Sunday, April 8, 2012

Off the Shelf: Nine Queens, 3-Iron and Omagh

Given that it's a holiday weekend, our readers just might find more time to catch up on some movie watching. Rather than recommend some new titles, ones that will already be in demand at your better DVD stores, here are some perhaps less-in-demand foreign-language gems to cozy up to:

Nine Queens is a polished and vastly entertaining caper film that puts the sting back into the con. Argentinian director Fabian Bielinsky, in his award-winning feature debut, smoothly amuses the audience with a deftly elaborate shell game. He provides a divertingly sharp character study that cleverly examines the question of honour among thieves.

Juan (Gaston Pauls) is a small-time crook who gets caught conning a convenience store clerk. Marcos (Ricardo Darin), a big-time swindler, steps in to "arrest" him – with the hope of recruiting him for a bigger job. Soon Marcos's sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), contacts him from a luxury hotel where Juan and Marcos team up for a ruse to obtain a counterfeit collection of some extremely rare stamps known as the Nine Queens. Since they have a buyer already in mind, their plan seems airtight – until other scam artists and derailed strategies send their promising racket into comic episodes of misadventure.

In Nine Queens, the performances turn out to be as smartly deceptive as the story. Ricardo Darin demonstrates some of the same suave malevolence that Allan Rickman often displays in his charming villainous roles. Gaston Pauls also shows sly discernment as the supposedly innocent Juan. The stunningly attractive Leticia Bredice struts through the picture alluringly with fiery self-possession, never overplaying her hand. Unlike some popular caper pictures, which can turn horribly precious, Nine Queens never becomes cute, or pander to the audience in the manner of George Roy Hill's The Sting. The movie is evenly measured and quietly pulls the rug out from under you. While the film may not have some of the shivering malice of Stephen Frears' The Grifters, Nine Queens still manages to play a winning hand.

Jae Hee & Lee Seung-yeon in 3-Iron

When South Korean director Kim Ki-duk depicts the conflict between his culture's feudal traditions and modern democracy, his films usually swing madly between the contemplative (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring) and the violently garish (Address Unknown). In 3-Iron, which earned him a Best Director prize at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, he finally finds a harmonious balance between the two extremes.

During the day, Tae-suk (Jae Hee) is a homeless motorcycle courier who delivers brochures door-to-door. By night, he breaks into residences whose owners are away – but not to rob them. Tae-suk occupies their homes as if they were his own. (He even fixes their broken appliances.) One evening, though, he enters the lodging of Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), an abused wife in a deeply disconsolate marriage. After helping her escape the clutches of her violent spouse, Tae-suk and Sun-hwa quickly discover that they are kindred spirits on the run. 3-Iron, with its subtle touch of the supernatural, is an oddly funny love story about dispossessed soul-mates who ultimately unlock each other's hearts.

Gerard McSorely and family in Omagh

There's a substantial list of powerful films about the Irish Troubles (In the Name of the Father and Bloody Sunday spring immediately to mind), and Omagh, which won the Discovery Prize at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival, certainly earns a place on that list. Based on the horrifying 1998 IRA bombing in the Northern Ireland town of Omagh, it became the single greatest catastrophe of the entire conflict, killing 31 people. The movie examines with delicate intimacy a family that loses its son in the explosion and how the father (Gerard McSorely) becomes a reluctant leader of an Omagh Self-Help Support Group. Over the course of the picture, the organization leads a tireless investigation into the incident with the goal of bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Gerard McSorely, who was a convincingly scary thug in the otherwise negligible Veronica Guerin, is heart-breakingly empathetic here trying to be a father, husband and political spokesman. But if Omagh has a shortcoming, it's that the opening scenes leading up to the bombing are so unnervingly well edited and staged that it's hard to recover enough to delve into the chamber drama to follow. Besides being a complex and calmly paced examination of the political machinations that continually stonewall the organization, Omagh is also a deeply wounding portrait of family simply trying to come to terms with their grief.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Randy Newman's American Dreams). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.

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