Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Dark Night


Directed by Christopher Nolan

It is indeed rare that a film can not only meet the type of unbridled expectations the public had for "The Dark Night" but surpass them altogether. Christopher Nolan's latest chapter in the "Batman" series is head and shoulders above any previous "Batman" film, one of the best action films in recent memory and possibly the best superhero movie ever. Seriously.

"The Dark Night" is set in a Gotham that finally seems to be pulling itself up by the bootstraps and cleaning up its streets. The local mob bosses are feeling the squeeze as Batman has made their day to day lives increasingly difficult and the new DA, Harvey Dent, is threatening to garnish their millions in assets. Fearing that Dent may indeed rob them of their ill gotten gains, Gotham's mobsters hire a shady Hong Kong businessman to funnel the money out of the country. Batman flies off to Hong Kong to retrieve the mobsters banker only to return to city that is being thrown into chaos by the violent and unpredictable Joker who has made it his mission to throw Gotham into total choas. What follows is an elaborate cat and mouse game between Batman and The Joker that is not only visually awesome but resonates with truth in the way it treats the morality of its individuals.

I always feel stupid gushing about a film without restraint, but it isn't a stretch to say that "The Dark Night" is an almost flawless action film. This is an epic, engorssing film in the very best senses of the words, ressembling at times "the War of the Worlds" or "Heat" more than any of the previous Batman movies. The film's lenght, which at two hours and thirty minutes at first had me worried, flies by at an almost seemless pace bombarding viewers with scene after scene of jaw dropping action that basically beats any skepticsism into wordless submission. Some of the action sequences, most particularly the Joker's assissination attempt on Harvey Dent, are worth the price of admission alone and left me, and every onc else in the audience, on the edge of our seats. Beyond the film's action which is undeniably superb, "The Dark Night" boasts characters that are far removed from the semi three dimensional characters that are the norm in action films and even in most "serious" Hollywood fare. Chrisopher Nolan has taken a series that was often cartoonish and essentially geared towards younger audiences and breathed new life into it by infusing levels of psychological nuance into his characters that almost toally foreign to action films, let alone the "Batman" series. Bruce Wayne is no longer a suave but uncompromisingly honest superhero whose moral campus always lines up perfectly with the wishes of Gotham's residents or his even his own desires. Rather, Nolan has turned him into a tortured, almost reluctant superhero who at every step of the way must question his reasons for doing good in a world that is so evil and has put him face to face with The Joker, a villain that is governed by no morality whatsoever, no code of conduct or ethical creed and wants only to see chaos rule the day.

"The Dark Night" fully deserves whatever box office records it breaks and whatever accolades or awards it is given. I can only hope that the Academy, which often makes laughably poor decisions ("and this year's Oscar for Best Picture...Crash!) fully realizes that "The Dark Night" isn't just a riveting action film but a true masterpiece of the genre that boasts top flight actors giving in top flight performances, most notably Ledger whose performance as the Joker practically dominates the film. A monumental achievement and an action film of the first order, go out and see "The Dark Night" on the big screen if you haven't already. You'll regret it if you don't.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Another Public Enemy


Directed by Woo-Suk Kang

My regular readers (hi, mom!) will remember that a few days ago I posted a glowing review for "The Rebel" stating that its action sequences were the most exciting I had seen put to screen since watching the first three minutes of "Another Public Enemy." I still stand by that statement, which may seem surprising due to the low rating I gave Woo-Suk Kang's cop flick. The fact is that the first few minutes of APE are, without a shred of doubt, truly awesome but that the action unfortunately stops there and never picks up again, an inexcusable crime for an action film.

The plot of APE is your standard cop saga fare as Chung Jul Kang, a public prosecutor, tries to take down the corrupt and morally bankrupt Sang Woo-Han, a local golden boy businessman who is also Chung Jul Kang's old high school nemesis. As stated above, the film begins brilliantly, with a flashback to Ching Jul Kang and Sang Woo-Han's high school days when a royal rumble of truly biblical proportions breaks out between their high school ands a crosstown rival institution. The violence is completely unhinged and hilarious and delightfully mimicked some of the cartoonish violence found in earlier Hong Kong action films. Once that action is done, we cut to the present day where Chung Jul Kang and his boys at the prosectors office are preparing a bust on a local crime boss. Just like that, another drawn out, wild bit of mayhem is unleashed as their takedown devolves into an all out brawl between local law enforcement (who all seem to wear leather jackets and jeans to work) and local criminals (who also wear leather jackets and jeans to work).

These few minutes of action alone are worth the price of a rental, trust me. Once they are through, however, not much of interest is left in APA. Indeed, the energy of the film's promising debut is quickly sapped and replaced by a plodding, Law and Order-esque storyline that is shockingly devoid of both action and intrigue. The characters are well fleshed out and the acting is solid but the film's denouement is a foregone conclusion and just getting there is laborious and yawn worthy, criticisms that should really sound the death knell of any self respecting action flick.

Saturday, July 19, 2008



Directed by Jaume Belaguero

One of the nice things about Fantasia, in my opinion at least, is that most of the films on display have not done the major film festival circuit or been relased to a wide enough audience worldwide for any type of critical consensus or "buzz" to be available about them yet. As such, there is often no real way of knowing for sure if the film you are about to watch is going to blow your socks off or be a total stinker. Not so with "REC," probably one of the most anticipated films to ever be shown at Fantasia, having already been lauded by critics worldwide and won a number of Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent oft he Oscars.

The buzz is well deserved. "REC" is one of the most frightening, tense, and visceral film experiences you will likely ever experience, as it uses every single frame to craft an almost pitch perfect horror film that stands up against anything in the genre I have watched in a long, long time.

"REC" begins in a Barcelona fire department where local TV personality Angela and her cameraman Paulo are working on a segment unoriginally entitled "While you were Asleep" which will focus on oncovering the nocturnal activities of firemen. Their undeniably boring feature is mercilessly spiced up when the fir department receives a call from a nearby apartment building where tenants claim that an elderly lady is stuck in her apartment. Angela and Paulo tag along, hoping to infuse their feature with some much needed excitement. Once they arrive, however, the supposedly routine intervention turns into an emergency when the elderly lady visciously attacks a police officer. Hoping to get the badly injured officer some vital medical help, the firemen are shocked to find out that the apartment building has been sealed from the outside by the health authorities and no one is allowed to leave the premises.

Working on roughly the same premise as "28 Days Later," "REC" takes the terror to a whole new level by locking everyone up in a cramped apartment building and letting the nightmare unfold. The film, at a very paltry 75 minutes running time, doesn't even worry about character development or any type of backstory, choosing rather to thow us right into the fray while the terror escalates. The brevity of the film is actually beneficial as the lack of unecessary dialogue or character develoment allows the film to progress at a torid pace, the scares coming at an almost merciless clip. Easily one of the scariest and most masterfully concocted horror films I've ever watched, "REC" is not recommended for those with weak hearts as this one may very well send you to an early death.

Handle me with Care


Directed by Kongdej Jaturunrutasamee

Kongdej Jaturunrutasamee's "Handle me with Care" is the story of a boy named Kwan who had the poor fortune of beeing born with three arms. Although his extra limb can come in useful in some cases, such as for sorting letters or playing volleyball, Kwan ultimaterly tires of his third arm due to the incessant and negative attention it brings to him from the townspeople. Feeling that it is finally time for him to part with his surplus appendage, Kwan takes off for Bangkok to undergo a potentially deadly procedure that will free him, once and for all, from his cumbersome burden. On his way to beautiful Bangkok (yeah right!) he comes accross the beautiful Na who he saves from an attempted roadside rape. Na feels Kwan's pain because she too is the recipient of unwelcome stares and leering due to her ample bosom. This part of the plot flummoxed me for two reaons, however, firstly because having large breasts is not nearly in the same league as having a third arm and secondly because Na's cans, although undeniably pleasing, were not disproportionately large. Did this make me sound like a perv? Hopefully not because it's a major plot point and I was just trying to uh...clarify some inconsistencies...

Anyways, back to the film. "Handle me with Care" could have easily turned into a film such as the recently released "Penelope" where we all learn that what is on the inside counts and were beautiful no matter what, blah, blah, blah. Although the morale of "Handle me with Care" indeed is that almost everyone has something about their appearance they don't like and that feelings of physical inadequacy are quasi-universla, Jaturunrutasamee does a good job of nuancing this ultimately valuable life lesson with a healthy dose of sympathy and understanding for Kwan's predicament. Kwan never has an "Ah-ha!' moment where he learns that his third arm is a part of who is and those around him must learn to accept him for who he is. Rather, Jaturunrutasamee takes a much more realistic approach towards Kwan's predicament by reminding us that Kwan will never be normal as long as he has three arms but then by suggesting that maybe being normal isn't all it's cracked up to be anyways. Jaturunrutasamee's handling of what is at first ludicrious subject matter is so restrained that "Handle me with Care" turns into a sort of quiet meditation on identity and self worth that succeeds in truly conveyong the emotional state of both Kwan and Na as they struggle with their own feelings of inadequacy, revealing emotional depth that is almost completely foreign to romantic comedies.

Highly recommended for date night.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Detective


Directed by Oxide Pang

The Pang Brothers (Oxide and Danny) have had a career trajectory that reminds me somewhat of M. Night Shyamalan's. After making a number of heralded indie releases in their naitve Thailand, the brothers first internationally released film, "The Eye," garnered them considerable global acclaim. Since then, however, the Pang brothers have failed to release anything that comes close to matching "The Eye," just like Shyamalan has never duplicated the success of "The Sixth Sense." The biggest difference between the Pang Brothers and Shyamalan, however, is that Danny and Oxide Pang's releases since "The Eye" have only been guilty of mediocrity whereas everything Shyamalan has made since the "Sixth Sense" has been awful.

Which brings us the "The Detective," the newest release by the Pang Brothers, although this feature was directed by Oxide alone without the help of Danny. The film' s plot revolves around Tam, a Bangkok P.I. who, while trying to track down a woman who allegedly wants to kill one of his bar buddies, stumbles accross a string of grisly murders. As Tam continues his investigation the bodies keep piling up and he begins to think that maybe all the carnage is somehow related and is pointing him towards something more sinister than he may have originally suspected. Mwahahaha!!!

This is, in some ways, a return to form for at least one of the Pang brothers since, as a reviewer for lovehkfilm put it, "The Detective" actually fulfills some of its obvious potential, a feat that the Pang Brothers post-"Eye" films never managed to do. Indeed, "The Detective," although quite pedestrian as far as detective flicks go, is nonetheless intriguing throughout and benefits from the Pang Brothers undeniable flair for eye catching visuals, beautifully capturing the cramped streets of Bangkok's Chinatown. The Bangkok Tourism authority should probably send Oxide a hockey bag full of baht because "The Detective" made Bangkok look way better than the sweaty slab of concrete overrun by sex tourists I recall it being when I visited...

Now that I've grinded my axe, I will say that "The Detective" is a succesfull if not completely riveting or mind blowing take on the detective film.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Rebel


Directed by Charlie Nguyen

Brilliantly paced and choreographed, "The Rebel" is the most pleasant surprise I have had at Fantasia this year and contains some of the most exciting and enjoyable action I have seen put to film since I watched the first three minutes of "Another Public Enemy" last night.

The film centers around Le Van Cuong, a foreign educated Vietnamese public servant who, while minding his own business one fine Saigon afternoon, gets stuck in the middle of a hit orchestrated by a peasant rebel group on a french public official of some sort who, judging by his white on white suit and shirt combo, was probably in Saigon to open up a new KFC. Badam-PISH!
Did I mention the action takes place in Colonial Vietnam during French rule? Because it does.

Although the french official targeted by the hit tragically takes one to the gut, Le Van Cuong and his evil colleague Sy manage to capture the beautiful Vo Than Thuy, daughter of the rebellion's leader and general eye candy. Sy tortures Vo Than Tuy for awhile until Le Van Cuong starts thinking with his groin rather than his brain and helps her escape. They eventually escape Saigon and hit the (dirt) highway together for a road trip of romance and complex fight sequences. Unfortunately for them they are tailed by Sy who believes that Thuy will lead him to her father's hideaway.

The very generic nature of "The Rebel" is not at all a drawback to the film since the plot is mostly there in order to set up awesome fight scenes which "The Rebel" delivers in spades. For the first forty and last thirty minutes of the film it seems that the movie is one, non-stop fight scene that skips from place to place. In the first half hour of the film, main characters fight in exotic settings such as:

1) A colonial mansion

2) A forced labor camp

3) An opium den

4) The harbor front

5) A Saigon jail

And that's just in the first thirty minutes! Charlie Nguyen obviously knows what the audience is there to see and does a commendable job of delivering it in bountiful proportions. Sure, he tosses in some romance here and there and some added bits of emotional intrigue, but this movie is all about the action and in this respect the film is basically flawless as the extremely well choreographed, riveting fight scenes follow each other at a blistering clip. "The Rebel" is 90 minutes of cinematic steroids and I truly pity the fool who doesn't feel like getting an injection.

May 18


Directed by Kim Ji-Hun

South Korea, one of the world's most prosperous, educated, and progressive nations, harbors a history of governmental repression that many Westerners unfortunately are either only vaguely aware of or ignore altogether. Following the Korean War, a string of a authoritarian, often violently repressive military leaders established succesive juntas that promoted market capitalism while at the same time brutally crushing opposition. The result was a Korean nation that, although flourishing economically throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, was doing so at the expense of it's population basic human rights. The excesses of the military regimes were no more obvious than during the Gwangju Massacre which took place in late May of 1980 in which hundreds of Korean civilians were murdered in cold blood by the Korean army, presumably under the orders of the government. The event remains one of the darkest periods in Korean history and a source of bitter and vocal resentment towards the alleged perpatrators of the massacre, most notably former president Chun Doo Hwan.

Kim Ji-Hun's "May 18" attempts to capture the events almost three decades later and, in my opinion, does a lamentably poor job of it. The film revolves around two brothers,, as we all love intrest,, as they go from living peaceful, noraml lives to being thrust in the middle of the bloody Gwangju uprising, in which Gwangju's citizens rather valiantly repulsed the armies advances for several days before being violently crushed on the 27th of May. The film chooses to portray this extremely sobbering and painful event through a mix of melodrama, action, romance and comedy, a cocktail that frankly does not suit such heavy subject matter. Indeed, a historical event such as the Gwangju Massacre, which truly was one of the most repulsive single instances of governmental abuse in the second half of the 20th century, doesnt need to be repackaged as a romantic dramedy and likely shouldn't since such handling of the subject matter often comes off as insincere. This reality was understood no better than by Paul Greengrass whose 2002 film "Bloody Sunday" is the perfect example of the right way to depict a civilian massacre, namely to simply show the incident as it occured, with no frills, no romance, no light comedy or dramatic touches. Tragedies such as the Gwangju Massacre or Bloody Sunday were heartbreaking and maddening enough that simply presenting them as they occured is enough to trigger a visceral reaction of disgust, sympathy, and agner from the audience, something "May 18" never manages to do.

I have no doubt that Kim Ji-Hun's attempts at dealing with this heavy subject matter were benuine and I certainly am wary of accusing a South Korean director of not doing justice to an event that happened in his own country and one which I had no first hand experience with. Nevertheless, I came out of "May 18" disappointed that a film about such an awful event seemed to have been crafted in a way that would sell tickets as oppose to remind the world that Chun Doo Hwan, Roh Tae woo and all the other military leaders of South Korea were pretty big bastards.

Chasing World


Directed by Issei Shibata

Adapted from the popular manga by Yasuke Yamada, "Chasing World" tells the story of one Tsusuba Sato who, in the midst of a fistfight with some local bullies, mysteriously warps into a parrallel universe where Japan is now an empire, ruled by an evil, iron mask wearing king who has decreed a deadly game of catch where all the Satos of Japan must be captured...and killed!
If the premise sounds like "Battle Royale" and youre getting ready to download the torrent file as we speak, save your bandwith. "Chasing World" never appraoches the genius that was "Battle Royale" and even in its finest moments is only mildly entertaining. The game of tag itself, which is by far the most exciting part of the film, doesn't last nearly long enough and is over all too soon (although I'm sure the surviving Satos would humbly disagree with that view) The film suffers from hilarious low production standards, so much so that an unsuspecting viewer who walked in half way and didn't here the charaters conversing in Japanese would probably believe they had stepped right into the middle of a Cambodian music video. The movie appears to have been shot on 8MM film with no lighting and no sound technician, giving it the overall visual flair of a graduation ceremony captured on camcorder. The costumes are equally hilrious, as the "king of Japan" dons a ridiculous metal mask and suit of armor that looks like a cross between the cotumes of Darth Vader and Ivanhoe. His royal court looks like an someone's emptied garage, which it may very well have been considering the rest of "Chasing World's" decidedly "budget-friendly" trappings. As a final complaint, I must say that the soundtrack, which the Fantasia people claimed was "melancholy classical" sounded rather like Mark Mothersbaugh as interpreted by Robert Lamm.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Millennium Mambo


Directed by Hou Hsiao Hsien

Taiwanese filmmaker Hou Hsiao Hsien has since the early eighties built up an impressive catalogue of understated, beautiful films that have garnered him considerable and well deserved international praise. Many of Hsiao Hsien's films focus on disaffected, lonely youths and their efforts to come to grips with issues of emotional complexity that are often far beyond their understanding. In "Millennium Mambo," the film's heroine, Vicky, (played perfectly by Qi Shu) is in such a situation, living with an emotionally and physically abusive boyfriend who she nonetheless feels compelled to stay with. Vicky and her boyfriend have no job, no money, and spend their days sleeping or doing drugs and their nights partying in one of Taipei's many clubs It is in one of these clubs that she meets Jack, a Yakuza who seems to take a genuine, almost paternalistic interest in her.

In many ways "Millenium Mambo" goes where many, many films have gone before, insofar as the principal intrigue revolves around the question of if the abused, emotionally scarred heroine will finally see her man for what he truly is and break free from her persecution and begin to live life anew. Despite Hsou Hsiao Hsen's undeniable mastery as a director and storyteller, he unfortunately doesn't give us that much more insight into situations of domestic abuse than other lesser directors have in the past. What Hsiao Hsen does succeed in doing, however, is masterfully conveying Vicky's emotional state, contrasting moments of supreme happiness and bliss with others of dismal boredom or crushing anguish in a way that is as effective as it is emotionally resonent since it becomes painfully obvious that for Vicky happiness is something that is seemingly always just beyond her reach.

Although "Millenium Mambo" is far from being Hsou Hsiao Hsen's most accomplished work, it is without a doubt his most visually appealing film due to the brilliant work of cinematographer Pin Bing Lee who, along with Chris Doyle, is in my opinion one of the two best cinematographers working today. "Millennium Mambo" is Pin Bing Lee's canvas to show off his visual flair and he uses every frame to do so, bathing the screen in a kaleidescope of color and light which takes the film to a rareified level of artistry and romance that few films can match. Pin Bing Lee's work in "Millennium Mambo" thankfully did not go unnoticed as he was awarded the Technical Grand Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival.

Un Crabe dans la Tête


Directed by André Turpin

Québécois filmmakers are some of the very best in the world at capturing the emotional complexities of relationships amongst adults. Directors like Denys Arcand and Ricardo Trogi all paint accurate portraits of adults grappling with their own set of relational issues that reflect the state of Québécois society in a frank and honest way while at the same time holding an undeniably universal appeal in their characterizations of adults struggling to let go of their youth.
Alex, the main chracter of Turpin's "Un Crabe dans la Tête," is an emotionally stunted but kindhearted underwater photographer who, upon his return to Montreal after a diving accident, sets of a chain of emotionally damaging events that are in all cases caused by his desire to please everyone around him. You see, Alex is something of a casanova but one without malice, meaning only to love and be loved without breaking hearts or ruining friendships. Of course, as we all learned from watching "Alfie," the man who seeks to hurt no one often instead hurts everyone and this is exactly what happens with Alex, forcing him to reconsider his own attitudes and choices as he is faced with the stark realization of his own character flaws and personal failures.

"Un Crabe dans la Tête" succeeds in showing us Alex for who he really is, namely a dangerous man who is emotionally manipulative without appearing to be or even realizing it himself, without demonizing him or otherwise wagging a disapproving finger in his face. Instead, Alex is painted as a figure whose own naiveté in regards to his actions and emotional immaturity is in the end as destructive for him as it is for others. Although Alex's character is so effortlessly and completely developed by Turpin that he could practically jump through the screen at the end of the movie, a major drawback of Turpin's film is that many of the charatcers around Alex, most notably his "girlfriend" Marie, played by the wonderful Isabelle Blais, are woefully underdeveloped and are left as semi-three dimensional, instantly forgettable chacracters.

Turpin directed music videos and commericals before getting into feature films which is apparent when watching "Un Crabe dans la Tête,"as the camera moves around the actors and their environment at a dizzying speed, choosing to rely more on extreme closeups than panoramic shots of the action. Although this technique is not always a winner and can often lead to extreme annoyance and/or epileptic fits, it serves Turpin's film well and gives it an exciting punch.



Directed by Takeshi Kitano

Takeshi Kitano is without a doubt one of Japan's most consistenly exciting and original directors which makes it all the more puzzling that he is still only marginally well known in North America. Most Western audiences familiar with Kitano probably first became acquainted with Kitano the actor, and not Kitano the director, due to his starring role in Kinji Fukasaka's "Battle Royale." This is a shame because Kitano has a number of fine directorial efforts to his name, most notably "Sonatine" which I feel is his most complete and accomplished work.

"Sonatine" revolves around Murukawa (played by Kitano), a succesful Tokyo yakuza who is sent to Okinawa with a motley crew of fellow gangsters to settle a dispute between rival factions on the island. When they arrive they are immediately double crossed and must seek refuge in a dilapidated shack on the beach until things blow over and Murukawa can go back to serve up some revenge to his former boss and his cronies.
The plot itself is much less conventional than it sounds, as most of the action in "Sonatine" does not focus on gunplay or fight scenes but rather on Murukawa's gang whiling away their time on the beach, trying to stave off boredom. In their efforts to amuse themselves they revert to childish shenanigans such as building a sumo ring out of seaweed, digging sandtraps for each other on the beachfront, having a makeshift "Rock-Em-Sock-Em Robots" tournament and even staging an epic gang battle armed with roman candles (although Murukawa breaks the rules and starts shooting at the opposing side with his .44) These moments of carelessness are, like in all of Kitano's action films, interrupted by scenes of stark violence which remind the viewer that in Kitano's world humour and cruelty are never very far apart. In this manner it resembles several other Kitano films such as "Hana-Bi" and "Violent Cop" where violence and humour serve as contrasting undercurrents to films where, on the surface at least, not much happens. "Sonatine," however, contains a mood and pace that is either absent or incomplete in his other films and in this it hoists itself above Kitano's other major works as his most realized and important achievement.


Since Fantasia unfortunately can't go on forever and since I obviously watch more than just what is offered at the city's film festivals, I have decided to include reviews of ALL films I watch, starting right now! I will not retroactively review any films that I have already seen which means my adoring readership (which I'm still pretty sure is only me at this point...) will have to wait for my opinion on "Citizen Kane," "The Seventh Seal," and "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park" until I watch them again, which in the case of "KMTPOTP" will no doubt be very, very soon.
As a disclaimer to anyone who may wants to see me savage some films, I should point out that I mostly choose to watch films I feel I will enjoy and almost never choose to subject myself to a film I will almost certainly not like (which is the reason I stopped watching Lars Von Trier films altogether) so chances are that most of the films I will review will be rated fairly highly.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Always Sunset on Third Street 2


Directed by Takashi Yamazaki

DECADE NOSTALGIA!!!! "Always Sunset on Third Street 2" is the sequel to the highly acclaimed "Always Sunset on Third Street." Can you see how the two link up? Can you???

"Always Sunset on Third Street" told the interwoven stories of a number of denizens of a Tokyo street in post-war Japan, all of whom were doing there thing and pounding out an existence in the newly modernizing Japan while at the same time keeping up a ridiculously sweet rapport with each other. "Always 2" is much of the same, as the time that has elapsed between the first and second chapters of the series is minimal and many of the same characters as the first film are still grappling with the same issues they faced in the original "Always."

"Always 2," like the first film, focuses primarily on the Suzuki family who run their own auto repair shop with the help of country girl/adoptee Ruko, as well as their neighbor, struggling writer Chagawa, and his adpoted son Junnosuke. The various different elements of plot in "Always 2" would take way too long to explain and I won't even attempt to do it here. Suffice it to say, a new member is added to the Suzuki household and Chagawa falls on hard times. Obviously though, Third Street's (actually, do they even live on Third Street? Whatever--for the purpose of this review they do) residents finds a way to get through it and everything finishes nicely for everyone. For those of who shocked at how I just spoiled the ending for you, fear not--the conclusion to the film is readily obvious after just looking at the film's poster of watching a trailer for "Always" or "Always 2" on Youtube.

For anyone out there seeking a point of comparison for "Always 2" think of "Anne of Green Gables" with a bigger budget and set in Japan. All the same elements are there, from PG-Rated romance to a sweeping score to melodrama by the bucket full. "Always 2" wears it corniness like a badge of honour though, pretty much daring the audience to remain blasé and cynical which considerably softens the effect "eww" factor on me, at least. There is not way you can sit through this movie without coming out with an aw-shucks grin on your face just because the tenants of Third Street are so sweet, caring, and selfless that a part of you probably wishes they were your neighbors.

What really sets the "Always" films apart from other works that try to conjure up longing for a bygone era is that the "Always" series actually does conjure about a past era in painstaking detail, evidenced by the fact that both films have been immensely popular with older Japanese moviegoers, many of whom actually did grow up in the fifties. The "Always" films success at bringing back memories of Japan's recent past is probably due to the extreme attention to detail and decor in both films. Set designers and costume makers often don't get enough credit and when they do it is usually for historical epics but whoever was in charge of the "Always" films did a wonderful job making the film look like the actual fifties as opposed to a film like "The Untouchables" which looked like a bunch of guys from the eighties dressing up like they were from the thirties...which it was.

"Always Sunset on Third Street 2" is a satisfying and enjoyable film whose success at the Japanese box office does not surprise me one bit. It might not be for those who enjoy their films depressing and/or nuanced but then again, maybe those types of people just need a dose of Third Street in their lives.

L: Change the World


Directed by Hideo Nakata

"L: Change the World" is the sequel to last year's "Death Note" which was the first film to be produced based on the popular manga of the same name. Being totally unfamiliar with both the manga and the previous "Death Note" film, I decided to check it out nonetheless to see what all the fuss was about.

Needless to say, the "Death Note" series enjoys cult status which was readily apparent when surveying the lineup outside the Hall Building before the filsm screening. I arrived forty minutes before the movie started only to find out that the lineup already reached the corner of Sherbrooke and McKay.

I felt like somewhat of a fraud since I was standing in the midst of hardcore "Death Note" fans yet did not even know what the premise of the series was. My Japanese friend Mutsumi tried to give me a quick rundown of the main plot points ("You see...there is a book...a notebook...a "Death Note-Book"...and people die...") but I wasn't exactly sure what the story was actually about so I just ventured into the cinema hoping that the plot wouldn't be too confusing for a noob such as myself.

The storyline of "L: Change the World" was mercifully quite straightforward although I am sure I got much less out of it than the "Death Note" junkies who would often gasp or scream as some major plot point, the importance of which I was unaware of, unfolded on screen. "L" is a reculsive genius who is in the posession of a "Death Note" which contains the names of people who will die within 23 days. He writes his own name in the book at the beginning of the film for some reason, but the main plot of the movie revolves around a group of bio-terrorists who plan on eradicating most of the world's population with the help of a super germ evil Dr. Kujo has concocted in her lab. The rest of the film is dedicated to seeing if "L" will be able to stop the terrorists on time and in the process save a variety of other bit characters who need his help.

As far as I could tell, "L: Change the World" is standard super-hero fare in the sense that "L," although frail and emo looking, is nonetheless blessed with incredible intellectual talents that, like all other super heroes, he can either use for good or for evil. He, of course, chooses to use them for good but he nonetheless has to battle internal demons and his own weaknesses in doing so. The film itself, though hardly groundbreaking, is one of the rare few that actually got significantly better as it wore on. At the beginning of the movie I thought the action was too slow paced and the "L" character annoyed me. However, as the film progressed, the pace of the film began to pick up and I began to enjoy the "L" character's quirks (he only eats sweets, walks with a considerable slouch, and only uses his thumb and index finger to pick up objects and type, ect.).
Although I have no idea how satisfied "Death Note" fans were with this latest installment in the franchise, as a "Death Note" newcomer I can say that the film suffers from no serious flaws and is a fine piece of entertainment even if it is quickly forgotten.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Shadows in the Palace


Directed by Kim Mee-jeung

I'm not sure how film financing is done in South Korea, but whereas most first time directors in North America get a limited budget and have to work with a small cast and crew, Kim Mee-jeung's directorial debut is a sweeping costume epic that employs scores of extras, an unbelievable level of decor and obviously required a very large crew to produce. Whereas many new directors churn out indie art house films if not by choice than surely due to budget contraints, Kim was busy constructing a historical chronicle that looks stunningly similar to many of Zhang Yimou's period pieces. The result is an at times spectacular and always entertaining film that combines elements of horror, crime drama, and "drame de moeurs" to form a very satisfying and succesful first effort for Kim and her crew.

"Shadows in the Palace" focuses on the intrigue, bitchiness and backstabbing of the Korean Royal Court during the Joseon Dynasty. The film opens with one of the King's mistresses' maids being found dead, apparently having commited suicide. Yet all is not as it seems and one of the court's doctors suspects that foul play is involved. This sets the stage for a murder investigation that eventually sheds light on the palace's unsurprising culture of treachery and power moves curteousy of the King's wife and concubines, all vying to get their own kin on the throne.

The film itself is quite formulaic in the sense that the plot resolves around finding out who killed the court maid and why this dastardly deed was done. The intrigue is handled competently, though, and Kim never allows the resolution of the plot take a backseat to watching a bunch of girls running around in period garb. The film also benefits (in my opinion, at least) from a series of truly grisly scenes that serve to jolt the audience and remind them that this isn't just some run of the mill period piece but rather a gigantic catfight between a number of fairly evil women, all out to grab power at any cost.

"Shadows in the Palace" also sets itself apart from other Asian historical drama's by focusing almost solely on women. Indeed, the only men to be found in "Shadows in the Palace" are there briefly and only out of necessity to the plot. The movie is very much dedicated to the ladies which reminded me a lot of "Raise the Red Lantern," a top notch period piece that also incidently focused on concubines and their various power struggles.

All in all a very satisfying and enjoyable film and a great date movie as long as your lady excuses herself to the washroom during the needles-under-the-fingernails torture scene. Eesh!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Black Belt


Directed by Shinuchi Nagasaki

"Black Belt" is one of those all too rare films that is completely predictable, (I called the finale about ten minutes into it) poorly scripted, melodramatic, poorly edited and obviously slothfully edited and yet is completelyh satisfying when the credits roll. Why is this? Because it is totally honest about what it is, namely a martial arts flick, and it delivers exactly what it says it will--martial arts!

"Black Belt" tells the tale of three karateka, Taikan, Choei, and Giryu, who see their beloved sensei die (of heartbreak, I assume) after his dojo is taken over by the corrupt commander of the local branch of the Imperial Army who wants to turn the region's dojo's into whorehouses which sounds like something the City Council of Baltimore would do. Taikan and Choei eventually split paths with Giryu who, after a particularly B-Rate fight scene, is presumed dead. He isn't, though, and while Giryu is willed back to health by a kind farmer and his young son and hot daughter, Taikan and Choei's services are enlisted by the Imperial Army. Although Choei is none too thrilled about his new line of work, Taikan relishes his new position and soon begins to help the ruthless commander/pimp take over the area's dojos. The whole thing culiminates in the clash of good and evil, right and wrong, blah, blah, blah.

Trying to find any depth in "Black Belt" would, I truly feel, pervert the mission of the film which is to be a sweet karate flick. The only value in this movie can be found in it's fight scenes which are, for the most part, awesome. Since the audience is only there (or at least SHOULD only be there) for the combat promised by the film's title, there is no reason not to be totally satisfied with "Black Belt" and feel that you were fed exactly what you were told you would be eating.

"Black Belt" is awesome for the exact same reasons that "Rocky" I, II, IV, and VI ruled so hard.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Let the Right One In


Directed by Thomas Alfredson

"Let the Right One In" is one of the films that came in with the most buzz at this year's festival and after having had the pleasure of watching it tonight, I can see why. Thomas Alfredson's reimagination of the vampire film is truly one of the most original and intelligent horror films I have ever seen and is also probably the best film I have seen all year.

The story revolves around the relationship between Oskar, a young introvert who is mercilessly bullied by a group of his classmates, and Eli, a mysterious 12 year old girl who moves in next door. Unbekownst to Oskar, Eli is a vampire who must feast on human blood every so often lest her skin begin to rot. Although the film is at its root a vampire movie and Alfredson takes pains to make sure that the action strictly abides by the rules of vampire mythology (i.e. Eli can only enter a home if she is invited into it) "Let the Right One In" is concerned primarily with exploring the growing relationship between Oskar and Eli, a relationship that, although punctuated by a fair deal of vampirish shenanigans by Eli, is not only sweet and tender but also quite believable, insofar as vampire/human romances can be. Alfredson truly spins a completely different yarn out of genre that has been forever associated with campy, B-Rate flicks or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" proving that in the right hands an entire genre of film, in this case vampire horror, can be turned into something at the same time new, exciting, and exquisite.

The film is gorgeously shot, using the "so-bland-it's-exotic" backdrop of the snowy, bleak Swedish countryside as beautiful backdrop to an equally beautiful story, and the carefully crafted images of "Let the Right One In" only add to the atmospheric and moody feel of the film.

This is by far the best film I have seen at Fantasia this year and is one of the most exciting films I have seen in a long, long time.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Beautiful Sunday


Directed by Jin Kwang Gyo

If "The Sparrow" was guilty of sucking in the audience with style only to reveal that it had no substance to it, Jin Kwang Gyo's "Beautiful Sunday" commits the opposite offense, namely of sacrificing style and structure in an effort to build a multilayered and compelling narrative. The story itself is pretty lurid, focusing on two individuals with equally dark deeds haunting their pasts. Detective Kang is the dirtiest of dirty cops, working in tandem with Seoul's underbelly to net an under the table profit on the drug trade in order to pay his wife's medical bills as she lies comotose in a hospital bed with injuries that may or may not have been caused by kang himself. Meanwhile, Min Woo is a college aged student who's infatuation with a neighborhood girl takes a turn for the criminal when, overcome by desire one fateful night, he drags the object of his affection to a secluded area and rapes her. Shockingly, Min Woo continues to pursue her even after he has raped her, benefitting from the fact that his victim never saw his face during her assault.

The storyline here had some obvious potential if nothing than for the reason that Min Woo and Detective Kang's stories were bound to meet up at some point and seeing how was one of the main intrigues of the movie. Furthermore, the heinousness of both characters actions made the possibility for a profound and potentially very interesting reflection on the nature of sin and the ability for humans to live with themselves after having committed suck clearly immoral actions. Although "Beautiful Sunday" spend some time dealing with these questions and even though the film benefits from a rather clever twist that helps explain the link between Detective Kang and Min Woo's stories, the flim never succeeds in building significant intrique or really keeping the audience guessing like a good thriller should. The morally grave subject matter is also glossed over fairly quickly although Jin Kwang Gyo does succeed in depicting both Detective Kang and Min Woo neither as morally bankrupt, souless invidiauls nor as misunderstand, essentially good men. Rather, both characters are shown as being what all humans are--flawed. Their flaws, however, result in significantly more important actions and resulting consequences, however, a reality "Beautiful Sunday" does not let us escape.

The biggest problem with "Beautiful Sunday," however, is that it seems to have sacrificed production value and visual aesthetic in favor of building intrigue and setting the audience up for the film's third act. As I commented in my review of "The Sparrow," building a cohesive and tight narrative is not a task that should be ignored but the visual aesthetic of a film impacts the overall success of picture in a way that makes it difficult to enjoy a film that is visually unimpressive, which "Beautiful Sunday" often is.

The Sparrow


Directed by Johnny To

Beautifully shot, wonderfully scored, no plot whatsoever.
That pretty much sums up the latest offering from revered Hong Kong filmmaker Johnny To, the mind behind such films as "The Mission" and "Running Out of Time," who with "The Sparrow" turns his sights away from gunplay and action to offer up a more personal and meditative work. The story centers around a band of pickpockets whose everyday routine of fleecing the crowds in busy Hong Kong is disturbed when a mysterious beauty comes seeking their help.

The first twenty minutes of this film were as pleasant as anything I have sat through in a movie theater all year. Director of photography Cheng Siu Keung captures the atmosphere and beauty of Hong Kong's business and residential districts to a tee, showing a side of the city that is often ignored by filmmakers who prefer to capture the neon lights and cramped spaces of Causeway Bay or Wan Chai. The gorgeous cinematography is complimented by a peculiar but very original and enjoyable score that succeeds in forming a blend of sight and sound that perfectly reflects not only the mood To was obviously trying to set but also visually brings to life some of the most beautiful parts of Hong Kong, a marvelous city in its own right. The first part of the film reminded me a great deal of Louis Malle's "Elevator to the Gallows" if that can be useful to anyone as a reference point.

As we all know, however, images and sound can only take you so far if they dont have a strong story to illuminate or otherwise prop up. In the end, films are about the stories they tell and "The Sparrow" seemed to have little in the way of plot. The issue wasn't so much that "The Sparrow" was slow moving but rather that To didn't seem to even have a story he wanted to tell. To fails in providing the type of taught, suspenseful atmosphere he was likely aiming for which is really disappointing because all the elements of style needed to make a truly good and memorable film wrere there, in spades I might add. Nevertheless, "The Sparrow" delivers the type of moments of cinematic pleasure that are rare enough that I can't do anything but recommend it for any moviegoer who is willing to pay to experience some of them.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Who's that Knocking at my Door?


Directed by Yang Hae-Hoon

What? Martin Scorcese is at Fantasia!? Nope, this isn't the 1968 Harvey Keitel vehicle but rather a 2007 release by first time director Yang Hae-Hoon. "Who's that Knocking at my Door?" centers around Je-hwi, a young adult who was formerly bullied by his schoolmate Pyo, who he meets again by chance due to a string of unforeseen incidents involving his girlfriend Jang-hui. Although Pyo at first seems glad to see Je-hwi again, and Je-hwi himself appears to ambivalent but not altogether resentful of his former tormentor, Pyo eventually goes missing, the victim of an act of retribution by Je-hwi. The crony Je-hwi has hired to abduct Pyo, however, is not altogether psychologically stable and when Je-hwi attempts to call the whole thing off things begin to go very, very wrong.

The Fantasia media guide compared "Who's that Knocking at my Door?" to Shunji Iwai's "All About Lily Chou-Chou" as well as Park Chan Wook's revenge gone wrong thriller "Sympathy for Mr. Vengence." Although the comparisons are in many ways apt, "Who's that Knocking at my Door?" deals with its subject matter in a far different way then either of these two films. Where "All About Lily Chou Chou" mercilessly depicts teen bullying as a veritable pandemic that indiscriminately and permanently destroys lives, the impact of Je-hwi's torment at the hand of Pyo, although evidently a horrible passage in Je-hwi's life, is nonetheless softened by time as Je-hwi himself admits that his memories of Pyo's abuse are fading. Likewise, the downward spiral of vengence depicted in "Who's that Knocking at my Door?" is much less ludicrous than the chain of events that make up the denouement in "Mr. Vengence" and consequently gives the story an added ring of truth.

"Who's that Knocking at my Door?" succeeds the most, however, in dealing with the same questions as films like "Mr. Vengeance" and "All About Lily Chou Chou", questions pertaining to such things as the emotional effects of bullying and the psychological toll of vengence, in a much more nuanced and essentially far more succesful way. Although Je-hwi is the victim and Pyo the perpetrator, Yang-Hae-Hoon's script makes it clear that both carry considerable emotional baggage which spills over into their interactions with others. The film also benefits from an atmospheric and remarkably melancholy aesthetic that is all the more commendable since it was achieved on a low budget.

"Who's that Knocking at my Door?" is one of the most solid Korean films I have seen this year and by far the best film I have seen at Fantasia so far. Although it suffers from a cryptic ending which I fear may simply be nonsensical as opposed to "difficult," it nonetheless marks a promising debut for Yang Hae-Hoon who I hope to see deliver similar work in the near future. Now it's just too bad that I will probably only get my hands on the DVD in 2013...

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Le Grand Chef


Directed by Yun Su-Jeon

"Le Grand Chef'" by Korean director Yun Su-Jeon is essentially your classic, run of the mill underdog overcoming the odds story except that it deals with the high pressure, cuthroat world of Korean cooking.

The story centers around Sung-Chan, a talented yet humble chef whose promising career was destroyed several years earlier when he almost poisoned a handful of his customers via a particularly toxic cut of blowfish. His downfall allowed the rise of the risible, arrogant and morally bankrupt Bong-Joo to take over Sung-Chan's rightful place as head chef at a prestigious Seoul (or at least I imagine it is in Seoul...) eatery. Sung-Chan is drawn out of his self imposed exile by a cooking competition where the grand prize is some type of knife, the importance of which I unfortunately missed during the course of this (needlessly long) film, pitting him in a culinary battle royale against his old nemesis Bung-Joo who will do anything to beat him.

Recounting the numerous subplots that run through this film would be an exercise in futility since there are too many to count. Needless to say, none of them are particularly riveting or important. Rather, "Le Grand Chef" treats the viewer to a smorgasbord of poorly developed ideas, marginal humour and yawn inspiring culinary "action." The film also suffers from some truly cringe inducing melodrama, such as the heartwrending moment where Sung-Chan has to slaughter his beloved cow in order to gain an edge in the meat carving portion of the contest.

I wanted to like this movie but in the end "Le Grand Chef" was overly long, unfunny, and essentially stupid. However, Korean films in general, and K-Comedies in particular, tend to be extremely hit or miss so it didn't particularly shock me that I came away disappointed with Yun Su-Jeon's offering.

Friday, July 4, 2008

The Pye Dog


Directed by Derek Kwok Chi-Kin

"The Pye Dog" is a noirish Hong Kong thriller/melodrama that has received glowing praise mainly for what it is NOT rather than what it is. Indeed, "The Pye Dog's" ability to escape oversentimentality and shameless tearjerking even though it often heavily and liberally veers into melodramatic territory is impressive since the film so often comes dangerously close to resembling a Korean Rom-Com moreso than the thriller it is supposed to be.

The plot line is not entirely unfamiliar, featuring a career criminal who, upon meeting a troubled but endearing boy in whom he recognizes many of his own pains, slowly turns his back on his old life and in turn becomes a figure of robust and uncompromising character. In many ways it borrows from classic John Woo films such as "The Killer" where the protaganist, faced with the immorality or emptiness of his former life attempts to escape his past only to find himself unrelentingly pursued by it. "The Pye Dog" is no John Woo film, however, as the gun play is kept to minimum (by Hong Kong standards, at least) and more time is spent exploring the emotional states of the characters as opposed to staging intricate fight scenes. In this way, "The Pye Dog" reminded me at times of earlier Wong Kar Wai films such as "As Tears go By" and "Fallen Angels" but "The Pye Dog" is essentially geared towards younger audiences and lacks the depth of these types of films.

Although "The Pye Dog" never completely abandons itself to melodrama or simply pulling at the heartstrings of its audience, it is nonetheless obvious that the film is constantly teetering on the edge of doing so and this alone made it hard for me to really enjoy the film. Although melodrama itself is not always bad (just go watch "Farewell my Concubine" if you don't think it can be done artfully!), pitting your climactic scene against a backdrop of Debby Boone's "You Light up my Life" is pretty much asking for abuse. Despite disappointing lapses in judgement such as this from Kwok Chi-Kin, "The Pye Dog" is overall a fairly strong effort and is undeniably enjoyable if not particularly deep or memorable.

Genius Party


Studio 4°C

"Genius Party" is the work of animation collective Studio 4°C, the minds behind such fare as "Memories," "Spriggan" and "Tekkon Kinkreet." The "party" itself consists of six shorts (seven if you count the introduction) that run the range from beautiful and moving to confusing and pretentious. Shoji Kawamori's "Shanghai Dragon," which tells the story of a young boy who inherits supernatural power and ends up fighting an army of giant robots, along with Shinichiro Watanabe's "Baby Blue," a high school romance infused with a distinctly Takeshi Kitano-esque flavor, are the standouts of the anthology and alone were probably worth the price of admission ($7 bucks, baby!) Shinji Kumura's "Deathtic 4," a joyful animated romp through a lushly illustrated zombieland and Maasaki Yuaka's "Happy Machine," a kinetic depiction of a baby's imagination for their part are satisfying if unremarkable. Yuki Fukuyama's "Doorbell" is an unclear, needlessly convoluted tale of multiple identities while Hideki Futumura's "Limit Cycle" made me almost completely forget about the anthology's other highlights bu bombarding me with repetitive, trance like animation set to a backdrop of a philosophical dialogue on the nature of evil and God. It was basically akin to watching fireworks on acid while listening to a first year college student pontificate on ethics and the soul. When "Limit Cycle" finally and mercifully ended a particularly brave (and honest) member of the audience shouted "WHAT!?!" before the rest of the crowd broke into a round of polite applause for what was without a doubt the worst offering of "Genius Party."
I have always enjoyed shorts because they cater well to my short attention span and also allow me to get a quick glimpse of several directors, or in this case animators, and get familiar with their work without having to sit down for a full blown feature film. In this way I enjoyed "Genius Party" mainly because I got to see "Shanghai Dragon" and "Baby Blue" were were both immensely enjoyable. The rest of the animated shorts on display in "Genius Party" were either forgettable or, in the case of "Limit Cycle," unforgettably annoying which prevents me from enthusiastically recommending this collection but nevertheless doesn't keep me from saying that it is worth watching.

Dispatches from the Fantasia Film Festival

My favorite festival of all festivals, the Fantasia film festival, has officially kicked off and tonight I had the pleasure of watching the first two films of what will most likely be several I will watch in the next few weeks. Fantasia was originally a film festival dedicated to genre films--mostly horror and fantasy with a special emphasis on Asian films, thus the name--but has since evolved into a showcase for numerous genres of films from all corners of the globe and is held each year at the downtown campus of my beloved Concordia University in Montreal. I always enjoy Fantasia and the opportunity to see limited release films on the big screen is something I look forward to. During the course of this year's edition of the festival, I will be posting biased and unashamedly slanted views on the films I have watched, starting with tonight's films, "Genius Party" and "The Pye Dog." I hope both my readers enjoy the festival coverage!