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.

Sunday, August 2, 2009



Directed by Peter Brosen's and Jessica Hope Woodworth

Peter Brosen's and Jessica Hope Woodworth's enigmatic "Khadak" is as beautiful as it is confusing, a trippy trek through the Mongolian steppes that is anchored by ravishing sceneries but is significantly weighed down by its own pretentions and incoherences.

Bagi, a young nomad living with his parents on the frigid Mongolian steppes is suddenly informed by local authorities that his cattle has fallen victim to the plague. The authorities force Bagi and his elderly parents to relocate to a nearby village, hastily set up to receive the displaced masses, and then proceed to eradicate the diseased animals. The family finds it difficult to adapt to the new surroundings and Bagi, aimless and jobless, eventually falls in with a group of wandering student performers and falls in love with their beautiful leader, Zolzaya.

As beautiful as Khadak is to look at (and it's gorgeous, to be sure) it simply fails to make much sense, working as a series of nonlinear vignettes that are slapped together and presented to the viewer, covered in a thick layer of symbolism that doesn't seem to carry the story anywhere that it could have gone without it. In the "Making of" presented as part of "Khadak" the narrator claims that "Khadak's" story actually emerges from the film's non-linearity, a cop out if I've ever heard one. The frustrating thing about "Khadak" is that there's a genuinely interesting story lurking behind the murk of many pretentious throwaway scenes. Indeed, "Khadak" hints at an interesting investigation of minority ways of life being trampled underfoot by the unrelenting advance of the free market in the developing world but in the end only allows for a superficial handling of the subject. Likewise, the relationship between Bagi and Zolzaya is not allowed to gain any steam, weighed down by constant detours that detract from the film's core characters. The whole thing feels haphazard at times, as if the directors were given top grade film stock and a green light to capture the beauty of the Mongolian steppes but once they arrived forgot that they needed a story to tell or a script to tell it. That said, "Khadak" really is gorgeous and it's worth a look if nothing more than for the images, captured beautifully by cinematographer Rimvydas Leipus.