New Releases 07/30/13

Top Hits
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (action, Dwayne Johnson. Rotten Tomatoes: 28%. Metacritic: 41. From Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times review: “A couple of surprises await fans of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a follow-up to the 2009 moneymaker G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Those surprises will not be spoiled here because, this being yet another film inspired by a Hasbro toy, the movie’s other main attributes are noise and heavy weaponry.” Read more…)

The Bitter Buddha (stand-up comedy, Eddie Pepitone. Rotten Tomatoes: 94%. Metacritic: 72. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ New York Times review: “A rough-hewed and admiring portrait of the 54-year-old comedian Eddie Pepitone, The Bitter Buddha will, like its subject, struggle to appeal to a wider audience than comedy geeks and professional dyspeptics. Like a less focused and more self-punishing Lewis Black, Mr. Pepitone is a ranter, railing against the mediocrity of the modern world in a raspy whine that often rises to a bellow. [As one colleague slyly remarks, ‘I love to watch him but not listen to him.’] Offstage, however, this Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-based Buddha [a possible allusion to his ice cream-induced belly as well as his meditation practice] seems more cuddly than crabby, playing with his beloved cats and hanging out with his girlfriend.” Read more…)

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (animated action, C. Thomas Howell [voice])

New Blu-Ray
G.I. Joe: Retaliation

New Foreign
The Bronte Sisters (France, historical drama, Isabelle Huppert)

New Documentaries
War on Whistleblowers: Free Press & the National Security State (politics, civil liberties, government secrecy. From Stuart Klawans New York Times review: “Seriousness of purpose is brought low by the banana peel of slipshod craft in War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State, the latest film from Robert Greenwald and his busy documentary workshop, Brave New Foundation. Following martial and revelatory titles like Uncovered: The War on Iraq, Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and Koch Brothers Exposed, War on Whistleblowers presents stories of government employees who discovered wrongdoing, brought the evidence to their superiors and at last, after encountering neglect or resistance, took the information to the news media, to the benefit of the public but the detriment of their families and careers.” Read more…)

Rob Harmon’s Recommendations 07/30/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksPIETÁ (dir. Kim Ki-duk, 2012)

If ever there were a person trapped in a Buddhist-hell of continuous earthly suffering it is Lee Kang-do (Lee Jung-jin), the central character of PIETÁ. As the hired muscle for a seedy loan shark he patrols the grimy, downtrodden machine shops of Seoul, tracking down those who have reneged on their debts and collecting his own twisted form of compensation, crippling his victims so that his boss can collect the insurance money stemming from their “accidents.” What’s worse, Kang-do almost seems to enjoy what he does and as, the film progresses, the urban landscape around him becomes as cluttered with his hobbling victims as the space around Jacob Marley is by ghosts. Day-in, day-out, Kang-do shambles through this chilling vacuum-of-an-existence, seemingly knowing no other way to live.

Into this void one day is injected an older woman named Jang Mi-sun (Jo Min-su), who mysteriously follows Kang-do around on his daily routines before approaching him and telling him that she is the mother who had abandoned him years before. Kang-do scoffs at this and proceeds to subject her to every manner of humiliation possible, trying to get her out of his way, until finally convincing himself that she must, after all, be his mother. Kang-do begins to soften and change but, unfortunately, karma is closing in on him fast and a startling revelation about Mi-sun’s character will ultimately seal his fate.

The unrelentingly stark atmosphere of Pietà is daunting and bleak, with Kang-do resembling what might have been the result if one of the abandoned children-from-hell of either Luis Buñuel’s LOS OLVIDADOS or Hector Babenco’s PIXOTE had been allowed to reach full maturity in an ancient Greek tragedy. Indeed, Kim strips bare and refuses to sentimentalize the machinations of capitalism, showing how the wealthy prey upon the lowest classes, portraying a world where every human body has a price, no matter how cheap. The first half of the film, with the naked light of Kim’s camera firmly fixed on the scorched-earth of Lee’s empty existence, can be extremely hard to watch at times. But—having said that—the film pays handsome dividends to those adventurous enough to see it through to its end. The conclusion is particularly rich, with both main characters – karmic-ally speaking, left with no place to go – moving inexorably toward painful redemption, at last allowing some light to filter into this purgatory.

Special mention should made of the performances by the two leads: Jo Min-su is heartbreaking in an incredibly difficult role while Lee Jung-jin—his face a mask of pain and suffering early on—manages to bring life even to this monstrous character.

Critic André Bazin once famously summarized the filmmaking philosophy of Erich von Stroheim thus: “Take a close look at the world, keep on doing so, and in the end it will lay bare for you all its cruelty and its ugliness.”  Kim Ki-duk’s Pietà proves that such a withering stare will ultimately reveal beauty, as well.

Though Pietà was winner of the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film festival (surprisingly, the first Korean film to do so) Kim Ki-duk has long been established as one of the poets laureate of the new Korean cinema, his films with their stark and erotic imagery, sparse dialogue and quiet, hermetically-sealed environments, and focus on allegorical situations and Buddhist transformation making him a fixture on the stage of world cinema.  Many of his uniquely searing, uncompromising parables, from THE ISLE (2000) and SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER… AND SPRING (2003) to 3-IRON (2004) and THE BOW (2005), are available in our Korean section.

Interestingly, two other films made by prominent Korean directors in recent years have similarly dealt with the theme of motherhood (or grandmother-hood, as it happens) in an unflinching and thought-provoking way: Bong Joon-ho’s aptly titled MOTHER (2009) and Lee Chang-dong’s POETRY (2010).