Wednesday, December 16, 2009



Directed by Takeshi Kitano

The blind swordsman Zatoichi gets the Takeshi Kitano treatment in Kitano's uneven but nevertheless impressive take on the timeless classic.

Zatoichi, a blind masseur and swordsman, wanders into a small town in the grips of a Yakuza gang war whose residents live in constant fear of their thugish overlords. Zatoichi tries to stay out of it, but as is always the case, he ends up coming to the defense of the townspeople in a series of eye popping (and in one case, eye gouging) brawls.

As is often the case with Kitano's films, "Zatoichi" suffers from extremely uneven direction, resulting in a pace that jerks around wildly. Kitano's direction is usually anything but tight, so the choppy pacing of "Zatoichi" is to be expected although it doesn't make it any less frustrating to the viewer.

"Zatoichi" features well chopreographed swordfights with over the top arterial spray (where blood spurts out like a geyser after a sword blow--think 'Kill Bill') which, let's admit it, is sort of played out. In Kitano's defense, however, "Zatoichi" was made in 2003 so he was still somewhat on the cusp of the movement (if you want to call it that) and his particular brand of the special effect is very well done. As in other Kitano films, the violence, although gory, often plays for laughs and is underscored by a noticeably cartoonish element.

"Zatoichi" is not always perfect but it is always original which is what I've come to expect from Takeshi Kitano's films. Indeed, Kitano takes the timeless blind swordsman and makes him something all his own (quite literally, since Kitano himself plays the swordsman…). The icing on the cake is the elaborate dance number that concludes "Zatoichi," an anachronistic yet utterly rousing ensemble number that is vintage Kitano. Why's it in the movie? Because he felt like putting it there, period. Kitano's utter lack of pretensions, as well as his efforts to in ject whatever he does with genuine freshness make him movies, even his bad ones, constantly interesting.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox


Directed by Wes Anderson

Wes Anderson's "Fantastic Mr. Fox," the director's first forray into animation, is a fairly resounding success, a movie that appeals to a wider audience than any of Anderson's earlier films but nevertheless remains sophisticated and intelligent in a way that most animated films are not.

Based on the Roald Dahl classic, Anderson's film follows the exploits of the smooth talking and dashing Mr. Fox who abandons his trade as chicken thief when his wife Felicity tells him she's pregnant. We rejoin the couple several years later as they relocate from their foxhole to more lavish housing in the trunk a tree. Mr. Fox, who is now working as a newspaper columnist, grows restless however, and soon hatches a plan with his oppossum friend Kylie to rob the areas three biggest businessmen. When the plan is found out, however, the whole animal community is thrust into danger as the farmers ruthlessly seek revenge on Mr. Fox.

The success of "Fantastic Mr. Fox" comes as little surrpise seeing as how Anderson's aesthetic is known to often veer off towards the cartoonish. Indeed, "Mr. Fox" is inbued with the same energy and color Anderson's films are known for, replete with the deadpan dialogue and sudden bursts of classic rock to liven up the mood. It also features the familiar melancholic undertow that runs through Anderson's work, but he doesn't overdo it in "Mr. Fox" and lets the film play out as a largely joyous and irreverent affair. This is not to say that it doesn't have its more serious moments (as serious as you can get in an animated film about a debonair fox, I suppose) but only that Anderson doesn't seem to have been as preoccupied with trying to beef up "Fantastic Mr. Fox" with added layers of moral or psychological depth like he has in past efforts which, let's be honest, has not always been as effective as he probably wished. Anderson's willingness to ditch the pretensions and just let "Mr. Fox" be as fun as it can be is a credit to the director's restraint (something he hasn't always been known for) and really highlights Anderson's strengths as a filmmaker. The stop-motion animation is wonderfully unique, giving Anderson's film a sort of old fashioned sheen that feels familiar yet is still technically impressive, even to viewer unfamiliar with the ins and outs of animation such as myself.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Michael Clayton


Directed by Tony Gilroy

Tony Gilroy's "Michael Clayton" is a satisfying if not completely groundbreaking thriller that skillfully explores the corrosive effects corporate greed.

Michael Clayton is the bag man for a large and powerful New York firm which is currently representing U-North, an agro-products multinational embroiled in a class aciton lawsuit having to do with one of its products that allegedly causes cancer. When the senior litigator at Clayton's firms suddenly goes off the rails and threatens to reveal incriminating details about the case, Clayton is sent in to "fix" the problem, only to find himself in a deadly game with U-North's henchmen who desperately want to silence anything that may incriminate them.

The revelation that large multinational law firms work hard to bury facts, draw out legal procedures, and generally work as long as possible to extract maximum billables from their corporate clients is nothing really shocking which probably makes the whole premise of "Michael Clayton" even more sobering. Indeed the parasitic relationship between multinational law firms and multinational corporations is pretty much common knowledge to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the legal world. "Michael Clayton" certainly paints a rather cynical view of both BIGLAW firms and the companies they service, but then again the cynicism seems well founded.

Beyond that, however, "Michael Clayton" stretches the truth a great deal. I doubt the "bag men" of major law firms are called on to patch things up on the fly when a big client is involved in a hit and run or likewise that multinational corporations keep hitmen on their payroll. However much it strays from realitiy, however, there remains a kernal of truth in "Michael Clayton" that keeps Gilroy's film from becoming nothing more than another thriller with an evil law firm at its center. Gilroy's film is most astute in how it shows ordinary people being completely swallowed in the gears of a mamoth entity as well as how decisions that are sent down the chain of coporate command can have ugly and very grave consequences on the lives of ordinary people. "Michael Clayton" doesn't hit on these issues as relentlessly and with the same single minded focus as a film like "Harlan County U.S.A" but it doesn't overreach either and become a pseudo-intellectual mess like "The Corporation." "Michael Clayton" is, of course, a work of fiction so it probably shouldn't be held to the same standards as a documentary but it is still an incisive film that looks to provoke debate rather than simply pointing fingers.

Friday, November 27, 2009



Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Yet another zombie movie is upon up and this one, I must say, is not that bad.

You know the drill. A virus is sweeping the United States, leaving those infected looking desperately for fresh human meat to feast upon. A few survivors, as always, remain, including the nerdy Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) who has stayed alive by following a few simple rules which he shares with us at the beginning of the film. Wanting to locate his parents, Columbus takes off for, well, Columbus and meets Tallahasee (Woody Harrelson) on the way. A road trip ensues.

Sometimes it's difficult to decide what grade to award a film (seeing as how my ratings have such a permanent and important impact on the success of most films…) but sometime I watch a movie and say "Wow. That movie was a total 'B!"' And so it is with "Zombieland." This film, ladies and genteleman, is the clearest "B" I've ever seen. It's not horrible, it's not great. It's just alright. And that's probably a good thing for a zombie film, seeing how saturated the market is. Indeed, the explosion of Zombie films in recent years has sort of skewed the rules of supply and demand, insofar as filmmakers seem to want to give viewers more Zombies than they can handle, and as a result films like Fleischer's don't really stand out. Actually the film itself is pretty medicore but it's elevated from mediocrity to decency by the presence of Woody Harrelson as Tallahasee, an example of a casting director earning his keep if I've ever seen one. Likewise, Bill Murray's brief but hilarious cameo as himself is fantastic and I'd say that it's worth watching "Zombieland" for these two elements alone. The script, although amusing at times, seems a bit halfhearted and lacks the laugh out loud moments of "Shaun of the Dead," its closest work of comparison. I also think Flesicher's film would have been better if he'd replacedJesse Eisenberg, the broke man's Michael Cera, with the real Michael Cera or really with any other actor available. I can't stand that guy's limp wristed persona. Personal vendetta's aside, the rest of the supporting actors are pretty decent despite the fact that no one is asked to do anything too demanding.

The Harmonium in my Memory


Directed by Young-jae Lee

Young-jae Lee's "The Harmonium in my Memory" is a sweetly nostalgic but deceptively astute story of first love that does absolutely everything right from start to finish.

Newly graduated Kang Soo ha leaves Seoul to take up a post as an elementary and middle school teacher in a remote Korean village. Upon his arrival he finds the school in disaray thanks in large part to his lackluster fellow teachers, but it's not all bad news for Soo ha since the other teacher joining the school is the beautiful Min-hie, who Soo ha immediately develops an interest in. An invisible love triangle of sorts is formed when Soo ha becomes the object of his student Hongyeon's infatuation.

"The Harmonium in my Memory" is a far, far better picture than it seems to have any right to be, imbued with an intelligence and nuance that is rare if not almost completely absent from such films. Although it's drawn comparison's mostly to Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home" due to obvious parrallels in the storylines of both films, I found that Young-jae Lee's film reminded me most of Lasse Hallstrom's "My Life as a Dog" due to its similarly deft understanding of the minds of both adults and children. Young-jae Lee's film is further notable in its willingnes to wade into some rather dicey subject matter and actually explore a possible romance between Soo Ha and Hongyeon without making it seem vulgar or exploitative. The effortless way Young-jae Lee pulls it all off is probably not fully appreciated by everyone who has sees "The Harmonium in my Memory," but it's a credit to Lee that he takes probably the most difficult way out in "The Harmonium in my Memory" and still makes it work. Both Hongyeon and Soo Ha mature in believable yet very different ways throughout the film, Hongyeon assuming a greater measure of femine maturity and Soo Ha coming to terms with the limitations and disappointments of life, even for someone like him, and the growth of both characters makes the film's ultimate denouement seem completely logical.

Young-jae Lee's relative absence from the big screen since the release of "The Harmonium in my Memory" is a shame considering how good this offering is and I sincreley hope to see more from the director in the future.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Game


Directed by David Fincher

David Fincher's puzzling (to say the least) film "The Game" may not go down as one of his greatest works but it's still fairly enjoyable despite its laughably convoluted plot.

Michael Douglas stars as Nicholas Van Orton, a fantastically wealthy investment banker whose crumbling personal life has left him a rigid, lonely and unpleasant character. Nicholas' brother Conrad (Sean Penn) surprises him on his birthday with a gift certificate from a company know as Consumer Recreation Services which promises Nicholas a thrilling live action game. When the game begins, however, Nicholas is thrown into a deadly game of manipulation that quickly spins out of control and throws his ordered life into turmoil.

The strongest attribute of Fincher's film is that it is, regardless of how one might feel about its ludicrous plot, immediately engaging. It's myriad twists and turns are amusing and keep the viewer guessing until the end but by the film's final act, I'd felt like I'd been jerked around too much to care anymore. The film reminded me of Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige" insofar as both films are fairly minor works by talented directors and they both feature scripts so ridiculous that even a complete suspension of belief is probably insufficient to fully enjoy them. I will say that a movie with so hokey a plot would have most likely been an epic stinker had it been helmed by a lesser talent and Fincher does a pretty good job in keeping "The Game" afloat despite its flaws. The film is further saved from itself by its great artistic direction and cinematography which cast San Francisco as both sleek and somber, giving the film a moody, ominous feel that fits it well. As far as the acting goes, it's a mix of good and bad in my book. Michael Douglas, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors (yes, I do believe that) is fantastic as the cold and bitter Van Orton playing alongside one of Hollywood's most overrated actors, Sean Penn, who graces us with his usual histrionics.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009



Directed by John Woo

John Woo's classic thriller (and Bernadette's favorite film) is vintage John Woo but with less gunfighting and more Nick Cage and John Travolta, botha of which are flaws that prevent it from reaching action greatness (in my book at least).

Nick Cage (ugh) plays international terrorist Castor Troy and John Travolta (ugh) plays his arch nemesis, FBI officer Sean Archer. When Archer finally nabs Troy after a botched escape attempt he and his family finally believe that their long history with Troy has come to an end. Not so, however, since Troy has hidden a bomb somewhere in L.A. whose location is known only by Troy's brother Pollux who is serving time in a maximum security prison on an offshore oil rig. In an effort to discover the whereabouts of the bomb, Archer agrees to a face transplant in order to assume the identity of Castor Troy. Things get only more ridiculous from this point onward.

I have a tendency to compare all of John Woo's action films to his masterpiece, "The Killer" and it compared to that movie, "Face/Off" sucks. But then again, compared to "The Killer" almost every action movie sucks, so I need to start getting my standards in order. As an action film "Face/Off" holds up quite well. It's smoothly paced and expertly directed by Woo who, according to the man himself, was given carte blanche by the studio heads in charge of the film to do whatever he wanted. The freedom given to Woo shows in the excess of some of the scenes which, rather than being a drawback, give the film the over the top aesthetic that is the hallmark of his films. The acting combo of John Travolta and Nicolas Cage is about as unappealing to me as any acting duo on the planet, I could hack their over the top, bloated performances surprisingly well, likely because the sour taste left by their presence in "Face/Off" was offset (to some degree) by Woo's direction. Man, do I hate those two.
One criticism I do have of "Face/Off," at least in comparison to Woo's better films, is the lack of gunplay. Woo's greatest strength, in my opinion at least, is his unsurpassed skill at pacing and choreographing gun fights. His classic works such as "The Killer," "A Better Tomorrow" and "Hardboiled" are all notable for their gunplay and I think that any Woo film that doesn't rely heavily on his talent for staging gun fights will never be able to reach the rarefied air of action bliss that is can be found in the aforementioned films. "Face/Off" spends a great deal of time plotting the cat and mouse game between Troy and Archer which was mostly time wasted in my book. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that "Face/Off" is an enjoyable piece of escapist film and it is likely Woo's most successful and entertaining American film.



Directed by Barbet Schroeder

What the heck has happened to Barbet Schroeder? It's hard to believe the same director who gave us "Koko" and "Reversal of Fortune" is responsible for this lazy and uninspired stinker.

Benoît Maginal stars as Alex Fayard, a french academic and author who is the world's foremost expert on a reclusive, mysterious Japanese author named Shundei Oe who, despite selling millions of copies of his novels, has never been seen in public. Fayard takes off for Kyoto to promote his newest book but is immediately drawn into a web of deceit and manipulation with Oe at its center. The twists pile up (like a heap of dung, I must say) as Fayard loses himself in Oe's sordid world.

Schroeder's film is really an A to Z essay in failure. From bad acting to credibility gaps the size of the Grand Canyon in Jean Armand Bougrelle's script, there's plenty of blame to go around for this mess. The film is poorly paced and poorly plotted as well, its flacidness punctuated here and there by odd detours into seemingly random sado-mosochistic behavior by its characters. The Japanese actors, bless their hearts, are made to recite an uncomfortably large amount of french dialogue that was obviously memorized word for word beforehand, leading to the odd but often seen phenomenon of characters who have flawless grammar but unbelievably thick accents in a foreign language. Maginal, a talented actor in his own right, seems to have convinced himself of the nobility of his efforts and really does give it a go, but his earnestness clashes violently with the flat delivery of co-stars Lika Minamota and Shinpei Asanuma. The film's cinematography saves it from complete ignominity, as it mercilessly bestows an air of subdued class to an otherwise risible affair.

The Chinese Botanist's Daughters


Directed by Dai Sijie

The fact that Dijie Sai's paper thin "The Chinese Botanist's Daughters" won not one but TWO awards at the 2006 Montreal World Film Festival says a whole lot about the sorry quality of that event. I can only hope that such a weak offering from an otherwise talented filmmaker would be coldly received at a more legitimate film festival (say, *cringe* the TIFF?)

Myléne Jampinoi plays Min Li, a young student who is sent to study under a famed botanist during a six month internship. The sour welcome offered to her by the coarse and moody botanist is mitigated by the warmth of his daughter Cheng An. Min Li and Cheng An quickly strike up a warm friendship that (in seemingly no time at all) turns into a rapturous romance. Not wanting to part ways at the end of Min Li's internship, the two come up with a thoroughly half baked plan to remain together.

Dai Sijie's previous effort, "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," a thoughtful story about a pair of boys sent to rural China for "re-education" during Mao's rule, was a promising effort that married lush production values with a sober handling of the hardships faced by Chinese citizens during communist rule. "The Chinese Botanist's Daughters'" however, is a thinly scripted and at times lazy story that has at its core a romance that lacks any authenticity. The romantic relationship between Min Li and Cheng An is barely explained and they seem to fall into each other's arms almost the minute Min Li arrives in town. Their subsqequent scheme to stay together is both suspiciously naive and seems to have been engineered by writer Nadine Perront purposefully to set up a b it of faux drama that would segway easily to a tragic denouement.

As lacking as this film is in anything related to serious content, it's still beautiful to look at and if your eyes just need a quick vacation you could do worse than letting them feast on the lush scenery on display in Dai Sijie's film.

Monday, November 23, 2009



Directed by Matteo Garrone

Matteo Garrone adaptation of Roberto Saviano's heralded investigation of Naples' infamous criminal organization is an unflinching, authentic look at the corrosive criminal underbelly of the city and its tragic impact on the lives of its citizens.

"Gamorrah" follows five different narrative threads, none of them directly related to one another but all nonetheless linked in some way to the city's criminal syndicate. Most of the action takes place in a crumbling housing block in the city's slums, home to a number of the organizations foot soldiers.

Although Garrone's "Gamorrah" is not, as the Boston Herald boldly claimed, the "greatest gangster film of all time" it's still a pretty darn good movie. It's flawlessly authentic, benefits from fantastic ensemble acting, and gritty in an immediate, primal (if you'll excuse the pretentions associated with that adjective) way that made me feel like I'd been unceremoniously dumped in the slums of Naples and left there to dodge stray bullets. The documentary-like aesthetic of the film has been duly praised and it really is the element that stands out the most prominently upon viewing Garrone's work.

The five seperate vignettes presented in the film are too anecdotal, however, and character development suffers greatly. Although the intertwining narrative Garrone uses is more immediately engrossing, I couldn't help but feel that each character probably deserved more than the limited they were given to develop into something more three dimensional. In the same way, "Gamorrah" seems to touch on a number fo major philosophical and social issues but doesn't really stop to deeply investigate any of them. It's a bit frustrating to see a film with such intellectual depth fail to live up to its potential but asking "Gamorrah" to be everything I hoped it would be is probably asking too much, to be fair. Suffice it to say that Garrone's delivers a gripping and harrowingly authentic interpretation of Saviano's work that is well worth viewing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Paranormal Activity


Directed by Oren Pelli

Oren Pelli's underground sensation "Paranormal Activity" will go down as perhaps one of the most financially successful films of all time (relative to how much it cost to make) having cost a tiny $15,000 to make before opening near the top of the box office charts during its run in North American cinemas. The film itself, however, doesn't seem to live up to the hype, although Pelli should be commended for making such a slick looking film on such a negligible budget.

College student Katie complains to her live in boyfriend Micah about what she claims to be night time paranormal activity. In an effort to investigate his girlfriend's claims, Micah sets up a camera to watch their house's night time activity. Things quickly begin to get out of control as whatever it is that is haunting Katie begins to pick up its pace, sending Micah and Katie into a desperate tailspin of fear.

My girlfriend claimed that she was never frightened by Pelli's film and I tend to believe her, mostly because she has a strong stomach for these types of things. For hardcore scare fans, this movie just doesn't deliver. There are a few tense scenes but I think midway through the film there's a realization that Pelli is so hamstrung by his micro-budget that most of the scares will be shadows or bumps or phantom scratching. Its effectiveness wears off fairly quickly as the film wears on and by the end of it even I wasn't peering at the screen in fear of seeing something crazy pop out (and that's saying a lot, because I usually fare poorly in these types of films, I'll admit it). That said, Pelli does a lot with his extremely limited budget and succeeds in making a film that seems way more polished than its tiny budget would seem to allow. The acting, although a bit screechy and over the tope at times, is for the most part believable when it could have easily been campy or amateurish. Pelli's skill at setting an ominous mood is also beyond reproach and he often succeeds in making a rather harmless frame, such as a shot of a bedroom, crawl with uneasiness. The problem is that the payoff almost never comes and once you figure that out, the scenes quickly lose their edge. Pelli's film's weakest point is probably that is will not, in any way, stand up to repeat viewings. Whereas a psychological horror film like "Rosemary's Baby" continues to creep viewers out after they've seen it twenty times, a repeat viewing of "Paranormal Activity" is practically useless and essentially bereft of any of the power it had in its original viewing.

My Kid Could Paint That


Directed by Amir Bar Lev

Documentarian Amir Bar Lev's documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" is an interesting look at the many peculiarities of the modern art world and also a great example of what happens when a documentary maker is at the right place at the right time.

Bar Lev originally wanted to make a documentary about young Marla Olmstead, a four year old whose modern art, made in her parents kitchen and originally shown at a local pub, eventually turns her into an art phenomenon, fetching thousands of dollars per work. At the height of Marla's popularity, however, a "60 Minutes" special on her art raises questions as to the authenticity of her work, sending Marla and her family headlong into a media firestorm.

Bar Lev's original plan was to make a documentary that focused primarily on the modern art world and what exactly made modern art "art." The time he spends on this particular question is probably the best part of "My Kid Could Paint That," insofar as the debate surrounding the legitimacy of abstract art is a fascinating one. The fact that Jackson Pollock, whose work has often been criticized as nothing more than random drips of paint and not art, is nevertheless the artist to fetch the highest price ever at auction for one of his works ($140 million) and that the work of Marla Olmstead, a four year old who can barely string together coherent sentences or feed herself independently, fetches tens of thousands of dollars from wealthy collectors are both cause for debate. Bar Lev engages quite interestingly in a discussion on the merits of abstract art before being sidetracked midway through by the allegations that Marla's parents might be helping her complete her work. This revelation may have appeared to be a windfall to Bar Lev but I frankly felt that it detracted from what had until then been a rather solid investigation of the often whacky world of art. In the end, Bar Lev doesn't really "investigate" the credibility of Marla's work but rather decides to play a passive role as the whole story unfolds. As far as I could tell, Marla's father was almost certainly guilty of either helping her create or finish her work or even including work in her shows that was not hers at all. I would have rather seen Bar Lev ask some tough questions to Marla's father and actually nail the guy then play it down the middle. But maybe I'm just bloodthirsty.

The Spy who Came in from the Cold


Directed by Martin Ritt

Director Martin Ritt's adapation of John Le Carré's novel has all the elelments of a slow burning, tightly wound spy caper but it unfortunately fails to live up to the sum of its parts.

Alec Leamas (played fantastically by Richard Burton), a jaded British intelligence agent at the end of his rope, retires to London after a botched job in Berlin. He takes up a job as an assistant librarian and meets the beautiful Nan Perry and the two start up a tentative romance that seems to give the depressed Leamas a shot in the arm. Their burgeoning relationship is cut short when Laemas is called back to duty for a final mission behind the iron curtain where he is tasked with eliminating the East German super spy, Hans Munst.

Like most film adaptations of Le Carré's work that I've been exposed to, "The Spy who came in from the Cold" seems to be filled with great ideas that fail to really translate into anything palpably exciting or intriguing. I was left with the same empty feeling I experienced after watching "The Tailor of Panama" even though Ritt's film enjoyed substantially more critical praise than the latter adaptation of Le Carré's work. There is no doubt that Ritt's adaptation is quite well done and Burton's performance is remarkable, elevating "The Spy who Came into the Cold" beyond some of the less inspired adaptations of Le Carré's work. The bottom line, however, is that I just don't find Le Carré's work that compelling. It's too far flung to seem realistic but not wild enough to just be good, old fashioned cold war era fun in the style of James Bonds' many forays behind the iron curtain. The political and social angles of Ritt's work also seems a bit thin in retrospect as Ritt portrays Laemas as a man caught between two amoral camps, both of which are equally disdainful of the lives of individuals in their pursuit of larger political victory. Although there's an element of truth in that view, I've never been comfortable with works that try to completely level the playing field and stoop to relativism when it comes to evaluating such heavy subject matter.

In the end, however, the lack of poignant or intelligent commentary on the politics of the day could have been overcome by an intriguing narrative. Ritt's work, however revered it may be in the genre, simply fails to deliver on that count.

In the Realms of the Unreal


Directed by Jennifer Yu

Jennifer Yu's documentary about the peculiar life of folk artists Henry Darger offers a fascinating look at the man's art but struggles to peace together the details of Darger's reclusive existence.

Darger was born in Chicago and suffered a difficult childhood, eventually being sent to an orphanage after his father's death. He eventually turned into a reclusive and quiet man, living in a one bedroom flat in a Chicago building owned by Kioyoko Lerner and her husband. Darger worked as a janitor and seemed to have no other interests or friends and led what appeared to those around him to be a lonely life. After his death, Lerner found a huge trove of art in Darger's room, featuring multicolored, wildly imaginative works, some of which were close to 12 feet tall, as well as a 15,000 page illustrated novel titled "In the Realms of the Unreal."

Despite the many strengths of Yu's work, I couldn't shake the feeling that the analysis of Darger was noticeably thin. The problem, I believe, stems from the fact that no one, not Darger's landlord, not his fellow tenants, not even those at the catholic church he attended on a daily basis, really knew Darger. Although his work reveals much about the man, his extreme secrecy makes it diffifcult for anyone interviewed by Yu to give anything approaching serious insight into the man. Yu's film thus wades rather liberally into speculation on everything ranging from his relationship with his parents to potentional psychological illnesses. None of it is malicious and those being interviewed all seem to have a soft spot for the eccentric Darger, but it still remains that no one seems to know enough about the man to offer any authoritative commentary. Yu seems content to allow Darger to be shrouded in mystery and hearsay but her film leaves the viewer feeling by the end of it like they know little more about Darger than at the beginning.

The animation of Darger's work, likely considered blashpemous by folk art purists, was rather delightful in my opinion, bringing Darger's eccentric and colorful work to life in a way that seems to befit Darger's creations. Even though Yu strikes out when it comes to her attempts at appraising Darger himself, her grasp of his art is fantastic and she succesfully emphasizes his creative process and the idiosyncracies of his world. Darger's art remains the film's main draw and his folk aesthethic, filled with fanciful creatures and bright colors, is eye popping and joyful even if it bellies the artirst's own insecurities and loneliness. What struck me the most about Darger's story, however, is how completely humans can retreat away from the real world and into an alternate universe and be, for better or worse, content there. All persons tend to retreat to some extent to a certain alternative universe of their own creation, be it their imagination, art, or any other escape, but Darger is one of the unique few to have escaped almost completely into a different reality while still staying at least partially connected to the real world. A fascinating character, to be sure.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring


Directed by Kim Ki Duk

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring," the immensely talented Kim Ki Duk's best known and arguably most accomplished film to date, is a rich and rewarding tale of great symbolic and spiritual depth.

An old monk and his disciple live on a small floating temple in the middle of an isolated lake. This spiritually rigorous environment is suddenly broken when the monk's disciple falls in love with a sick girl from the outside who had been brought to the temple by her mother to convalesce. The young monk's passion soon pushes him to leave his master, a decision he will later regret deeply.

"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring," although a simple story, is fantastically rich in both character development and symbolism. I've always felt that Kim was one of the most "literary" filmmakers working today (if that makes any sense at all...) insofar as he seems to approach much of his work in a deliberate and calculated way that gives an immense place to detail, character, and symbolism. "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring" is likely his most accomplished work as Kim infuses his film with layer upon layer of symbolic meaning, giving his work an incredible amount of depth in a rather short running time. Despite it's heavy Buddhist underpinnings, "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring" is suffused with a number of universal religious truths, most specifically the emptiness of the material world and the fleeting nature of carnal desires.
Kim's immense talent as a director has often been overshadowed by his choice to focus on shocking or otherwise dicey subject matter so it's nice that he finally released a movie whose subject matter doesn't overshadow Kim's brilliance. Don't get me wrong, some of Kim's more shocking or controversial efforts were also great films but with "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter....and Spring" you can sit back and enjoy the full breadth of Kim's talent without the cringe inducing scenes or the occasional pangs of disgust that come with some of his other films.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

All About Lily Chou Chou


Directed by Shunji Iwai

Shunji Iwai's horrowing tale of adolescence is a shocking, beautiful, and ultimately believable rumination on isolation, loneliness, and escapism in a digital world.

Yuichi is a 14 year old boy navigating the choppy waters of adolescence with the help of ethereal singer Lily Chou Chou who he spends his time obsessing over with a linkminded band of "Lilyholics" on an internet chatroom. Lily Chou Chou provides Yuichi a measure of escape from his truly hellish school situation where bullying runs rampant, led by the morally bankrupt Hoshino who terrorizes his fellow schoolmates and even runs blackmails some of his female classmates into a forming a prostitution ring. As events at school escalate, Yuichi finds it ever more difficult to keep the gloom of his everyday life from infringing on his sole window of escape, Lily Chou Chou.

"Lily Chou Chou" is unquestionably bleak stuff and gives few glimpses of hope in the otherwise gloomy world that Yuichi and his classmates are trapped in. At the same time, it's a mesmorizing and almost ravisingly beautiful film, Iwai's beautiful visual touches being complemented perfectly by a melancholy score by Takeshi Kobayashi that makes heavy use of Debussy. The gloominess of the script, however, is tempered by Iwai's obvious compassion for his characters and their struggles and his implication that better days are ahead for Yuichi and his friends, no matter how ugly things are at the moment.
Iwai isn't Larry Clarke, meaning he isn't some old hack who thinks high school is a land of rampant drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, and generally misanthropy even though he portrays it that way in "Lily Chou Chou." Many of Iwai's other films that deal with high school aged characters (which make up the bulk of his work) seem to show a range of views on adolescence, such as the saccharine sweet "April Story" or the nostlagic and melancholy "Hana and Alice" both of which treat adolescence as a kinder and decidly gentler time than "Lily Chou Chou." My impression is that Iwai recognizes the pain and the joys of adolescences and simply maximizes them in his work in an effort to present a portrayal of youth that, although being realistic to some degree, pushes the envelope and dips into the surreal as well. I still remember high school and I can say that it often seemed like it was both the best and worst of times, a feeling that Iwai connects well with. I've always appreciated Iwai's ability to tinge his optimistic and bright films with a hint of melancholy and his more gloomy and dark pictures with moments of hope, an ability that gives all of his films greater depth.
This is Shunji Iwai's masterpiece, a wonderful, poignant, and beautiful film that demands repeat viewings.

Bright Future


Directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kurosawa's first major non-horror efforts proves that the prolific and oftentimes brilliant Japanese director is as versatile as he is talented.

Friends Mamoru and Yuji work together at a small manufacturing plant by day and by night, pretty much take it easy. Yuji has an interest in "music appreciation" and Mamoru, the more eccentric of the two, is trying to adapt a poisonous saltwater jellyfish to freshwater by slowly replacing the seawater in its tank on a daily basis. Seemingly out of nowhere, Mamoru viciously kills their boss and his wife, landing him in on death row. Mamoru's estranged father pops back into the picture and starts a tentative friendship with Yuji.

"Bright Future," although aesthetically similar to much of Kurosawa's other work, lacks the tightly wound narrative focus of films like "Cure" or "Séance" which is not necessarily a bad thing. The loosy goosy (aura) that surrounds Kurosawa's movie is disorienting and constantly surprising without being impossible to follow. Many of the hallmarks of Kuroswa's films nonetheless remain such as the society's often crushing impact on the individual or individual obsession with some eccentric project, in this case Mamoru's efforts to adapt his jellyfish to freshwater.

As a tale of Japan's disaffected youth, "Bright Future" might lack the emotional depth of visceral punch of films like "All about Lily Chou Chou" but it is no less on point, providing an interesting portrayal of urban ennui as opposed to the in your face tales of bullying, violence, and sexual promiscuity shown in the latter. The final scene, a brilliant long shot of a group of teens walking along an avenue in matching outfits of blue jeans and Che Guevera shirts, is indicative of Kurosawa's handling of the issue, his approach significantly more playful and sly than that of other filmmakers interested in the subject.

Kurosawa has always been a master of sound editing but the visual aspect of his films is equally brilliant and, in my opinion at least, chronically underrated. Kurosawa infuses his film with an aesthetic that is at once ominous and unsettling, an unfamiliar vision of the everyday that infuses his films with a sense of melancholic foreboding.

The acting is excellent, the usual in a Kurosawa film, with the always solid Tadanobu Asano taking a convincing turn as the enigmatic Mamoru opposite a solid Joe Odagiri as Yuji.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taste of Tea


Directed by Katsuhito Ishii

Japanese director Katsuhito Ishii, the notoriously weird mind behind such confusing and oddball creations as "Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl" and "Funky Forest: The First Contact" tones down the weirdness for long enough to make the very satisfying "Taste of Tea," a magic realist exploration of family dynamics in rural Japan.

The Haruno family live in a small bungalow in rural Tochigi prefecture, north of Tokyo. The family is headed by patriarch Nabuo, a quiet salaryman, and his wife Yoshiko, a housewife trying to start a career as an animator. Their son Hajime is a daydreamer, stricken with an infatuation for the school's beautiful new arrival, Aoi. Hajime's younger sister, Sachiko, believes that she is being followed by a gigantic version of herself. Their grandfather, Akira, also lives with the family and spends his days drawing and serving as a model for Yoshiko's animation. The Haruno's uncle, Ayano, also lives with the family, though were never really given any indication that he's doing anything productive with his life.

The plot of "Taste of Tea" is far from elaborate or focused, Ishii contenting himself to drop viewers off at the Haruno's home, let them mill around for a awhile before picking them up again. Despite this, the film is far from pointless or simply anecdotal. Indeed, Ishii deals with each character's particular ambitions or fears but in the end his film in a way that leaves them feeling fleshed out and three dimensional, leaving vieweres with a full picture of all the members of the Haruno household. Although dysfunctional families get plenty of play in the movies, functional families often don't and when they do, it's usually in the form of a crude, ham fisted "Cheaper by the Dozen" caricature. The family in "Taste of Tea" is happy, warm, and loving but never comes off as unreal or Brady Bunch-esque.
At 153 minutes, Ishii's film is probably a half hour too long and he would have done well to part with some of the film's more drawn out scenes. That said, this isn't a film that was meant to be rigidly paced or edited and its languid pace and willingness to drift wherever it pleases give it an element of undeniable charm.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds


Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino's long awaited feature film "Inglorious Basterds" reaffirms what we all already knew about QT, namely that he is an immesely talented filmmaker who nonetheless tends to get lost in his own excesses.

Lt. Aldo Raine forms a small group of American jews tasked with going behind enemy lines to, in the words of Raine himself, "kill Nazis!" Raine and his superiors (we are led to believe this is an OSS outfit) hope to sow terror within the German ranks, thus weakening the moral of Hitler's troups on the Eastern front. At the same time, in Vichy France, Goebbels prepares to screen his newest piece of cinematic propoganda, focusing on the exploits of a valiant German soldier named Ernst Zoeller. Zoeller convinces Goebbels to screen the film in a small cinemateque owned by his unrequited love interest, the beautiful Shoshannah who plans to make the premier a spectacle to remember.

Although it bears all the hallmarks of a Quentin Tarantino film, "Inglorious Basterds" is a unique creation in the oeuvre of Tarantino, a film that asks its audience to sit down and listen rather than simply kick back and enjoy. This isn't to say that "Basterds" isn't enjoyable, which it is, but Tarantino takes more time developing characters through dialogue than by simply letting the carnage fly. An interesting approach, for sure, but it does seem to drag at times, something that Tarantino's films have never been known to do. Although the acting is fantastic and the dialogue for the most part highly engaging, I couldn't help but feel that many of the film's scenes were in need of serious editing. Some of the more drawn out scenes, such as a taut stand off between an SS officer and a french farmer accused of harboring Jews, benefit from their length, while others are simply too long for their own good and the good of the movie. Furthermore, Tarantino spends relatively little time with the Basterds themselves, all things considered, which is a bit disappointing since Raine's merry band of men are by far the most compelling cast of characters in the film. Tarantino spends more time with exploring the plotline involving Shoshannah and Zoeller which, although at times interesting, was often a bit of a drag.
Despite its many faults, this is a Quentin Tarantino picture which means its wild, inventive, and a great deal of fun. Tarantino's refusal to take himself or his subject matter too seriously, no matter how many accolades or prizes are thrown his way, is his greatest asset, preventing his films from ever become bogged down by pretensions. "Inglorious Basterds" hilarious alternative take on world history is both flippant and oddly cathartic. For anyone who ever wished to go back in time and kick evil in the teeth, Tarantino's film is a satisfying little jaunt.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My Architect: A Son's Journey


Directed by Nathaniel Khan

Louis I. Khan's only son Nathaniel, born of an of an affair between Khan and Nathanial Khan's mother Harriet Pattison, attempts to retrace his father's life and reconnect with the famous architect by visiting his buildings and interviewing the people who knew him best. The resulting work is a surprisingly riveting look at the architects rocky professional life and even rockier personal life as well as an interesting survey of Khan's unique impact on American architecture.

Director Nathanial Khan starts "My Architect" with the barest of facts: His father, world famous architect Louis I. Khan, was found dead in a bathroom at Penn Station with his name crossed out on his passport. From there, he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding Khan, moving backwards and recounting his father's life, his work, and his complex relationship with the three families he kept simultaneously in the Philadelphia area. While interviewing former friends, colleagues, and personal acquaintances of Khan's, the director also takes the time to visit most of his father's seminal works, including the Salk Institute, the Kimble Art Museum, and the massive National Assembly of Bangladesh.

Since Khan finished relatively few works, his son is able to give a fairly complete tour of his father's projects, giving the viewer a rather complete appreciation of Khan's œuvre, from the garishly the ugly, such as the a community center in Trenton, to the admittedly impressive such as the Salk Institute. Although Khan's monolithic structures are not my bag, you have to admire his efforts to make buildings that will stand the test of time.

Nathanial Khan is refreshingly honest when it comes to his opinion on his fathers buildings. After visiting the rRchards medical research laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, he bluntly states that he "wanted to like it" but just couldn't. When visiting his father's more aesthetically pleasing projects such as the Salk Institute and the National Assembly of Bangladesh, Khan lavishes some worthwhile praise on his father's work, highlighting the building's interesting features or historical relevance.

If the director is surprisingly impartial in his assessment of his father's buildings, he is far less so in his assessment of his character. Watching Louis I. Khan's son and former mistresses fall over themselves making excuses for his bad behavior is frankly a bit annoying. Although I have no trouble believing that Khan was a great mind and an interesting man you have to question the moral fiber of a guy who juggled three families simultaneously and, according to a Philly cab driver interviewed ny Nathaniel Khan, "loved the women." The eagerness of his ex-lovers and of the his son to shrug of his indiscretions and speak of Khan's character in glowing terms goes far in explaining Khan's hypnotic charisma seeing as how many of the individuals who suffered from his indiscretions seem to have not yet woken up to the fact that he might not have been an all around solid family man. Nathanial Khan obviously wants to like the man, and I guess you can't really fault him for that. His search for a posthumus connection with his father also makes for compelling viewing and "My Architect" is for the most part a pleasant and well made documentary.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Autumn Moon


Directed by Clara Law

Hong Kong director Clara Law, the foremost female member of the city's cinematic "second wave," tackles familiar ground in "Autumn Moon," weaving an effecting and compassionate tale of immigration and the clash between Asian cultures.

Japanese tourist Tokio arrives in Hong Kong armed with a video camera, hoping to adsorb and record some of the city's magic. He soon meets school girl Pui-Wai who is living with her grandmother in Hong Kong but is soon to join her family in Canada. The two begin a tentative friendship, hampered significantly by a language barrier that they try to overcome by communicating in limited English. Despite their age difference, Tokio and Pui-Wai's relationship begins to deepen, both finding a measure of solace and fulfillment in the company of the other.

I'll admit that at the outset of this film I was skeptical that Law could make a friendship between a 15 year old Hong Kong school girl and a 25 year old Japanese tourist look in any way credible and I must say that I was probably right to be skeptical. As hard as Law tries, there's really no reason to believe that this quirky match would happen in real life and its often difficult to get past the unbelievable nature of the central character's relationship. That said, the interaction between the two characters is still somewhat believable (considering the circumstances) and Law certainly makes the most of a awkward situation, albeit one she imposed on herself.

Law's film is obviously influenced to a large extent by fellow second wave luminaries Wong Kar wai and Stanley Kwan. "Autumn Moon" falls somewhere in between Wong Kar Wai's paean's to urban loneliness and the sexual frankness of Kwan's films. Law's focus throughout her career on telling the stories of Hong Kong's large migrant population has made her work remarkably attuned to the specific challenges of the immigrant experience and she once again captures in remarkable detail the sense of transience and displacement felt by immigrants.

"Autumn Moon" is also an intelligent and poignant look at the clash of cultures present in Asia, a subject often overlooked in Asian cinema where the the complexities of cross cultural exchanges, especially those between Japan and its fellow East Asian countries, are often reduced to crude jabs at former Japanese imperialism. In this respect, the developing relationship between Tokio and Pui-Wai is surprisingly astute, as customs common to both character's cultures are superimposed over elements that are obviously quite foreign to them. It's a nuanced and intelligent handling of the issue that can be credited to Law's obviously deep understanding of the subject.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Recruiter


Directed by Gulshat Omarova

Although the beginning and end of most moviegoers knowledge of Kazakh film is "Borat" which is not, of course, Kazakh in any way shape or form, there exists an exciting yet still quite limited cinema scene in the former Soviet republic which has produced a number of excellent films, Gulshat Omarova's "The Recruiter" being no doubt one of the finest of these.

Mustafa, a young boy nicknamed "schizo" by his classmates due to his unpredictable behavior, lives with his mother and her boyfriend, the latter whom organizes illegal boxing matches between amateur fighters in need of a little cash. After one of the fighters dies in the ring, Mustafa takes it upon himself to deliver the unfortunate victim's winnings to his widow, Zinka. Mustafa quickly becomes infatuated with Zinka and befriends her young son. A tentative (and possibly illegal, come to think of it) romance begins to bloom between Zinka and Mustafa, both of whom find solace in each others company.

Fimmakers in Kazakhstan, a young and still quite impoverished country, are still highly dependent on the state to provide funding for their projects, making true artistic expression sometimes difficult as they try to placate government agencies with films that give a rosy picture of Kazakhstan in order to secure financing for their projects. "The Recruiter's" portrayal of rural life in Kazakhstan as unforgiving, aimless, and at times violent is therefore quite at odds with what many viewers have come to expect from films in a state that tightly controls the artistic outputs of its filmmakers. Much of "The Recruiter's" artistic freedoms can be explained by the fact that it is a project funded jointly by French, German, Russian, and Kazakh government and cultural agencies. The breathing room this type of funding gives a film like "The Recruiter" is a godsend for viewers who are exposed to the unimpeded vision of Omarova in a film that presents an unvarnished and unromanticized view of post-Soviet Kazakhstan.
Omarova's film should not, however, be praised just for the fact that she succeeded in releasing something authentic and independent in a country where artistic output is so tightly controlled by the state but rather because it's a truly excellent work. Indeed, this is a beautiful, complex, and intelligent work that works wonderfully on so many levels, it hard to fault it for anything. Although Omarova pulls no punches in showing the sometimes bleak existence of her characters, her film is still infused with beauty, hope, and an infinite empathy for her characters. The acting is superb, and Olzhas Nusupbayev is especially wonderful as Mustafa, conveying perfectly the naiveté and confusion of his character.

I can't recommend this film highly enough.

Portrait of a Beauty


Directed by Jeon Yoon So

Jeon Yoon So's highly fictionalized biopic of the very real Joseon era painter Shin Yoon Bok, although flying in the face of historical accuracy, mines the beautiful and regal costumes and customs of the Joseon Dynasty to their maximum effect, the end result being an absorbing and absolutely gorgeous looking period piece.

Yeong Jun, a young girl, is sent to study under Hong do Kim at the the royal court. Since women were not allowed to paint in any official capacity during the Joseon Dynasty, she poses as a young man, painting under the name Shin Yoon Bok. Her ruse is soon discovered by local mirror salesman Kang Mu who she falls deeply in love with. Keeping the charade going proves difficult, however, as the scheming courtesans and artists of the royal court conspire to reveal Shin Yoon Bok's true identity.

When it comes to period dramas, this is how it's done. Jeon Yoon So mixes lush, beautiful images with lurid melodrama in just the right amounts, providing an experience that is mesmerizing to look at but nonetheless buttressed by some narrative substance. In the end, however, it truly is the visual aspect of Jeon Yoon So's film that linger with the viewers after the credit rolls. The attention to recreating the Joeson period details as accurately as possible is commendable but it's the inspired work of the cinemtographer (whose name I still don't know--reveal yourself!) that steals the show, equally impressive in his (or maybe her--the question seems apt considering the subject matter of the film) fluid camerawork and gorgeous framing of long shots takes "Portrait of a Beauty" to ravishing heights. Jeon Yoon So seems to have realized, however, that it is not enough to simply roll out a parade of ornately dressed courtesans and plop them in the middle of windswept field why the orchestra crescendos in the background and there's some first rate artistic direction in "Portrait of a Beauty" that maximize the impact of the film's already considerable attention to detail and beautiful images. The historical accuracy of "Portrait of a Beauty" was hotly debated upon its release with a number of scholars decrying the liberties taken with Shin Yoon Bok's life, who, in all probability, was in fact a man. Although I have a special disdain reserved for films that try to market themselves as historically accurate but in reality are not, "Portrait of a Beauty" is an obvious fictionalization of a story based on a historical "what if." I have trouble seeing how the historical liberties taken with Shin Yoon Bok's life lessen his legacy, especially since Jeon Yoon So's film is unabashed historical fiction.

Although originality in film is great, there's always a measure of satisfaction in seeing something that's been done before be recreated in an especially new and interesting way. "Portrait of a Beauty" doesn't necessarily go anywhere similar films haven't gone before but it does succeed in lifting itself above the many mediocre entries into the genre.

The Chaser


Directed by Hong jin Na

Firs time Korean director Hong jin Na tackles the psycho-thriller genre with impressive aplomb, offering a thrilling and gritty cat and mouse game of a movie that nevertheless avoids many of the clichés of the genre.

One time cop turned pimp Joong-ho is dismayed to find that some of his girls keep disappearing in the Mangwon district of Seoul. Suspecting the same client of being behind the disappearances, he attempts to track the location of the john (glad I got to use that term in a review at least once!) by sending in one of his girls, Mi-jin, to gather information on the suspect. Joong ho quickly loses contact with Mi-jin, however, before stumbling on the suspect, a young man named Yeong Min, accidentally and bringing him in to the police station where he suddenly confesses to a number of murders. The case is far from closed, however, as the killer soon begins recanting his story, stonewalling the already inept local police force and leaving Joong Ho in a race against the clock to find his missing girl before the murderer escapes custody and gets to her first.

With "The Chaser", Hong jin Na sticks to the elements that often make for a successful thriller but ups the ante by immediately surprising viewers with an unexpected plot development that, although linear and rather straightforward, is nevertheless quite disorienting for viewers expecting a classic take on the psycho thriller genre. Indeed, viewers are thrown for a loop at the outset of the film by being shown quite early in the film not only what has happened to the missing girls but who is responsible for their disapperances and murders. The suspense therefore shifts from a classic whoodunit to following Joong ho's efforts to locate Mi-jin as well as the killer's efforts to free himself from the clutches of the inept local police force and return to finish the work he had started before his arrest. In so doing, Na's film bucks the trend of many similar films wherein the perpetrator is chased down by a detective attempting to stop him from claiming more victims, essentially turning it into "the bad guy" versus "the law." In "The Chaser," the role of the detective is taken on by a pimp and the killer is not so much trying to evade capture as he is trying to find a way to escape the bureaucratic morass of the bungling police force that is keeping him from getting back to clean up his "work." Brilliant stuff from Na, leading to edge of your seat action that had me hooked from the first frame to the last.

Although "The Chaser" is more a thriller than a character study, the psychological underpinnings of both the killer and the pimp are fleshed out admirably well by Na and are both interesting to consider in their own right. Joong ho, callous and uncaring, does an about face when confronted with the disappearance of Mi jin as well as by the sudden appearance Mi jin's child when he to her appartment following her disappearance. Joong ho's seeming empathy towards the plight of Mi jin, far from being altruistically motivated, is shown rather as being fueled more by concerns about the whereabouts of his property as opposed to the safety or well being of his employees. On the other hand, Yeong Min's motives, at first identified as a violent reaction of frustration to his impotency, are left ambigiously open by the film's end. In both cases, Na avoids easy answers for his characters actions, refusing to simply explain anyone's behavior in a facile manner.

Na's film also works as a rather virulent screed against police ineptitude and bureaucratic red tape in law enforcement, adding an extra layer of political commentary to what could have very easily been an exciting but mindless feature film. Na doesn't seem to be criticizing law enforcement as a whole so much so as the institution itself which often lends itself to slow, ineffective responses that are easily hijacked for personal gain by overzealous officers or corrupt politicians (both of which play a key role in "The Chaser.")

A strong effort by Na, it's hard to believe that "The Chaser" is this guy's first kick at the can.

Fine, Totally Fine

BDirected by Yosuke Fujita

First time director Yosuke Fujita's airy comedy "Fine, Totally Fine" is an amusing, off kilter look at a group of listless 20-somethings who both fall for the same girl.

Teuro and Hisanobu are two friends attempting to navigate the choppy waters of their twenties (that's where the similarities between Hisanobu, Teuro and I end) Hisanobu is trying to get his career as a hospital maintenance administrator off the ground while Teuro is concerned with finding a way to make a buck off his true calling--scaring people with homemade, DIY contraptions he hopes to someday use in his own haunted house. Life is going along without much action for the boys until beautiful (and hopelessly clumsy) Akari is hired by Hisanobu who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Teuro, obviously not privy to any existing code of conduct between best friends, also falls head over heels for Hisanobu's crush. The boys fail to share any of this information with each other, leading to some dicey situations.

"Fine, Totally Fine" is amusing throughout though rarely hilarious. The understated humour lends itself poorly to any moments of side splitting hilarity but the upside of such a brand of humour is that the laughs come more often and the pace of the film is generally quite good. The supporting cast, most of whom are relative unknowns to Western audiences, are for the most part excellent, especially Arakawa YosiYosi whose full moon face, perpetually plastered with the blankest of gazes, is itself a source of almost constant amusement. In the end, though, none of the characters are that well developed, a shortcoming likely due to Fujita's choice to focus on a number of peripheral characters who, although funny in their own right, prevent the film's three core characters from being adequately fleshed out. "Fine, Totally Fine" is also bogged down by a number of questionable detours such as Teuro's father's journey of spiritual awakening following a bout of depression, which add little to the overall narrative. That said, criticizing a lighthearted comedy for its lack of narrative structure is a bit of a cheap shot. There's no point in demanding that a film which labels itself rather honestly as a paper thin comedy be crucified for its lack of depth, although I truly feel that in the case of "Fine, Totally Fine" greater focus on developing Teuro, Hisanobu and Akari would have done nothing but benefit the film's overall impact.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Mission


Directed by Johnnie To

Filmmaker extraordinaire Johnnie To's "The Mission" remains one of his best known and most globally praised works, a crime thriller that features many well known To collaborators in a story of duty and betrayal (boy, does that sound worn out...)

After an unsuccessful hit on crime boss Lung, his right hand man Frank (Simon Yam!) hires mercenaries Curtis, Roy, Shin, James, and Mike to protect the boss and seek out his would be assassins. Once the job is done, however, Frank uncovers an affair between Shin and Lung's wife and commands Curtis to kill Shin. Upon learning about the proposed hit, the other members of the once tight group must choose between loyalty to Lung or their brotherhood with the philanderer Shin.

"The Mission" is a crime thriller which operates largely in the same mold as later films such as "Exiled" and "Fulltime Killer" but is marked by a grittiness that is markedly absent from the films that followed it, giving "The Mission" a much more authenticate veneer than some of To's more elegant crime pieces. Indeed, "The Mission" contains very little in the way of intricately designed gun fights or slo mo showdowns that defy belief, choosing rather to operate in a realm that appears plausible if not completely expected. In many ways, therefore, "The Mission" sits quite nicely between the excesses of the latter two To film on the one hand and the stark and unfliching hyperrealism of "Election" and "Triad Election." Although it is a much better film that some To efforts, "The Mission" falls far short of capturing the magic of his best thrillers. When compared to later efforts, especially "Election" and "Election 2," "The Mission" feels like a warmup for To, a film to test out some of the ideas he would later employ more succesfully in his best work. "The Mission" has enjoyed a large mesure of critical success, especially amongst Western critics who often view it as one of To's major works, if not his masterpiece. Even though "The Mission" is far from a poor effort by To, his prolific career has produced a number of film's that seem to dwarf this effort, most noticeably his "Election" series. Nevertheless, To succeeds with "The Mission" by sticking to the basics and not overreaching, choosing to offer a straightforward tale of brotherhood and betrayal that gives sacrifices some intellectual weight in order to offer more gunplay, almost never a bad idea when it comes to this type of film. The film's rather obvious lack of pretension also makes it quite easy to overlook some its more shallow aspects. As a final note of interest, "The Mission" features some of To's longtime collaborators such as Simon Yam and Suet Lam in top shape, giving the film some recognizable faces for Western viewers that are also excellent actors in their own right. Suet Lam is especially effective as James, a role that garnered him a nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.