra – before the war properly kicks off, and the human race gets wiped out.

Along the way, there are some great special effects, with a nice variation on the bullet-time effects of the Matrix that works very well. There is a also fair dose of kick-ass chop-sockery, but thankfully not an overdose of wire-work, just the occasional super-slo-mo shot of some large group of goons all getting it in the neck from a single mid-air sortie of Miyamoto. There are no super-powers, no messianic delusions, it’s just a people-trying-to-save-the-world type of deal.

The script is decent enough, and moves along at a trundling pace. It’s uncomplicated, and just about keeps you interested in the outcome. It’s well acted by the three main leads, and the bad guy in particular is a properly nasty piece of work.

There’s nothing massively profound on offer from Returner, but the 90 minutes or so in its company should keep you entertained, with only a few cringe-worthy moments to speak of. Of those are a number of scenes in English, or should that be Engrish, where even the apparently American actors are speaking in the forced, alien tones of Bill Murray’s Santori whiskey adverts from 'Lost in Translation' (Roger Moore!? - Ed)

That said, Returner is unpretentious and unashamedly entertaining. It’s stylish, well-constructed with a good solid beginning, middle and end, and likeable lead characters. Unlike recent Hollywood sci-fi movies, this one has a very good idea of it’s own scale, never attempting to be too expansive. The set-pieces are quick, deadly and action-packed, with a good balance between crazy special effects and genuine action.

Without a doubt, the nerds will love this one, but I seriously doubt it will transcend those circles without the inevitable Hollywood remake. I'm actually surprised that hasn't already happened. My suggested Hollywood cast: Matt Damon as Miyamoto, Gary Oldman as Mizoguchi and Jessica Alba as Milly. Now that would be a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. Right, I’m off to ring Harvey Weinstein...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

The Verdict: Dark, unflinching, and relentless thriller from the man who brought us 'Oldboy'. This nightmarish spiral of revenge will leave you meek and sobbing in the foetal position, begging for the 'Shrek' DVD to be put on before you go to bed.

Craziness: Bloody, revenge-fuelled violence, and lots of it. Let's see, there's suicide, drowning, electrical torture, arterial spray, baseball bats, organ theft and self-mutilation... (So it's not a kid's movie then - Ed)

The Rating: 6/10

One of Chan-Wook Park's more recent movies somewhat unfairly hit the headlines over the last few months in the wake of a spree killing in the United States, where the perpetrator was pictured imitating certain images from the film. For those of you yet to see 'Oldboy', I recommend two things: first, you should prepare yourself mentally for what will be a psychologically jarring couple of hours. Then, give it a watch when you think you're ready. You won't be ready though, because 'Oldboy' is a monster, albeit a brilliant one.

There is a similar theme of revenge running through the predecessor to 'Oldboy', and indeed, the follow-up, named 'Sympathy for Lady Vengeance'. In this, monikered his 'revenge trilogy', Park takes an unflinching look at the basic human impulse for revenge and the effects of extreme emotional trauma and wrong-doing on otherwise normal people.

There are two main plot threads in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. The first follows deaf-mute Ryu (Ha-Kyun Shin), who is caring for his ill sister in their crummy one-bedroomed apartment. She is in urgent need of a kidney transplant and requires constant care. An chain of events leads Ryu to the desperate situation where he considers more unconventional means of acquiring thre required kidney for his sister. There's a very foreboding moment where Ryu is using a public toilet, and his eye is drawn to a poster reading simply: 'organs for sale'. You just get the feeling that things aren't going to go well for him after that, and they certainly don't.

After that episode, Ryu ends up being offered a genuine hospital transplant, but has no money to pay for it. His girlfriend Yeong-Mi (Du Na-Bae) persuades him to consider kidnapping his former boss's six-year-old daughter, considering he got laid off from his factory job recently. She is convinced they can pull off the kidnapping in a good way. Simply take the kid, demand the required 26 million won (that's roughly €20,000 - Ed), and return the kid, unharmed, without involvement from the cops.

If only things were that simple. When an accident results in the young girl's death, a chain of events is set in motion that sends the two men, Ryu and his former boss, Mr. Park (Kang-Ho Song) on a spiralling spree of revenge that eventually culminates in their meeting, not before much blood has been spilt along the way.

Chan-Wook Park carefully constructs this chain of events to convince the audience that these characters motives for revenge are pure. In both cases the protagonists are not bad guys, not even particularly hard men. This is not Steven Seagal the firefighter, taking on the crime organisation to avenge the death of his wife and kid, but bizarrely it is in the same ball park. The difference is in the realism, both in the construction of the protagonists' relative motives for revenge, and also in the graphically illustrated situations that ensue. Park does not offer his characters or the audience the luxury of a dry witty one-liner when his 'heroes' dispatch their nemeses. Instead, they are plunged deeper into the darkness that has pushed them to that point in the first place, and the audience is pulled along with them.

Let me follow Chan-Wook Park's example and make it explicit: 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengenace' is not for the faint-hearted. It is loaded with nightmarish images, dark events, and an ending that will not send you home with a smile on your face. If you thought 'Se7en' was dark, then you may rethink your mental categories after watching this one. However, the level of intelligence in the construction of those two movies is congruent.

The most extreme movie I have ever seen to this point is a certain 'Irréversible'. That movie is one I would not even think of recommending, simply because it takes the audience to the darkest places where movies really have no right to. With the narrative unfolding in reverse, the end at the beginning and vice versa, the violence in that movie begins in the first ten minutes with the most graphic murder sequence I have ever seen on celluloid. Vincent Cassel's character's motives for the killing are revealed as the movie unfolds in reverse, but even at the end (beginning) I was left feeling disgusted with the film, and wholly unrewarded for putting myself through the experience. There was a little of the same feeling with 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance', but at least I got the impression that the two main characters were somewhat justified in their relative quests for revenge. In both cases, the titles suit the subject material perfectly, and in both cases, the violence is very very graphic.

Of note is one special effect which I have never seen done quite so well elsewhere. When one of the genuine 'bad men' realises he has been stabbed in an artery, there is a dramatic close up of the wound, with the artery shown pulsing behind the wound, the knife still lodged. His compatriot warns him "it's in an artery, don't pull it out..." You can guess the rest...

And yes, folks, this is an indication of what's on offer with Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, and definitely not one for a quiet night in with the wife, or the kids, or granny and grandad (unless you want to traumatise your loved ones.) However, if dark cinema is your cup of tea, and you like your movies intelligent, well-crafted, and a little bit on the bloody and violent side, then this one may be for you. I can honestly say it is adrenaline-fueled in the same manner as 'Oldboy', if not at the same level of quality.

So this is 'Asia Extreme'. Bloody hell, I'm not sure if I'm going to survive this Asian Season! Still have Takashi Miike's movies to get through, and 'Ichi the Killer' is in there... might have to counteract this stuff with a Disney season afterwards or something, just to balance things out a little! (Wimp - Ed)

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The verdict: A great example of slap and tickle feel-good comedy with a smashing lead performance from Carell and a hugely funny ensemble supporting cast.

The rating: 7/10

'Car-crash comedy' has spread like wildfire on both sides of the Atlantic since the 90’s. This particular brand of comedy gets real glee out of placing the audience in awkward situations, to the point where the viewer is squirming in their seat, watching through their fingers perhaps, and bordering somewhere between horrified and disgusted at what’s going on on-screen. Borat is possibly a good recent example of this kind of comedy, where the audience is in on his joke, but still, how can he say the things he does, and keep a straight face? When good-hearted people genuinely try to respond to his insane questions, we as the audience are left groaning and laughing simultaneously, possible even hoping the hapless individual will discover the joke, but not before giving us a good laugh or two.

But this brand of comedy has been in the works for some years. Steve Coogan's Alan Partrdige character, Ricky Gervais' 'The Office', and more recently Larry David’s 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and Mitchell and Webb's 'Peepshow' are all good examples of sit-coms, but with that total car-crash element. The Office in particular, featuring the groovy Slough middle-manager David Brent, put the audience through the grinder, by placing us right there in horrendously awkward situations with this man, this.. horror-show. As a result of this relentless pressure on the audience, our laughs are possibly more out of disbelief and shock, very much 'laughing at' as opposed to 'laughing with'.

Steve Carell donned the mantle of David Brent in the American version of The Office, and as far as UK and Irish audiences went, the decision was met with some derision. Even the idea of re-making the Office was seen as a bad one. In sniffy tones which would remind most Americans of their favourite anti-European stereotypes, we proclaimed that 'they wouldn’t get the humour' or possibly, 'no-one else could play Brent'. However, having seen some of the episodes of the American version, I have to say it's not that bad… Carell does stand out from the rest of the cast though, and he is the perfect choice for a tragically unhip man such as Brent.

Carell differs from someone like Will Ferrell, in that he brings a natural loser quality to his roles, not because of the way he acts, but more so from his general demeanour. Even when he smiles confidently, there is an apologetic, hang-dog quality to him. (See the poster for this movie above..) For a role like Brent, this quality is essential. In Little Miss Sunshine too, he found a role to play to his strengths, and he was one of the best things about that movie.

His natural pathos is also at work in 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin', and this is possibly to be expected, given that he plays the title role. However, this is a comedy of the dopey kind. Think the Farrelly Brothers on a good day (Me, Myself and Irene, There’s Something About Mary) and you have an idea of the sense of humour on display: juvenile, but playful and with a good heart to it. This is not the comedy of Epic Movie, or pratfalls in fatsuits, it just happens to be puerile, juvenile and a good source of belly-laughs.

Andy (Carell's character) inadvertently reveals his aforementioned status to his work colleagues, and they set about trying to get him laid as soon as possible. As you could exepct, their half-assed attempts (pardon the expression) only end up landing poor old Andy into a few dodgy scrapes. Meanwhile, Andy has actually met someone nice. Trish, played by Catherine Keener (who is always good value for money) works in the store opposite Andy, and seems to like his dorky ways. While his colleagues continue on their mission to get Andy laid, he starts dating Trish, but bizarrely they agree not to have sex until the 20th date, an arrangement that suits Andy down to the ground. The question is, when it comes down to getting down, will Andy have the chutzpah? Will he be able to tell Trish the truth before the main event?

Amid all the awkward situations and classic one-liners, the 40-Year-Old Virgin makes some decent points about the pervasiveness of sexuality in daily life. The chats between the four lads in Andy’s workplace in particular are priceless, with everyone telling massive porkie pies, but only Andy unable to maintain a realistic façade. When these hormonally-motivated emotionally retarded imbeciles (standard blokes then – Ed) get involved in Andy’s private life, they unintentionally influence his decisions to stay faithful to Trish, and pursue something more than just 'putting the pussy on a pedastal', if you’ll pardon the expression... This invasion into his private life causes Andy a lot of distress, particularly when his boss discovers his vestial virgin status… (I won’t spoil it, but she has some brilliant moments in the movie.) But there's also a nice warm fuzzy message in there about taking risks in life, getting out of your comfort zone and going after stuff... you know, follow your dreams and all that.

So there are some great funny moments, and Carell is particularly good, but the support is all great, and the atmosphere of the movie is such that - like with Me, Myself and Irene or Anchorman - you get the feeling that the cast all enjoyed themselves making this movie. I’m aware that describing comedy as 'feelgood' can be a bit of a turn-off for some, but the schmaltz isn't overbearing in this one. For those that feel it gets a bit much towards the end, stay in your seats for the musical number in the closing credits, and you’ll see that the writers had their tongues firmly in their cheeks for the final scenes.

Incidentally, Steve Carell also wrote this one, and his career is really taking off since his time on 'The Daily Show'. He's next to be seen in the up-coming sequel to Bruce Almighty, Evan Almighty, as well as re-uniting with the other highlight of Litte Miss Sunshine, Alan Arkin, in a remake of Get Smart. (Hmm, not so sure about either of those really though – Ed).

The 40-Year-Old Virgin might be car-crash viewing at times, but there are plenty of puerile belly-laughs in there, and all in all, you could do a hell of a lot worse for a dvd night in. It gets two thumbs up from PCMR and a hearty recommendation.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Flags Of Our Fathers

The Verdict: Self-important, soporific, slow-moving stuff. A short story told long-windedly in a very disjointed and heavy-handed manner.

The Rating:

Ok, first things first, and just to get it out of the way, Clint Eastwood is a legend. I have a habit on this site of reminding you of work someone has previously done, just in case you were unfamiliar with other stuff they've worked on, but in this case, I'm going to presume you've heard of Clint Eastwood, and possibly even seen one or two of his films. (Probably a safe enough bet - Ed). In 'Flags of Our Fathers', the first of an inter-continental tag-team of tales treating the battles of Iwo Jima in WWII, Clint tells a story of war with some contemporary relevance, and possibly even some personal relevance to himself.

The story involves the use of the iconic image - also used in the movie poster - of the U.S. troops raising a stars'n'stripes on the island of Iwo Jima in 1944. The image was used to promote the war effort back home, and it was so iconic and representative of courage and effort that it galvanised the American nation, convincing the folks back home that they were winning the war. The men in the photo were made heroes by the political establishment, symbols of a victorious war effort, and a reason for you folks to buy War Bonds to further fund the military effort...

The thing is, the flag was raised five days into a 40-day battle. The guys who were plucked out of the military to promote this image of victory were the only survivors out of the group of roughly twelve men there to raise the flags (there were actually two flags raised). Ira, the indian private, did not even raise the flag, but was named as one of the heroes.

The theme here is possible one close to Clint's own experiences: people need heroes. It is a theme universal to all cultures that heroes, with their legendary tales of execptional bravery, form part of our cultural make-up. Symbols, too are important, and the idea of an image travelling round the world to signal military success has contemporary relevance. Remember the statue of Saddam being toppled? Hooray, the witch is dead! ... the symbol is powerful, and even though the reality following that moment has been less than ideal, politicians and the media used it for endless mileage.. the same situation happens in this movie.

However, the thing is, the story of Flags of our Fathers doesn't really take that long to tell. (Um, didn't you just tell it? - Ed) As with 'Million Dollar Baby', I felt this movie would have benefitted from losing roughly half an hour. Certainly, in the last twenty minutes I descended into a bit of a bored stupor. I imagine that, towards the end, when the narrator started lines with something like 'And as for Ira..', his writer was aiming for the gravitas of Richard Dreyfus in 'Stand By Me'. Unfortunately, this voice-over ended up more like Kevin from 'the Wonder Years.'

However, the battle footage, as you would expect nowadays, is jaw-droppingly good stuff. The air battles feel more like 'Star Wars' than 'Dambusters', and the infantry-led beach-storming scenes are gritty, bloody and evocative of 'The Big Red One' or of course the deservedly ubiquitous 'Private Ryan'.

However, overall I didn't particularly like this movie as a piece of entertainment. The cast were generally pretty average, with Barry Pepper possibly the only one standing out as Mike, one of the unsung heroes who died on the island without any recognition or fanfare. The rest of the cast were pretty much perfunctory, with Adam Beach as Ira in particular doing a average job with a thoroughly annoying lead character. This guy bursts into tears in about seven separate scenes, and it just became grating after a while.

The choppy, incoherent narrative takes us from present day to the battelefield and the aftermath alternatively, and was unnecessarily confusing, which is surprising, considering the omni-present Paul Haggis co-wrote the screenplay.

So, overall, it's an intelligent film but not very entertaining. It's an 'interesting' story that fans of the war movie genre will probably get something out of, but for a more rounded war-movie experience deaing with themes of racial integration in the military in a gripping and intelligent manner, 'Indigènes' is far superior, and a much more enertaining film.

Rumour has it 'Letters From Iwo Jima' is the better of Clint's Iwo Jima twin-set, but apologies Mr. Eastwood, I didn't like this one all that much.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Iron Ladies

The verdict: It does have some redeeming qualities beyond the novelty value… it’s fairly well acted (except for the coach) and the theme of acceptance is handled well for roughly half the movie, getting heavy-handed towards the end, where the zaniness also ruins it a little.

Craziness: It’s pretty crazy, but not always in a zany sense, just the concept (which is a true story)… and most of the characters… and, um, the musical number.

The rating: 6/10

'Iron Ladies' is the true story of the male volleyball team that won the Thai National Championships in 1996 against all the odds. So you might be forgiven for thinking it's in the mould of inspirational rise-of-the-underdog Hollywood sporting stories such as 'Remember the Titans' or 'Coach Carter'? Weeellll… not… quite. I might defer to the blurb on the back of the DVD case here, and I quote: "Their skills and talents of playing volleyball are second to none. What matter is that most of them are gays."

Ahem... 'nuff said really. Essentially Iron Ladies tells the story of a group of guys who were good at a particular sport, but not allowed play because they batted for the other side. (And not in a sporting sense. Mwaa ha! – Ed). Not to be put off though, the lads clubbed together, and formed a team good enough to win the national championships, and gain massive media attention, winning over the Thai nation in the process.

The team members pretty much represent the entire spectrum of homosexuality, from the token straight guy, to the guy still in the closet, the openly gay one, the flamboyantly open, the flamboyantly feminine, the transgender one, and of course the camp triplets. I didn’t make any of that up by the way, and neither apparently did the film-makers, as this story can be verified by the archive newsreel footage that plays during the closing credits. These guys are represented pretty faithfully by the looks of things, and the archive footage is almost better than the movie to be honest.

The story is from a very familiar boiler-plate, but with such a fundamental variation from the traditionally alpha-male dominated sports flick, that it almost manages to hold the interest through to the end, despite being eventually loaded with clichés, bad acting and one very sketchy musical number.

The first half of the movie is the stronger, with two friends Mon and Jung deciding against a move to Bangkok because they want to try out for the district 5 volleyball team. Mon is used to rejection for being gay, despite being great at the sport, and is ready to quit, but Jung, an irrepressible flamer - pardon the expression - with a mouth as foul as a Glasgow welder, persuades him to stay and try out for the district 5 team.

The lads try out, and are picked, but the macho alpha male Mann persuades everyone on the team to quit, possibly in protest at having to play for a team that isn’t quite sure which showers to use after practice. Actually, not everyone quits, one guy stays because he can’t stand the homophobic views the posturing Mann. (So he ends up being 'the only straight in the village?' Tee hee – Ed) So, the lads are forced to assemble a team themselves, and this leads to the eventual assembly of a crew so damn motley, even Tommy Lee can't watch.

'Iron Ladies' plays with the audience's curiosity factor in the team's novelty value, in that there is a real sense of awe that this film is actually unfolding on screen in front of your eyes, but also the double whammy of it actually being a true story. This reflects the media treatment the Iron Ladies got when they went on to go on a successful run in the Thai National Volleyball championships in 1996.

There are themes going on here too though, mainly in the first half of the movie. Jung's parents are totally accepting of their son's situation, and are great with him, but Wit – the kid still in the closet – isn’t so lucky, and the media coverage the rest of the Iron Ladies enjoyed didn't work out quite so well for him. The acceptance of the tournament organisers is questionable too, and this leads to some fairly predictable panto-style cum-uppances in the second half of the movie. (Ooh, pardon? More tea, vicar!? – Ed)

So it does descend into sports movie cliché eventually, but the first hour of the film is very likeable, with the main characters not just comically camp cardboard cutouts, but actually displaying genuine personality under the flaming facades.

The musical number towards the end is kind of car-crash viewing, but I don’t know, maybe that’s normal in Thai films… (Not in Tony Jaa movies – Ed). Thankfully, either the lighting is so bad, or the international DVD quality so poor that I couldn’t really see it all that well. Unfortunately, the sound was fine….

Eventually it all becomes a 'be yourself and you can achieve anything' Hollywood-style movie in the same vein as something like 'When Saturday Comes' except with Sean Bean replaced by Dale Winton, and the rest of Sheffield United team played by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the Pet Shop Boys, and those lads from Little Britain. (Sounds like a Bafta vehicle to me – Ed)

Unsurprisingly, given its domestic success, Iron Ladies has spawned a successful sequel (prequel actually - Ed) in Thailand. However, though this one had serious novelty value, I won’t be rushing out to get my hands on the next Iron Ladies outing. (Oooh, Pardon!? More tea Vicar!? … ahem – Ed)

PCMR's Asian Season!

So, for no legitimate reason other than I've moved into a new gaf recently and got a house-warming present of a box of crazy Asian dvds (that's actually a good reason - Ed) I've decided to share the best, worst and the rest of this little Asian treasure trove! Rucky you! (Ahem, that's enough of that now - Ed)

And I might have an inkling of what you're thinking, it'll just be a collection of crazy J-Horror and ultra-violent Korean weirdness... and you might have a point, there are a few shady J-Horror offerings lurking in the box of derights (Stop that! - Ed). However, amidst all the psychological extremes of 'Ichi the Killer' - reportedly the most extreme movie ever made - 'The Eye' and 'Audition', there is also some light-heartedness, provided by Takashi Miike's uncharacteristic 'The Happiness of the Katakuris' - which looks genuinely off the wall - and also the highest grossing Korean movie of all time - 'Shiri', which looks more like a Jerry Bruckheimer-style action-fest (and doesn't appear to be on iMDB!? - Ed). The Korean Extreme are represented by Chan-Wook Park's 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance', and if it's anything like Oldboy, I'm not sure if my mental preparation will be good enough to prevent permanent psychological scarring...

There'll be a few surprises in there to boot, but I'll be kicking things off with a review of the most successful Thai movie of all time, a certain 'Iron Ladies', which is kind of like 'Cool Runnings', except if all the Jamaican bobsledders were Volleyball players, and very gay... What can I say? It's a true story, and a quality opener to what promises to be a real mixed bag of crazy imports from the East.

So forget about the hoity-toitiness of the Cannes film festival, with all those ultra-self-conscious art-house offerings. (Didn't get invited then? - Ed) No, instead, I propose that you sit back, relax, and let the Asian invasion begin...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


The verdict:A great lead performance, but the movie lacks real depth overall. Ultimately unrewarding.

The rating: 6/10

Sometimes it's a wise to avoid the lascivious lure of movie marketing men, and simply sidestep the decision to view a 'big' film around the time it's released. PCMR would like to claim such wisdom in this case, but in reality, although my initial reaction to Capote's release might not have involved chomping at the bit, I just didn't get around to watching it 'til now! (Useless - Ed)

I should probably describe 'Capote' as 'big' under advisement, as it was essentially made independently, and executive produced by Hoffman himself, but it generated sufficient 'buzz' - that most ephemeral and sought-after of commodities in the movie industry – to garner multiple academy award nominations and universal recognition for Philip Seymour Hoffman in the titular lead role of Truman Capote.

However, the point I would make here is that buzz is often off the mark. Think 'Star Wars Episode I', 'Snakes on a Plane', the much vaunted '300', and now also possibly even Tarantino's 'Grindhouse'? (Wow, getting on to dodgy ground there! – Ed).

In the case of a biopic such as this, there is a well-trodden path towards Oscar-worthiness, and as long as there is technical expertise on show, you can bet your barnet that the biopic will be in the running for gongs come Oscar night. True to form, Capote was nominated for four, including best picture. Catherine Keener deserved her nod for a great supporting turn as Harper Lee, and Hoffman undoubtedly deserved his for a great performance, but best director and best picture? Methinks the academy were a little swept up in the 'buzz' two years ago.

However... in this context, I'd still have to say that technically at least, Capote is a good movie. It’s a well-constructed, well-acted ensemble piece with particularly strong performances from Hoffman and Keener, an intelligent script, believable, rounded characters and some beautifully colourful vistas of Kansas in wintertime.

It's just the story that lets it down for me. I mean, on the surface, it's straight-forward enough: Capote is stuck for direction on his next novel, hears of a series of grisly murders in Kansas, and sets about interviewing one the prime suspects. The product of these interviews was a certain novel called In Cold Blood... So with a straight-forward narrative such as this, you would expect there to be a lot more going on under the surface, right? Well, you may be disappointed.. Truman Capote was certainly an interesting, if unstable character. In the movie, his attempts to be all things to all people could be interpreted a number of ways: either he is duplicitous, emotionally insecure, or some combination of the two.

The lead role is superbly played by Hoffman, but my main problem with the character was simply that he was not particularly likeable. Capote is portrayed as intelligent, but more in the sense of being manipulative and self-serving than philanthropic. The means by which he extracts the interviews from the alleged killers in the murder case, and then simply exploits this information for his own benefit - not before taking to bed for a day or to due to the stress of it all, does not warm him to the audience on any human level. Also, the end of the film leaves us in some doubt as to whose blood the title of Capote's novel refers...

I have to say, not being aware of Capote’s work – aside from having seen 'Beat the Devil', a rather lacklustre Bogie movie he co-wrote – I was not inspired by the movie version of his life to learn any more about the man. An interesting character, sure, but perhaps the man had more interesting chapters in his life to put on the silver screen.

Overall, I was left with the feeling that what was on show in Capote was beautiful in it’s own way, but that this beauty only ran skin-deep. Oscar-worthiness doesn’t always mean a great movie… (on the other hand perhaps Capote suffered from being viewed only two nights after PCMR watched 'The Life of Others' – Ed)

... As is often the case with the movie industry, it is very difficult to put together a project without finding some other crew attempting to ride on your coat-tails, putting out an eerily similar movie within a few months of your own. Having personally witnessed a Celebrity Deathmatch between The Prestige and The Illusionist, PCMR now declares Capote to be up against the allegedly superior 'Infamous', released last year, and featuring Sigourney Weaver, Gwyneth Paltrow, and a certain Daniel Craig. Perhaps I’ll hold back from condemning Capote too much until I see Infamous, but on its own merits, I didn’t particularly warm to this movie.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others)

The verdict: Genius (and you can verify that I haven’t said that too often in reviews). A beautifully crafted story. This is heavyweight cinema.
The rating: 9/10

I have never seen the problem with subtitled movies, and to this day it baffles me that people who claim to enjoy cinema could deprive themselves of what could prove to be the most enjoyable of experiences, simply because of the requirement to read sub-titles. The Bruce Lee videos I watched as a kid are among my earliest memories of movies, and the comical translation of the subtitles was part of that whole experience. Fast forward to today, and I can safely say that some of the best I have seen in the last ten years have been subtitled.

Two years ago, Michael Haneke's 'Caché' completely blew me away, but that could not be nominated for the best Foreign Language Oscar, because Haneke's first language is German, and the film was made in French with a French production company. 'Downfall' was also a German production, and in PCMR's view, ranks as one of the best movies of the decade so far. Last year, 'Pan's Labyrinth' was an absolute must see, and managed to scoop a couple of Oscar nods to boot. Also in 2006, 'Indigènes' and 'The Life of Others' – shot in French/Arabic and German respectively, were both nominated for best Foreign Language movie, and in PCMR’s book, display a level of quality that should really justify putting them in the "Best Picture" category.

For many, 'subtitled' evokes 'arthouse', and for some that's a problem. However, Asian movies too have enjoyed renewed success in Europe and the US of late, with the 'Asia Extreme' series gaining a greater notoriety lately than simply 'cult'. (Which generally just means 'crap' – Ed). Movies like 'Oldboy' and 'Battle Royale' are recognised by critics and viewers alike as pushing the boundaries of what cinema can do, challenging audiences while providing genuinely exhilarating entertainment.

So why does the anti-subtitles lobby prevail? Well, I'm baffled to be honest. I can think of another reason why I like foreign movies, and in a last attempt to win over this camp, I'll refer to Terminator 2, one of my all time favourite Hollywood actioners. I don't know if you remember the device, as it seems ludicrous now, but James Cameron attempted to fool the audience in this movie. He wanted us to believe in the famous slow-mo 'guns and roses' scene, where both terminators have the young John Connor trapped in the mall, that Arnie was a bad guy. I mean, come on, by that stage we all knew Arnie was the hero, and this is the problem with a lot of Hollywood movies. Generally, we recognize the star (read 'hero') the English or French character actor (read 'bad guy') and the female lead (read 'love interest'). This recognition adds a level of predictability to Hollywood movies that only the best in the business can manage to overcome.

With 'The Lives of Others' and many other foreign movies, this recognition and predictability is notably absent. Our protagonist is agent Wiesler, played brilliantly by the gaunt, ghostly Ulrich Mühe. Wiesler is an East German Stasi (secret police) agent in East Berlin in 1984, and head of a surveillance outfit. He’s a very unlikely hero, it has to be said, and his boss, the political animal, even less so. Collectively they are working for the odious minister for culture, who is looking to uncover incriminating information on a famous playwright, and use this for his own political gains.

Wiesler begins close and complete surveillance on Dreyman the playwright (Sebastian Koch) and his partner Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck), and the couple's lives could not be more in contrast to his own. While they are artists, creative professionals, he is a repressed, solitary man, a skilled secret police interrogator, and seemingly devoid of emotion, focussed on the job of finding any subversive element that may threaten the regime of the DDR.

However, Culture Minister Hempf (Thomas Thieme) – who is now ranked in PCMRs upper echelons of cinematic bad guys – makes a telling comment near the beginning of the movie. He points out to the playwright that although in his art he continually asserts that people can change, in reality they simply can't. This challenge – the view of the repressive culture minister – is at the core of this movie.

In 1984, Glasnost was just an inkling of an idea. Gorbachev was elected to power in the USSR that year, and a few short years later, the Berlin wall came down. Thus, the powers of the East German regime are fading in the context of this movie. The McCarthyist tendencies of the government to witch-hunt anti-establishment elements has by 1984 gone too far, and people are living in constant fear of the Stasi, who repress popular culture, and claim scalps as political currency. The impact this political regime has on the lives of people is brilliantly evoked by 'The Lives of Others' and we are effortlessly immersed in the culture and atmosphere of that time.

In another telling moment, Dreyman the playwright bashes out a piece of music on his piano, and recites a quote from Lenin. "If I kept listening to Beethoven, I wouldn’t have time for the revolution." Dreyman believes that no-one who truly hears this music could be a bad person. Meanwhile, the Stasi Agent Wiesler is in the attic, tuned in to the music and the conversation through his surveillance microphones...

This movie is considered, dramatic, and packs a real emotional punch. The performances are all subtly evoked, and the ending is as near perfect as I have seen.

Don't think of 'The Life of Others' as a sub-titled movie, think of it quite simply as a great movie. If you have a phobia of subtitles, perhaps this will not be the one to get you past that, but just think of all the movies you’ve enjoyed with subtitles ('Amelie', 'Crouching Tiger'..) and possibly make an exception in this case.

It may be a little intellectual for some peoples' tastes, but this is a really smart, dramatic stuff, and PCMR gives it a hearty recommendation.

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