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‘Man on Fire’ Shows the Key to the Revenge Genre is Relatability

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It’s okay to admit it: when someone does us wrong, we want them punished, and the more severe the crime, the worse the consequences should be. The reaction is instinctual, deeply ingrained. Justice? Possibly. But more often than not it’s a feeling derived from someplace darker. Someplace more personal. Someplace sweeter…

Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but one of the best films ever made about it is nothing short of sweltering. Tony Scott’s 2004 masterpiece Man on Fire is a supremely satisfying take on the “I’m going to kill them all” genre, a blazing standout in the crowd of Death Wish sequels and Liam Neeson movies that rises above such pulp material and pinpoints exactly what makes these types of stories so popular in the first place: accountability. Deep down, we all want our enemies to suffer their punishment — and even more than that, we’d love to be the one doing the punishing. Of course, that doesn’t mean we act upon such thoughts; society usually doesn’t permit it, common morality is typically against it, and we often don’t have the cajones anyway. But watching someone else live out this fantasy, reveling in the guilty party being forced to eat just desserts fed to them by the righteous hero, a former victim that has decided to take matters into his or her hands, is pure vicarious bliss.

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I wonder if this will ever come in handy…

But for this kind of film to work the first requirement is that the main character — the protagonist — must be relatable. A cyborg terminator laying waste to everyone in his path might be cool, but is hard to connect to. Likewise can be said of superheroes, whose mutant alien powers are not exactly something in line with the common human. In Man on Fire, Denzel Washington plays Creasy, an ex-CIA operative and former Force Recon Marine. Yes, he is a highly-trained killing machine, the likes of which most people could never quite understand, but the filmmakers (including excellent writer Brian Helgeland) wisely give him very human weaknesses. Creasy suffers from extreme guilt over the terrible things he has done, and this has shut him down, sending him spiraling further into alcoholic depression. He is a person, with flaws and a conscience that most can identify with, and when he mulls over a special bullet he has prepared for a certain task, we can’t help but feel for him.

Out of options, Creasy is hired by a wealthy couple in Mexico City to serve as bodyguard to their nine year-old daughter. He does his duty, but keeps an emotional distance, refusing to commit to actually caring about anything; hope doesn’t come easy. But the avenger must have happiness, something to be tragically stolen from him, and this is delivered through the eventual bonding between himself and the little girl, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Bit by bit she tears down the wall he has erected, a constant reminder of what is innocent and good in this world. When Pita is ultimately kidnapped, Creasy’s ray of hope — the best chance of pulling him out of the smothering darkness — is gone, presumed dead. He was just starting to believe again that life was worth living. Big mistake, hombres.

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For those of you unfamiliar with what you’re seeing here, it’s called “character development”

Retribution is a reactive act. The logic of it only exists as long as the emotion behind it persists. For some that can last decades, while for others a few minutes will cool their heads. A revenge movie has to make sure that the audience’s anger toward the antagonist lasts up to the anticipated climax, and this is no easy feat. Too often these sorts of movies concentrate on the villain, emphasizing how bad he or she is by providing us with numerous examples of dastardly deeds perpetrated. Instead of helping, this usually has contrary results, as the audience becomes desensitized and increasingly disconnected. There is even a tendency in this type of approach to slip over the edge into cartoonish supervillainy, further lessening the impact of the tragedy by removing the reality. No, our enemies aren’t the key to our hate. As Man on Fire knows, the genesis of this raw emotion actually lies within the heroes — the substitute for ourselves.

You want to instill the same desire for wrath in your audience that Creasy has toward the kidnappers? Then spend time with Creasy. And Pita. And especially the two of them together. What Man on Fire does so well is establish an emotional attachment to its characters by actually giving us a chance to watch and like them. This is what is important; if we feel emotionally protective of these people, their eventual hurt will reverberate through us that much stronger, and sustain that much longer. Their seething anger will be understandable instead of judged by clucking tongues who know better. The pivotal incident that propels the story happens a full forty-five minutes into the movie — something nearly unheard of in typical schlock fare where the producers want to dive right into the action — but this buildup is worth it. When the decision to act is made, we are now 100% on Creasy’s side, violated ourselves, equally outraged and seeking payback. And boy, do we get it.

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This is completely warranted, I assure you

The last ingredient in the stew of reprisal is the actual reprisal itself. We love the heroes, hate the villains, and now it’s time to see them get theirs. Smartly, Creasy’s victories are not achieved through a Rambo-like invincibility, but through a more stealthy, sophisticated, intelligently believable way that keeps the character grounded and our connection intact. He is not invincible — not by a longshot — and the tension derived from his mortality only increases the desire for him to succeed. This is no moment to hold back, and Man on Fire doesn’t, not one bit. Creasy goes on a murderous rampage filled with flame and blood, tracking down all those responsible and making them feel his pain. I’m not ashamed to admit that this violent, merciless part of the movie never wears on me, and instead has the opposite effect as each successive victim earns righteous applause. This is not vigilantism; it’s a therapeutic reckoning, and most importantly, when the end comes, the results are logically sound and emotionally satisfying. Aaah…

Revenge is not usually looked at as a moral outcome to pursue, but revenge movies serve a necessary purpose. Bad things happen all the time to us in this world without justice, perpetuating imbalance. Often we are powerless to do anything about this and have to live with that, but the frustration still exists. Watching someone act out these sorts of fantasies gives us hope that we too can gain some small measure of control over our lives. Man on Fire expertly releases some of the tension better than almost any revenge movie I’ve seen, making the world seem right again viewing after viewing, one sweet, cold dish at a time.

Patrick Murphy grew up in the hearty Midwest, where he spent many winter hours watching movies and playing video games while waiting for baseball season to start again. When not thinking of his next Nintendo post or writing screenplays to satisfy his film school training, he’s getting his cinema fix as the Editor of Sordid Cinema, Goomba Stomp's Film and TV section.

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‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot

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Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker

The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.

The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.

The Kingmaker Imelda

Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016. 

For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.

We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them. 

But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein. 

The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day. 

And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.

The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory. 

Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject. 

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‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past

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Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.

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After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.

The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.

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The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.

However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.

A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.

Rojo teens

Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?

The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.

‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.

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‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire

Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.

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Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous. 

This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection. 

Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom. 

When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness). 

These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us. 

Queen of Hearts

Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results. 

Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.

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