Sunday, December 28, 2014

Review: TWO DAYS ONE NIGHT (Deux jours, une nuit) (2014)

dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

It’s rare that the weakest of female characters makes such a strong on-screen presence as Marion Cotillard’s Sandra in the Dardennes’ latest film. Earlier this year, in James Gray’s The Immigrant, Cotillard performed as another beaten-down woman seeking a sense of purpose. Neither film necessarily offers a most uplifting story about women, but there’s a certain perceived assertiveness to the actress’s embodiment of those characters. In this unsentimental tale of solidarity and self-worth, the lead star glibly switches between desperation and shame, timidity and fortitude.

The conceit is that, under a time constraint, Sandra carries out a door-to-door canvass to keep her job, which will cost her colleagues a bonus. It’s a streamlined narrative, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is a clear-cut me-against-them sort. While the film borrows its dynamism mostly from Sandra’s varying responses after pleading either on the phone or on the doorstep, what really infuses it with potent humanism are the diverse personalities and circumstances the co-workers contribute. During her first call, we only see Sandra reacting to what is being said on the other end of the line. Framed in a seemingly disinterested medium shot, Cotillard manages to channel reluctance and mortification her alter-ego feels without making overt gestures. From then on the directors incrementally increase the other employees’ visibility, pitting Sandra against not some vaguely defined enemy but fleshed-out humans. With the help of the brothers’ exactingly-timed cuts and nuanced shifts in camera distance, as well as the actress’s keen instinct for drama, Sandra’s emotional displays are well modulated. The negotiations largely occur in lengthy, distant two-shots, but the Dardennes allows for close-ups when refusal hits her hard, or when an affirmation puts a smile on her face.

With heartless (and almost faceless) corporate types pushed to the margins—literally, in the opening and close—of the story, the film’s politics aren’t so thickly veiled, but its social engagement feels modest without pompousness. It’s not only one of the year’s best, but it has the best performance of the year.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: GONE GIRL (2014)

dir. David Fincher

***Major spoilers ahead***

“This man of mine may kill me,” reads the last entry in a missing wife’s diary. Suspicion descends on the husband, but when he realizes it’s the wife’s sickening ploy to punish him, he begins the fight back. Gone Girl is about a battle of the sexes taken to a whole new sickening level, and it excels at black comedy, among the many genre masks it dons. Wife and husband compete for the favor of judging spectators, and the camera often swaps between the two parties separately doing interviews on cable television and those watching and responding to it. But the film hardly cares if exactly the right balance exists between them especially in the severity of the harm they face. Whoever wins doesn’t expect to get cheers, though the psychopathic one will obviously inspire much more aversion and fear than the merely lazy, cheating, moronic one ever could. A controversial yet wicked farce by Gillian Flynn, it rather revels in the asinine proceedings of a trial of marriage under this diabolic woman’s thumb.

In David Fincher’s usual slick hands, a desolate Missouri suburb—in which Amy Dunne rouses the latent fervor of gossipy tongues and blood-sucking media—gains a plastic countenance. Neighbors’ homes are spaced apart just enough to remain at once private and watchful, while the Dunnes’ dollhouse is a bit too grandiose and glossily furnished for a cozy home. Adding to this façade are Amy’s diary flashbacks, which rebuild the early parts of the Nick-and-Amy fairytale on a softened, sweetened urban land. Her velvet voice intermittently dishes out a mixture of truths, half-truths, and lies, all the while in the (relatively) real world, the couple’s anniversary ritual of treasure hunts mutates into the whole town’s organized search, and then into a national pastime of finger-pointing.

The searches and Amy’s narration alternate and coalesce in a way that turns everyone within the movie against Nick, though for us audiences outside of it, the wife’s complete victim status isn’t so convincing. Our knowledge of outcomes of the investigation (as Amy intended) and the history of the couple’s relationship (as Amy fabricated) builds up piecemeal. Static shots and quick cuts typical of Fincher’s style impel us to take in a discrete bit of information from each shot. This sort of data pickup process is a corollary of a heightened version of continuity editing, which reinforces the immediacy of each individual shot and its impact on the characters involved and viewers alike. In an interrogation scene, for instance, where the detective Rhonda grills Nick with his lawyer present, it’s all a constant snappy to-and-fro of shots each containing a single line/question or a single reaction/answer. Unsurprisingly, the rhythm of the scene recalls the dialog-heavy depositions in The Social Network. In fact, a few—and long by Fincher’s standards—two-shots in a bar conversation, in SE7EN, between rookie and veteran that make their dynamic feel less mechanical with varying camera distance and more breathing room, are kind of a rarity in Fincher’s works. But as in the case of The Social Network, the director’s M.O. admirably fits Gone Girl’s wryly staged, nippily-paced narrative.

So after all this ruckus of phenomenal proportions, who wins the battle? It’s both tempting and, for some, disturbing to call out the wife’s name. This truly evil ‘psycho bitch’ doesn’t receive the sort of judgment meted out to her forebears 20 to 30 years ago. Alex, for one, from Adriane Lyne’s Fatal Attraction, is a single career woman—thus damningly flawed by society’s yardstick—whose villainy gets subsumed under her married lover’s trajectory of restoring his perfect home as crystallized in the movie’s final close-up shot of a family photo. Suzanne, another blond psycho bitch from Gus van Sant’s To Die For, gets buried under a frozen lake as punishment for killing her husband who found her career aspirations undesirable. The point is not that these villainies themselves are excusable, but that these female characters are created in their respective stories specifically to represent the vices that must be suppressed to reinstate certain putative virtues, i.e. patriarchy. In Flynn’s story, though, Amy doesn’t let Nick get to win; Nick has miserably failed in the role assigned to him when he made his vow, so Amy bends him to her demand that he return to his place.

Then, is hers a feminist triumph? Not really, but the same answer applies to the question whether the movie is misogynistic. Distorted representations of women in film or in any other medium have always been, and still are, a pressing problem, and Gone Girl got a lot of flak for its portrayals of women, as well as the scenes where Amy utilizes the rape and domestic violence myths. Granted, Margo, Nick’s twin sister, despite being one of the strongest female characters here, resembles Suzanne’s sister-in-law, in that both are essentially the honorary males who supposedly offer the voice of reason, as opposed to the irrational female villains their brothers marry wrongly. But, given that all the characters operate on a pretty much surface level only, what you also get here is a diversity of females. When, after returning home, Amy relates her cobbled-together saga of survival surrounded by the feds, it’s only Rhonda, the female detective, who seems to see through the lies, while the male officers are mostly busy white-knighting and smoothing things over, instead of digging for the truth.

Amy’s tactics of using the egregious myths have understandably led to accusations of misogyny. Her strategy, however, also makes her perhaps the worst nightmare materialized particularly for peddlers of those myths, let alone ordinary viewers. Think of male psychopaths in sardonic tall tales who commit a variety of transgressions; they’d be regarded as pure evil, nothing more, nothing less. Amy, too, is exactly that—an evil mastermind who leverages the most horrendous methods to execute her grand plan and gets away with murder. Nick is a perfect match for her, since, for all his fatuousness, he eventually comes to his senses that his own narcissism can subsist only when there’s a woman like Amy willing to stroke his ego. A recession may have emasculated him a little, but this marriage must go on for the aforesaid reason. For Amy’s part, she isn’t a quitter, as she says at the end of the movie, and as long as she maintains authorship over her own Amazing Amy fairytales, her marriage will stay intact.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: FREAKS (1932)

dir. Tod Browning

Hollywood’s transitional period from silents to talkies witnessed many talents either adapt and evolve or recede into oblivion, and it was also when Tod Browning, often touted as a trailblazer in American horror film, spawned fantastically reimagined productions that owed their enhanced nightmarish effect greatly to the coming of sound. An experienced carnival sideshow performer himself, Browning populated his wonderland with troupers, eccentrics, pariahs, and as in the case of his best-known work Dracula (1931), monsters. Spearheading the 1930s surge of gothic horrors, the Bela Lugosi star vehicle bears the discernible influence of the Expressionist style and often encloses the characters in surroundings indicative of operatic grandeur. In some of those theatrically staged scenes, certain long shots inside the castle or abbey look like simplified storybook illustrations.

Compared with this fanciful romanticism, Freaks (1932), which sparked such outrage it nearly wrecked the director’s career, feels less mythical, yet equally eerie, and definitely more intimate. Like his previous silent The Show (1927), it shines a spotlight on circus actors and their backstage lives. In both cases the central conflict is motivated by greed, but Freaks carries a stronger whiff of melancholy and greater moral import. Framed as a once-upon-a-time flashback, the story begins with a casual tour into the offstage array of circus wagons. During this, Browning takes a snapshot of each member showcasing their distinctive faculties, without caricaturing them. Having enlisted real-life “freaks,” he pits their physical deformities against the moral degradation of able-bodied antagonists, while condemning the latter. Here, indeed, the code of freaks is the norm transgressed by these antagonists, for which they pay the price—with a beautiful acrobat getting tarred-and-feathered into a shriek-inducing creature.

The tide turns during the scene of the wedding feast for the acrobat Cleo and Hans, the midget she’s after for money, where the circus’ peculiar individualities are all gathered in one place and pose a perceived threat to the scheming duo, Cleo and her strongman lover. The alternating close-ups of the woman and Hans’ friends as they chant “We accept her” are at once bone-chilling and weirdly poignant. From there, Browning builds an increasingly ominous mood by doling out close-up shots of the freaks spying on the newlywed poisoning her husband. When the drama climaxes in a collective act of vengeance or defiance, it’s perhaps one of the most unforgettable, most effectively executed outbursts that the history of horror film has ever seen.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

TIFF 2014 Review: WILD (2014, USA)

dir. Jean-Marc Vallee

Jean-Marc Vallee’s follow-up to the impressively acted but quite shapeless and clumsily paced HIV/AIDS-themed drama Dallas Buyers Club is also impressively acted, a bit languidly paced, and raggedly structured—which, in this case, though, seems rather a corollary of the film’s having an introspective narrator than a shortcoming. Wild finds a lone young woman, burdened with bulky backpacks and a specter of her heroin-abusing former self, on a path toward personal discovery and rebirth styled as the Pacific Crest Trail. That woman is Cheryl Strayed, a real-life champion in the self-help department played believably by Reese Witherspoon back in top form. Her backbreaking long-distance treks involve a tyro hiker’s usual apprehensions, an increasingly daunting array of hardships, and trial and error learning, while being punctuated by chance encounters with mostly genial locals and fellow PCT participants. But what ultimately defines the narrative’s contours are those numerous flashbacks, either prompted at random or triggered by some clues to the past, of Cheryl’s relationship with her nearly sainted mother, Bobbi. While the Canadian filmmaker paints vignettes of Cheryl’s physical journey as mundane, her recollections tinted by grief and longing for Bobbi render the latter surreal and almost abstract. Laura Dern packs an emotional punch as Cheryl’s mother, even though the character isn’t a fully coherent whole.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

TIFF 2014 Review: FOXCATCHER (2014, USA)

dir. Bennett Miller

Bennett Miller’s still slim body of work shows him to be a rather reticent teller of stories centering on a neatly set-up encounter between incarnations of opposing ideas. In his usual restrained mode, Miller regards with a blend of detachment and empathy his heroes who are either a sharp, city-bred writer probing the mind of an inmate on death row for unleashing horror on a rural village, or a cocksure yet jinx-fearing baseball guru questioning received tradition with a revolutionary tactic. Be it between a reporter and his sources, or between underdog instigators and the status quo, the director has made a point of underscoring the players’ inherent power imbalances. In Foxcatcher, another putative sports movie of his, he yet again opts for dichotomous characterization in depicting the close-knit wrestling world nestled on an aristocratic family's estate, fashioning his story as an allegory of American ideals. Here the main conflict arises between an heir to that family’s fortune and working-class athletes in his care.   

The inspiration for the movie came from a roughly 20-year-old homicide that occurred in a snow-buried town of Pennsylvania, where a decorated wrestler was shot dead by his multimillionaire sponsor. It was a murder with no apparent motive; at the time, it was pretty much chalked up to an inexplicable act by a very rich man, who was also mentally ill. The movie, then, may initially come across as an attempt to fill in that motivation blank. It is revealed soon, though, that Miller is more interested in creating some sort of portrait of the country’s privileged .01 percent. To amplify rhetorical effect, he grafts the 1996 killing onto the 1980s time frame. By doing so, he also situates the sponsor-beneficiary relationship’s metamorphosis—from its love-at-first-sight beginnings to deterioration, and to climaxing in a grotesque tragedy—in a more continuous flow of events. Thrown into this dynamic is Mark Schultz, the victim’s brother tasked with a much more pivotal role in the drama than he would have in real life.

So there are, say, two competing elements at work in the narrative, that is, an illustration of unfettered inherited wealth and an observation of the three men’s shifting relations. But despite the filmmaker’s broader ambitions, the heart of the film lies in the younger Schultz—his rise and fall, and his arc of ups and downs with his brother and with John du Pont. Scenes of du Pont founding a wrestling team named after and treated like his family’s property, producing broadcasts of his—the team’s—accomplishments to perpetuate the family’s glory, are all overtly derisive notes of affluent power sans virility and its media manipulation.

But Miller does a better job of conveying emotional undercurrents among the trio, especially through their corporeal manifestations: wrestling scenes (what else?). Starting off with medium two-shots, the director lets the camera close in on the tussling characters, resulting in the tension ratcheting up. In an earlier match between the brothers, intimacy segues into hostility; a later one between Mark and du Pont even exudes a homoerotic vibe, bringing them closer. Individually, Miller assigns each man a particular visual motif, with Mark often having his back turned and du Pont, with his pallid face constantly in close-up, sitting in his chair brooding. In delivering their given tasks, the actors are more than serviceable. Both Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, as the Schultz brothers, use their physicality and communicate subtle emotional changes remarkably. But among them, it will be Steve Carell who gets showered with praise for the golden statue. While considering the other two finer actors, admittedly, one cannot quite shake off Carell’s haunting close-ups—a mix of apparent apathy and chilling cruelty.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: BOYHOOD (2014, USA)

dir. Richard Linklater

Versatility and naturalism are perhaps the words most frequently used to summarize Richard Linklater’s works. They indeed extend across diverse genres and subjects, and he’s known for his seemingly unstudied dialog and unassuming portrayals of people. But what often goes unmentioned is that in film after film, he also strives for a broad sense of balance and unity. For him, characterizations are largely about assembling different personalities, desires, and interests, and letting dynamics develop from them; realism isn’t just about trying to record the world exactly as it is, but representing people’s real-world interactions through varying degrees of formal artifice. Since his debut feature, the Texan native has constantly experimented with ways to present his stories.

Take his first commercial effort, Slacker, an instant phenomenon when screened at Sundance in 1991, which flaunts a baton relay-like narrative. A decade later, for another Sundance entry of his, Waking Life, he had live-action scenes overlaid with animation to lend it an unsettling, dreamy look. Among his more recent features is a retelling of a small town murder, Bernie, wherein he shrewdly blended interviews with actual locals with wholly re-imagined scenes of the murderer-victim relationship. Also listed on his resume are: a high-school comedy, an adaptation of a single-set play, another rotoscoped movie, and a Jack Black-led blockbuster comedy.

Linklater’s 7th Sundance outing, Before Midnight, opened last year to rave reviews, concluding his much-celebrated romance trilogy. By spacing out each installment nine years apart, he managed to mirror the actors’ own aging and personal views on myriad issues in this otherwise very fictional love affair. Most remarkable about this series is how the time gaps in between hardly feel empty, even though absolutely nothing happened—that is, onscreen—during those long breaks (for audiences, anyway). By the time Before Midnight came out, it seemed the couple’s Viennese encounter became history, yet here the now 40-somethings with twins alternately bring up the past, bicker over present problems, and envisage their future together. This final part was devised so as to prompt audiences to interpolate and picture the pair’s 18-year coexistence as one continuous flow of time.

Linklater’s career-long fascination with perceptions of time further manifests itself in Boyhood, his latest pet project with grand ambitions. Its 12-year time frame, within which the growth of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is chronicled, deliberately matches the 12-grade span of American public education. With the entire cast actually maturing throughout the process, the movie effortlessly compresses time and captures the effects such a lapse of time has on the characters’ lives. To vividly depict all this, an increasingly trite pseudo-documentary strategy would have been a tempting option, involving shaky cam and grainy textures—and very possibly, some home video-ish images thrown somewhere in between.

Linklater is however smart enough to resist the usual trappings of the so-called vérité style. Growing up, Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater; the director’s own daughter) undergo various changes and transitions, which are by turns welcome and unwanted, and exhibit natural reactions accordingly. Rarely are there melodramatic outbursts and scenes that are overwritten and overwrought. But simultaneously, audiences are reminded now and then that this is, after all, a work of fiction. The filmmaker plotted it out beforehand and shot footage each year with the end product in mind.

At times, artifice betrays itself: however seamlessly edited together, the narrative’s divided into sections aligned with quintessential moments of the boy’s adolescence, and each section contains some prominent cultural signs like Harry Potter. Also, while communication between the characters bears no hint of theatrics, every scene was meticulously scripted and acted out thus. Most of the time, the family dynamics unfurl realistically, yet Mason’s relationships with his two fathers appear schematic, particularly in the juxtaposition of the scenes comparing how each father treats him as well as the scenes of the stepfather degrading into a violent drunk. A mixture of such not-so-subtle machinations and naturalistic tendencies, Boyhood doesn’t try to be a documentary but stands as an organic fiction comprised of discrete annual chapters.  It was all a conscious decision on Linklater’s part to employ the same cast, the same equipment, and the same process to give the outcome a consistent look.

Linklater also demonstrates his ingenuity as a storyteller by making this about the other family members as much as it is about Mason. Had the footage been organized in another way, it could easily have been entitled Girlhood or Parenthood. In the movie, the mother Olivia in particular goes through levels of transformations as varying as her children's, all the while juggling work, school, and parenting. Her struggles are genuinely felt because Patricia Arquette incorporated into her performance her own experiences as a single mother and a woman transitioning from her 30s to 40s. Still, self-sacrifice and unconditional love are not Olivia’s defining traits. She is never simplistic and far from perfect; she pursues her aspirations while making bad relationship choices, affecting her children. At one point, it seems she’s unfairly deemed an uncool mom, as opposed to the fun Disneyland dad, played by the under-appreciated Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, despite her constant and his only fitful presences in the siblings’ lives. For his part, though, Mason Sr. tries to compensate for his absences, and the director doesn’t forget to show that.

Boyhood is at once a labor of love and I dare say the ideal result of this kind of filmmaking. That Linklater remains this consistent and committed in his craft, producing laudable works like this year after year, is truly an extraordinary feat. Also a poignant ensemble piece, it marks a thrilling debut for Coltrane, another engaging undertaking for Hawke and, above all, a delightful comeback for Arquette.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Review: THE IMMIGRANT (2014, USA)

To say that James Gray’s body of work is in essence a capsule of the American immigrant experience wouldn’t be an overstatement. In all of his five feature films, including his latest The Immigrant, the characters share similar family histories as turn-of-the-century immigrants or as their descendants, with similar feelings of displacement. Set in the very era of steamer-aided mass migration, the entirety of Gray’s fifth movie might well serve as a two-hour tracing of those characters’ roots and a cogent prologue to the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre.

The opening shot of The Immigrant belongs to Lady Liberty, as seen from a distance, who is presented like one of those old, faded photographs. It’s a perfectly apt way to begin a drama about individuals desperately searching for what the monumental statue represents. If there is one specific vision embedded in early 20th-century newcomers’ collective memory, it would be this goddess figure with an arm raised high, standing tall and proud, yet still appearing a bit out of reach. That widely-circulated image of passengers on the ship looking awestruck at the sight of the statue has invariably featured in stories about the passage to America. Or, as much as it symbolizes freedom and future, the sculptured lady would have been just a reassuring sign of the end of a weeks-long ordeal at sea, in crammed, squalid, and disease-spreading quarters. 

The camera then pulls back ever so gingerly, and segues into the stunning interior of the Ellis Island immigration station. The next scene packs another miscellany of familiar images: a measured tracking shot of immigrants in queue while the camera scans their washed-out faces and scruffy clothes, a tilt shot that unfolds the sheer scale of the main hall, alternating with an overhead shot of a crowd thronging the station. Amid the crowd, many of whom refugees from war-torn lands, are Ewa, portrayed by the magnificent Marion Cotillard, and her sister Magda. Even before they properly savor the joys of landing, harsh realities immediately hit the sisters when Magda, a tuberculosis patient, is escorted away and Ewa gets rejected for being a woman of no morals, and no money. But there seems hope after all, even if it turns out to be a deceptive kind. When Bruno, a pimp and night show-runner, comes along, Ewa accepts his saving hand.

The Immigrant is a visually sophisticated yet simply told story, and it at first seems wholly devoted to Ewa’s journey. She has two goals to meet: getting her sister out of Ellis Island and then finally settling in. Though we only witness her struggles and hardships on land, those of hers at sea cast a long shadow over the beginnings of her penniless life in New York. A devout Catholic, she’s very much a moral person, yet constantly falls prey to judgments and chastisement from males—her uncle, show audiences, and even an immigration official—not surprisingly on religious grounds. But there’s a flip side to this religiously based mistreatment of the woman—Bruno forces Ewa to work for him and wear a Lady Liberty robe, while in his imagination she becomes nothing but a pure saint, a fragile bird that needs his cage-protection. In virtually every scene, Cotillard’s divine face adorns the screen in soft focus, recalling the similarly characterized women in D.W. Griffith’s and Carl Th. Dreyer’s century-old silent treasures. The character of Ewa seems an amalgam of, say, that poor girl Lucy in Broken Blossoms (1919), poor and degraded Anna in Way Down East (1920), and poor, persecuted but noble Joan of Arc in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1920).

But like her predecessors, Ewa isn’t merely confined to dualistic virgin/whore characterization; she asserts her dignity and autonomy in her own calm, unyielding, yet roundabout manner. At one point, she declares, “I am not nothing,” after she’s betrayed by her uncle and ends up back at Ellis Island. While it seems her nobility and almost maternal attachment to her sister are about to elevate her to quasi-goddess status, she brings herself to compromise her purity to survive—and ultimately to live happily. Since we closely follow what Ewa undergoes throughout, it feels indescribably rewarding when the narrative arrives at a satisfactory closure.

Hers is not the only journey the movie intends to tell, however. Bruno, at once exploitative and in love with Ewa, is also an immigrant. Occasionally, Gray places Ewa and Bruno in bisected compositions. In each of those compositions, Ewa looks helpless, intoxicated, or regains a sense of purpose on one side of the frame, while on the opposite side, Bruno negotiates with customers to make money off her, or starts walking the path of redemption. Gray, with DP Darius Khondji, planned shots and scenes in ways that communicate the characters’ emotions and relationships efficiently and elegantly. The final shot seems to do Joaquin Phoenix’s character justice because, though it cannot be known for sure what the future holds in store for them, audiences intuit that Bruno, like Ewa, will see a glimmer of hope as he takes a step forward for a better life.

Gray’s collaboration with Khondji culminated in the best visual achievement in film this year. Drawing inspiration from artworks produced in the same period as this movie’s setting, the pair infused the entire picture in alternately ravishing and somber shades of gold and brown. The tenements and streets might well have taken their cue from the well-known photograph of 1910 Mulberry Street, and the burlesque scenes evoke Everett Shinn’s Spanish Music Hall. Along with the frequent close-ups of Cotillard’s beautifully expressive face, the consciously handpicked colors and textures heighten the film's prevailing mood and the pathos and drama of its emotionally intense scenes.

One might be tempted to call some heavy-handed plot contrivances—especially those involving Jeremy Renner’s Emil—the film’s flaws, but they seldom undermine the beauty of its structural simplicity, which suits this sort of archetypal story. It’s mostly about a woman’s plight, and also partly about a man’s redemption, but anyone who once set out in search for the new land could relate to their onscreen surrogates. If Ewa is a successful embodiment of America’s immigrant experience, that’s because Cotillard turns in yet another sublime performance. Her acting resume consists largely of tragic female roles (and she won an Oscar for playing one), including her next undertaking in a Michael Fassbender-led adaptation of Macbeth (2015). In killing herself Lady Macbeth may be the ultimate tragic woman, but here in 1920s America, Ewa lives on.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Short Take: Secrets & Lies (1996, UK)

dir. Mike Leigh

Up until the midpoint of Secrets & Lies (1996), where a young woman’s search for her birth mother culminates in a neurotic phone conversation and an awkwardly staged, tense reunion at an empty diner, Mike Leigh’s cozy coterie of miserable working-class characters try in vain to suppress agonizing truths. A marriage’s happily robust façade starts cracking when the husband, as he does with his customers, can’t cajole a smile out of his wife; a mother and daughter seem unable to sit together for a cup of tea without getting into a fight. Only with the advent of an outsider—the aforementioned long-lost daughter—does the family unleash their true feelings towards one another. 

Often hailed as one of Leigh’s finest works, this domestic melodrama brought him and his leading thespian Brenda Blethyn the Palme d'Or and Best Actress Award at the 49th Cannes Film Festival. These prestigious awards may have proven the actress’ richly expressive and naturally sympathetic performance, as well as the filmmaker’s astuteness in his portrayals of the characters, but above all the film’s greatest asset is its glorious ensemble cast. Among the underappreciated, Oscars- or otherwise, are Phyllis Logan and Claire Rushbrook as the fragile wife and the petulant daughter respectively. And there’s Timothy Spall, of course; a dozen of shots and images in the movie owe their indelibility to Spall’s turn as a reserved, tender and fatigued husband. Yesterday, Mr. Spall finally earned his much-deserved acting award for his depiction of a landscape painter at this year’s Cannes closing ceremony. After re-watching one of the best films of 1996, one naturally expects Leigh’s latest Cannes contender to have the same filmmaking prowess and performance by Mr. Spall. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Review: BLEAK NIGHT (2011, South Korea)

An average on-screen treatment of South Korean high-school life tends to be as monotonous and perfunctory as the students’ drab uniforms and prescribed daily routine. The bulk of adolescent dramas set in Korean schools incorporate an outsider’s or teacher’s perspective to examine students’ behavior and strive to provide insights on the impact of the nation’s educational system on its youth. Such quasi-sociological observations are exactly what audiences expect to see, with teenage characters embodying certain types subjected to the preordained forces of certain story patterns. Any event should have its corresponding cause; a delinquent protagonist comes from a broken home, a suicidal one has bullies badgering her or an overbearing parent — usually a mother — imposing unrealistic expectations on her. These stories are supposed to reveal the dual role of institutions, family and school as both the most reliable shelter and a breeding ground for post-pubescent nightmares. But only a handful of them delve deeply into classroom status hierarchy as the main subject-matter, without drawing exclusively on typified student characters. Indeed, few Korean coming-of-age movies that tackle this subject-matter are as structurally ambitious and uniquely perceptive in characterization as Yoon Sung-hyun’s Bleak Night.

Conceived initially as a graduation project, Yoon’s debut feature ended up pulling in over 20,000 admissions nationwide, a number in Korean independent cinema equivalent to 2 million in its mainstream counterpart. The movie also catapulted into the limelight its leading star Lee Je-hoon, who subsequently toplined one of the country’s highest-grossing romantic dramas, Architecture 101. In Bleak Night, Lee plays Ki-tae, whose suicide is at the heart of this ostensible mystery narrative. As Ki-tae’s father interviews his son’s former friends, multiple perspectives feature in shaping the narrative’s contours and uncovering what really happened. The first few flashbacks — showing Ki-tae alternately as a sadistic bully and a good best friend — might throw the audience off a little, since it’s not clear whose point-of-view these scenes are told from. But once the list of suspects (!) narrows down to two boys, Hee-joon and Dong-yoon, it begins to seem as if we are finally getting to the truth.

But the truth is, there really is no such thing as complete, satisfactory truth — especially when it’s at best a fragmented picture of puzzle pieces, which are far from complete in themselves. The presence of a deceased friend’s father may get the boys to talk, but all they do, out of fear or possibly guilt, is sidestep potential accusations and shift the blame. They deny ever having been close to Ki-tae, or claim the other boys knew him better. Hee-joon, once one of Ki-tae’s closest buddies and then the major victim of his bullying, is no exception. But from the outset Yoon establishes that neither Ki-tae nor his so-called friends are entirely innocent or culpable; the more information the director supplies about their relationships, the clearer it becomes that the line between the two is frustratingly thin.

When Hee-joon recalls his days spent with Ki-tae, Yoon’s camera captures up-close all the joviality and laughter shared by the boys, then gradually settles into rigid, static compositions as a gulf develops between them, and soon becomes unbridgeable. Exactly what creates this rift is simply irreducible to a single cause. It could be that a girl Hee-joon has a crush on actually likes Ki-tae so Hee-joon gets jealous; that Ki-tae is constantly irritated by Hee-joon’s evasiveness and acts out his frustration by beating up his best friend; or that Hee-joon hates the way Ki-tae intimidates him but pretends they are friends because he has no choice. Even while Hee-joon’s recollections unfold, the reasons for Ki-tae’s death are hardly ever spelled out, since the boys speak and express themselves in a register that adults, characters or spectators, find nearly impenetrable.

But Yoon understands their language perfectly, and knows how to effectively convert it into a cinematic one. One minute the boys communicate well enough without saying much except curse words, then the next, they are total strangers. The camera’s fluid shifts between the friends’ faces grind to a halt when they position themselves right opposite each other, all but completely disconnected. When Hee-joon tells Ki-tae face to face that he’s transferring to another school because of the latter, and that others only stay friends with him for fear of being bullied, the words obviously hurt Ki-tae. But it hurts Ki-tae irreparably when Dong-yoon shuts him out permanently after, in addition to Ki-tae’s bullying behavior, Hee-joon’s departure further sours their friendship and Ki-tae deliberately sabotages Dong-yoon’s relationship with his girlfriend.

Despite being apparent causes of Ki-tae’s suicide, those broken friendships are not the single contributing factor. Each repeat viewing of the movie would find the audience empathising with each different character in a different way. Ki-tae may be the bully, but in his most honest moment with Dong-yoon, he admits that he likes to exert his power since it makes him the center of attention. While it doesn’t justify his violence against Hee-joon, Ki-tae knows no other way to express himself when all he wants to do is get Hee-joon to open up to him.

Yoon refrains from adopting a psychoanalyzing or sociologizing omniscient perspective to probe the boys’ subtly but abruptly changing relations. His subjective, mostly microscopic glimpses into their high school lives are realistic and attentive to detail, while not excluding the social dimension of the story. By surrounding the boys in the dismal landscapes of nondescript apartment and school buildings, the filmmaker reminds viewers, especially Korean ones, of their own ambivalent feelings about their largely dreary but occasionally joyous high school experience — entrenched in the seemingly endless home-school-private tutoring (“hagwon”) cycle — and of their socially inept, impulsive, hardly innocent but hardly grown-up adolescent selves.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Review: HEAVENLY CREATURES (1994, New Zealand)

This review also appears on The Missing Slate

dir. Peter Jackson

Any small incident of violent crime would cause a stir in a peaceful and conservative little city like Christchurch, New Zealand, in the 1950s. One can only imagine the shock and terror delivered across town by the news of a homicide committed by two teenage girls. In the summer of 1954, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were charged with murdering the former’s mother and, soon after, found guilty. Unsurprisingly, their trial, during which Pauline’s unearthed diaries served to support an unsuccessful insanity defense, garnered sensationalized press coverage.

The media’s specific and intense focus on the accused’s allegedly unhealthy friendship stoked such fear and concern that the entire case went down as a cautionary tale about not only juvenile delinquency, but relationships considered even vaguely homosexual. No wonder those media portrayals of the trial, together with the mass hysteria surrounding it, reinforced pre-existing anti-lesbian attitudes and a deep-seated association between lesbianism and criminality.

But 40 years later, Peter Jackson, a New Zealand native, decided that in lieu of a moralizing condemnation of or a tactless justification for the matricide, a nonjudgmental look would better befit his own reconstruction of events leading up to the killing. He took an intimate glimpse into the girls’ shared universe as his primary approach to the subject-matter—as the movie’s first intertitle suggests, this is their story.

Jackson insists that a trip to Pauline and Juliet’s fantasy world should be as giddy an experience as possible. Immediately after mixing in faint screams at the end of brief newsreel footage that promotes Christchurch as basically a tranquil urbanized haven, he shows the girls, blood-soaked and shrieking, sprinting frantically through the woods, intercut with dreamy black-and-white shots of them dashing happily across the deck of a ship. Soon in flashback, the beginnings of the friendship are presented as a series of shots brimming with elation and ecstasy.

Throughout the pair’s bonding, the camera seems to grab us by the wrist and drag us into their exalted states of mind. It chases the girls as they run around, pushes in on their enraptured faces, glides high above their heads, and circles them fast as they sing and strip down. Connecting over childhood scars and common interests in film and medieval fiction, the girls romanticize illness, blow things out of all proportion, and dream of succeeding in Hollywood. They share an idol and an enemy in Mario Lanza and Orson Welles, respectively, and collaborate on crafting stories and clay figurines to build and populate their fictitious kingdom. Jackson, accordingly, brings their inventions to life and translates their exaggerated emotions into wild compositions and camera movements. Castles become life-sized and clay monarchs animated, and the girls wholeheartedly welcome their alternative lives.

The excitement doesn’t end there—we have yet to enter the Fourth World, an absolute paradise of music and art envisioned by Juliet. With Pauline, she finally discovers the key to her version of heaven. Upon learning her parents will travel overseas without her for weeks, she plays the most miserable human being on earth, runs off to a hill surrounded by vast fields, and throws herself to the ground. Jackson’s dazzling aerial shots here bolster the scene’s melodramatic affectation, and the special effects that morph the fields into the Fourth World add to the movie’s surrealistic touches.

As this tragedy transitions to Juliet’s hospitalization, the discovery of the imaginary heaven and their temporary separation further consolidate the girls’ bond. Seeing anyone that comes between them as a threat, the girls start erecting barriers to defend their ever-expanding universe. Interestingly enough, it seems to be their mothers who pose the greatest threat; in the end, Pauline’s mother, whom the girls regard as the mastermind behind their impending separation, falls victim to their murderous schemes.

It all seems like a variation of the typical oedipal narrative about daughters hating mothers. But aside from female authority figures such as their mothers and teachers at Girls’ High School, older males, including patriarchs, appear equally menacing. Disdained by Juliet and Pauline as foolish and disgusting, these men—a boarder, priest, psychiatrist, and father—emerge in grotesque extreme close-up during sex or a therapy session, or while stealthily gazing down at the sleeping girls. Except Juliet’s father who earns her sympathy due to her hatred for her mother, all these men are cruelly slain by the figurines in the girls’ imagination.

Pauline and Juliet’s flight into fantasy is their own way of resisting the adults’ oppression. Whatever the reason, the grownups do not hesitate to declare the friendship an anomaly, not merely because it’s obsessive, but most importantly because they are suspected of having something that is a violation of the society’s morals or, by the standards of rational-minded men, an illness. Jackson, of course, does not try to rationalize the girls’ horrible deed or create a distorted representation of the crime. While relegating the details of the trial to the postscript at the end of the film, he chose to probe the girls’ minds and their shared world, rather than reiterating the images of their relationship that the media and the public, with certain bias and prejudice, had ingrained in their own imaginations. In Heavenly Creatures, the debut film for both Melanie Lynskey and Kate Winslet, Jackson also draws out indelible performances from his amply talented ingénues.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Review: BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR (2013, France)

dir. Abdellatif Kechiche

Love stories abound in film, and have been told in various forms and styles, but very rarely do these stories feature front and center an erotic love between two people outside the heterosexual mold, let alone one between two females. A shifting socio-political landscape for LGBT equality over the past few decades has turned the entertainment industry’s attention to the needs of those previously underserved. Their stories then formed a distinctive sub-genre, and their fictional surrogates began to figure more heavily in mainstream movies, albeit in limited roles. The representation of gay characters continues to incrementally improve, and so has the visibility of same-sex pairings as a viable alternative in romance narratives. Although there is a long way to go, homosexuality is becoming a taken-for-granted part of our moviegoing experience, and today’s knowledgeable audiences demand more quality productions about this specific subject-matter. Additionally, as gay experience is more thoroughly integrated into everyday cinema, the distinctions between traditional and gay romance are blurring, with the latter resisting habitual genre pigeonholing and gaining universal appeal.

That’s where, I suppose, Blue is the Warmest Color comes into the picture. Written and directed by the Tunisian-French filmmaker Abdellatif Kechiche and starring French actresses Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux, the unanimously anointed Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival premiered to critical acclaim, but also stirred up the controversies everyone interested has heard of by now. While rebuffing the accusations of the male gaze or a patriarchal view on female sexuality (“Do I need to be a woman to talk about love between women?”), Kechiche stressed his intention was to portray a love that is at once absolute and cosmic. Meanwhile in her interview with “The Daily Beast,” Seydoux made a point of emphasizing that what’s dealt with in the movie is more than homosexuality. The director and the actress, apparently no longer on speaking terms after accusations of what amounts to bullying on set, unified to bring the universality of love to the forefront of the discussion.

Love is indeed everything and everywhere in the life of Adèle, played by Exarchopoulos, a sexually confused teenager who shares a turbulent affair with an older artist named Emma (Seydoux). If this synopsis smacks of utter banality, an actual unfolding of these chapters of her life is quite engaging and teems with intense emotion, sensuality, and of course, body parts—especially faces. Unabashedly displaying his obsession with his newly discovered muse, Kechiche keeps the camera in such close proximity to her that one can almost imagine him having some sort of separation anxiety whenever she slips out of frame. Hers is not the only face that dominates the screen—an overreliance on close-ups is essentially the director’s default mode; he shoves the camera into the faces of all those who interact with or surround Adèle. Such ultra-tight framing is not merely intended to reinforce the character’s subjectivity. It also seems Kechiche exploits those close-ups to establish the visual language that actively discourages looking beyond the surface of the characters’ actions and feelings.

Apart from his monotonous shooting style, Kechiche insists on crude literalness in splicing scenes and visual elements together. Early on, Adèle’s teacher and classmates discuss the French realist novel “La vie de Marianne” in her high-school literature class. The words or phrases they read aloud here include, “I am a woman. And I tell my story,” “her heart was missing something,” “exchange glances,” and “love at first sight.” Kechiche won’t just get the story started; he goes out of his way to announce what happens in the scenes that follow. So as expected, once Adèle has a few experiments under her belt, she meets and falls in love with Emma. They eat and have sex. Throughout, Kechiche draws symbolic parallels between Adèle’s voracious appetite for food and for sex. But his presentation is so deliberately transparent that the audience cannot possibly miss what her oyster shucking during a meal with Emma’s family signifies. And those two family dinners—one at Emma’s liberal home and the other at Adèle’s practical-minded one—are supposed to suggest the couple’s class differences. But the director’s attempt at social commentary feels half-baked, despite the inclusion of other party scenes of similar import.

Then finally, there are those notorious sex scenes. The most sensuous and tactile moments in the film, they have been criticized for idealized images of the female body. The critics’ suspicions have been sort of confirmed by Kechiche himself: he intended to shoot those scenes like paintings or sculptures. In fact, the pair’s postcoital position recalls, say, Gustave Courbet’s Le Sommeil, and their lovemaking looks extra-beautiful under carefully designed lighting. But even outside the bed, shots that constitute the lovers’ courtship are by turns naturalistic and highly romanticized—yes, with lots of close-ups and the camera’s lingering gaze on their faces. 

There’s no denying that representations of women’s sexuality have been, and remain, an important issue. But to uncritically invoke the male-gaze concept, essentially a product of second-wave psychoanalytic feminism, is to base the criticism on heteronormative/gender-essentialist assumptions; to say that these sex scenes were only orchestrated to arouse the male spectator is to overlook the female viewer who might find the couple’s sex just as exciting. Indeed, reactions in lesbian communities have been wildly mixed, as some individuals' subjective romantic experiences are inevitably more aligned with the film's depiction than others. Keeping women making love in medium shot, for instance (the sex scenes in Chantal Akerman's  Je tu il elle spring to mind), helps achieve an admirable sense of distance and neutrality, but it may not necessarily be the sole way of communicating the bliss of two people desiring and consuming each other. In spite of the film’s slightly clunky transition or awkward class-commentary, Kechiche is consistent about his thoroughly literal, primitive approach; close-ups mean intimacy and an exchange of looks means desiring. Whatever the director’s flaws, co-leads Exarchopoulos and Seydoux succeed in channeling the kind of love he wanted to depict—with infinite tenderness.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

86th Academy Awards Predictions & WINNERS

My last-minute predictions for the 2014 Oscars:

Best Picture

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Gravity
Should win:
Should have been here: I could do without more than half of these nominees, but the inclusion of Inside Llewyn Davis or Before Midnight would have been nice. But year after year, the AMPAS just refuses to play nice.

Best Director

David O. Russell, American Hustle
Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity   --  WINNER
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron for GRAVITY
Could win: Steven McQueen
Should win: Martin Scorsese
Should have been here: The Coen bros, or Richard Linklater.

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine  -- WINNER
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Will win: Cate Blanchett
Could win:
Should win: Cate Blanchett
Should have been here: Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha)

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, American Hustle
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club  -- WINNER

Will win: Matthew McConaughey
Could win:
Should win: Leonardo DiCaprio
Should have been here: Oscar Isaac

Actor in a Supporting Role
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Bradley Cooper, American Hustle
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
Jonah Hill, The Wolf of Wall Street
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club -  WINNER

Will win: Jared Leto
Could win:
Should win: Leto, not the movie, is fine.

Actress in a Supporting Role
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave  --  WINNER
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County
June Squibb, Nebraska

Will win: Lupita Nyong'o
Could win: Jennifer Lawrence
Should win: Sally Hawkins
Should have been here: Julianne Nicholson (August Osage County)

Adapted Screenplay
Before Midnight
Captain Phillips
12 Years a Slave  -- WINNER
The Wolf of Wall Street

Will win: 12 YEARS A SLAVE
Could win: Philomena
Should win: Before Midnight

Original Screenplay

American Hustle
Blue Jasmine
Dallas Buyers Club
Her  -- WINNER

Could win: Her
Should win: Nebraska
Should have been here: Someone on Twitter suggested an Oscar drinking game where you take a shot each time something wins that should have been Inside Llewyn Davis. I'm joining it.

Film Editing

American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity  --  WINNER
12 Years a Slave

Will win: Captain Phillips
Could win: Gravity
Should win: Gravity
Should have been here: Wolf of Wall Street.

The Grandmaster
Gravity  --  WINNER
Inside Llewyn Davis

Will win: Gravity
Could win:
Should win: Inside Llewyn Davis
Should have been here: This is probably the best group among this year's nominees across all categories, and I'd have a hard time taking one out to replace it with another. But one person I'd squeeze in is Sean Bobbitt for 12 Years a Slave. What I liked most about that movie was his cinematography -- see: those landscapes of Louisiana, group shots of the slaves on plantations or at the New Orleans slave market, and close-ups of Ejiofor's face.

Costume Design
American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

Will win: American Hustle
Could win: The Great Gatsby
Should win:

Makeup and Hairstyling
Dallas Buyers Club  --  WINNER
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Will win: The Lone Ranger
Could win: Dallas Buyers Club

Production Design
American Hustle
The Great Gatsby  -- WINNER
12 Years a Slave

Will win: The Great Gatsby
Could win: 12 Years a Slave

Original Score
The Book Thief (John Williams)
Gravity (Steven Price)  -- WINNER
Her (William Butler, Owen Pallett)
Philomena (Alexandre Desplat)
Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman)

Will win: Her
Could win: Gravity
Should have been here: I prefer Thomas Newman's other scoring feat last year for Steven Soderberg's Side Effects, which along with Soderbergh's cinematography reminded me of Polanski's urban horror-thrillers such as Rosemary's Baby.

Visual Effects
Gravity  --  WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

Will win: Gravity
Could win: Gravity will sweep these visual technical categories Life of Pi-style.

Sound Editing
All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Haven't seen Lone Survivor or The Hobbit.
Should win:  All Is Lost

Sound Mixing
Captain Phillips
Gravity  -- WINNER
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Will win:  Gravity
Could win: Captain Phillips? Usually blockbusters with critical backing win in both of the sound categories.
Should win: Will be still playing that drinking game!

Original Song

"Happy" from Despicable Me 2
"Let It Go" from Frozen  -- WINNER
"The Moon Song" from Her
"Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

Will win: Let It Go from Frozen
Could win: Alone Not Yet.. wait.

Foreign Language Film
The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)
The Great Beauty (Italy)  --  WINNER
The Hunt (Denmark)
The Missing Picture (Cambodia)
Omar (Palestine)

Will win: The Great Beauty (Italy)
Could win: The Hunt (Denmark)

Animated Feature Film

The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
Frozen  --  WINNER
The Wind Rises

Will win: Frozen
Could win: The Wind Rises

Documentary Feature
The Act of Killing
Cutie and the Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet from Stardom -- WINNER

Will win: 20 Feet from Stardom
Could win: The Act of Killing

Documentary Short

Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life  --  WINNER
Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Will win: CaveDigger

Animated Short Film
Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot  -- WINNER
Rooms on the Broom

Will win: Get a Horse!

Live Action Short Film
Aquel No Era Yo
Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Helium  --  WINNER
Pitaako Mun Kaikki Hoitaa?
The Voorman Problem

Will win: Avant Que De Tout Perdre
Could win: Helium

* # of wins

Gravity -- 5 Oscars
12 Years a Slave -- 3 Oscars
American Hustle -- 2 Oscars
Dallas Buyers Club -- 2 Oscars
Frozen -- 2 Oscars
Her -- 1 Oscar
Blue Jasmine -- 1 Oscar
The Great Gatsby -- 1 Oscar
Lone Ranger -- 1 Oscar