Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Isle


Directed by Kim Ki Duk

Since releasing his breakout film "The Isle" to a firestorm of controvery on the international film circuit, censorship in the UK and public indifference in his native South Korea, Kim Ki Duk has cemented his reputation as one of Korea's most provocative and talented directors. "The Isle" remains one of Kim's signature works as well as his most controversial and debated film which has fueled its continued popularity despite its relative weakness when compared to some of Kim's better efforts.

Seo Jung plays Hee jin a women who owns and operates a small fishing lake, ferrying customers to and from the shore towards small boat houses in a dilapidated motorboat. Hee jin's rather monotonous existence is interupted by the arrival of Hyun jin (Kim Yu-Seok), a man on the run from the law who decides that the best place to hide out is in the middle of a lake near a bunch of other potential witnesses with no way back to the shore aside from Hee jin's boat. Maybe not the greatest tactical maneuver, but then again I've never been on the run from the cops, so what do I know? Hee jin soon becomes interested with Hyun jin, an interest that quickly turns to infatuation, jealousy, violence, self mutilation and even (mutiple) murders.

By far Kim's most controversial film, "The Isle" has been accused of everything from misogyny to animal abuse and its content is strikingly at odds with most of Kim's later material which, although containing some sensational elements here and there, was never again as lurid as "The Isle." Although the film is far less violent than made out to be and as misogynous as it is misandrous (the relationship between Hee-jin and Hyun-sik being tumultuous and at times abusive but in equal measure on both sides) it's still a rather intense picture and I can certainly see where the controversy stems from.
Despite its tumultuous birthing onto the international film circuit, there is a lot to recommend in "The Isle" and it stands out as one of Kim's more ambitious works. Like many of his films, Kim again chooses to place his action in a confined, man made space (in this case a fishing retreat on a small lake) that considerably confines his characters in their interactions, often in awys that seem to define common sense. In one memorable scene of "The Isle" Hee Jin kidnaps and then kills Hyun-sik's admirer but only goes to the edge of the lake to dispose of her body, almost as if she is not allowed to go any further. Likewise when the deceased admirer's pimp is killed by Hyun-sik in a fistfight, he is similarly "buried" only a few yards away from the other boat houses. Despite its confined location, "The Isle" is beautiful to look and features some fantastic cinematography that contrast nicely with some of the film's more gory images.

For all that is good in "The Isle," however, I still get the impression that it was done mostly as a way for Kim to "shock himself" onto the film circuit. Kim appears to be less interested in exploring his character's particular psychological demons than watching them abuse each other and some scenes in the film border on gratuitous. Kim's films have always included elements that were either shocking or controversial so "The Isle" was completely out of character for Kim, but when compared to some of his better works there isn't much argument that can be made against the fact that Kim is better when he practices a bit of restraint.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Towering Inferno


Directed by John Guillermin

A classic of the genre, John Guillermin's 1974 disaster epic has aged remarkably well for an action film made before the days of CGI and must have been jaw dropping stuff when it was first released.

Paul Newman (a much younger Newman, suffice it to say) stars as Doug Roberts, the head architect of the world's tallest building, a 135 story residential and commercial skyscraper in the middle of San Francisco's downtown. Roberts plans on making a brief appearance at the buildings opening ceremonies before retiring for good, heading up into the Northern reaches of California with his lady, played by none other than Faye Dunaway. Esteemed guests arrive to the christening of the monolith and are whisked up to the top floor where they will celebrate this modern day Tower of Babel in swankky fashion, all at the expense of Jim Duncan, the developer responsible for the tower. Things start to go awry, however, when a fire breaks out on the 81st floor following a short circuit in the electrical system. Newman...I mean Roberts, investigates and finds out the Duncan's son in law, the evil Roger Simmons, may have allowed shoddy workmanship to go by unnoticed in order to save a buck or two. Roberts has no time to investigate further, however, as the fire spreads quickly throughout the building, trapping the guests on the top floor. Sensing danger, in comes none other than the chief of the fire department STEVEN MCQUEEN (!!!) who must organize a complex rescue plan with the help of Newman.

Guillermin's film is quite succesful at creating dramtic tension by presenting a worst case scenario and then letting his characters figure otu how to save themselves. As the movie progresses, the situation gets more and more dire as the fire moves up towards the helpless partiers on the top floor, leading Newman and McQueen to go to more extreme lengths to save lives. Many of the strategies developed to save the revelers are hilariously complex and dangerous, such as fashioning a zip line between the 135th floor and the roof of a neghboring high rise and encouraging the dapper dinner guests to whisk themselves over the gaping abyss between the two buildings. Needless to say, it's exciting stuff.
One of the big drawbacks of "disaster films" films such as the "The Towering Inferno" is that a core group of characters is usually introduced early in the film and it is made rather clear at the beginning of the film who will survive and who will not, thus sapping the film of much of its suspense. Not so in Guillermin's film where main characters are killed off left and right, often with little warning and after we, the viewer, have become fairly comfortable with the fact that they will survive the ordeal. Indeed, everyone appears to be fair game in Guilermin's film which heightens the suspense immensely since the viewer is never sure that anyone, even Newman and McQueen's characters, will make it out alive.

Although it certainly could have benefitted from the wide array of CGI possibilities available to current films when ti was made way back in 1974, "The Towering Inferno" is still one of the greatest catastrophe films ever made and is complete, unadulterated fun to watch.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Wooden Man's Bride


Directed by Jianxin Huang

A largely forgotten remnant of the heyday of Chinese historical epics, Jianxin Huang's "The Wooden Man's Bride" is an effective if not totally groundbreaking adaptation of a popular Chinese folk tale which benefits from some outstanding acting by its young leads which, unfortunately for the viewer, are not sufficiently capitalized on by its director.

After being kidnapped on the way to her wedding, a young bride from a peasant family (Lang Wang) is rescued by local boy Kui (Shih Chang) from the bandits who absconded with her. Tragically, the groom to be is killed in an explosion while trying to save his bride and his grieving mother, the bourgeois Madame Liu, forces the young mistress to marry a crude wooden representation of her deceased son. Trapped in a marriage to a lifeless piece of wood, the young mistress sombers into depression, her only solace found in the company of Kui who, following his bravery in retrieving the young bride, was rewarded with full time employment in Madame Liu's household. The young mistress's desperation turns into attraction for Kui who, despite his duties to his employer, feels unable to resists advances of the young widow. Caution is thrown to the wind and consequences ensue.

"The Wooden Man's Bride" was part of the wave of Chinese epics that were released in the early and mid-90's, often to glowing reviews from awe struck Western audiences. Huang's film contains many of the elements that made similar pictures such as "Raise the Red Lantern" or "Farewell My Concubine," mega hits, namely sweeping, epic scope matched with lurid melodrama and narrative tension built around the personal ambitions of characters caught in rigid social hierarchies. Although "The Wooden Man's Bride" doesn't succeed on the level of the previously mentioned films, there is still much to enjoy in this picture. For starters, Shih Chang and Lan Wang are both great as Kui and the Young Mistress respectively, which makes me wonder why both of them had such pedestrian careers after the release of "The Wooden Man's Bride." The success of a film such as "The Wooden Man's Bride," where the suspense revolves around the tensions between personal hopes and ambition being stifled by unbending social systems, lies primarily in the ability of its actors to successfully sell the emotional anguish and frustration of their characters, something both Wang and Chang do marvelously well. Also noteworthy is the film's wonderful cinematography, capturing the barren steps of northern China in lush detail and giving Huang's film the epic, sweeping proportions it was obviously aiming for.
The film does warrant some criticisms, of course, starting with Huang's failure to focus on the relationship between Kui and the young mistress. Indeed, far too much time was spent on the young bride's kidnapping, her subsequent marriage to the "wooden man," as well as her growing alienation from her mother in law, all of which robbed valuable screen time from the relationship between the young mistress and Kui which was, as already mentioned, easily the most engrossing and enjoyable part of the film and should have been the focal point of Huang's picture. Nevertheless, "The Wooden Man's Bride" is an enjoyable film that unfortunately slipped through the cracks after its release and is now rather difficult to get a hold of. I'm not going to suggest that anyone download it illegally. That would, of course, be wrong and rob the hardworking people of Long Shong pictures from some much needed dough. Yeah...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bottle Rocket


Directed by Wes Anderson

Thirteen years after Wes Anderson and his buddy Owen Wilson, at that time both unknown slackers from Austin living in poverty with Owen's brothers Luke and Andrew, made "Bottle Rocket" Wes in an A-List director, Owen and Luke are both A- List (or at least B+ list) actors, and Andrew...well, Andrew is still known as Luke and Owen's brother. Hang in their, Andrew! Your break will come soon enough!
"Bottle Rocket" remains one of Anderson's most personal works and bears the imprint of many themes he would return to in later work. It also marked the emergence of a truly unique American director who would be responsible for some of the best American comedies of the last several decades and reinvigorated, in many ways, an independent film scene that had become bloated on self important, hyper cynical arthouse films.

"Bottle Rocket" opens with Anthony (Luke Wilson) being released from a mental health institution where he has been recovering from a bout of 'exhaustion.' He is met upon his release by his friend Dignan (Owen Wilson) who informs Anthony that he wishes to become a professional thief. Anthony, having nothing better to do, teams up with Dignan and, along with their mutual friend Bob, set off on a hapless path towards a career of crime. After a first, mildly succesful armed robbery, the gang sets off on the lam and lays low until the day they can finally meet local criminal kingpin Mr. Henry (James Caan) and become part of his crew.

When "Bottle Rocket" was released in 1996 I wasn't yet really into films yet which is excusable, I suppose, since I was 11 at the time and the only thing I could watch was strictly PG fare. I can imagine, however, how shocking it was for someone who had become accustomed to the cynicism and misanthropy displayed by many (especially young) filmmakers in their works during the time to stumble across "Bottle Rocket," a film completely free of cynicism and immensely sympathetic towards its characters. Many of Anderson's subsequent films have been similar to Bottle Rocket in their tenor, focusing on down on their luck characters seemingly destined to failure while being nevertheless filled with a sense of optimism as to the betterment of their lot in life. Anderson's characters are almost never roll models or particularly appealing individuals in their own right but are almost always shown as possessing personal attributes that are both redeeming as well as cause for optimism in regards to their future endeavors. Dignan is perhaps the best example of such a character, a jobless loser whose plan to become a career criminal goes comically awry, who is nonetheless presented by Anderson as a cause for hope, a character who, despite being a hapless criminal, is still honest, good natured and ultimately admirable. As Martin Scorcese points out in his short essay on "Bottle Rocket" (available in the Criterion Release of the film), what originally drew him towards Anderson's films was the deep empathy he obviously feels towards his character, a quality that has remained with Anderson from "Bottle Rocket" all the way through to his most recent films.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009



Directed by Pen Ek Ratanaruang

Four years before he officially burst onto the internationla film scene with "Last Life in the Universe," Pen Ek Ratanaruang was already making waves with "6ixtynin9," a well received black comedy that was only his second film as a director. Contrary to its suggestive name, "6ixtynin9" contains zero raunch but rather a healthy dose of pitch black humor that is deftly fashioned by its director into a compelling and at times hilarious story of hapless crooks, corrupt executives, naive greed, and the potentially deadly consequences of meddling in the affairs of others.

After losing her job at a local bank, Tum (played convincingly by Lalita Sanyopas) returns to her dank Bangkok aprtment to find a cardboard box filled with Thai banknotes. Feeling the financial pinch, she decides to keep the money. Things start to go south when a pair of Muay Thai boxers show up at her door, assault her, and begin looking frantically for the money. Fearing for her life, Tum attacks and kills the thugs and attempts to hide the money. The kills don't stop there, however, and Tum's innocent greed sets of a chain of bloody events as she attempts to flee Bangkok.

A viewer over on IMDB cleverly pronounced "6ixtynin9" the 'Asian Fargo,' a comparison that is quite apt. Unlike Fargo, though, which has its moments of seriousness that poke out amongst the film's many wry moments, "6ixtynin9" appears to be geared almost entirely towards comedic effect. Indeed, "6ixtynin9" can best be described as a comedy of errors where the punchlines are often punctuated by the burst of a pistol or the slice of a knife. Bodies pile up one after another at Tum's place as hapless police officers, violent Muay Thai boxers, and a variety of other victims somehow find a way to get knocked off, be it by Tum or by someone else who is nosing around her place at the same moment. In one particularly hilarious scene, a gangster breaks into Tum's apartment and is surprised to see a police officer "hiding" behind a door (he had been previously slain and hidden there by Tum). The gangster opens fire on the officer and is delighted to see his (already long dead) body slump to the floor. He calls his boss to boast about his glorious kill, claiming that the cop had valiantly returned fire but had finally been vanquished.
By the end of the film, Tum's apartment has become a veritable death trap, strewn with bodies that have all met untimely, and often hilarious, fates.
Rantanaruang is an exciting, talented director and he infuses "6ixtynin9" with enough style that it is elevated from being merely an amusing crime flick to something far more engrossing. What is more impressive to me at least is that "6ixtynin6" is nothing like his previous film, "Fun Bar Karaoke" nor is it anything like his following films either, especially "Last Life in the Universe," a testament to Ratanaruang's incredible versatility as a director as well as his ability to surprise his audience with each new film.



Directed by Michael Haneke

Every second film being produced in France at the moment appears to be a psychological thriller of the Dominic Moll, Francois Ozon mold, i.e. realistic, low budget thrillers that mostly focus on the perils of middle class Frenchmen having their minds toyed with. In the best cases, such as Moll's "With a Friend Like Harry," such films can be taught, tense exercises in psychological suspense. In less successful cases, such as Ozon's "La Piscine" and Haneke's "Caché," labelling a film as a "psychological suspense" appears to be used as ploy to get away with making boring, tedious films with no narrative structure or plot to butress their meager stab at creating drama out of the mundane.

Haneke's film opens as couple Georges and Anne are reviewing a videocassette sent anonymously to their home. The cassette features a videorecording of the front of their house and is accompanied by a crude drawing of a child spitting blood. Georges and Anne ignore the anonymous mail and go about their business but soon receive more of these unwanted deliveries. As Georges attempts to discover who is behind the anonymous packages, he realizes that the individual responsible for SPAMing his mailbox with unwanted videorecordings may have a personal vendetta against him that dates back to his childhood.

Haneke is not a bad director but this effort is completely forgettable. The "suspense" that Haneke tries to build surrounding the motive and origin of the videorecordings is ruined by the foreshadowing of the culprit's identity early in the film. Furthermore, the actual psychological drama Haneke tries to infuse his film with, in this case nominally revolving around Georges' lingering feelings of guilt and his crumbling relationship with his wife, are contrived and not at all believable. The issue here is that the offence which Georges commited as a young child is so minor (and arguably not an offence at all) that the reaction of his tormentor is laughably disproportionate, sapping any sense of credibility from the whole thing. Adding insult to what is already a rather injuriously bad movie is that fact that Auteil and Binoche, two great actors in their own right, largely seem to be going through the motions here, trying to create the dramatic tension between their characters that the director no doubt required but the script did not provide for. As I said in my earlier review of Dominic Moll's "Lemming," Moll is by far the director best suited for this type of film and when comparing Moll's film to Haneke's the disparity in talent and execution, not to mention their relative comfort with the material, is noticeable.

Monday, February 16, 2009



Directed by Kim Ki Duk

Anyone who reads these reviews (crickets chirp) knows that I'm a big fan of Kim Ki Duk. He is one of the few directors working today who has the talent and artistic liberty to make the type of films he wants. The results are often brilliant (see "Spring, Winter, Fall, Summer....and Spring" or "The Bow") but can sometimes also be frustrating or incomplete ("3 Iron," "Samaritan Girl"). One thing is for sure, however, and that is that all of Kim's films, no matter how flawed, contain great moments and "Time," although one of Kim's least accomplished works, certainly succeeds in delivering several of these moments.

"Time" begins as Ji Woo and Seh-hee's two year relationship is falling apart. Seh-Hee, convinced that Ji Woo no longer finds her attractive even though Ji Woo assures Seh-hee that this is not the case. Despite Ji Woo's efforts to calm his lady, Seh-hee simply disappears one day, leaving Ji Woo alone, girlfriendless, and wondering how everything fell apart. After grieving his loss, Ji Woo attempts to get on with his life by hitting the dating circuit again only to find that his attempts at reconnecting with the female kind time and again rudely interupted by a mysterious figure. At about the same time, Ji Woo meets See-Hee (see the link yet?) on a trip to a local turist attraction and the two embark on a drama filled relationship filled with deception, lies, and plastic surgery.

When watching films it is always critical to remain in the cultural context the film was made in. In this case, Kim Ki Duk's "Time" focuses on the obsession with changing ones looks via plastic surgery. While plastic surgery is certainly prevalent in North America (as anyone who hae ever visited Southern California will attest) it has yet to take on the epidemic proportions it has in East Asia, specifically in South Korea where elective aesthetic surgeries are all the rage. In its content, Kim's film is therefore quite relevant to his own society and he approaches this key social issue with his trademark style, using the issue not to grandstand or deliver pompous social commentary but rather to craft a quiet, pensive story about identity and personal obsession. That said, it's a sloppy film in many ways and even though it can be at times engrossing it suffers from a rather unhealthy dose of cinematic summersaults on Kim's part that are both useless and detract from the storyline. I've never been a fan of films that draw the viewer in only to dump a "maybe it's real, maybe it's not!" pseudo ending on them at the end, a crime "Time" is certainly guilty of (no due process needed). Nevertheless, Kim is such a talented director that most of his bad decisions or excesses are overshadowed in the rest of his work and in the case of "Time" there is certainly a lot that is still exciting and at times enthralling to behold. Kim is one of the few directors I've ever come accross whose films almost all have a distinctive rythmn to them, a unique 'feel' that can't be emulated and can only be reproduced by the director himself. Maybe I'm overselling the guy, but he's such an immense talent that even his least succesful films still fascinate me.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Mission Impossible II


Directed by Jon Woo

Although the badness of "MI:II" had been foretold via the voices of hundreds of critics and millions of unsatisfied moviegoers upon its release in 2000, when it showed up on "Movietime" over the weekend, I decided to give it an impartial and (mostly) objective shot. After all, the venerable Jon Woo, director of such action epics as "The Killer" and "Hardboiled" was behind the wheel which, in my naive view, equalled close to guaranteed success or at least acceptable mediocrity. Unfortunately for me--but most unfortunately for Woo, really--"MI:II" is a bad, bad action film that takes some of the more questionable decisions of the first film in the series to new, ridiculous lengths while retaining none of the excitement and novelty of its predecessor.

"MI:II" opens with our favorite international spy, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), free climbing a mile high rock formation in the middle of the desert. After avoiding several near death experiences (in the span of thirty seconds) and conquering the beastly boulder he is met on its summit by a circling helicopter which plants a canister near his feet. He opens it to reveal a pair of sunglasses that, you guessed it, are programmed to give him the details on his newest mission (should he choose to accept it) and also designed to self destruct in five seconds (which I would have liked to see happen when the glasses were still on Tom's face). Turns out a deadly virus has been swiped from a Russian scientist by a group of nefarious individuals who wish to infect the population of Australia (why the Aussies? What did they ever do to anyone...besides the aboriginals) and then make their cash by selling the antidote to a local bio tech firm. Tom doesn't like the sounds of that so he sets off to foil their plans, with the help of rent-a-hottie Thandie Newton. A cat and mouse game filled with lame action and lamer gadgets ensues.

"MI:II" fails on basically every front where the original "Missions Impossible" succeeded. The international intrigue lacks credibility, the chemistry between the leads is non-existent and the action is boring which, for a Woo directed movie, is absolutely criminal. "MI:II" is also guilty of taking the least credible parts of "MI:I," particularly the use of lifelike masks of other character's faces as tools of misdirection, to ridiculous extremes. Faces are ripped off to reveal other faces at such a quick rate it reminds me of an old episode of the animated TV series "Sam and Max" where the two characters spend about a minute ripping masks off of their faces one after another only to finally reveal that Max is in fact Sam and Sam is in fact Max. Whereas in "Sam and Max" the effect was supposed to be funny, in "MI:II" it's supposed to be completely serious and this, in and of itself, is hilarious. As far as the actions sequences go, I'm surprised that Woo wasn't able to pull off something even semi-decent, seeing as how most of his previous films, even his lesser efforts, usually contained original actions sequences. I blame it on the lack of gun play. As Clint Eastwood once said, the key to good action is all in the gun play and Woo seems most comfortable when he has a protagonist(s) with an endless clip running around a cramped building unloading casings left and right. In "MI:II" Woo is forced to contend with the relative absence of guns and conjure up action in the form of gizmo play as opposed to gun play. Success, I suppose, was not in the cards.
I always genuinely want to watch movies that have been critically panned and find something good in them that I feel was missed. Unfortunately, in almost all cases films that are given a collective thumbs down by critics were savaged for a good reason and "MI:II" is no exception. My disappointment in "MI:II" is only heightened by the fact that I didn't even expect the film to be good, only decent, mindless entertainment. Even in that regard Woo's film couldn't deliver. I blame Tom Cruise.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dog Bite Dog


Directed by Pou Soi Cheang

Brutal and relentlessly intense, Pou Soi Cheang's "Dog Bite Dog" is a bucket of cold water to the faces of movie viewers expecting a run of the mill "Infernal Affairs" knock off. The dark undercurrents of Pou's blood soaked thriller contribute in making "Dog Bite Dog" a mostly solid and compelling film that would have been excellent had its final ten minutes been left on the cutting room floor.

Pang, a hit man from Thailand (played with surprising aplomb by Edisen Chen), sees his attempt at a rapid and complication free hit foiled when a local crew of Hong Kong cops pick up his scent and start pursuing him throughout the city. Cornered, Pang commits a series of brutal murders which spark a massive manhunt led by detective Wai (Sam Lee, intense), a ruthless cop with a bent towards violent confrontations. While on the lam, Pang saves a young girl living with her abusive father in a landfill on the outskirts of town and the two take off together, hoping to flee the long arm of Hong Kong's law.

"Dog Bite Dog" was marketed by Dragon Dynasty as a no holds barred, Hong Kong action flick in the mold of "Hard Boiled." This, it certainly is not. Rather, "Dog Bite Dog" is a brutal, relentless and at times jarring psychological survey of the numbing effects of violence. There is action to be seen for sure, but it largely manifests itself in short, ugly bursts that are shocking and at times disturbing more so than exciting or titillating. Pou's use of violence is never gratuitous (save perhaps for the film's final scene) and is never glamorized and violence is never shown as particularly useful or necessary. The point of the violence in "Dog Bite Dog", in essence, is to appears in essence to highlight its ultimate uselessness and destructive capabilities, a lesson that appears to have flown right past many critics and viewers who watched "Dog Bite Dog" and saw in it nothing more than wanton bloodletting and nihilistic undertones.
I have a special degree of hate that I reserve specifically for films that are purely misanthropic in their message. Although I understand that life can be filled with relentless ugliness, it nonetheless remains that entirely nihilistic and negative portrayals of humanity are most often at odds with reality and put to the screen by individuals who simply love to watch their characters suffer. Everything I had read about "Dog Bite Dog" led me to believe that Pou was this type of director and I approached the film with a serious degree of apprehension. Despite my skepticism, however, and despite the fact that "Dog Bite Dog" is relentless, brutal, and for the most part quite depressing, Pu nonetheless infuses his film with enough hope and enough empathy for some of his characters, especially Edison Chen and Wiying Pei's characters, that calling "Dog Bite Dog" nihilistic or hopeless, as some have suggested, completely misses the point. The tragic end of the film overshadows the fact that Pang and Pei have, despite their respectively horrible pasts, found a measure of happiness even through it is ultimately fleeting. Pou doesn't acquiesce to a happy ending but he doesn't simply beat his audience into a sullen submission either by bombarding the screen with negativity.
The film's strong message is significantly weakened by a third act that attempts to be theatrical but simply comes off as ham fisted, a disappointing choice from Pou who up to that point had crafted a fairly solid piece. The final act almost appears as if it were tacked on by Pou in lieu of the happier ending that not only would have benefited the film more as a whole but also would have been much more believable. The disappointing finale doesn't succeed in completely derailing the film and "Dog Bite Dog" remains an interesting film that is worth watching, especially for those who think that Hong Kong cinema has lost its edge.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Man Who Loved Women


Directed by Francois Truffaut

Over the course of his illustrious career Francois Truffaut directed both serious and light fare but was capable of creating excellent films in any genre. "The Man Who Loved Women" is an example of Truffaut's unique and excellent handle on comedy as well as his ability to infuse stories which at face value appear superficial or breezy with realisitc and often compelling portrayals of the complexities and disappointments of human relationships.

"The Man Who Loved Women" is Bertrand Morane (embodied hilariously be a raspy voided Charles Denner), a Montpelier man whose attraction to the opposite sex is of an epic, all consuming scope. Morane's dedication to the female kind is sparked more by his love of variety than commitment which obviously means that an endless array of female companions have enjoyed Bertrand's company, and he theirs. Betrand decides at one point that his numerous conquests need to be put to paper and sets out to write a memoir chronicling his love life and is surprised when a local publisher expresses interest in publishing his bawdy work.

If anyone wants to see what happens when this type of subject matter is put into the hands of a lesser director than Truffaut, feel free to watch the risible 1983 Hollywood ramake of "The Man Who Loved Women" starring Burt Reynolds and Julie Andrews. Truffaut was unmatched when it came to telling droll yet cautionary tales about the lives of France's morally liberal middle classes and "The Man Who Loved Women" is perhaps the best example of Truffaut's ability to take otherwise ribald subject matter and present it in a literate and intellectually stimulating manner.
It is most interesting to note that "The Man Who Loved Women," appearing at face value as a type of ode to a modern day Casanova, is far more critical of the type of morally louche lifestyle Betrand leads than one might expect. Indeed, Truffaut, himself a legendary womanizer, seems to show sympathy for Bertrand without ever excusing his behavior or denying the potentially hurtful effects of his actions. Indeed, Bertrand is never shown as a cad or as a man seeking to inflict pain on the fairer sex, but rather as someone with a kind heart who simply wants to actively seek pleasure and share it with the opposite sex. Despite Bertrand's not totally impure intentions, Truffaut nevertheless concedes that Bertrands's revolving door of women is never pain free and leaves a number of women in his wake, jaded and hurt along the way. Bertrand even appears unaware that his lascivious behavior is seen as such by others, shown brilliantly when the woman he hires to type up his memoirs refuses to continue on the basis of her revulsion towards the risqué material produced by Bertrand.
Many of Truffaut's films have the same tenor and as a director many of his works can be seen as cautionary tales against living a life free of responsibility and dedicated to pleasure. Charles Denner's Bertrand is in many ways like Michael Caine's Alfie, a man who, as the title of Truffaut's film suggests, simply loves women and wants to embark on a never ending two way street of pleasurable existence with them but finds out along the way that such a life is likely impossible.



Directed by Johnnie To

Johnnie To, bless his heart, is one of the most wildly inconsistent directors working today. His output ranges from the phenomenal to the mediocre, often from one film to the next. Indeed, the extremely disappointing "PTU" was released in the same year as the vastly better "Running on Karma" and only a few years before "Election" and "Triad Election," two groundbreaking and superb To directed films. To's erratic output mystifies me but at least it keeps things interesting.

"PTU" starts promisingly enough as the ubiquitous Lam Suet loses his gun in the middle of a gangland hit. Embarrassed, Lam's character calls upon the help of Sergeant Mike Ho (the equally ubiquitous Simon Yam) of the Police Tactical Unit to help him retrieve his misplaced weapon. The rest of the night is spent searching for Lam Suet's character's piece, a search that intersects with some of the fallout from the aforementioned gangland dispute.

"PTU" suffers from a confusing plot and a complete lack of compelling drama despite the presence of To, many of his long time collaborators, and a number of top flight Hong Kong actors such as Yam, Lam, and Maggie Siu. The script appears to have been either put together at the last moment or perhaps even forgotten altogether and everyone involves appears to be in it for the paycheck. The penultimate intersection of the search for Lam Suet's gun and the simmering gangland violence is predictable and mostly uninteresting, the action lacking any of the visual flair that To is capable of. As I stated previously, To's output boggles my mind insofar as he is capable of making densely layered, dramatic, and complex films like "Election" and "Triad Election" yet is also capable of putting out films that appear slapped together at random, the product of improvisation from To and his buddies. Regardless, To's made enough good films, and a few truly excellent ones, that I'll forgive him even a lazily produced transgression such as "PTU." I'm sure he'll be thrilled to hear I've pardoned him.

Thursday, February 12, 2009



Directed by Wang Xiaoshui

"Drifters," directed by Wang Xiaoshui, best known for his superb "Beijing Bicycle," contains many of the elements he has come to be associated with, casting a sympathetic look on the lives of Chinese who have slipped through the cracks during their country's rise towards economic prosperity. Unlike some of Wang's better work, however, "Drifters" suffers rather seriously from a lack of editing as well as certain lapses in directorial judgment but the overall effort is commendable, if not groundbreaking.

"Drifters" follows Hong Yungsheng, a jobless, unmotivated resident of a village in Fujian Province who has garnered something of a local cult status due to his success in stowing away to America twice, only to be caught and returned both times. On his latest illegal voyage to the Land of Liberty, Hong produced an illegitimate offspring with a local girl who had also made her way to the U.S. Now back in China, Hong learns that his son, who is now under the guardianship of the parents of the child's mother, is back in Fujian. The rest of the film follows his efforts to reconnect with his son, against the wishes of the child's grandparents who want nothing to do with Hong, as well as Hong's growing relationship with a singer from a traveling opera troupe.

"Drifters" is extremely effective as a sketch of proletariat ennui in provincial China as well as a statement on the importance of personal connections in an increasingly disconnected world. Hong's aimlessness and hopelessness for a better life are quite palpable, as is his wish to reconnect with his son, a desire that comes to give him meaning in his otherwise disappointed life, and the empathy viewers are encouraged to feel for Hong's plight comes easily. As a commentary on the state of the Chinese population, "Drifters" is also quite remarkable in the sense that it is a surprisingly strident screed against the lack of opportunities for many Chinese people despite the rapid advances of their society. The disconnect between the country's progress and the continuing poverty of much of its population is ironically underscored by Wang in his frequent introduction of radio and television broadcasts announcing China's imminent admission to the WTO even as Hong and his family struggle to find anything worthwhile or profitable to do with their time. The portrayal of Chinese working life as dull, pointless, and ultimately failing to provide a brighter future, is a sharp contrast with the dynamic economic juggernaut China sells itself as to the rest of the world.

Although Wang's portrayal of working life in China is perhaps harsh, he nonetheless captures a feeling that is prevalent in many developing countries, namely that many individuals don't feel that progress will reach their generation in time for them to enjoy a better standard of living than what they are already accustomed to. As a result, many individuals do as Hong did and attempt to better their lot abroad.

Although "Drifters" is a thoughtful and generally effective meditation on the plight of China's working class, Wang's film is significantly hampered by its length as well as its lack of focused editing. Wang isn't a director who, unlike some, does not simply refuses to edit his work since "Beijing Bicycle," as I remember it at least, was quite well edited despite its languid pace. "Drifters" 'drifts' on (har har) for far too long, its running time bloated by a number of scenes that could have been significantly shortened or simply tossed away. The minimalist story Wang wants to tell is not enhanced by "Drifters" lengthy running time which, rather unfortunately, ends up testing the viewers patience more than anything else.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Host


Directed by Joon Ho Bong

Korean's are the best in the world at two things film related: Romantic comedies and genre mish-mashes. Indeed, as good as they are at rolling out the Rom Coms, Koreans are also excellent at deftly mixing seemingly incompatible genres into coherent wholes. Joon Ho Bong's mega hit "The Host" is one of the best (and most succesful) examples of such a film, a movie that mixes elements of comedy, family drama, horror, and of course, the monster movie, into an appealing cocktail that is both sleak and entertaining.

Kang Ho Sung plays Park Gang Du, a hapless slacker who lives his daughter, Hyun Soe, father, and sister on the bank of Seoul's Han River where they run a small snack stand. Their peaceful existence is shattered one fine, sunny, afternoon when a monster suddenly emerges from the depths of the Han and begins feasting on innocent bystanders. Hu Sung attempts to flee the beast with his duaghter but Hyun Soe is viciously snapped up by sea monster and dragged into the depths of the Han. The surviving members of the Park family, crushed by the loss of young Hyun Soe, are taken into government custody for examination due to their proximity to the beast. A glimmer of hope appears, however, when Hyun Soe calls her father with a muffled cry for help before quickly being cut off. Gang Du and his family decide to flee government custody and set off to find Hyun Soe, and thus a gigantic search and rescue effort, coupled with a related search and punish effort headed by the Korean government towards the Park family, gets underway.

"The Host" was a massive hit in Korea and made some significant inroads at box offices around the globe, a testament to its wide appeal and undeniable success as a wildly entertaining sci-fi flick. The less than credible action is rendered as believable as possible by top notch CGI and the monster, who is often on screen cavorting around the Han's bank, looks surprisingly realistic so much so that the next time I take a stroll by the river I'm going to remain extra cautious. "The Host" is far more than a simple monster flick, however, and works equally well as a light comedy and also as a refreshingly cynicism free story about the closeness of family bonds. Gang Du's redemption in the eyes of his family members as they see him fight to find his daughter, and their subsequent efforts to help him in his search, are sweet and earnest and ultimately heart warming rather than cringe inducing.
It is worth noting, and commending, that "The Host" sets itself apart from many other films by allowing its characters to actually be killed and stay dead rather than offering them miraculous medical recoveries or causing them to somehow cheat a certain death. It's rather rare these days to run across a film that wants to warm the hearts of its audience but still has the guts to kill off some of their favorite characters in front of their eyes. For that, kudos to "The Host!"

The danger with compulsively enjoyable films such as "The Host" is that they are oftentimes instantly forgettable as well due to the absence of any deeper material to chew on after the film is over. "The Host" certainly suffers at least to some degree from the superficiality of its premise but asking anything more from a film like "The Host" than pure entertainment is probably getting greedy. Despite these nitpicking, "The Host" is an exciting and entertaining film that has an appeal so broad only the biggest hater could turn up their nose at it.

In Between Days


Directed by So Yong Kim

So Yong Kim's debut feature is a minimalist coming of age story that gives a refreshingly unvarnished look at the complexities of both personal relations and cultural assimilation from the perspectives of two young Koreans living in North America (in what appears to be the soul curshingly boring metropolis of Toronto).

Aimie, a Korean adolescent, has immigrated to North America with her mother, following what appears to be the seperation of her parents. She has difficulty assimilating and spends most of her time with her best friend Tran, also a Korean immigrant but who is significantly more assimiliated into his new cultural surroundings than Aimie. Tran and Aimie's friendship/romance is the focus of "In Between Days" and the film is almost solely devoted to exploring the complexities, misunderstandings, and disappointments of their relationship.

Kim's super low budget debut made it almost impossible to employ more than a few actors which means that the story revolves almost exclusively around Aimie and Tran with little time spent on anything else. This constraint turns out to be a strenght of "In Between Days" since so much time is spent dissecting Aimie and Tran's relationship, as well as their own specific personalities and quirks, that the two characters are so well developed that they could practically walk out of the screen at the end of the film. The results of this careful and meticulous development is a character study that goes far beyond what most feature length films can offer and the end result is both interesting and frustrating. On the one hand, Kim seems to have an accute sense of how relationships between youth function and she does an excellent job of crafting a relationship between Aimie and Tran that is at times tender and at times hurtful but always filled with the midunderstandings and complexities that are almost always present in adolescent relationships. The frustrations of Aimie and Tran, both of whom don't understand how to communicate their feelings to one another with any degree of success, will almost be universally recognized by anyone who once had a "friend" of the opposite sex who they secretely harbored romantic feelings for. On the other hand, however, Tran and Aimie's actions are sometimes at odds with their youth. Indeed, both Tran and Aimie sometimes shift rom extreme naiveté to calculated manipulation of the other in the same frame. It makes for compelling viewing but also hampers the film in some ways byrendering the actions of its protagonists as not always believeable.
Nevertheless, "In Between Days" succeeds as a careful and at times engrossing deconstruction of a male/female relationship that, for the most part, shines in its authentic protrayal of the difficulties of adolescence as well as the disappointments and trials of immigrants in North America.

Friday, February 6, 2009



Directed by Studio 4C

I was first introduced to the Studio 4C collective at this summer's Fantasia Festival when I had the pleasure of watching their innovative and highly entertaining "Genius Party." Whereas "Genius Party" was a showcase of the individual talents of Studio 4C's members, "Tekkenkinkreet" is a collaborative affair and the input of the "geniuses" responsible for "Genius Party" makes this animated film an eye popping and truly ambitious spectacle.

Orphan brothers White and Black protect a rundown neighborhood called 'Treasuretown' in a decrepit, sprawling Tokyo of the near future. Their hold on the city is tested at first by a gang of Yakuza who are easily defeated by the brothers. Their defense of Treasuretown is threatened, however, when an alien lifeform who nonetheless has an eye for business investment comes to Treasuretown with his goons, intent on razing the neighborhood in order to erect a money making theme park for the masses.

Let it be told, "Tekkenkinkreet" boasts some truly awe insprising visuals. Each frame is crammed with an infinite amount of details that add depth and texture to the artwork and the visual team behind the film's animation seems capable of an almost endless supply of aesthetic pirouettes with which to wow the audience. Watching "Tekkenkinkreet" unfold is a totally enthralling experience that is at the same time disorienting and visually exciting and for this alone the film should commended and, of course, watched again. On the downside, "Tekkenkinkreet," like many of its animated brethren, suffers greatly from a paper thin storyline that appears to be there simply to service the visual design of the film. My feeling has long been that the best animated films have narratives that complement the artwork but that most films simply have storylines to prop up the visuals. "Tekkenkinkreet" certainly appears to fall into the latter category, since the story of White and Black is, although at times sweet, rearely compelling or suspenseful. In addition, entire scenes appear to have been added to the film simply as an excuse to roll out the visual fireworks. Nevertheless, an animated film can survive quite with little real narrative meat on its bones and "Tekkenkinkreet" certainly succeeds in making us forget all about its pedestrian plot by mesmerizing us with its visual brilliance.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Dur à Cuire


Directed by Guillaume Sylvestre

Montreal is no slouch when it comes to dining and I've always enjoyed the vast array of affordable and diverse eats available to a student on a tight budget such as myself. In terms of higher end dining, however, it's a bit of a mixed bag and lags far behind other world cities. I was recently reading an article by GQ food critic Alan Richman on Montreal gastronomy where he stated that in the 60's and 70's Montreal was the best city for fine dining in North America. He then, however, went on to bemoan its demise and points out a few stalwarts like Shwartz's and Moishes as examples of Montreal's languishing cuisine.
Richman's article was written in 1996, however, and since then there has been a considerable resurgence in Montreal gastronomy, led notably by local establishments Toqué, headed by chef Normand Laprise, and Au Pied du Cochon, Martin Picard's restaurant on Duluth Street which was recently vaulted into the international spotlight after Anthony Bourdain visited it as a part of his travel/food show "No Reservations." Local filmaker Guillaume Sylvestre spent a year following both Picard and Laprise in an effort to better understand their vision of Montreal's gastronomic landscape and how they fit into it and the end result, "Dur à Cuire," is an interesting and entertaining look at two of Montreal most venerable culinary establishments.

Sylvestre took a rather straightforward approach to his documentary, following Picard and Laprise, both separately and together, as they go through a year of work in their respective establishments. In both cases Picard and Laprise appear to spend as much time overseas either making guest appearances in foreign kitchens (Laprise), learning how to properly slaughter and gut a pig in Spain (Picard), or generally living what appears to be the good life (Laprise and Picard, numerous times) as they do in their own kitchens. Although Laprise and Picard's globetrotting in search of great food and new culinary experiences at first made me wonder aloud about the well being of their respective wives and children back home in Montreal, I must say I came away immensely jealous of both of these guys' jobs. Picard and Laprise both make a point of reminding Sylvestre that they are in the restaurant business primarily to make good food, pay the bills, and enjoy their friends and family and they both appear to genuinely enjoy running their establishments as well as the fruits of the labors that come with it, in most cases consisting of a good meal with their staff after a long day of work.

Although "Dur à Cuire" is never too concerned with providing any type of biting social commentary, much is still said about the state of restaurants in Montreal and the rest of North America as well as the difficulty of sustaining a quality business in a marketplace that demands innovation and profit. Laprise laments at one point that his goal is to run an establishment that lasts longer then himself but that attaining this goal is made difficult by the culinary industry itself which has little time for slow growth and favors rapid expansion over long, sustained growth of the type he favors. A number of shots are also taken at the Quebec government for their misplaced trust in culinary establishments that they believe represent Quebec's culture when, in fact, they do not, or at least not nearly as well as restaurants like Toqué and Au Pied du Cochon which make concerted efforts to buy locally and encourage the quality of local foods by putting it in their dishes.

"Dur à Cuire" is perhaps not the most structured of documentaries and the film's "central point," if there even is one, is tough to pinpoint. Nevertheless, Sylvestre's feature on Laprise and Picard is an interesting glimpse into the minds and methods of two of Montreal's most beloved culinary artists as well as a sometimes thought provoking discussion starter on the rapid disappearance of dining establishments of the type Laprise and Picard geneuinely want to provide Montrealers.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Long Good Friday


Directed by John Mackenzie

A long forgotten classic of the English crime drama genre, "The Long Good Friday" is an exciting, if slightly dated, thriller that benefits from remarkable performances by Bob Hoskins (you know, the guy from "Who Framed Roger Rabbit"!) and Helen "I need no introduction in the form of a snide comment" Mirren.

Hoskins stars as Harold Shand, a London gangster trying to legitimize his business by giving up the vice market and investing in a large scale urban renewal project with co-financing from a New Jersey mafioso. Shand's plans, however, quickly begin to unravel on Good Friday (thus, the name) when his mother's chauffeur is killed in a bomb attack, one of his restaurants is blown up shortly before he arrives there to dine and his best friend and associate Colin is slain in a London bath house. Shand, convinced that rival gangs are out to thwart his business plan goes about finding who is responsible for the fracas, leading him to an unlikely culprit.

"The Long Good Friday" works on many levels, first and foremost as a gripping crime drama but also as a careful character study of a man trying to walk the straight and narrow but being undone by his own failings. I've always felt that the brevity of feature length gilms make meaningful and deep character studies difficult, if not impossible, but Mackenzie is succesful in painting a fairly complex psychological portrait of Shand. Indeed, Shand is first shown to us as an effervescent, good natured mobster who genuinely appears to be done with his life of crime and ready to embrace the straight and narrow (albeit the lucrative straight and narrow). As things begin to come undone, however, Shand slowly reverts to his old, criminal self and his self control starts to erode. The effort to build a complex and nuanced character out of Shand probably would have been wasted had it not been for Hoskins who does a fantastic job, succesfully embodying the type of tenous control Shand obviously has on his own actions. Hoskins infuses Shand with a brazeness and danger that is reminiscent of Ben Kingsley in "Sexy Beast" except with a great deal more nuance and thespian restraint. Mirren, who plays Hoskins classy moll, is excellent as well but that comes as little surprise considering her track record of excellence.
"The Long Good Friday" was released in 1980 and the film defintely bears the imprint of that particular era, which is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, the film is effortlessly authentic in its portrayal of this specific time period but it is also marked by some unfortunate trends of 80's films such as the use of cheezy, heavy synth music during poignant moments for increased effect. In one particularly egregious scene, Shand takes a slow motion shower after murdering one of his associates while the synth wails on, letting the viewer know that this scene means business. I'll forgive these transgressions simply because such unholy matches of bad music and slow, overly dramatic cinematography were par for the course back in the day.

Despite the cheezy synth music, "The Long Good Friday" is an entertaining and captivating crime drama that should be required viewing for all fans of the genre.