From Revenge Thriller

[Fantasia 2019] Michihito Fujii’s DAY AND NIGHT: Morality Under Capitalism

Michihito Fujii ruminates on how capitalism destroys good people, and whether revenge is just or simply salt in a perpetual wound.

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Memento’s Deconstructionist Form

Memento. 2000. Directed & Written by Christopher Nolan; based on the short story “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan.
Starring Guy Pearce, Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Mark Boone Junior, Russ Fega, Jorja Fox, Stephen Tobolowsky, Harriet Sansom Harris, Thomas Lennon, & Callum Keith Rennie. Newmarket Capital Group/Team Todd/I Remember Productions.
Rated 14A. 113 minutes.
Mystery/Thriller

★★★★★
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Christopher Nolan has moved on to bigger blockbuster-type movies. Once his reiteration of the classic Batman character hit theatres, nothing was ever the same for his career. Much as I’m a fan of his Batman trilogy, even a big Batman fan before him, the Nolan I prefer most is the one who did Following, remade Insomnia, and of course the one responsible for this cinematic gem, Memento.
Right at the turn of the 21st century, Nolan gave us an interesting mystery film that defies the expectations of the genre. It’s a thriller that works backward through the chronological order, instead of forward, and in a way is anticlimactic. However, for all its different techniques the movie never feels too much like a try-hard indie, hoping to break the mould with a script that’s beyond quirky. There’s every bit of the independent film spirit within this piece of work. Although, Nolan never goes for the cheap thrill. This is a cerebral thriller, stained with blood and mystery and the shattered frame of a brain’s memories. Guy Pearce puts in a whopping performance in a tough role that effectively put him up there with the best actors of his generation. Every scene is interesting because it not only looks good, they all force you to think forward, backward, every which way. The structure of the movie lends a hand to the plot, the focus on memories and a backward sequence of trying to retrace one’s steps (literally one’s memories). A powerful revenge story that’s fuelled by heart, though ultimately a story that never resolves itself fully. And that’s part of the point, as we take the journey with the main character Leonard (Pearce) discovering there’s no way to fully resolve his situation. At the bottom of it all, there’s the question of revenge itself, and if it would make a difference to Leonard.
While Leonard has no short term memory because of an attack on him and his wife, precipitating his seeking revenge, this is a way for Nolan to ask us: is revenge worth it, even if you could remember?
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Part of Memento‘s interesting charm overall is the way Nolan challenges how we watch a film. In turn, this calls to mind how Leonard himself recalls memory. We come to like he does in the midst of his day, in places where he doesn’t exactly remember (unless they’re marked on one of his cue cards or tattooed on his body). The writing, the scenes and how they’re edited into one another like stitching, this all initiates us into the experience of Leonard and his memory issues.
So while it may feel like a gimmick to some Nolan employs the backward chronological order for a specific purpose, to replicate those ideas of memory while simultaneously playing with the format of film itself, as well as how the audience watches one. The clerk at the motel (played by the excellent Mark Boone Junior) says it best, that feeling like you’re waking up everyday – how Leonard describes his condition – must have everything feel backwards, literally describing the film and its structure: Leonard thinks he wants to do something, but he’s not sure about what he’s just done. The writing is truly genius. If you don’t admire Nolan’s filmmaking, another aspect in which he excels generally, how can you not find his writing compelling? This screenplay speaks volumes. At first there feels like an intricate-style, labyrinthine weaving to the plot. And to a degree there is. Yet the way Nolan presents it makes the difficulty wear off. Soon you find yourself along with Leonard for the ride, full stop. Something I dig is the fact that this backward order of scenes kind of prevents us from trying to think ahead, it takes away that element of jumping past the story and worrying more about “whodunit” than any of the best parts about the plot, the film as a final product, so on.MCDMEME EC031A moment I love is the first real flashback we get from Leonard, concerning his wife. Because it starts out while he’s in the diner, then when he closes his eyes the sound design takes all that noise out – the other patrons, dishes clinking together, food frying, et cetera – and we fall inside his head with him. The cinematography throughout the entire film is spectacular. In this scene, there’s a beautiful, dreamy quality to the memories, the raw, genuine stuff Leonard can remember. This distinctly divides parts of the movie, as we get this nice sort of washed out look to the regular parts of the present, a sparkling beauty to the memories of his wife, a darkness to the night of her death, and then there are the black-and-white flashbacks to other portions of Leonard’s life, including his old job, Sammy (Stephen Tobolowsky), his conversation on the telephone in the motel room. Nolan seamlessly connects these looks to make a whole, a palette that stretches out over just a little under two solid hours. It’s a rich, interesting tapestry that will captivate any curious audience. The directorial choices from Nolan are what make his screenplay work, proving he’s a solid writer as much as he is a director.
The plot is what makes this movie so unique, yes. Pearce is the soul which drives the story. His voice-over narration is spot on. Moreover, he constantly embodies Leonard, keeping us confused along with him until the pieces fall together. The way Pearce plays Leonard makes us feel for him. At times, we might even get a bit frustrated; both for him and with him. In the more frantic moments Pearce truly wrings out the empathetic qualities, pleading with us to feel his pain, and most times it takes very few pleads. He makes Leonard charming, to the point, he’s an odd man due to his condition yet there is a friendly feel to him. This single performance is why I’ve kept an interest in Pearce, no matter the role he takes. A once in a lifetime performance in a strange, innovative bit of mystery cinema.
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This is one of the first great movies of the 2000s, right as the new century came about. Memento takes you by the hand, down a bumpy road filled with unreliable characters, an unreliable narrator, and throws you down the corridor of revenge on a trail of broken memories. There aren’t any better films that relay the feeling of memory. Above all, Nolan’s writing and directing – aided by the incredible cinematography of Wally Pfister – takes us through the process of what it’s like to rebuild memory, to have to out of necessity for the revenge of a terrible event. Along the way we spend time with Leonard, who’s most certainly a classic film character that will go down with the greats, and Pearce flesh him out well to the point we’re caught up intricately with his dilemma right to the bitter end. Again, I do love Nolan’s later work – The Prestige is one of my favourites out of his catalogue – yet I can’t help returning to his earliest efforts, such as this treat. Over any plot or character developments, Memento gives us a masterclass in form, allowing the cinematic techniques Nolan brings to the screen to play the lead character even above Pearce. Don’t mistake it: this is not a movie, it’s a defining experience of film.

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A Modern-Looking Wild West in Revenge Western The Salvation

The Salvation. 2014. Directed by Kristian Levring. Screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen & Kristian Levring.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Michael Raymond- James, Jonathan Pryce, Alexander Arnold, Nanna Øland Fabricius, Toke Lars Bjarke, and Sean Cameron Michael. Zentropa Entertainments/Forward Films/Spier Films/F.I.L.M.S./Det Danske Filminstitut/Danmarks Radio (DR)/Nordisk Film & TV Fond/Film i Väst/Department of Trade & Industry of South Africa/MEDIA Programme of the European Union/Nordisk Film Distribution/TrustNordisk. Rated PG. 92 minutes.
Drama/Western

★★★★★
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I haven’t had a chance to see Kristian Levring’s Fear Me Not, starring one of my favourite actors Ulrich Thomsen. So prior to The Salvation, I’d never experienced any of his films. Two reasons I came to this film: i) it’s a Western with Mads Mikkelsen, & ii) Anders Thomas Jensen co-wrote the screenplay with Levring; I am a huge admirer of Jensen’s films, all of which feature Mikkelsen (Flickering LightsAdam’s ApplesThe Green Butchers, & most recent Men & Chicken), as well as the fact he’s written other great movies like the fabulous and touching In a Better World.
For a long time I’ve loved Westerns. There are a flood of them out there. Although, if you search through them well enough all the cream will rise to the top. The classics will always reign on high, such as Once Upon a Time in the WestThe SearchersHigh Noon, The Man with No Name Trilogy; then we’ve got the more contemporary, now classics like UnforgivenThe PropositionTombstone, and in my mind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So there are no shortage of Westerns, nor is there a lack of masterpieces in the genre. That being said, there are many typical Westerns, cliched to bits. Others, while not bad movies, just seem uninspired.
Along comes The Salvation. This film, from screenplay to actual screen, takes on the Western in familiar tones. But all the same, Levring and Jensen’s script tackles a Western revenge tale with an innovative twist, fresh eyes, and from a very emotional standpoint. Not to mention there are plenty of ways you can parallel this tale of the supposed American Dream in the minds of foreigners to the struggle many face today. This is a great film, it is beautiful to look at. Above all else, the actors each play a huge part in making the film come alive and raise the bar for the modern Western genre.
016Danish-American settler Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been in the Land of the Free for a while now. He and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) have learned the language, they’ve tended their own land and looked out for one another. Plus, they seem to be integrated into the community. However, things change drastically for Jon especially once his wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally come to live there with him.
Upon their arrival, Jon takes his family by coach back to their home. Along the way, two men, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Voichek (Alex Arnold), accost Jon and his family. The conversation starts as only that, conversation, but the tone changes soon enough and the two strangers take Jon’s wife/boy hostage. Kicked out of the coach, he tries to run after them. Jon comes across the murdered corpse of his son. Then further down the road, he finds the coach – one man rapes his wife while the other takes watch outside.
After taking his violent revenge against the murderous rapists, Jon finds himself at odds with the local gangster Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose brother happens to be the aforementioned Paul. When the entire town turns their back on Jon, only his brother Peter stands by his side. That is, until Delarue’s men do the unthinkable to him, as well.
Standing against the insurmountable forces of Delarue and his henchmen, Jon Jensen is forced to take arms in order to have his revenge, or die in the process.
the-salvation-text1If you’re not immediately floored by the whole opening sequence (about the first 20 minutes), then I’m not sure what would affect your sensibilities. Fact is, without showing too much director Kristian Levring creates so much suspense, a thick and undeniably nasty tension, which drew me into the film’s world so savagely it honestly took me awhile afterwards to come back to my senses. Not only is the direction great, as well as the writing between Levring and Jensen, Mads Mikkelsen – a long time favourite of mine since his turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher & Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and recently his work as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s unusually amazing series – performs his character’s anger and woe so subtly it’s impossible to turn away from the power. I’m not trying to pit American v. European v. anywhere else actors here, not at all. However, there are certainly some (North) American actors who come to mind that are very exuberant, almost too much so at times. Especially when it comes to revenge styled movies, such as this one. For instance, even though I’m a Sean Penn fan (as an actor; not so much as a person), and I love his turn in the movie, Mystic River contains a pretty wild performance out of him – not at all times, though, in some scenes he is very much going heavy. Whereas in The Salvation, right out the gate, Mikkelsen delivers so much intensity and heartache without having to do anything overtly emphatic. He simply acts with all the emotion in him available, just seeping it out of his skin; the look on his face, his body language, the bunch of bullets he pumps into his family’s killer even after the guy is dead. And like I said, these are only the first 20 minutes (19 and a half if we’re getting specific). From there on in, Mikkelsen has lots more to do, and does it to near perfection.
Then we’ve also got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose performance as the big bad in this Western comes as a surprise to some. Not to me, though. Even while I’m not a huge fan of the Watchmen adaptation (it’s real good; just not as good as it should/could have been), Morgan impressed me as The Comedian. Also, my girlfriend watched a bit of Supernatural, and I found him pretty good in that. Then in the mediocre movie Texas Killing Fields, he was one of the only things I actually enjoyed a nice deal. But some people seem him as this good guy type. Maybe I’ve not watched enough of Morgan to feel that way. I see him as a guy with a dark side, even though I think he has good range. So here, in The Salvation, I was pleased to see him in a truly outright bad guy role. It doesn’t take long to figure him out, but not in a transparent way – you just feel how mean the dude is, right from his first appearance. It only gets more unpredictable and even more nasty once Morgan shows us how brutish his character Henry Delarue can become, to what level he’ll sink. Again, though, I have to say Delarue isn’t someone I could predict. There’s a moment, just before the half-hour mark (so much intensity so early), where you’ll understand exactly what I mean: I saw parts of it coming, but how he ends this confrontation is spectacularly harsh, and I couldn’t have imagined he was so cold. Not only is Delarue a bad, low man, he does have a tough presence, one of both physical and mental strength. It all sets the stage for an excellent showdown coming between Mikkelsen’s Jon Jensen and Morgan’s Henry Delarue.
salvation2Apart from the acting, Levring’s direction is what makes this film so special. Cinematographer Jens Schlosser provides us with lush visuals, from the wide open plains of the old West to the tighter, more personal scenes involving the characters and the well written dialogue of this screenplay. Schlosser has worked with Levring before on Fear Me Not, as well as served as Director of Photography on Amy Berg’s excellent/heartbreaking documentary Deliver Us from Evil (see it: an important piece of work). I find this one of the most visually exciting Western movies in recent times. John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is another amazing to look at Western from the last decade, though, that one has a gritty, more rough aesthetic. Regardless, I think this movie’s visual beauty has much to do with the emotional intensity and darkness of the subject matter/the performances. There’s a perfect contrast between how pretty the movie is and how devastating its plot and story are, it is a masterful bit of work from every angle.
Once more, I mention the script. So many revenge films are the same, just as Westerns often end up seeming after you’ve seen a ton. While The Salvation is typical in certain senses (rape-revenge setup), there are many ways in which it is not. For instance, like I mentioned earlier in my review, Levring doesn’t go and show everything full-on. Yes, much of the violence is pretty well spelled out in front of us. But I think the early bits, the rape of Jon’s wife, the murder of his boy, they were handled very well. I was very much expecting us to have to actually see Paul/Voichek humping Jon’s poor wife. Though, instead we get to see most of the after effects. This movie doesn’t glorify sexual violence, even if rape is at its core as a plot device/element. The effects and the revenge are the main point, that’s why everything brutal and nastily violent comes so early; literally, the first twenty minutes gets almost all of it out of the way, in terms of the injustice done to Jon’s family. We get lots of violent stuff after this point. Simply, it’s notable how Levring/Jensen go a different route than most would in this case. They still stick very much to the rape-revenge model, they’re just not relying on all its tropes and cliched moves to make things work. Furthermore, setting this is all in the context of Danish settler in America v. “born n’ bred” Americans is an interesting aspect, which you’re not always going to see except in a few other choice films of the genre. All in all, I’m amazed with the screenplay because I found myself unsure exactly of how things were heading to play out. Best part of the plot and story of The Salvation is how subversive it came across at times.
1280x720-mPeWith a big Wild West showdown near the end that can rival some of the best, The Salvation is most definitely a 5 star film. It has guts, plus brains. Even better, the directing from Kristian Levring downplays the usual focus on the rape in order to get to the revenge. Instead, he opts to show us the savagery of the revenge at the other end on top of the heightened emotions from all the characters involved. And at times you’ll find yourself wondering exactly what is about to happen next. With the stellar performance of Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role, alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eva Green and Mikael Persbrandt in awesome roles respectively, this is a Western you can’t afford to miss. It has all the greatness of any other revenge-thriller, the heart and soul of a perfect drama. Not to mention it’s one of the best Westerns of the last two decades.