Thursday, December 25, 2014

New Oldboy

Oldboy (2013) - Lee
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It has to be said that I wasn't a fan of Park Chan-wook's 2003 original. But over the years, Park's gaudy, operatic, elaborate set pieces has grown on me and I began to appreciate his bombastic, deviant, glitzy, over the top creations. His Oldboy, based on Japanese Manga of the same name, catapulted Korean Cinema on the map and the rest is history. What attracted people in the west to it was Park's kinetic, visceral filmmaking which was totally unique and fresh. Thrown in was the edgy, taboo subject that compelled and disgusted many. After Hollywood's long production rigmarole of the remake which Spielberg and Will Smith were once attached, it finally happened after 10 years since the original came out without much fan fare. Way too late for Hollywood standards. It's not hard to guess why they thought Spike Lee was the one for the job- still considered edgy compared to other run of the mill Hollywood directors. It's useless to talk about how Lee's Oldboy measure up to original, because Park is nothing but a visual stylist. So does it work as an entertaining movie? The answer is yes, yes it does.

It's not shot by shot remake. Lee does away with the original's hokey 'they are all under the spell of this powerful hypnotism' thing. Josh Brolin is great as a terrible family man unjustly trapped in a hotel room for twenty years by a prep school classmate who blames him for his family's demise. Elizabeth Olsen is a volunteer worker with a heart of gold who can't stop falling for this brutish killing machine with dark past. Sharlto Copley plays a European billionaire who wants Brolin's character to pay what he lost. The rest is, well, you know...

Lee doesn't go for the same route as Park had with the original. Lee's Oldboy is NOT Van Zant's Psycho. But it's an expertly done, lean thriller with affecting performances. Lee knows how to make an R rated movie and goes for it. The famous all in on take fight scene with a hammer pretty well duplicated and it's a pleasure to see Brolin wielding a hammer against the lot. But it must take place in Canada because no one has a gun. And THANK GOD it wasn't directed by Spielberg or any other lesser Hollywood hacks. I mean, it's an adaptation of a manga for god's sake. All of you who dismissed this film upon arrival last year (yours truly included), do me a favor and give it a try. You will be mildly surprised.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Numb and Lonely

Night Train (2007)- Diao
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Wu (Liu Dan) is a lonely bailiff/executioner whose heart is hardened by seeing many miserable cases of poor women down in their luck being persecuted by heartless court system. She takes a train to the city to attend mass matchmaking ballroom dances and meetings fruitlessly. After executing one of these miserable woman who was accused of murder (they still use bullet to the head, can't afford drugs), the woman's non-emotive factory worker husband (Qi Dao) starts following Wu, with an intention of killing her. As the fate would have it, when they finally meet, their attraction is mutual. They carry on their brief, fatalistic relationship.

Some seriously underexposed cinematography, use of long lenses and cold colors make Night Train's setting - a expansive, snowy industrial city even more inhuman. But it's also amazingly gorgeous. The film has a lot of elements borrowed from Kieslowski - the slutty neighbor, weighted, fateful encounters, down to Liu Dan's short hair. And the opening reminds you of Olmi's ballroom opening of I Fidanzati. Diao's China is a dark place though, inhabited by numb yet lonely people. Compared to Black Coal, Thin Ice, Night Train feels a little sophomoric, but nonetheless great.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Power vs Virtue

King Lear (1987) - Godard
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"Instead of King Lear having three daughters, Cordelia has three fathers - a writer, writer playing the role of the writer and myself, the director" quips Godard in a gravelly voice. The writer in this case is Norman Mailer. He says he can only do King Lear as a gangster film. Thus Lear becomes Don Learo. Learo is sniveling Burgess Meredith and Cordelia is Molly Ringwald. The setting is Nyon, a lakeside Swiss town. Chernobyl happened and wiped out the whole civilization. Movies and art are lost. The 'image' needs to be reinvented. A Shakespeare's descendent (theater director Peter Sellars), is trying to rediscover all the great plays of his ancestor and he finds an inspiration from the old man (Meredith) and his young daughter (Ringwald). In the meantime Prof. Pluggy (videowire dreadlocked Godard, gruffing in English from the side of his mouth and sounds like as if Meredith had a stroke, plays basically a cultural shaman) with his young minions, Edgar (Leos Carax) and Virginia (Julie Delpy), is trying to create the image with the help of sound (multiple voiceovers, waves, seagulls overlapping and interrupting dialog). Sound is important because it relates to the silence of Cordelia. There is a parallel rediscovering 'movie' and 'art'.

Godard juxtaposes old men's penchant for young beautiful girls, from Renoir the painter to Renoir the director with King Lear, the powerful, dying, demented and Cordelia, the young, virtuous but untender and a bloody bedsheet, suggesting incest (hence the appearance of Woody Allen at the end or pure coincidence?). The words are cheap and Cordelia doesn't wear her heart on her tongue. He also comments on the doomsday scenarios (Chernobyl just a year before) and dominant video technology vs film - there is a scene where a reel of film discarded in the forest being rescued by Carax. It's less cinematic and messier than his other 80s films and a little jarring to hear everyone speaking English in this Godard's first and only English feature, but his playfulness is there and the choice of 80s teenqueen Ringwald as Cordelia makes a lot of sense here.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Top 10 Performances of 2014

Most memorable of the bunch, not necessarily in order

Sara Forestier in Mes séances de lutte/Love Battles
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Isabelle Huppert in Abus de faiblesse/Abuse of Weakness
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Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria
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Tony Servillo - La Grande Bellezza/The Great Beauty
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Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria
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Liao Fan in Black Coal, Thin Ice
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Michael Fassbender in Frank
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Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
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Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida
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Emmanuelle Devos in Arrête ou je continue/If You Don't I Will
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Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Top 10 Favorite Films of 2014

Oh Lordy, it's that time of the year again. It was a solid year at the movies. And I thank North Korean hackers stopping yet another James Franco/Seth Rogen jerking each other movie from coming out in theaters. Two films I saw early on this year held their impact- Under the Skin and Love Battles, and topped this year's chart, while Boyhood really surprised me since I was never into Linklater's work. As usual, there were some spectacular documentaries: The Look of Silence, The Iron Ministry, Manakamana and many others. Godard never seizes to amaze me, so too Breillat. So without further a do:

*Click on title for full review

1. Under the Skin - Glazer
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My mind was made up early on this year, after watching Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin that nothing would beat this film as my favorite. And I was right. Audacious and cinematic, looking at humanity through the eyes of alien in the form of Scarlett Johansson, the film is a profound, hypnotic headtrip for sure.

2. Mes séance de lutte/Love Battles - Doillon
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The sheer force of physicality of Love Battles is just mind-boggling. Unlike von Trier's hollow exercise on human sexuality, Doillon's grand experiment has real resonance and honesty that can't be duplicated.

3. Cavalo Dinheiro/Horse Money - Costa
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Pedro Costa does it again here with Horse Money. Bravely exorcising his non-actor subject's own past without guise or limitation.

4. The Look of Silence - Oppenheimer
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Perhaps the bravest of all filmmaker working today, Joshua Oppenheimer faces the evil from victim's point of view this time. The film is just as compelling and disturbing as last year's Act of Killing.

5. Jauja - Alonso
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Finally got to see a Lisandro Alonso film and happy to report that it is magical. I have a lot to explore from this Argentine auteur's filmography coming new year!

6. Eden - Hansen-Løve
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Eden is a film of lasting impression. It gains its poignancy long after you watch the film. It's sprawling epic that is tender and touching and beautiful. This might end on my top 100 some day.

7. Adieu au langage/Goodbye to Language - Godard
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3D Godard! Certainly one of a kind experience.

8. Clouds of Sils Maria - Assayas
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Perhaps the most entertaining non-Hollywood Hollywood film of the year.

9. Black Coal, Thin Ice - Biao
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Biao Yinan's neo-noir is the whole package: handsomely crafted, compelling characters, great narrative pull - everything we want in films. It reminds us that Chinese cinema's future is not in mega million CG wu xia films but in low-budget independent filmmakers like Biao Yinan, Li Yang, Lou Ye, Jia Zhangke, Ying Liang and so on.

10. Abus de faiblesse/Abuse of Weakness - Breillat
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Breillat's stroke didn't stop from her from making a brilliant depiction of a sexual power game. It made even better.

The Rest:

11. Timbuktu - Sissako

12. Ida - Pawelikowski

13. Le Meraviglie/The Wonders - Rohwacher

14. La Grande Bellezza - Sorrentino

15. The Iron Ministry - Sniadecki

16. Frank - Abrahamson

17. Die Zeit Vergeht Wie Ein Brüllender Löwe/Time Goes by Like a Roaring Lion - Hartmann

18. The Dance of Reality - Jodorowsky

19. Manakamana - Spray, Velez

20. Boyhood - Linklater

Friday, December 19, 2014

Winter Ennui

Kis uykusu/Winter Sleep (2014) - Ceylan
Winter Sleep
Aydin (Halruk Bilginer) is a proprietor of an ancient, picturesque carved-cave inn. He also owns a lot of properties around this Anatolian mountain community. He is an insolent, arrogant man who inherited his father's wealth and once a stage actor. He lives with a much younger, beautiful wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen) and equally insolent divorcée sister Necla (Demet Akbag). Aydin writes flowery columns for a community paper and is preparing to write a book on history of Turkish theater. When he is not writing, he talks to various guests who are staying at the inn. Things hasn't been good between Aydin and Nihal. She's been accusing him of not being interested in her philanthropic work and he in turn talks down on her lack of life experiences.

Winter Sleep is mostly composed of long winded indoor scenes broken up by some striking outdoor scenery. It's like kitchen table stage play where everyone sits down and argues for ages while drinking copious amount of tea. I really hated all three major characters who are extremely self-centered and very good at hurting each other's feelings with their petty resentments. I hate dialog where characters are all wearing their hearts on their sleeves and it happens A LOT in Winter Sleep. The only remotely interesting parts are about how Aydin and Nihal deal with poor folks - it starts out with Aydin and his property manager Hidayet visit one of the piss poor family after a young son from that family throws a stone at Aydin's car and breaks the passenger side glass. The family has been suffering financially and can't pay the rent. Hidayet had to remove their TV and other home appliances for collateral. Aydin is far removed from these tit-tat earthly affairs and has a hard time when confronted by it. Guilt ridden Nihal tries to help them but her ways lead to highly melodramatic results. What I didn't like about Ceylan's international breakthrough Distant was its pretty pictures have little to do with uninteresting main characters. There is no cohesion with its surroundings and these people who inhabit it. I have the same problem here with Winter Sleep, but only this time, they yak all the way through. It's as if Ceylan lifted his magic filter used in Once Upon A Time in Anatolia. The magic is gone: dialog is atrocious, slow zoom-in has no context whatsoever and voice over at the end felt like a cheat.

Winter Sleep is based on Chekov's short stories "Excellent People" and "The Wife". It's basically a filmed chamber play. I can see Nehal being a young wife trapped in a loveless marriage with a emotionally abusive older husband, a typical Chekov stuff. The thing is it's way too familiar, too predictable and too melodramatic, whereas in Anatolia there was a mystery that we are sort of trying to solve (setup being a police investigation). I checked imdb for writing credit as Ceylan writes everything with his wife Ebru and Ercan Kesal (Anatolia and Three Monkeys). Kesal's not credited as one of the writers for WS. Maybe that was the problem?

WS imho, definitely one of the weakest of all Ceylan I've seen. However unaffecting it was, Distant's minimalistic approach was refreshing and relies a lot on the viewer's imaginations to get into the minds of those two characters who are very different and distant. Chekov's work is all about confessing, divulging their inner thoughts for the readers/audiences. This may work on stage, but cinematically, it's too general and one note - Yeah it's winter and desolate. Yeah that's how they feel. FOR THREE HOURS. Anatolia was more layered, thematically and cinematically. I felt WS was just plain lazy filmmaking.


Black Coal, Thin Ice (2014) - Diao
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Black Coal, Thin Ice is a strong, gritty policier that pulls you right in. It features one of the coldest movie protagonists, even in noir standards. The year is 1999. Liao Fan plays 'stached police officer Zhang, whose wife is filing for divorce. He gets injured while investigating what seemes to be serial killings- body parts found in various coal processing plants all over. Then five years go by in a brilliant transition shot. Zhang, now a drunkard, works as a security guard for some factory. Again, body parts are found scattered and it rekindles Zhang's interests in the case and springs him up to investigate on his own. There is a mousy woman (Gwei Lun Mei) working at a laundromat who holds the key to all the murders. As he gets close to the woman, he finds out that her husband, presumed dead as one of the victims from 1999, is still alive and might have faked his death (DNA testing wasn't available back then). Zhang coerces her to give him up. He is just very good at what he does. He is not brutish and doesn't necessarily use violence. But his heart is colder than Nothern China in winter. His environs - grim, cold, joyless and perverted, reflect his character.

The film's almost theatrical lighting scheme (yellow, green, red and purple) doesn't give the film any warmth or slickness, rather it accentuates Zhang's hollow existence. Only in the dance sequence he lends any kind of emotion for the audience. The greatness of this sad/funny dance number is about the same as Denis Lavant's in the ending sequence of Beau Travail. Diao's China, the Beijing Olympics still 4 years away, is still very much provincial ("Who brought in a horse in my apartment?"), yet fast changing and cold-hearted. More dynamic than Lou Ye's Mystery or Jia's Touch of Sin, Black Coal, Thin Ice announces the arrival of another major auteur in Chinese cinema. I gotta track down Diao Yinan's two other films ASAP.