Birdcage Inn – Perversity In Reverse

Country: Korea
Genre: Drama
Director: Ki-duk Kim
Year: 1998

Rating: ★★★½☆


Birdcage Inn is yet another morally fraught tale from South Korea’s poet of the perverse, Kim Ki-Duk.

In the first few frames, we see gentle soul Jin-a (Ji-eun Lee) rescue a turtle from a busy roadway. But who will rescue Jin-a?

Without anyone to take care of her, she has taken a job as a prostitute in a family run hotel. As she arrives, she sees the previous prostitute take off in a huff. Oh, oh.

Sure enough, Jin-a is subjected to the withering scorn of the daughter, who is ashamed to take her boyfriend home and projects her rage on the hapless Jin-a. She is repeatedly raped by all and sundry, which she has to take because she is helpless and dependent on the job for survival.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again, but based on the movies from South Korea, the place must be a complete hellhole.

The stage is set once again for an incredibly grim film. But something odd happens. I won’t say what because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But Jin-a starts to gain surprising allies and the character you would least expect starts to undergo a startling transformation.

The path of the film, like much of Kim Ki-Duk’s work, is willfully, almost gleefully perverse, but this time in the direction of a cockeyed optimism.

The result is that Birdcage Inn, which begins with an atmosphere of unalloyed dread, ends on almost a lighthearted note, at least for a Kim Ki-Duk flick.

Birdcage Cage is Kim Ki-Duk’s first film after the godawful Wild Animals and he shows incredible growth as a filmmaker in every conceivable way.

Cinematography, editing, and acting are all top notch, which we are accustomed to by his later work.

Should you see Birdcage Inn? Well, that depends on whether or not you happen to be a fan of Kim Ki-Duk. Probably this should not be your first Kim Ki-Duk flick. I’d go for the relatively gentle The Bow to get your feet wet. If you can deal with that, try the much harsher The Isle. By that time, you’ll know whether or not you like Kim Ki-Duk.

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Escape Plan – A Dumdum Movie With A Subversive Edge

Country: United States
Genre: Action/ Mainstream
Director: Mikael Håfström
Year: 2013

Rating: ★★★☆☆


For a dumdum action movie, Escape Plan is a lot more intelligent and subversive than you’d expect.

Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone) is a security consultant who specializes in breaking out of prisons. Ostensibly, his latest job is to break out of a privately owned supermax prison filled with political prisoners who have been “disappeared.” Right away my ears pricked up at that. Were the writers of Escape Plan, Miles Chapman and Jason Keller, going to have the balls to delve into the moral and political implications of the privatization of prisons, institutionalized torture, black sites, rendition, and so on? When Breslin and his partners hear about the prison’s purpose, they don’t bat an eyelash. Their only hesitation is that the conditions of the job include the stipulation that they not know the location of the prison.

At first that bothered me because it has the effect of normalizing the disappearing of political prisoners into black sites, but then I realized that it was actually a canny move. The writers have made a conscious decision not to preach to the converted. Especially since Escape plan is a dumdum action movie starring Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, they figure that some of the viewers will have retrograde politics.

Soon enough, we’re seeing waterboarding and blinding lights in solitary at the prison. But that’s not all. One of the heroes of the film would be defined by the Obama administration as a terrorist. And the villains of the piece are the banking industry and the prison industrial complex. Frankly, I would have preferred a more in depth exploration of the issues at stake, but by the standards of mainstream entertainment, this is already fairly incendiary stuff.

But if you’re into trash cinema, you probably want to know how Escape Plan succeeds as genre cinema. Well, frankly it’s not bad.

Breslin’s escape strategies mostly make sense, as do the counter moves of Warden Hobbes (Jim Caviezel, fey and effeminate as ever). Stallone and Schwarzenegger develop a surprising amount of chemistry together.

The filmmaking team delivers the expected genre goods: prison riots, one-on-one fight scenes and all the rest.

I was surprised to find that Escape Plan is rated R because director Mikael Håfström avoids grueling depictions of graphic violence, allowing the sound design to suggest what is happening just offscreen. The average episode of The Shield was tougher. Even the death of Stallone’s nemesis is handled with restraint and the film’s only weak bit of CGI, which is actually played for laughs, I think.

Is Escape Plan a great film, even as a genre piece? Nah. It’s too self-consciously dopey for that. But it moves well, the plot machinations aren’t stupid, the dialog isn’t any dumber than it has given the concept, the action is competent, and you’ve got to give the filmmakers extra points for even bringing up the topics of rendition, private prisons, torture and so on.

What I’m trying to say is, if you watch it, you won’t hate yourself afterwards. Squeaks into recommended territory.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – White Bread Buffet

Country: United States
Genre: Action/ Mainstream
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Year: 2014

Rating: ★★☆☆☆


The first thing you need to know about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is that the performance of leading man Chris Pine makes Kevin Costner seem like pure charisma.

Now, to be fair, Costner has gotten more interesting over the years. In his younger days, directors like Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone were smart enough to use Costner’s corn-bred squareness as a running joke. Costner still has that heartland thing going on, but now there’s an undercurrent of wisdom and self-knowledge that gives him a scintilla of depth.

But still…

Chris Pine is front and center and he seems like a blank slate.

That’s one problem. Just as damaging is that the script by Adam Cozad and industry veteran David Koepp is woefully generic. It seems some Russian wants to crash the US economy by means of a terrorist attack. The characters seem like constructs, not real people. The dialog is not believable. The plot points aren’t interesting. Ditto the motivations of the characters.

Given the routine script (and that’s putting it kindly), director Kenneth Branagh probably never had a chance, but given that the only decent performance in the film comes from Costner, I’d be inclined to give to blame Branagh in addition to the writers.

Oh, and I almost forgot — the action is unmemorable, too.

Give this one a miss.

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The Ogre – The Dangers Of Magical Thinking

Country: Germany
Genre: Drama
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Year: 1996

Rating: ★★★½☆


Abel, (John Malkovich) due to a traumatic childhood, has an arrested emotional development and an attachment to magical thinking. Through a series of convoluted circumstances, Abel ends up as a recruiter for child Nazi soldiers. He thinks he is caring for these children, but in reality he’s feeding them into the maw of a suicidal war machine.

Director Volker Schlöndorff presents Abel as a sympathetic character. Schlöndorff shows how magical thinking can create an opening for fascism to take hold. Greed and self-indulgence can be perceived as joie de vivre; pomp as glamor; rigidity as discipline; dogmatism as righteousness; and so on.

As usual for a Schlöndorff film, the physical production is quite beautiful, and the direction forceful and elegant.

The biggest flaw I could find was Schlöndorff knuckling under the realities of the film business and making his film in English. Schlöndorff’s films are usually a mixture of fairy tale atmosphere, urgent moral dilemmas and an enthusiastic earthiness. This mixture is ideally suited to the German language. English is a little too literal. Also, since English is Schlöndorff’s second language, his direction of the actors isn’t quite as assured as usual. Of course, weak Schlöndorff is better than most directors, but The Ogre still suffers.

Should you see The Ogre? If you are a fan of the director, absolutely. Just don’t expect anything as powerful and elemental as The Tin Drum.

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