I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
61. Hyena, Crime/Drama/Thriller, Director Gerard Johnson, 2014 UK, 78%/6.2
Hyenas are often depicted as crafty back-stabbing not-to-be trusted scavengers feeding off of others—nature’s thugs, some say. Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando) is a corrupt West-London-based detective sergeant, wheeling and dealing with Turkish and Albanian drug-dealing bad guys, but is he a hyena? I’ll let you be the judge. Michael and his three police-force colleagues (who could have been named Shenzi, Banzai and Ed), form a drug-enforcement taskforce seeking to eliminate the drug smugglers but, in reality and in return for a cut, allowing them to prosper; that is until a drug war breaks out between the Turks and the Albanians. Throw in a Police Professional Standards (Internal Affairs) investigation led by David Knight (Stephen Graham), a former colleague of Michael who might be holding a long-time grudge; a down-to-earth girlfriend, Lisa (MyAnna Buring); and an attractive trafficked Albanian girl, Ariana (Elisa Wald-Lasowski), and you have all the ingredients for a classic rogue cops movie.
Hyena is stereotypical (lovable rogues, evil Albanians, devious investigators, helpless females), gritty, grim and brutal but the movie is very well made with a storyline that zips along at a brisk pace, always entertaining, never boring. I enjoyed Hyena.
3 October 2021 addition.
Having watched and been impressed with Hyena, I went back to Gerard Johnson’s earlier 2009 debut film, Tony, also starring Peter Ferdinando. You would not recognise Ferdinando as the same actor in Hyena! He plays a loner, Tony, who is a social outcast, unable to form relationships, has never had a job, and who has a tendency to murder those who he feels are a danger to his way of life: a drug addict he tries to befriend; a male prostitute he picks up in a gay bar; and a television licence inspector who tries to remove his television when Tony admits to not having a licence. He then cuts up the bodies, places the parts in blue plastic carrier bags, and disposes of them in the River Thames.
Tony is a dark no-laughs film, similar to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and 10 Rillington Place (1971). I am glad I went back and checked it out but it’s not a film I would watch a second time.
62. In the Fog (B Tumane), Drama/History/War, Director Sergey Loznitsa, 2012 Russia, 87%/6.8
In The Fog is a classic captive-captor reversal drama. Set in and around a Belarusian village under German occupation during World War 2, a group of local saboteurs succeed in derailing a German supply train and are subsequently captured by the Germans. All but one are publicly hanged. The survivor, Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy), is offered a deal by the German commandant—become an informant and his life will be spared. Sushenya refuses the offer but, instead of hanging him, the commandant spares his life knowing that the villagers will now view him with suspicion and distrust. Burov (Vladislav Abashin), a member of a local partisan group, is ordered to take Sushenya into the forest and execute him. Accordingly, Burov and a companion partisan, Voitik (Sergei Kolesov), enter Sushenya’s home and ask him to accompany them on a walk. Sushenya has already worked out this would happen and accepts his fate calmly. The scene where he says goodbye to his wife is poignant.
Out in the forest, the small group are spotted by a German patrol and during the ensuing firefight, Burov is seriously wounded. Voitik says he will go and seek help leaving Sushenya to look after Burov. And here is where the story pivots on its axis and the captive becomes the captor. But this is not a story of revenge. This is a story of how family and neighbourly relationships during peacetime can change during war; a theme well explored through movies about the American civil war in the 1860s. In The Fog is a slow-burner with much of the dialogue expressed non-vocally via expressions on faces and actions or inaction. It’s not a fun movie to watch. It is more a thoughtful movie, invoking anti-war sentiments and elements of human behaviour not normally experienced. Approach the movie with care and an open mind.
63. My First Client (Eorin Uiroein), Crime/Drama, Director Kyu-sung Jang, 2019 S. Korea, -/7.3
Child abuse in any form is a sensitive subject for film-makers to tackle. Korean director Kyu-sang Jang does a fine job of treading the lines between portrayal of the abuse (physical in this case), adult-child manipulation, the emotional effect on the child, and retribution. 10-year-old Da-Bin (Choi Myung-Bin) and her 7-year-old brother, Min-Joon (Lee Joo-Won), are physically assaulted by their new stepmother, Ji-Sook (Yoo-Sun). The stepmother is adept at concealing the results of her physical assaults, especially on Da-Bin, and it isn’t until the young girl visits the police and is referred to a child welfare centre that her cuts and bruises are seen by social workers and a rookie volunteer lawyer, Jung-Yeob (Lee Dong-Hwi), who is killing time while waiting for the results of a job application. Unfortunately, when visited by the social workers, Ji-Sook’s explanation of the cause of the damage sound plausible and they are unable to pursue their suspicions. (If this is indeed true of current social welfare in Korea, it’s an indictment of a restrained child protection system.)
Jung-Yeob is frustrated by his inability to pursue what he strongly suspects is abuse but shrugs off his concerns in favour of accepting the prestigious position he applied for with a big-name law firm in Seoul. No sooner has he started in his new position when he receives devasting news concerning the two children and he is torn between staying with the law firm or returning to his hometown to defend the accused against the charges brought by the stepmother. I’ll say no more except to recommend you watch this movie. It starts slow but once the tragic news has been received, gathers pace and finishes in fine courtroom style.
64. Pig, Drama/Thriller, Director Michael Sarnoski, 2021 USA, 97%/7.0
Aged 17, Nicolas Cage started his movie acting career in 1982 with a small role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Since then, he has acted in over one hundred movies, some bad (or very bad e.g., Deadfall, 1993, 0% on Rotten Tomatoes), some good, and some excellent (Academy Award for Best Actor in 1995 for his role in Leaving Las Vegas). Pig, his latest movie, is excellent and, some say, may earn him a second Academy Award.
The story is simple. Cage plays a reclusive scruffy very hairy truffle hunter, Robin Feld, who tracks down the elusive truffles with the help of his pet female pig. (We never learn her name.) Early in the movie, the pig is stolen and Robin spends the rest of the movie trying to get her back.
Put like that, the movie sounds unappealing, uninteresting—a rain check movie. But don’t be put off by this simple summary. Watch it. It’s a film about love, loss and grief, and a most unexpected revenge. Cage delivers what for me is probably his finest performance among the ten to fifteen of his movies I have watched despite the fact that he says very little during the film. Say what you like about Nicolas Cage but if ever any proof was needed that he can do more than just swing a punch or in other ways act tough, Pig is the proof.
Cage’s character, Robin, is aided and abetted in his search for his pig by his truffle buyer, Amir ((Alex Wolff) in a performance that is also outstanding. Looking every inch like a young Shia LaBouef, Alex Wolff’s flashy Amir is the perfect foil for Nicolas Cage’s taciturn Robin.
If you decide to watch Pig, I advise you not to pre-read any detailed reviews that summarise the storyline. The less you know, the better your appreciation. As the film progresses, so does the backstory in very small but highly significant reveals. And I defy anybody without prior knowledge to predict why Robin Feld is a recluse and how he exacts his revenge. This movie, for me, is one of the finest movies I have ever watched.
65. Retribution (El Desconocido), Crime/Thriller, Director Dani de la Torre, 2015 Spain, 100%/6.6
Take a number 14 (~5cm) elastic band. Hook one end over your right thumb; the other end over your left thumb. Stretch the band as far apart as possible; hold your breath; and now stretch just a little bit further. The tension in the band represents the tension you will experience if you watch the Spanish movie, Retribution. And I guarantee there will be times when you will forget you are holding your breath!
The movie starts with Carlos (Luis Tosar), an investment manager at a bank, arguing with his wife Marta (Goya Toledo) over the breakfast table and then telling their two children, teen Sara and pre-teen Marcos, to get in the car so that he can drop them off at school before continuing to the bank. When Carlos and the children enter the car, Carlos is surprised to discover that the car is unlocked but he pushes any concerns he might have aside and, with the children in the back, drives off to deliver them to the school. Once he’s on the highway, a mobile phone located in the area between the two front seats starts to ring. And that’s when the nightmare starts. The caller, a male voice who refuses to identify himself, tells Carlos that the car is rigged with a bomb and that if anyone gets out of the car, the bomb will explode. The caller then demands that Carlos transfers a very exact sum of money (€67,547) followed by a further €420,000 into a deposit account otherwise the bomb will be remotely exploded.
At first, Carlos reacts as expected—disbelief, followed by, ‘Who are you?’ and ‘I don’t have access to that sort of money.’—but 20 minutes into the film, an event occurs that dispels any belief that it’s all a hoax and Carlos understands that his life and those of his children are at serious risk. From that point on right to the end of the 96-minute runtime, the tension never lets up. Just as when you assumed you could put no more tension into the elastic band, the tension ratchets up. There was one point when I had to press the Hold key and take a couple of breaths.
Retribution is a gripping movie and Luis Tosar has the acting skills to carry it off. (Watch him also in Cell 211, a riveting prison drama, and Sleep Tight, a psychological thriller—both excellent movies.) Also of note is the daughter, Sara, played by Paula del Río, who was 16 years old when the movie was made. This was her first feature film and she has since gone on to appear in other feature films, most notably the 2019 horror movie, Prey, in which she plays a quadriplegic trapped in a house with a rabid dog. I’ve watched this movie. I would recommend it to horror fans but it’s not an easy watch!
66. With A Girl Of Himalaya/Himalaya, Where The Wind Dwells (Himalayaeui Sonyowa), DocuDrama, Director Soo-il Jeon, 2008 Korea/Nepal, -/6.4
This movie recommendation is an indulgence on my part. In 2009, I went trekking in the Himalaya accompanied by my son, Mark. Starting at Besisahar (760 m), we trekked up the eastern side of the Annapurna range to Kagbeni (2,804 m) and then went on up through the Mustang Valley to Lo Monthang (3,840 m), close to the Tibetan border. The journey was unforgettable and we repeated the Himalaya experience in 2009 with further treks in the northern Indian region of Ladakh, and again in 2010 following the Everest Trail from Jiri (1,905 m) to Dingboche (4,500 m) via Lukla (2,860 m). This third trek included my wife, Carol, and unfortunately, she suffered Acute Mountain Sickness, AMS, in Dingboche and we had to turn back when we were just two days away from our final destination at Kala Patthar (5,643 m).
On all three treks, we mostly stayed the night in teahouses, a basic form of Nepali B&B wherein village homeowners rent out rooms to travellers and usually provide a simple evening meal and morning breakfast. It is during these stopovers that one experiences how Nepali villagers live and is what drew me to With A Girl Of Himalaya.
The story is simple. Choi (Choi Min-sik, the Korean actor who played Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s 2003 classic tale of retribution and revenge, Oldboy), is a Korean who learns of the accidental death of Doruji, a Nepali man who worked in his brother’s factory somewhere in Korea. At his brother’s request, Choi decides to return the cremated remains of Doruji to his wife and children, a pre-teen son and a baby, who live in the Nepali village of Jharkot (3,519 m), a small village about 11 kms east of Kagbeni. When he reaches the village and meets Doruji’s family, he is unable to reveal that Doruji is dead and, instead, says he is fine and hands over money to the wife and a football for the son. The wife (whose name is not revealed but is played by the Nepali actress, Tsering Kipale Gurung) is suspicious (‘Why no letter; why won’t you (Choi) call him?’) but invites Choi into her home to stay as long as he wants. Choi accepts the invitation and from that point on the movie becomes more a documentary about life in a Nepali village with many vignettes: the wife’s aging father constantly clickety-clacking his Buddhist mani wheel (a hand-held prayer wheel); the wife at her weaving loom and churning po cha (Tibetan butter tea made from a very dark Tibetan tea leaf, yak’s milk, butter made from yak’s milk, and salt; something I was strongly advised to avoid!); the gleaming copper cooking pots neatly stacked on shelves; cows tethered just outside the front door; the women of the village making rakshi, a strong alcoholic spirit made from millet or rice; the wife picking nits from her son’s head, washing her own hair with just a bowl and a saucepan, and openly breastfeeding her baby both in the home and outside in the village; the boy feeding a baby goat by filling his own mouth with goat’s milk and then dribbling it down the throat of the goat; and the wife spinning the wheels along a wall of prayer wheels when she, finally, learns the truth about what has happened to her husband.
Outside the home, we see porters walking adeptly up mountain trails carrying a heavy load whilst wearing just flip-flops on their feet (Crocs are also popular); Choi suffering from AMS as he struggles in the 3,519 m altitude of Jharkot; Choi crossing over the wide Kali Gandaki river on a steel suspension bridge festooned by prayer flags; Buddhist monks chanting in their gompa (monastery) and making their way ceremonially along a mountain trail; herds of goats moving through the village; snow-capped majestic mountains under a clear-blue sky; and evidence of the constant wind in this region of Nepal. (We encountered this wind when we entered the Mustang Valley. Going north to Lo Manthang, it’s mostly on your back and thus tolerable. Returning to Kagbeni, it’s in your face and populated by tiny grains of sand. I was thankful I had a face mask.)
The only things missing from the film are the beautiful yaks, the dal bhat evening dinners, the chortens (religious monuments, also known as stupas), prayer walls created from lines of stones on which are written various Buddhist mantras, the often very dangerous electrics in the homes, the piles of dried yak or cow dung used as fuel for cooking, and the dreaded Asian-squat hole-in-the-ground toilets.
The movie has virtually no dialogue. Choi speaks no Nepali; the wife no Korean. The only common language is a smattering of English spoken brokenly by Choi and by the son. Thus we could describe this movie as a 5-minute drama that becomes a 90-minute narrator-less documentary when Choi is seen in a taxi in Kathmandu at the start of his journey to Jharkot.
If you have a curiosity about life in rural Nepal up in the mountains, With A Girl of Himalaya is very accurate with its many depictions. If you have trekked in the Himalaya and wish to recall some of the sights and sounds of your experiences in the villages and tea houses, With A Girl In Himalaya will do just that. But, if you are looking for a full-blown drama set in the mountains of Nepal, you would be better of with alternative movies such as those listed here.
Footnote. If this film interests you and you want to read more about our three treks in the Himalaya, take a look at my 2015 ebook, Tales from the Trails Part 2: non-UK Trails, or the Part 1 + Part 2 paperback version published in 2019, Tales from the Trails.