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Ji ran qing chun liu bu zhu (2015)
Good Coming of Age Story
Youth Never Returns is a rather straightforward coming of age story chronicling the Chinese college experience. For those who have never lived in China and may be unaware, many college friendships last a lifetime. Because of the one child policy in China, many college students learn to live with a roommate for the first time in college, and consequently, the relationships become close friendships.
This particular film does a slightly above average job of setting the mood for first love, lost love, and the fleeting nature of youth. Comparable films from Hollywood would include The Big Chill and sex comedies like American Pie. Needless to say, there's nothing here worthy of an Oscar but as far as Chinese dramedies go, this is a pretty good one.
13 Tzameti (2005)
A great movie ruined by a terrible ending
The first time I touched a gun, it was late into my teen years. I remember when and where. Entrusted to my care was a shotgun. The gun weighed on my shoulder and arms. Squeezing the trigger brought the desired effect, but for the life of me, I never did hit a single clay disc. As the skeet sailed by over and over again, I struggled to concentrate on the target and not the power I held in my hands. Little has changed since that day. I am still a blind shot, yet I'd like to think I've more respect for a firearm.
In the film 13 Tzameti, it is hard to tell if Sébastian (Georges Babluani) has touched a gun before joining a game in which a requirement is putting a gun to the head of the man standing beside him and pulling the trigger. It's hard to gauge what kind of man Sébastian is in general. He doesn't say much and nearly every bit of information to be gleaned about his character must be drawn from his actions. It isn't hard to see, however, that 13 Tzameti is about the power of violence. There's no moaning about or philosophical waxings by the characters. The content is in the visuals not the dialogue.
And the visuals are stunning. It's hard to rave about the beauty of a movie that is preoccupied with the nature of violence, but oddly, it's appropriate to 13 Tzameti. It's photographed in black and white which seems to heighten the tension. Without color, violence is reduced to a stark game of survival. It's primal. It's raw. 13 Tzameti is not interested in muddying its waters with too much visual or spoken information.
Instead, we, the viewers, are plunged into violence at its most basic level; therefore, the question 13 Tzameti wishes to singularly ask is "What is the effect of violence on a man?"or put another way, "How does violence change a man?" Great war movies such as Full Metal Jacket or (the 1930 film version of) All Quiet on the Western Front try to do this but generally sidetrack such questions with dogmatism: The war movie is interested in the morality of war itself and brings the effects of violence into play only to strengthen its arguments.
Since 13 Tzameti has no dog in the hunt in respects to the merits of war, we are generally spared any debate of ideology. Since there is no debate, only "the act" itself remains, the act of putting a gun to another man's head and pulling the trigger without reason, there is only one way we can react. "This is absurd!" Since the rightness of the actions on screen are not in doubt, all we are interested in is how Sébastian reacts to the "game" into which he has been led.
Much praise is required for Georges Babluani. 13 Tzameti is not a piece of thriller hackwork singularly because of him. Babluani is controlled in his acting. He never gives too much away by crying hysterically, moping, gesticulating wildly, or breaking into monologue. When he tries to run away from the violence, he does so without panic. When he cannot initially bring himself to pull the trigger, he refuses to sensationalize the moment.
I have only one major complaint with 13 Tzameti; however, it undoes what has come before. It breaks down in the third act. This is a common complaint among movies. A great premise is broken by an unfocused conclusion. Since the major question 13 Tzameti is asking is "How does violence change a man?", the only reasonable conclusion should answer, or attempt to answer, that question. 13 Tzameti does not even attempt it. In the final moments, an unbelievable coincidence beats the viewer about the head with the absurdity of violence. It's clear the director is not sure that we've picked up on this yet. The inclusion of such a silly and unconvincing coincidence by this point in the movie would be funny if it wasn't so sad that it ruins an otherwise great movie. Only a dunce would have missed the absurdity of the violence in the movie. Why do we need to be told so obviously? I left the movie feeling cheated. I had been cheated out of ultimately seeing the long term effects of the violence on the main character, and for that, it is impossible for me to say that this movie is anything other than interesting. It's not a good film and certainly not a great film. It is simply interesting, interesting to wonder what could have been and interesting to see an excellent acting performance by Babluani.
The General (1926)
I like old movies, but I have a confession to make. I don't watch silent movies. There are two exceptions to this rule. I watch Charlie Chaplin movies and I watch The General. I have yet to see another movie starring Buster Keaton, and I've decided, if he'd never made a movie besides The General, he'd still be a legend. Neither Buster Keaton nor Chaplin needed words to tell a heck of a story. In fact, even if The General did't have title cards to tell you what was going on, you'd still be able to figure it out.
The plot is simple: Johnny Gray (played by Keaton) is an locomotive engineer in the South when the War of Northern Aggression, er, Civil War breaks out. His best gal, Annabelle Lee, snubs him when she mistakenly assumes he's a coward because he doesn't enlist (when in reality he's not allowed to enlist because he's more valuable as an engineer). What takes place over the next hour or so is a series of scenes in which Keaton bumbles his way into rescuing Annabelle from captors, foils a pack of Northern spies, and almost singlehandedly routes the Northern army. Most of the action takes place aboard the film's namesake, The General, Gray's locomotive.
The complaint against silent films is that there just isn't enough there without words to keep a viewer interested. Normally I agree, but Keaton's comic timing combined with numerous chase scenes keeps the pace lively. Kids under 10 are usually the toughest critics. I've heard and read many folks say that when they sat down with their young children to watch this one when the movie ended, the kids were ready for a repeat viewing.
One of my favorite gags of the movie comes when Gray tries to shoot a cannonball from a moving train in order to hit a train full of spies he's pursuing. With one misstep, he manages to aim the cannon directly at himself. It's hard to choose a favorite scene because one gag begets another throughout the running time of the movie, and at a time of 74 minutes, it's amazing how many funny bits Keaton packs in.
Chris Cooper is excellent
The story of Robert Hanssen is curious. How could a man that looked so normal on the outside be a spy? Breach doesn't really offer an answer and is better for it. Chris Cooper instead plays Hanssen to complexity. It seems throughout the movie that even Hanssen wasn't fully aware of his motives. Maybe it was a bet to himself just to see if he could do it.
The biggest weakness of the film is Laura Linney. I like Laura Linney, so it's with regret that I say she's cardboard in this movie. She plays a characture of an FBI agent as if she watched B grade spy movies to fill the part. Scenes she's not in are some of the best.
Ultimately, the plot suffers by never making up its mind if it is a thriller or a character piece. It waffles. It would have been better to cut the bits of thriller (that don't really thrill all that effectively) and stick with allowing the characters to move and interact a bit more. It's frustrating to have a brilliant scene between Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe cut into by a scene in which (Oh no!) Cooper is about to find out who Phillippe is.
Without a doubt, Cooper makes Breach a good film. It's packing too much into the movie that makes it less than great.
Shi gan (2006)
A Nice Try
Kim Ki-duk isn't interested in telling a straight forward story. He repeats scenes (more than once) though the last time normal space-time is fractured. Time (the movie) is more of a metaphor rather than a straightforward story.
At first I was wondering why the movie wasn't titled Face (since one of the main characters early on decides to have her face changed through plastic surgery); however, it becomes clear that this movie is not interested so much in appearance as it first seems. It is firstly a movie about time.
When we first meet the couple the movie revolves around, Seh-hee (the girlfriend) is suspicious of her boyfriend's commitment to faithfulness. She wonders if he is growing tired of her because they've been together too long. She ultimately decides to try and take their relationship back to the beginning. She wants it to be new in the hope that the newness will hold the relationship together. What she neglects (however trite it sounds) is the invaluability of time spent together. The characters spend much of the movie apart, and the viewer knows that a sad prophecy of loneliness is unfolding.
While the movie can function as a cautionary tale, it isn't really that engaging. Seh-hee is obsessive, insecure, selfish (since she's more interested in being loved than loving), and completely jealous. Ji-woo seems to be inattentive, and unresponsive to her concerns. Clearly there's a back story of dysfunction that we never see. Throughout the movie, Seh-hee spends so much of the time not listening (and not believing) her boyfriend as well as throwing tantrums that I couldn't sympathize with her. When you can't sympathize with the main character of a story in nearly any way, the story has a problem. I'm not saying a character has to likable to be sympathetic, but I am saying that for tragedy to work correctly (and this is clearly a tragedy) there has to be enough in a character that we wish to see redeemed so that when the character is damned, we feel the appropriate emotional response of catharsis. I didn't feel it after watching Time.
Twice during the movie a character tells Ji-woo that Seh-hee must really love him. Neither character really seems to believe that's true. It's more of a nicety than anything else. We don't believe she loves him either, and that's the problem with this film: she doesn't love him, she just wants to be loved by him. That wound can't be healed by time.
The King of Kong (2007)
The best documentaries open up a world that didn't exist to you before you watched. The King of Kong did exactly that for me. I had no idea there was a group of people who religously guarded the their records--for the highest score on the video game Donkey Kong. What's even more fascinating is how driven these people are! Our hero, Steve Wiebe, is the Rocky Balboa to Billy Mitchell's Apollo Creed. (The Rocky theme music even makes an appearance during a key scene.) The filmmakers carefully follow the obsession of these professional gamers. What will they do to prove themselves? Are they above manipulation and deceit to keep their reputation? It makes for riveting drama.
My one complaint is that after watching the movie, I did a little bit of googling to find out more about the subjects. Apparently, the filmmakers may have left out key details and interactions to amp up the tension (and to present a certain angle) in the movie. This isn't necessary and is disingenuous to the viewer. Regardless, this documentary is compelling.
O Homem Que Copiava (2003)
Uneven but not Uneventful
The Man Who Copied is a curiosity. It doesn't stick with a genre, and it's unclear to me if this is a fault or an asset. Jorge Furtado, the director, plays fast and loose with the story. He throws bits of this and that into the mix all of which adds up to an uncatogorizable film. Is it a thriller? A comedy? A romantic comedy? It's hard for me to even match this up with any other movie I've seen. I see this film as more of a sketch than an oiled machine, and yet, there's considerable depth to the story. (The story stuck with me for a while, and I spent some time discussing it with the friend I saw it with.) It's the depth, the incongruities that kept me thinking about it, that makes me like it. The Man Who Copied is anything but. It's an original.
Simply put, Volver is a movie about secrets and family, or to go a little further, it is a movie about secrets, family, and the women affected by the secrets. It's very hard to say any more about the movie for fear of giving too much away. I went into this one having read nothing about it, and I'm so thankful for it.
I scratched my head through most of the movie wondering how Penelope Cruz ends up with such a terrible husband. "She's just too beautiful for the role," I thought. Was she horribly miscast? No, and this is why the movie is so good. It's meticulously constructed. There are no wasted lines, wasted characters, wasted scenes. The viewer must wait to be told all in due time.
It's hard to make a light movie concerning much of the subject matter of the film, but Almodovar does it. The women carry on--and even thrive--throughout life altering, cruel circumstances. As secret after secret is revealed, burdens are lifted and bonds are rebuilt. In the world of Volver, secrets are not kept to protect the guilty but to protect the innocent. The women of this movie do not throw pity parties and weep over their bad fortune. They protect, defend, and support each other.
We're told in the first scene of the film that women outlive their men in the town the women are from. It makes sense by the end of the film. No woman is left to fend for herself. Each cares for the other in turn, and each, in turn, lives a better life for it.
Looking for Richard (1996)
A unique and fresh look at The Bard
It's been a while since I've seen this film so I'm gonna have to do an overview. While watching this film, I kept in mind that it is a documentary and not meant to be a theatrical picture. This was definetly necessary. If you are looking for something with action or witty lines written down by some overpaid screenwriter in the back lots of Hollywood, you'll have to pick up a different film; however, if you can get past the impulse to veg infront of the tube and make this film in excercising your brain, it is quite remarkable. Al Pacino and the rest of the cast do a great job of interpreting and explaining Shakespeare and his work. It is a great film for those who are not Shakespeare buffs. Pacino enlightens his audience concerning what goes on to stage and enact Shakespeare--the interpretation, the casting, the mindset. Now, if you still aren't convinced that this movie is at least worth a shot, check out the cast. It is a who's who of today's most talented actors and actresses Shakespearean as well as those from the other side of the big pond--Kevin Spacey, Kenneth Branagh, James Earl Jones, Alec Baldwin, etc. My favorite part of the movie comes at the end when Al Pacino acts out the most famous scene of the play ("A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!"). It is truly a spirited performance. NOW, with all this said, Looking for Richard falls short of being indispensable. It's a good film but not great. I think what it lacks is continuity. It jumps around a little too much for my liking...but Looking for Richard, none the less, is a film that is worth checking out at least once. Now if you want a truly great Shakespearean film, check out anything directed by Kenneth Branagh.