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Phantom Thread (2017)
The inhumanity of P.T. Anderson's movies has reached a new high (low). This is a gloriously staged and brilliantly acted period drama which can feel languid, overdrawn and positively painful. The atmosphere is cold, the land is crippled and the people are repressed. I did not particularly enjoy the movie or its characters, but I can appreciate what it does. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, huh? I do not regret my experience with it at all - but I never want to see this movie again.
Twin Peaks: Part 17 (2017)
The fairy tale draws to a close
In Twin Peaks, everything comes together - before breaking apart anew.
Both halves are perfect: the fairy tale ending that ties the main story line knots (even, as we shall see, TOO perfectly); and the "wicked witch" dark twist at the end, which spirals everything into darkness.
The cinematography is top notch here, from the flashy final showdown and the subsequent interdimensional encounters between Dale Cooper, the One-Armed Man and Philip Jeffries to the wholly unexpected, tonally perfect revisiting of Fire Walk with Me and Season 1 Pilot scenes. Visual and audio design is both pleasing and experimental.
The story surprises are so huge that it is better not to spoil them.
On the downside, we are left hanging on multiple minor story threads, but my hope is that those will be revisited in possible future seasons. The last episode that follows, episode 18, continues the story, but episode 17 serves as a stand-alone ending to the entire saga. And it is so good that the whole show culminates there.
Twin Peaks: Part 18 (2017)
Slow, painful and haunting
After the consummate perfection of the last couple of episodes, the final episode feels like a disturbingly unsatisfying swan song. This makes me hope for more Twin Peaks to come. The biggest problem with the episode is its tonal shift - everything is suddenly off-kilter and dark; even Dale Cooper is turned into an uncharismatic, fumbling, uncanny version of himself. (The fourth version of Coop in the show, Richard, who is possibly a mixture of the other three Coops.)
After episode 17, when the whole story comes to an end, fans would have wanted some more time in Twin Peaks with the Sheriff's department gang, to make us feel happy for the last hour. But instead Lynch jettisons almost the entire Twin Peaks cast, and the whole final episode revolves around a handful of core members of the original show. Well, kind of. In fact, we encounter a version of Diane who may or may not be the "real" Diane, a version of Coop who is definitely lost in some horrible limbo, and, last by not least, a version of Laura Palmer who has amnesia, is apparently involved with a murder, and may even be dreaming. The intimate Coop-Laura journey towards Twin Peaks is certainly an appropriate way to end the series (or season), but the unresolved story lines of the past 17 episodes, together with the disconcerting fact that Coop and Laura are now Richard and Carrie, make for a baffling and frustrating - and incredibly slow - finale.
But the episode deserves praise for its bold direction. There are some incredibly beautiful scenes, including: 1) The Dale & Diane (or Richard & Linda) love scene, which is drawn-out, disturbing, emotionally conflicted and altogether horrifying. I loved every minute of it. 2) The dark road trip, with Laura and Dale enveloped in darkness, and perhaps chased (or perhaps not) by malevolent vehicles. 3) And, of course, the very end, when Dale and Laura reach the Palmer residence. The last couple of minutes are beautifully shot, and the camera movement is menacing and ghostly, all the way to the shocking revelation. Sheryl and Kyle give excellent performances, and the audience is treated to an incredibly satisfying trifecta of story points (i.e. cliffhangers) regarding who owns the house, how Dale Cooper is completely lost, and how Laura actually remembers. This scene is one of the best in the entire Twin Peaks saga, even if it leaves the audience gasping for air.
There are more questions than answers after this episode. And this is both good and bad. Some people have argued that episode 17 is the Mark Frost ending, and episode 18 is the David Lynch ending. Or one could say that 17 is the "good" ending and 18 is the "bad" ending; or 17 is the "dream" ending and 18 the "awakened" ending (or perhaps the other way around?). Whatever the case, the numerous unanswered questions are likely to keep fans guessing for years to come.
My theory is that episode 18 is intended to be as ambiguous as possible, so that it can serve as a possible cliffhanger for Season 4, and I believe that the possibility of more Twin Peaks is high.
Since Judy is not conquered, and since obvious cliffhangers are obvious, I believe we shall see more of Dale and Laura. Soon.
Pass Thru (2016)
A new kind of masterpiece
A warning from the future... or a primitive calling from our ancestral past?
Breen's fourth film is a portal. It reveals the ethical follies of the human race, and exposes them for all to see. Our lost connection to Mother Earth, to tigers, to immigrants... it's all there. The movie provides deep feelings, Spielberg-esque childlike wonder, biting political commentary, nail-biting action and harrowing drama.
It's almost a perfect 90 minutes a length. It could even fit on a CD and could be listened to as an audiobook. Burn it to a CD and work out to the tune of Breen's soothing voice as you ponder its message.
Absorb it with care, and with any luck, Breen's vision might "pass thru" your system, like yesterday's lasagna - having given you enough sustenance to survive another day in the sad world. It's not so bad it's good. It's so good that it's bad.
Fateful Findings (2013)
The Best Neil Breen Movie of 2013
I haven't written a movie review in a while, but I had to log in to register my pleasure at the discovery of this magical movie. Like a piece of miracle dropped from heaven, it has such purity and innocence that is out of this world. Like a child playing in a bubble bath, a dandelion swaying in the wind, or a dog licking its own balls, this movie reveals to the world just how corrupted the movie business has become with its exaggerated love for "talent" and "skill" and "acting."
A love letter to the lovesick, an orgasm without erection, there is something magical about Neil Breen's touch. So, bend over, close your eyes, and take it. You'll learn to love it.
an unhappy bonobo
Although the movie has an interesting premise - a human community organized to mimic the social lifestyle of the Bonobos, where social problems are resolved with sex - it doesn't do anything with this wonderful gem of an idea. I mean, think about it - a stuck-up mother joins a group of young sex freaks living freely like Bonobos. Free love ensues. A great idea! What could go wrong, right?
Unfortunately it's not enough to show cardboard characters hugging, and occasionally having all-out sex, to make an interesting movie. The shoehorned-in character development only makes it worse. The end result would have been acceptable as an oddball episode in some long- running TV drama-comedy series - but not as a feature film.
Everything is substandard. Starting with the script, which is truly appalling. The directing is ho-hum at best. There is no vision. Shots are boring. There's too much repetition, not enough development. Just drab scenes punctuated by contrived plot twists.
The only real saving graces of the film are the actors and actresses - especially the two leading ladies - who do their best with what they've been given. Unfortunately the characters are stereotypes, the story is laughable, and their problems are perfectly contrived and predictable. The plot points are copy-pasted from some Guinness Book of Movie Clichés, and the dialogue feels wholly unnatural.
It would be hard for me to recommend this movie for most people, based on my personal experiences alone. But I must confess some people seemed to like it in the theater. Laughter ensued. Perhaps they had left their critical hats at the door. That's all fine.
Let us give the movie benefit of the doubt. While the script and the directing fall sadly short of acceptable, the movie has some charm and comedic value, and a few good performances. So it might be tolerable entertainment, completely devoid of deeper thought, for those poor souls not expecting much more than an OK one-liner - humans behaving like horny monkeys - extended to ridiculous lengths.
Things happen whether you laugh or cry!
A person dying while opening a bottle of wine. And now for something completely different.
But Roy Andersson's movies are like that. You better brace yourself for a sequence of images, scenes and characters that may or may not fit together but are guaranteed to surprise, amuse and sometimes shock you.
It's better not to get specific with the plot. Mostly because there hardly IS one. But also because it unfolds chaotically, surreally, and the pleasure lies in its unfolding before your eyes. Snippets, shots, vignettes, events - uncensored, unorganized, like life itself.
The themes are down-to-earth. The scenes are fantastical. What would you call this: realist surrealism? supernatural naturalism? We are led from Swedish housing complexes to depressing industrial areas, faced with the doom and misery of urban Scandinavia.
Humanity is explored through its senseless capacity for inflicting boredom and suffering on itself and on others. No one is spared. This is pure existentialism on cinema - but with the hope of transcendence.
The audience reactions vary from bemused silence to Benny Hill laughter. You take out of this film what you are ready to give in.
Some may find the plodding pace tiring, the characters soulless and the gray urban settings drab and lifeless. But that is sort of the point.
As a sort of midpoint between Buñuel and Loach, Andersson's style is not to everyone's taste, and not without its faults. Just be ready to embrace, and enjoy, the misery of existence. Perhaps you'll be delighted, like I was, to find humour and absurdity in suffering.
Picture of an auteur
Altman's life merits a 10-hour documentary. This is only 1½ hours, but we are treated to a decent selection of Altman trivia.
Gosford Park, M.A.S.H., Nashville, Short Cuts, The Player. Just wow.
The downside of cutting it down to a feature length documentary is that you are forced to skim through many great films. First of all, he made so many movies it's hard to keep track of them. Second of all, his movies are so dense that they require multiple viewings, and more than two minutes of exposition, to fully appreciate.
Nonetheless, I think the film is well-made and never boring.
Family videos and photos, and on-location footage, provide access to a rarely-seen Altman, such as Altman-the-father.
But don't expect great revelations. There is nothing truly shocking here, no skeletons in the closet. Altman is painted as a suspiciously lovable, but subversive, Santa Claus figure. Perhaps that's just the way he was.
But one would have liked a few rough edges to be explored a bit more - like his family troubles, financial worries and personal addictions to gambling and booze. The movies gets too close to hagiography at times. But if one is to pick Saints for canonization, you could do much worse than go with Robert Altman!
Der Anständige (2014)
Nazis are people too. But so what?
This is a pretty interesting documentary about Heinrich Himmler, and his family, narrated through well-acted and well-spliced authentic diary entries.
Although it doesn't offer anything new about the wider context of the Nazi regime or the Second World War - in fact, the historical context is laid down using well-worn archival footage - the documentary brings to light the limited subject-matter of one Nazi family - and its struggles with love, ideology, hate and war.
We are granted access to wonderfully compiled audio-visual remains of the Himmler family, culminating in the Second World War. The war is an exciting tale as we hear about the problems with food shortages and family breakdowns from Himmler's wife and daughter.
But for me the most interesting parts of the film deal with pre-War period, starting with Himmler's youth and early adulthood. There is one especially powerful scene, where diary entries from the young and the old Himmler are superimposed. The educational and cultural background of reactionary Germany is shown to to have had a huge impact on the shaping of his views.
It is easy to forget that rabid Anti-Semitism and national conservatism were rampant even before the rise of Hitlerism. We are reminded that Nazis were largely average people with average lives, who held outrageous beliefs with the perfect serenity of common sense.
But what does it matter that Nazis are people too? Do we really need to see them in their marriages, happy family dinners, and bathing costumes? Do we need to be reminded? Why should we feel sympathy with something that should not be sympathized with?
I think such an objection to intimate portraits of horrible criminals would be missing the point. Films like this are important, NOT because we need to show empathy to murderers (although that has its place too), but precisely because we want to be able to spot murderers beneath the appearances. The conclusion of the film is that most Nazis, even the top-ranking ones, looked ordinary. We should recognize that making a distinction between an average upper middle class family and a love nest of murderous villains is not easy. Nor should it be. Otherwise our world would be too simple.
We need to exercise our skill of discernment. Evil rarely appears with the appearance of an obvious demon. Concentration camps can easily co-exist with happy days on the beach and birthday picnics.
Most monsters are ordinary people, but not all ordinary people are monsters. We need well-crafted biopics of monsters (and their non- monstrous families) to remind ourselves of the reality of what Hannah Arendt the banality of evil. This film does the job well.
Kibô no kuni (2012)
Sono's work just keeps on getting better
After a string of excellent movies (showcasing an awesome, almost frightening consistency of quality) - e.g. Suicide Club, Noriko's Dinner Table, Love Exposure, Guilty of Romance - Shion Sono provides his most mature film to date with "The Land of Hope".
This is a movie about roots, growing up, self-discovery, death, life and the possibilities of learning more about yourself through hardship. This is a movie about commitment - in love as well as in life - and how to make good things happen in a bad world. This is a good movie about bad things happening to good and bad people alike.
To get the bad out of the way, the old tropes that Sion uses in every one his films are still there: drama veering on melodrama (but never actually taking the plunge), classical and romantic music played to death to evoke emotions, long scenes that are sure to test the audience's patience...
But even there, even when I thought the director had failed - in the placing of a long-winded scene or the evocation of an easy emotion - the dramatic pay-off ALWAYS justifies everything that has come before. The film provides, indeed, one of the most emotionally draining, spiritually breathtaking third acts that I have ever seen in a film.
The most astounding parts of this film are, in no particular order: 1) the stellar acting, especially by the old couple who form the heart of the film, 2) the scenery of real-life Fukushima set in the fictive town of Nagashima, 3) the beautiful cinematography, editing and post-production, 4) the interplay of "official reality" (dreamlike illusion) vs. what is actually happening on ground level, 5) the post-apocalyptic, slightly surreal suspense, almost like a horror film, of the ever-present nuclear danger, 6) the psychological and sociological meltdown resulting from a nuclear meltdown, 7) the complex web of characters and life stories woven in the fabric of the film.
Overall, there is little to hold me back from heartily recommending this film to serious movie-lovers everywhere.
Over-effusive praise is self-defeating, because it can throw people off. It's not a perfect film. There is still something in the Japanese style of movie making that allows for meandering shots at times. There are still ways of refining the craft forward; I have high hopes Shion Sono's best film is still ahead of him.
But honestly, there is not much else to criticize. All I can say is that this movie demanded everything, and gave back everything, in the course of its perfectly timed journey and the well-planned catharsis.
People in the West should take note of his name, for his work transcends cultural barriers. He has the power to blow floodgates of emotion wide open. Sono has, indeed, after a series of great films, proved himself to be one of the most interesting and powerful directors living the world today. And here, perhaps, on the mellow suffering of his countrymen, he has crafted the crown jewel of his career.
a touch of perfection
Fans of Korean movies will know the director Park-Chan Wook's work already. Here he has teamed up with his brother, and an iPhone 4, to produce a magnificent 30 minutes of digital entertainment.
Since the work itself is so short, a shorter review is in order. The plot revolves around a fisherman, but the thematic depth of this piece goes actually a lot deeper than you might initially imagine. It starts out funky and cool, turns into a brooding atmospheric piece, and ends with a completely harrowing, touching latter half that has no right being so good, considering that it has only taken us 20 minutes to get there.
The musical and sound design of this piece is very appropriate, and the way the film is edited together is snarling, cryptic and impeccable.
But the true heroes of this film are the actors (or, to be more precise, the actresses). They carry the film to unexpected authenticity. The last third of the film has more weight than a ton of bricks, and it reaches truly spiritual heights. But it is the totality of the film which is the miracle here: a strange beast indeed, full of beauty and heart, of laughter and tears, of music and silence.
I understand such a glowing review might seem excessive or suspect, but this film is a minor masterpiece, which manages to convey more in 30 minutes than most films ever are able in 90. This quirky shorty has a ton of charm, variety and depth, spiced up with humour and spirituality, and should not be missed by anyone interested in the possibilities of (digital) film as an art form. Another tour-de-force from the master of Korean cinema.
Koi no tsumi (2011)
Allegory of Human Desire, By Way of Depravity
Sion Sono, the rising star of Japanese cinema, has been crafting a name for himself with a long line of excellent and unique movies, ever since the cult hit Suicide Club, including 2008's critically acclaimed Love Exposure.
In 2011's festival circuit, including the Helsinki International Film Festival, the director was not represented by one, but TWO excellent films, "Cold Fish" and the movie under review here - "Guilty of Romance".
It is my claim that in Guilty of Romance, we have perhaps the director's best work to date - a masterpiece depicting a psychological vertigo into sublime, sensual desire (and ultimately depravity).
Guilty of Romance, in the trappings of a psychological thriller, is a surprisingly touching tale, in the rough shape of an antique tragedy, about repressed desire and the incapacity of human beings to ever find what they truly (think they) desire. The films touches on the wide scope of human emotions, ranging from the sublime to the base, from the terrifying to the ridiculous, co-existing in every human being as a terrifying, sublime possibility. All of us can be angels or demons. All of us can soar in the heavens or sink into the depths of hell. All of us are humans with our dangerous powerhouse, doubling as cesspool, of thwarted emotions and perverted desires, seething under the calm surface of our everyday lives, waiting to bubble up and turn our lives upside down - but only because our lives weren't stable to begin with (and perhaps NEEDED a bit of disturbing!)...
All this material, our "all too human" character, is explored to great end in this movie. To understand the movie, it helps to understand a bit of Freud and Lacan (and of course Kafka, who is mentioned in the story itself). But to really grasp and feel the movie, one needs, perhaps, to have been hopelessly in love, at least once in one's life, or to have felt a comparably strong passion, to understand the point where reason fails and desire takes over.
Due to Sion Sono's uncompromising style, to viewer needs to feel comfortable with his or her own emotional baggage, because the brutality and horror of the plot can strike an unwary heart as obscene - but this is only a mirage, since the themes of the movie, I claim, are perfectly ordinary and everyday, just repressed from our everyday consciousness. The film, to put it simply, conveys human desire as a burning, never-ending vertigo of passion (accurately enough) that threatens to overtake human beings even when they think they have finally reached calm and quiet in some safe haven of the soul - like in the all-too-perfect marriage of the protagonist, which quickly gives way, instead, to an exciting adventure into the world of depravity, which both liberates and ensnares our heroine.
Desire, for human beings, is the pain that we love - and loving it hurts. (If you've ever been in love, you know what I'm talking about.)
The gist of the film is that there are desires deeper than words and customs can bear. Even words need to be made into flesh... And flesh demands its reward. Desire is the fuel that can spiral us into hell, or lift us into the heavens...
That's all that can be said about the story without spoiling it. It goes through various twists and turns that need to be experienced to be fully meaningful.
If Love Exposure was Sion Sono's "War and Peace," then this film is his Mulholland Drive or Sunset Boulevard (in addition to being a loose interpretation of Kafka's "Castle") - a terrific psychological thriller with spiritual trappings, all shot in beautiful, colourful, hypnotic film. This film is simply gorgeous to look at. Every shot is like a picture frame you could hang on your wall. The film is edited together like a love letter to the most patient, intelligent, passionate and yearning person (audience?) in the world. This is not an easy film, but this is indeed a very rewarding film, both in the luxury of details and, formally, in the larger arch of the whole film's epic narrative.
The film's absorbing soundtrack, of Baroque and Classical music (typical to Sono's work of late), adds its own extra flair, and is both appropriately placed and emotionally effective. Even the colour palette of the movie works marvels to reflect the changing psychological landscape of the heroine, highlighting her descent to depravity. The fast-paced editing keeps things constantly fresh, and the structure of the film is carefully constructed to provide an impeccable vista into a spiritual maelstrom that is psychologically lurid but realistic as an allegory of human desire - despite the absurd, surreal and self-consciously Kafkaesque flourishes that accompany the tale to its tragic depths.
This movie has been accused by some reviewers as having no point beyond shock value. Indeed, it is very difficult to convey the madness of desire without seeming over-the-top. However, the potent, sensual, shocking story functions an allegory of the perverted desire trapped within the heart of every human being, and its excesses are thus justified. This fearless film, I vouch, is one of the top ten films about human desire ever made, up there with Mulholland Drive and Sunset Boulevard, and one of the best Japanese films of the new millennium.
A great film like this is not for everyone, as should be expected, for the patient viewer, its beauty will be revealed. Let the movie be appreciated by those with eyes to see (and a heart to feel).
Summa summarum: a great film that reaches, by way of depravity, the heights of a surprising, brutal masterpiece of a psychological exploration of human desire. It shows the capacities of the art form, wrapped in the tight package of an entertaining, ridiculous and blood-thirsty two hours, well spent on a roller-coaster ride of (all-too-human) desire.
Loong Boonmee raleuk chat (2010)
Hard to judge - easy to love or hate with passion
This was a hard film to rate. It pains me not to have fallen in love with it. Here, then, are some scattered thoughts of my failed romance.
It started with a very sour first date. It also ended there.
I went in looking to see a film that won the Golden Palm at Cannes 2010. Knowing this fact, and having seen the trailer, I went to the theater expecting to see an art house piece with Oriental metaphysical overtones. What I saw was, to be sure, a decisively original and at times hauntingly beautiful film, but one that I found an absolute bore: a film that, to me, seemed a tiresome, dysfunctional, inchoate potpourri of disjunct elements that never quite flowed together.
Perhaps false expectations can ruin a movie. Or, perhaps, let me hazard the unlikely suggestion, there is nothing here to salvage? For let me be clear: I wanted to like this film, I really did. It is important to reward originality and craftsmanship, always. And I respect the film (or at least its intentions). But the fact remains (here comes the unavoidable, brutal, decisive fact), I didn't like it. I only liked a few scenes here and there. Some parts I hated, absolutely loathed. Despite a few glimmerings of genius - and an undoubted air of originality - it seems to be that Uncle Boonmee is a needlessly difficult, slow-paced and ultimately unsuccessful film... despite the fact that it gets to a great start and carries a lot of potential all the time. Perhaps the "elusive" quality mentioned by the high-praise reviewers is a mask behind which there is no greater coherence to be found. Perhaps the inchoate structure and the belaboured pacing are not marks of genius but amateurish vices committed in the name of some grand vision that shall forever remain out of our material reach. I fault this film not because of its weird themes or its occasional dream logic. On the contrary, I think that it may even be that the film wasn't weird enough or dreamy enough; perhaps this film's use of "magic realism" is a kind of materialistic trap that forces the movie into long, never-ending sequences of absolutely no consequence. The main vice of the film is its unadventurous reliance on fixed camera frames and boring, dragging shots. Editing between the scenes is tortuously snail-paced and almost morphine-mimicking in its soporific entailments.
Whatever the reason, the film feels too much jumbled together, like some heavy stone stuck in a spiritual limbo, or a unicorn eating a burger, or some such nonsense. Ironically, the main stumbling block for the film, if you ask me, is not its "artsiness", but its clumsy down-to-Earthness. The film seems to be grasping for some supreme realism and materialism underneath its spiritual, religious and metaphysical surface. But the result is a kind of Ken Loach of Buddhism: a boring materialism under the guise of animistic spiritualism. Just plain realism without a purpose: people doing boring stuff for boring reasons.
Or perhaps all this is wrong; perhaps all this analysis is useless. Perhaps we are back to false expectations again: I expected one thing and saw another. But who cares WHY I didn't like it? Surely all this is uninteresting? Well, perhaps, but let me say that my personal dilemma - how I wanted to love this film so much but ended up almost hating it - is an interesting story to tell, because this film has the potential to divide audiences totally, into "haters" and "praisers" - and very few lukewarm receivers in between. I definitely recommend this film to be seen, but I am not going to play the art house card, the usual cop-out: "I'm sure it's a masterpiece, I just didn't get it", and then give it a score of 8 or 9 despite having hated it myself, out of some duty-bound, deranged, depersonalized sense of professional duty or peer pressure to agree with everybody else, or - worse yet - pretend to love the film because of some unhealthy respect for the jury at Cannes or the snidely snobbish world film press. No, this would be a scandalous road to take. One must stand by one's convictions, and it is my personal conviction, based on one viewing, that here we have an ultimately pretty bad film: a failed exercise at grafting something sublime. Despite its undoubtedly pure and original intentions and beginnings, this film remains an overrated (soon to be over-venerated), perplexing, highly original turd - interesting but ultimately vacuous, like some of Buñuel's lesser works, or like Andy Warhol's art.
Whether I change my opinion after a second, or third, viewing remains to be seen. So, despite my dislike of the film's overall structure, I feel that this is an important film, and I can easily recommend it to all movie lovers. Everyone remotely interested in film should go and see, form their OWN opinion, of such a remarkable cinematic piece: a film that, despite its flaws and vices, is undoubtedly a creation of unique character and visionary qualities. Weerasethakul's directorial voice is loud and persistent, and its echo will surely be heard for many years to come across the lands - and cinema screens - the world over.
Now, let him only refine his voice a bit and convince us skeptics.
Whether my love for this film will grow, who knows. I'm preparing for the inevitable "second date" - the future second attempt at falling in love - with a strange expectation of more melancholy moods.
Wai dor lei ah yat ho (2010)
a high rise with a killer view
This film is a fresh, entertaining, stylish and beautifully staged gore fest. The bloody mainframe of the film's structure is accompanied by an interesting side-story that serves to justify all the bloodshed and also to provide some social commentary, but all this is secondary to the rivers of blood. And God saw it was good.
Ho-Cheung Pang's "Dream Home" proves that well-made genre pictures satisfy a basic human need: they can focus our attention, for a while, to a sequence of events that entertains because we know, roughly speaking, what to expect, what kind of experiences are in store for us. Well, Dream House is an honest splatter. Victims are lined up to be slaughtered in the most inventive ways for our viewing pleasure. But the film also has elements of human drama, and these two aspects - gore and drama - play each other in and out very well. The overall result is an impeccably paced, brutal but surprisingly uplifting story, beautifully shot against the backdrop of Hong Kong's endless arrays of high-rises and apartment blocks.
The main character, played by an air of focused innocence by Josie Ho, has been saving up to buy an apartment with a nice seaside view, and she is working very hard to realize her dreams. Then things don't go exactly as planned. Lots of drama ensues. People die. Blood is spilled.
There is nothing much more to the plot than a general arch to justify the gore, but it all works out very well, and doesn't feel dragged out or phony or needlessly second-rate; in fact, the acting in this film is actually quite good for the most part, with the exception of the actress who plays the main heroine: she is VERY good. In addition to the action, there is some merit to the drama itself. It carries some weight, or, at any rate, enough to make the film seem interesting all the while. None of the social commentary is especially realistic or intelligent, but the splatter format can function as a kind of primal scream therapy, and thus bring some aspects of our repressed social anxieties to the bloody daylight.
Finally, one aspect of the film deserves special attention: the cinematography, editing and directing. The shots are beautiful, symmetrical, rich in detail. Whether inside or outside, the camera captures some beautiful scenes (and, let us not kid ourselves here, some beautiful people). Each frame could almost work as a photograph; each outdoors vignette of Hong Kong cityscape is hauntingly beautiful; each spewing of blood is swiftly and surgically captured on the screen.
The script is tight and the acting is sufficient. The editing is inventive and the staging rich in detail. Even the drama succeeds in never becoming boring and no single scene, or theme, overstays its welcome. The director-writer Pang has given us a good splatter film which is also a good film even outside its (criminally under-appreciated and depreciated) genre. I was pleasantly surprised by the craft involved. Did I mention it's also funny? Just wait for the moment when the... oh, never mind, just go see this bloody film already.
Snap judgment: Rivers of blood make for bloody good entertainment.
Angels in America (2003)
a semi-angelic masterpiece of American fiction
Tony Kushner's and Mike Nichols's made-for-HBO adaptation of the former's play is a fabulous overdramatization of the hardened emotional life of disease-ridden American society circa the Reagan/Gorbachev era.
What to add to the loud accolade? How to praise an over-praised work when the only thing worth doing is heaping on further praise? I will not recapitulate the story, since a lot of it is straightforward enough. Any wikipedia article will do. Instead, I will try to give a few reasons why this story of AIDS, friendship, power, religion, faith and fantasy is one of the most powerful psychological explorations of human emotional depth to be witnessed in our time.
Let me, though, start with my reasons for not giving this story a full 10, but instead minus one.
There is a certain overbearing drag to the way the story is carried in the second half, and a certain suspension of belief in some of the many theatrical dream sequences, which carry with them a certain (not entirely unwelcome) "stagy" character to the TV screen. In particular, I shall fault the later dream sequences featuring Emma Thompson as the angel, which feel deprived of the emotional power of the early encounters, mainly due to overacting on Thompson's part (or under-directing on Nichols's part), but also due to a rather cheap theatrical feel which ill fits a box the size of a television. Related to this same point, I think that some of the dramatic effect of the film is puts into shadows by the laconically ever-present, New Yorker's dark humour, more sardonic than salutary (and thus more hurtful than helpful), which cuts through the film like a blunt butter knife through margarine.
My last little gripe: the hard-pressed political elements, interwoven in the very fabric of the plot, might strike some people as excessive or even heavy-handed and irrelevant. To accuse this film of being viewpoint-oriented or even myopic, would, however, be to miss the point. Objective presentation of reality this is not. The film is the subjective expression of the subconscious modalities of being gay, forlorn and lost in 80's America. The themes are expressed in symbolism, allegory, subjective (and sometimes shared) dreams and fantasy. The characters' lives interconnect at different intervals and spaces. These points of connection form various "thresholds" and shared dream spaces. It is through these connections, and the losing of these connections, that fate is enacted. By sharing dreams, and dreaming angels, the characters in the saga can find some meaning in the tragic destiny allotted to them by searching after "justice", i.e. chasing and heckling and loving and hating the ever-absent "God" and his ambivalent, meddling and middling army of followers both earthly (Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism) and semi-divine (Angels of Life and Death, nightly visitors, supernatural visions). When we see the love of our life, we see God's love on his or her face, shining back at us. This is grace, this is justice, and this is what angels are for.
What, then, are men for? For suffering, for loving each other, for betraying each other and the world.. and for betraying women, their wives, their mothers. And loving God but hating his messengers (both angels and the prophets of fallen humankind). Man may ultimately discover the idea of divinity as a subconscious modality of repressed dream memories and transcendental wishes of world-negation. This is all contained in the story arch of Tony Kushner's screenplay and enacted, with stunning precision and depth, by the wonderful cast in this tour de force of contemporary cinema. How the angelic Al Pacino has been turned into a believable, lovable, pitiable monster is beyond me, but it all makes sense since dreams are made out of bitter, bitter angel dust (and valium, and AZT, and...), and Al Pacino IS, here, for a moment for us to see, the fallen angel Lucifer, the man without a past or a future but a lot of "clout" to bandy about, a sigh in the autumn of his life, an idiot without a tale in someone else's nightmare... which very dream, which very vision, in the end, is unmistakably his own. The dream we dream is the dream of ourselves as Other's creation: as "man", as "angel", as "god", as "me", as "that guy that dreams that dream that contains its own premise".
And this is only one character! To say the characters are complex and merciless is to praise their divine humanity, their semi-angelic fallen grace, pitiless and fiery like the burning heart of vengeance.
The casting, the music, the lighting, the setting, the script, the plotting, the visuals, the directing and the acting... all of it coheres to make up one hefty heavy-weighter of not only gay, but world cinema. Made for TV or not, some programs are angelically conceived, precisely in their brutal down-to-earth realism. After all, what are American Angels if not down-to-earth messengers of our OWN truth?
Thumbs up for HBO and for the cast of this deep and emotional saga for delivering a story that truly livens up the stale landscape of post-millennial TV history, not by being more than or greater than, but being brutally honest about, equal to, and permissive of, the facts of our life's semi-divine emotional drama - making us conversant with love's lasting legacy in pain's angelic visionary embrace.
Tunnel Rats (2008)
If War is Hell, Boll is Satan
This movie is a squandered opportunity.
Uwe Boll apparently thought the best way to make a statement about the pointlessness of war was by making a pointlessly long, wound-inducing, brutally ugly and disturbingly unoriginal genre film.
Here, the director had a chance to redeem himself after a series of flops and turds. In Postal, at least, he showed some promise of not taking himself too seriously, and while the end result there wasn't exactly a good film, at least it was entertaining.
But don't believe the hype.
In Tunnel Rats, Boll is aiming for a serious, realistic movie. The film is marketed as being "for the fans of Apocalypse Now and Platoon", which by itself is a patently ridiculous and preposterous thing to say, coming from a film maker who has built his career on lowering the bar on genre films, from horror (Seed) and action (Bloodrayne) to comedy (Postal). By making a "war film", Boll has proved himself yet again as a completely derivative and wannabe director who is not concerned with either originality, artistic impact or entertainment value. What is good in this movie is stolen from other directors. What is bad in this movie is the result of bad imitation or skewed interpretation of the masters, combined with a lot of self-indulgent, amateurish drivel. To compare his works to those of Oliver Stone or Francis Coppola is an insult to the craft.
Nor am I trying to be unduly harsh on the man. I don't care that he is a popular subject of internet ridicule. I only care about the fact that he makes bad movies, with the sort of inane persistence that is mind boggling. And to stay true to his vision, the last 50 minutes of this film are some of his worst yet. Bravo, Herr Boll: job well done.
But let's start at the beginning. The movie opens up with some nice open angle shots, followed by scenes at and around the camp. The characters are introduced, some chatter is spewed back and forth, the setting is laid out in order to be upset by events to come. The characters are clichés, the dialogue is completely unoriginal. There are at least four or five variations of the theme of "I want to go home but we can't 'cos we're stuck here and war is hell." The movie is ridiculously excessive in its repetition of the message of "we're not in Kansas anymore, Toto". Emotions are shown without preparation or care, and we are left without any means of relating to these cardboard figures - shadows, as they are, of American stereotypes.
From the first action scene on, and all the way through the laborious tunnel sequences throughout the film to the final scene, the movie shows signs of some of the worst pacing and cohesion in recent memory. The movie is about as chaotic as war, but that is not cinema verité: Uwe Boll simply happens to be the cinematic equivalent of a shell shock treatment. Maybe that's why this movie is seen by some to be authentic in its demented convolutions, because they think that Boll has created some postmodern masterpiece here. But what they mistake for craft is simply Boll's inability to make a coherent narrative last more than 10 minutes. And because war is all about brutal ugliness, Uwe Boll just naturally happens to have the inherent lack of vision, honesty and skills to drive that point home involuntarily. Boll IS war.
Uwe Boll is the worst enemy to his own movies. He is like the Viet Cong digging tunnels underneath the movie crew's feet, or more like a saboteur within. After he is done, little remains of a salvageable movie. He snips out all developments, abandons all his characters, fails to release tension that he builds up unnecessarily, meanders like a schizophrenic tunnel rat in a maze, throws random scenes at the viewer in a barrage of images that might as well have been edited together using an aleatory computer program or an astrological chart... and finally, he repeats and repeats and repeats the same stupid mistakes of his earlier movies as if self-criticism and self-learning were signs of weakness. The latter half of the movie is an irredeemable catastrophe, as if even the editor gave up on this movie after the midpoint. There is such a lack of love here that one wonders if it's not done on purpose in some cruel, twisted joke.
This is certainly not Uwe Boll's worst movie. At least Seed, Alone in the Dark and House of the Dead are even more disturbingly amateurish. But what makes Tunnel Rats perhaps more distressing than those previous stinkers is its subject matter: war. The film is so dark, gray, boring, claustrophobic and ugly that it's perhaps his least entertaining movie yet. And it certainly fails as a message movie, because it has no intellectual honesty or artistic merit to speak of. So who is it for? What's the point? I really don't know... The film is a completely dishonest hack job, a failure in its own terms, and a complete humour failure to boot.
This movie is ugly, meandering, brutal, pointless and painfully long.
Yes, in that regard, it is an apt representation of Vietnam.
Thank god we're not in Vietnam anymore, Toto.
Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2008)
Entertaining but Somewhat Empty
This film captures much of the historical tensions that existed in 60s-70s Germany (and world at large) by focusing on one of its most visible "phenomena", the so-called Baader-Meinhof Gang, which was also called, even beyond the reign of Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, the Rote Armee Fraktion or RAF. The struggle between left-wing terrorists and the established political and state apparatus, mediated through the perception of the masses via mutual propaganda, makes for an interesting story and an important saga in Europe's confrontation with the limits of liberal democracy, and of the populace's flirtation with bloody acts of terror.
This film tells the story in its crude general details, in the course of about 2½ hours. It focuses largely on three figures: Andreas Baader (portrayed as a rash control freak), Ulrike Meinhof (shown first as a timid reported and later a ruthless organizer of violence) and Gudrun Ensslin (the lover of Baader and a determined fanatic). Many minor characters pop in and out, and at least 4 or 5 countries are visited in the course of the group's exile and international reach. Many shots are fired, many bombs exploded, many victims ("guilty" and "innocent") assassinated, and many plans hatched and botched.
Overall, the film does a pretty good job at carrying the story forward at a rapid pace. At no point did I lose touch of the essentials of what's going on. I found the movie to be eminently easy to follow and a pleasure to watch. The best part of the movie is the first half, or maybe first two-thirds, during which time the focus in on the sympathetic figureheads (Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin). By the time they are in prison, the story is driven (as it was in real life) by a new generation of fighters, who are comparably less interesting and whose motivations remain a mystery. Not only that, but I thought that the ending of the movie was highly unsatisfactory. The last half an hour of the film is a real mess. It's not catastrophic, but it's still a huge step-down from the well-paced storytelling of the rest of the movie.
Now, the movie can easily be faulted for being a superficial exercise in crowd pleasing. It focuses only on the barest of motivational factors. It doesn't care for depth or subtlety. People are portrayed as one-dimensional and events flash by so fast that we don't have time to reflect on what we see. Action is favored over thought (but maybe this aptly represents RAF's philosophy?): there are chase scenes, gun fights, bombings, sieges and a few orgies. Overall, the movie is a loud exercise in simplistic historical narrative. For example, we get the obligatory news reels of Nixon, MLK, the War in Vietnam and the student riots of '68... There's nothing new to be seen or heard here. Not even the actions of the Baader-Meinhof Gruppe itself are explicated beyond what everybody who has read anything about the group already knows.
Still, there are many things that speak on behalf of the movie. For one, all the actors do a very fine job indeed. From Bruno Ganz as the head of the police hunt to all the youthful and anarchic terrorists, the cast carries the film from beginning to end. Martina Gedeck as Ulrike Meinhof does an excellent job, and her character has also been given the most depth and complexity of all the RAF members. There are a few caricatures, but mostly the failures of character development in the movie have to do with the lack of time given to each character on screen. As others have pointed out, the sheer massiveness of the scale of events and the extensiveness of the timeline means that the movie cannot delve into any particular aspect of the story at any length. The actors do a fine job, however, and all the sets look authentic: the mass rallies organized by Rudi Dutschke and the violent demonstrations between the students and the cops (all very early in the film) are very effective in depicting the mood and reality of the era. The beating of the students is a harrowing image that leaves nothing for imagination.
Speaking of the conflict between authority and rebellion, I think that the true strength of this film is precisely in its non-ideological and non-preachy tone. It offers a certain amount of reciprocal faulting between the pro- and anti-Baader-Meinhofians, and it certainly condemns the anti-civilian actions of the group, but it gives Bruno Ganz a few definite lines that summarize the essence of the conflict - something to the effect that "even while condemning, you have to understand the real causes of terrorism". This sentiment, while hardly new or deep, is an important one in a movie that otherwise could have been turned either into a Bonnie and Clyde romance or an exercise in retrospective character assassination. And make no mistake, all these people are portrayed in less than flattering light. Still, some amount of humanity is allowed to shine through, and this is what makes the movie SLIGHTLY more than just another empty gesture in the perpetuation of a historical mythos.
It is an entertaining, and very well made movie which doesn't offer much depth but, in its simplicity and straightforwardness, offers material in its pure density and lets the audience make up its own mind... Too bad that it ends so suddenly and unsatisfactorily as it does. That's a shame, because the movie could have been great. Now it's only entertaining.
Dung che sai duk (1994)
A Beautiful Elegy to Love's Memory
On the surface of things we are faced with a martial arts film, a typical HK wuxia piece. But knowing Wong Kar-Wai, did you really expect a regular martial arts movie? 'cos that's not what you'll get...
Best known for his "In the Mood for Love" and "2046", this stylish director has established his reputation among Asians and Westerners alike through his dreamy, poetic romances and metaphysical dramas. Here, in Ashes of Time, an earlier film remade, the director's teamwork with cinematographer Christopher Doyle is already in full bloom. The film offers the same colour palette and style that we find in their more recent collaborative works. This film is beautiful to look at, a mystery to behold and a genre-breaking ode to love and loss. Clearly, it looks and feels like a 21st century movie, but its origins go back some years.
Based on a film originally released back in 1994, Ashes of Time Redux is a retelling a story that most of us missed the first time around. The "redux" is more than a remastered version of the original. Apparently it features significant alterations to the basic structure of the narrative as well a new musical score. More than that, it stands as the definite version of the movie, a true director's cut. It's almost a kind of second birth, because finally the movie can become known for what it truly is. Even though I have not seen the original, I will take the director's word for it and trust his judgment.
And it is very easy to trust his judgment when the result is as strong as this relatively short (93 min) film. It feels like a labour of love. There must be heaps and heaps of discarded film on the editing floor, because it is clear that all the little details and cuts were hand-crafted to perfection. My main problem with the film is that it is unforgiving to its audiences, even "careless" about how they might feel about being bombarded with constant, overloaded verbiage. The result, full of symbolic links and razor-thin internal connections, may feel over-stylized and over-worked, but this kind of approach to film-making is admirable because it is so rare. Films that demand a lot also reward the viewer for paying attention. But don't get me wrong: this is not a puzzle or a mystery like some Lynch film; nor is it surrealistic dream logic like some Buñuel. No, it conveys a surprisingly simple poetic truth, encompassing love, manhood, relationships, struggle, perseverance, betrayal, fantasy, hate, jealousy, remembrance, forgetfulness, loss and loneliness. It is a movie about forgetting, and about the forgetting of having forgotten in the first place. It portrays characters as duplicates, mirages and psychic phantoms. Identities are mixed up. Friendships are won and lost, mainly lost. Love is first fleeting, then impossible and finally a memory.
Memory, and time, and the passing of time: these are the central themes of this tale divided up into (non-linear) seasons. Nature is cyclical, and so is human life and especially human memory, which is always obsessed about some recurring dream or fantasy. Memory is not a time-line of events but a force of inertia, a dead weight and a curse. Time is the archnemesis of happiness, and love is proved impossible by the accidents of nature. Love that once was is no more. Nor was there any love to get around to begin with, if memory serves me correctly. Have another sip of wine, it'll help you remember/forget...
The performances are through and through superb. Both the male characters and the elusive female characters are perfectly cast, and the fact that it's an all-star cast does not make it feel any less authentic. Especially female charms (and the ambivalent androgyny of one of them) are given such full force that we are left with a sea of emotions, an ocean of desire. The wailing soundtrack reaches melodramatic heights even when you expect nothing but calm and quiet; this signals that the characters are still haunted by their past. There IS no quietude, only the passing of time and the lingering-on of memory.
The sword-fights are stylish (thanks to Sammo) but peripheral. Action is more often than not a piercing flash of violence that only deepens the emotional wounds carried in the hearts of the protagonists. The physical dagger in the heart of man is nothing compared to the deep soul wound inflicted in love. In death, some lucky ones lose their anxiety, while others lose nothing but their chance for redemption. Still others are driven to death by precisely this impossibility of redeeming themselves. Living and death become equally mortifying.
These themes, such as the passion of unrequited love, and the wounding of lonely hearts, will be familiar from films like Mood and 2046. In fact, the director is as obsessed about these themes as are the characters in his movies. The setting does not matter: human heart is always the same - desiring, hurt and lonely. But it is not pure darkness that we encounter, there are also a few authentic flashes of pure passion and empathy (although less in Ashes than in many of his other films). To call Wong Kar-Wai a pessimist is to call outer space cold: it is rather to miss the point, to understate the case. He is not a pessimist but an explorer of love's tragic journey in life, from conception to annihilation. He takes us, as it were, beyond the here into the yonder, and gives us intimations of love's afterlife.
The film is not perfect. It is oftentimes too self-absorbed. The audience will be split. I know I was. I didn't especially enjoy the movie-going experience, but I learnt a lot from it, and remembered something I thought I had forgotten... In this honest and heart-wrenching mood piece, love's memory, on the big screen, is burnt into ashes of time.
Sukai kurora (2008)
a masterwork of subtlety
Imagine an animation whose driving metaphor is the sky, bustling with clouds and fighter planes. I would bet you are already thinking of adjectives like "action" and "fast-paced" to describe such a film. Well, think again.
In fact, Mamoru Oshii's latest feature film is surprisingly low-key. Fans of his previous work will not be disappointed, but even those familiar with his typical moody antics and his meandering, self-reflective style (from movies like Ghost in the Shell or Avalon) may find the pace of this film hard-going. Characters are distant and understated. Places are remote and static. Action is fleeting and almost random. Dialogue is sparse and vague. All of this makes for a challenging experience.
How, though, does it pay off? How does the film pull it off? Well, it is difficult to explain this without either giving too much away or saying far too little, but the main point is perfectly understandable without any spoilers: The salvaging fact of the movie is its logical progression towards perfect explication of its premises, towards perfect self-explanation. This film pays off wonderfully towards the end. The way it does it is being faithful to its own pace and rhythm. Yes: characters may be understated - but for a reason. Yes: places are remote - but for a reason. And on and on, so it goes... There will be a moment when everything just clicks into place. The serenity and straight-forwardness of the film is also its greatest strength. It is like a long algebraic expression that crunches away slowly in the background but ultimately overwhelms the viewer in a "Heureka!" moment. For a film that starts opaque, everything becomes transparent by the end. It doesn't rely on tricks or cheating the audience. It is a perfectly honest, and also perfectly brutally realist film. It makes explicit references to Camus, and this makes sense, in the context of the classically existentialist questions the movie raises. For its theme and mood, it feels very European and American (it even features quite a bit of English dialogue) and there's no Japanese "cutesy-ness" in the film. It is a very serious and mature movie, in a way that combines the best of both European literature and Japanese culture.
Despite its universal and abstract nature, and despite its stylized "alternative American" backdrop, the best reference point for the style of the film is the cinema of the masters of Japanese understatement, Yasujirô Ozu and Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, the movie's subtle aesthetic eye belongs to the tradition of the Japanese outlook on life crystallized in the concept of "mono no aware" (translatable as "transience of things"). If the movie is existentialist, it is so in a way that only a Japanese film can be. The movie, then, is very Japanese and very universal. It combines realism with symbolic and science-fiction elements in a way that is reminiscent of the equally slow-paced "spiritual materialism" of the master director Andrei Tarkovsky.
So, Sky Crawlers succeeds because it starts out with banally normal situations and people but, by the end, increasingly problematizes its own deceptive normalcy and shows the underlying tensions bubbling under the calm surface. In other words, the film is both straightforward and complex, both obvious and difficult, both down-to-earth and transcendent. This contrast between "ground" and "air" is, in a very obvious way, incorporated into the plot - it is, after all, a movie about pilots and airplanes, both on the ground and in the air. This is obvious, right? Well, yes, it is obvious, but it's also very difficult to comprehend and appreciate. This film doesn't show heroes or heroic deeds, it shows people in difficult situations. This movie is not about pilots and planes, but about what those pilots and planes represent. The symbolism of the film is very subtle, but it is this very subtlety that makes it so strong and compelling when it finally hits you! Slowly (as is intended) you get to see the greatness of this film, and the gravity of its themes. Like in Tolstoy's "War and Peace", the true genius is not in the description of banal dinner parties or whatever, but in the way all of this "normal" interaction is shown to be a facade through a careful elaboration of the underlying themes. A huge kudos to the script, which is an exercise in humanity and subtlety.
This marvelous ability of the film to be read on many levels at once - literal and allegorical - is what makes it such a pleasure to watch, at least for the most part. The pacing may be difficult, yes, but the pay-off is immense. It reminds me a little of David Lynch's "The Straight Story" where the simplicity of the plot is what makes it so good. The bottom line, you don't need to think about Camus, Ozu or Ghost in the Shell to appreciate this film. Even if it's not exactly easy entertainment, it works on the surface level of science fiction anime. I mean, it's simple (some would say banal), it's low-key (boring), it's marvelously atmospheric (slooow). All those qualifications can be read as good or bad signs, but if you're willing to invest a bit of time and effort into digesting the theme and message of the movie, you will be glad you did so, because Mamoru Oshii has given us another masterwork of adult animation.
Korkein oikeus (2008)
Fresh Undeground Cinema
This fresh film from a young, talented writer-director Olli Ylinen is a low-budget underground film about love, youth, friendship, drugs, time, social alienation and self-discovery. But let me backtrack a little...
We all know the Finland of Kaurismäki, that gray eternal gloom of the society's downtrodden. On the other hand, we are perhaps also familiar with the optimistic success story of Nokia and the society's nouveaux riches... But what if there's a lot more to be said about the kind of lives people live in the complex, multicultural and segmented society of ours? Between the lumpen proletariat and the high-achieving market consultant there is perhaps a third important group of people, composed of that large group of unnamed, unknowable individuals, seekers and dreamers, whom I have the privilege of calling the best of my generation.
This film is both timely and precious. It is a tearing-down of the walls of perception that ensnare us into the consumerist model of movie spectator. It doesn't ask us to idolize any heroes but to take a trip down the underground lane of youthful exuberance where cynicism and idealism go hand-in-hand - where revolutions are sought for in bar toilets... Drugs are used, as they are in real life, for a variety of purposes. Boundaries are broken and thought-forms explored. The results vary from heavenly to hellish - from clarity to madness. There is alienation, not only from mainstream society but even from one's closest friends, and from one's self. Self-alienation, and the running away from love, are the themes of the film that really struck a chord with me.
I will not spend time detailing the plot, because I don't think that's a reviewer's job. However, since I understand many people will not know much about this film (since it's not exactly enjoying mainstream success), I will say a few more words on the story. As you might have figured already, the film details the life of a young, unemployed ("still very much unemployed"), drug-taking, party-going guy and his adventures and encounters with colourful characters during a time-period of maybe a few months. Of course there will be romance, and of course there will be heartache, but this film uses up those clichés in a way that feels true-to-life. This is achieved by a highly natural dialogue and an authentic-sounding delivery by the young cast of actors. When I say "young", I mean mid-20's give or take a few years. But age itself is not an issue. The strange friendship the protagonist develops with the elderly fruitcake of a gentleman, "Ilmari K. Kurki" - played charmingly, if at times over-enthusiastically - by Jyrki Nousiainen, is the most interesting and hilarious aspect of the story. What can you say about a character who combines the showmanship of a televangelist with the convictions of a Whitley Strieber and mixes them all up through a kaleidoscopic lens of hippie mysticism for the Age of Aquarius? Pretty amazing. This film shows a Finland that is something completely else, alien and probably pretty frightening for "straight culture" and its love for non-threatening banality. The hallucinatory sequences and deep/silly dialogue may be off-putting to somebody... GOOD! Then we know we are dealing with something important here.
For a film that centers on self-discovery, through love and experimentation with drugs, it spends considerable time detailing "mundane" relationships, especially of the boy-and-girl variety. Here the easily overlooked strength of the film appears: it doesn't portray characters as either good or bad, simply confused and searching. Love is not some abstract thing that can be forced to happen, it just does.
To be sure, there's nothing about this film that's all that revolutionary (except the vaguely leftist rhetoric), I mean in the sense of cinematography or editing. The film follows a pretty traditional narrative, and it doesn't go too far in the direction of "experimental cinema" except in a few drug-induced sequences. I mean, sure, it will shock a few grandmas, but hardly anyone under the age of 30. For what it's worth, the digital film is well-used, even if some of the special effects are not all that impressive: there are some sequences that look really cheap, but then again, the film WAS cheap. And anyway, this is not a special effects film but a film about people, good dialogue and heart-felt passion.
Overall, this film is something to look for if one wants to know what kind of life ALSO exists in Helsinki in this new millennium. It features some pretty radical dialogue and a very natural take on human relationships. It's still fiction, it's still exaggerated, but it's not cheesy or corny or pop-corn-y in a Hollywood way. The film is both warm and cold, both endearing and frightening, like a good LSD trip.
It's a revolution of the mind, and it's the digital revolution - but, more importantly, it's the beginning of a new wave of Finnish cinema.
The American Ruling Class (2005)
deadly accurate and tactfully subversive
In this smoothly flowing semi-documentary, John Kirby and Lewis Lapham guide us through a believable but dramatized set of circumstances in the would-be lives of two well educated young men ready to embark on their promising careers in business, politics and whatever else.
Dreamlike, we are driven across landscapes and cityscapes, from the rectangular office spaces of Wall Street to the comfortably luxurious houses of the well-off. During the process, we are haunted, as the life-like main characters are, by the seductive promise of life on the leading edge of American power and money.
The choice of fictionalizing a documentary is, by itself, nothing new, but the WAY this has been done here is quite unique. It seems that all the fictive elements only serve the purpose of truth and accuracy, instead of obfuscating the realities involved. Even the graphical and musical interludes serve as surprisingly sympathetic material for further reflection. Unfortunately this strategy subjects the film to criticism from those who find such content offensive or unnecessary. This film is too "artsy" for some; others may find it "preachy", for much the same reasons. For me, the true achievement of the film is precisely its ability to toe that fine line between realism and idealism without ever falling overboard.
Thanks largely to Lewis Lapham and a wonderful "cast" of what in a lesser documentary would be called talking heads (including such giants as Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Altman, Howard Zinn and Walter Cronkite), the film delivers a cinematic equivalent of a journalistic exposition, both laid back and straight to the point. Indeed, this is Lapham's film as much as Kirby's, and for those who find his presence overbearing, this film might prove to be too much. But its subjectivity is perfectly honest and sincere, and should be applauded as such.
While this is clearly not a "pure" documentary in the traditional sense, I wouldn't call it either fiction or mockumentary - it's really one of a kind. For anybody with an interest in the way academicians, aspiring college graduates, business people and powerful politicians see the world and how they reflect on their own role in the functioning of the system, this film is a must see. Whether or not it is useful to talk of a "Ruling Class", the jarringly disparate perspectives of the very rich and powerful in contrast to the way more modestly earning wage workers see the world raises many questions - and, probably, the hair on your neck! It is not without its problems; the last half could probably have used re-editing. Still, it is a unique look - and certainly just one possible look - at the way power, money and ideology operate in today's society.
It is deadly accurate, mainly because it lets people speak for themselves. For this same reason, and underneath its cool and tact, it is surprisingly subversive and charming. Despite Lapham's grayer-than-gray attire, the film is anything but.
Kantoku · Banzai! (2007)
A notch above kitsch
Beat Takeshi's Glory to the Filmmaker, in the first instance, is difficult to rate. Its merits are clear, but its failures are even more striking. It is second in his supposed trilogy of self-critical, self-reflective, self-mocking metamovies. Having given up on his increasingly mainstream audiences (the accolade he received after Zatoichi), Beat Takeshi is trying to bring the "Beat" back into the mix. It remains an open question whether his methods are to be applauded or lamented. Here, in this film, Kitano widens the schism between himself, the auteur, and the movie-going audiences, by techniques of alienation that are borderline sado-masochistic. The salvaging fact is the comedy of the film, which shows Kitano's long-standing background as a comic. He has shown this side of his psyche only very rarely in his films. So, I am torn between appreciating the light-hearted spirit of the film and castigating, as I should, its heavy-handed pacing and direction.
But let's look back for a moment... The film that started off this self-reflective trilogy two years ago, Takeshis', I really enjoyed (especially after repeated viewings), because it culminated his career up to that point. This current film does not achieve, or even try to achieve, anything of the sort. It does not reflect back as much as make fun of any sense of history and continuity. It is a meta-movie, a non-movie, a post-movie... and, underneath it all, a series of quirky scenes, gags and fragmentary ideas. The humour of the film is its driving force, making it closer to his comedy Getting Any (1995) than anything he's done before or since. But one has to wade through a pool of dragging nonsense to get to those tasty bits, for which reason I cannot recommend this film as a comedy.
At parts, I found the film pretentious, self-righteous and uninvolving. In a word, it's too self-conscious to be a comedy.
During some other scenes I was completely at loss of words (whether because of the film's absurdity, incoherence or its complete disregard for the audience), to the degree that I simply decided I would postpone my judgment for some other day... Well, that "other day" is today, but I still can't make up my mind... The movie disarms the viewer, but it does not live up to much, either. It's like an extended foreplay.
All in all, one has to appreciate Kitano's vision and uniqueness, but this film works best as a meta-statement of the art of movie making and not so well as a comedy, a drama or anything else. Most viewers will probably find it to be, rightly or wrongly, an irredeemable piece of trash.
I kinda liked it. It's not good enough to classify as Dada, but it's just a notch above kitsch.
Ryû ga gotoku: Gekijô-ban (2007)
Faithful Adaptation... With A Twist
Miike has proved to be one of the most versatile and reliably inventive directors of the last decade. He is no longer merely Japanese; his movies reach an ever-growing audience in Europe, America and elsewhere. Capably of churning out several films a year (owing to his background in the B-cinema of straight-to-video yakuza action variety), even the best of Miike's films have a sense of fleetingness - not to say hurriedness - to them. That is because, for Miike, more is more. Frugality be damned. The film under review is NOT one of his most polished works, but it is smooth and shiny, and thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. And a faithful adaptation to boot.
You see, with "Like A Dragon", the celebrated but wacky director enters the world of video game screen adaptations, translating Sega's Playstation 2 hit game "Yakuza" into cinematic terms. But Tomb Raider or Doom this is not. For one, "Yakuza" (which I've played and enjoyed) had a much superior storyline to most other games out there. Thrilling and dark, the story of the game gets adapted, with seeming ease, into Miike-speak. How did they condense a 15-hour storyline into a 100-minute movie? Not perfectly, but satisfactorily. A few jumps and omissions bespeak the origins of the story, but overall the story holds.
The reason for this easy transition is clear: The world of the yakuza, petty criminals, cops and street urchins is right in well-tested Miike territory. After dozens of films that deal with the underworld of Japan, the veteran director knows his stuff. A yakuza game + a yakuza director is a marriage made in (some perverted) heaven. Visually, too, this film captures the atmosphere and locale of the game. The colour spectrum of both the outdoors shots and the indoor sets is pleasing to the eye, and almost every shot is beautiful to look at. Especially in a few indoors shots there is poetry to violence.
Mixing humour (as Miike does) with violence and tragedy, the film never loses its edge. Miike captures both the serious and comic side of the thugs and social rejects in the film. Many of the characters in the game, especially the young girl, Haruka, and the delinquent teenage lovers are really likable and you really feel for their fates.
The storyline may leave those who haven't played the game hanging (just who-what-where?), but it isn't necessary to play the game to appreciate the movie. They both stand on their own.
Lucky for Miike to have such good source material, and lucky for Sega to be able to attach one of the great directors of today in a project that otherwise would have been doomed to mediocrity. Salvaged by style and visual richness, "Like A Dragon" is an above-average Miike film with enough twists and turns to make you feel like game-to-movie adaptations ARE possible after all. Uwe Boll and Paul W.S. Anderson - take notes and learn!
How to describe Matsumoto's work in Dai-Nipponjin without seeming either like an ignorant Westerner or alternatively like an otaku-crazed Japan-o-phile? I went into seeing this film without any expectations (it was the last of the films I saw at the Helsinki International Film Festival 2007), but I came out feeling giddy and joyous, like a surprised and baffled child who just heard a really funny and raunchy joke for the very first time. There is considerable novelty in this film, ranging from its pseudo-documentary (I guess they call it mockumentary) style of narrative with its low-key humour to its over-the-top Godzilla-style action sequences with CGI-animated pseudo-superheros and monsters - all of which contributes to this film being beyond bizarre.
Without a semblance of character development or plot suspense, Dai Nipponjin (which translates "(The) Big Japanese") meanders from one event to another, tracing the goings-on of an unwitting superhero who has inherited from his parents and grandparents the unrewarding role as a saviour of Japan and Tokyo from various roaming "baddies" (rendered in blocky but pretty CGI). From fighting an elastic rubberman to interfering in the strange mating rituals of two massive weirdos, the life of Dai Nipponjin is portrayed ironically and post-modernly as that of a reality-TV star or a minor celebrity. This is to me the strength of the film: Although ostensible harmless monster entertainment, the film contains some amount of social criticism masquerading as dry humour. From Japanese self-identity to its precarious relationships with the U.S. and earlier Germany (one of the "baddies" looks unmistakably like Hitler), the film often derails into a strange commentary on modern Japan. Dai Nipponjin, as the "Big Japanese", stands for nationalism, TV-entertainment and commodity culture all rolled into one package.
From an entertainment stand-point, the film is a mixed bag. It seems likely that only the Japanese will be able to fully appreciate all the jokes and alluded contexts in the film. Most Westerns will be left baffled, gasping for air - I know this from first hand experience! It is also slow-paced at times, and needlessly lax in its transitions from scene to scene. But after a slow start, the movie gains momentum and the last 20 minutes or so of the movie are pure comedy gold - IF you can handle its offensive and very Japanese humour. Really, I have not laughed so hard in the cinema for at least a year! Silly, crazy and outrageous - I loved it! Now, if ALL of the film had been as tight as the last third or so, I would easily have given the film an 8, or even a 9, but there was some boring and unnecessary stuff in there to lower the overall score.
Funny, offensive, surprisingly witty and biting at parts, this film is not for everybody and certainly not a masterpiece. But what lifts it above such one-joke wonders as the over-rated Calamari Wrestler is its self-conscious irony and unique approach to its subject matter. If only it weren't so slow-paced and uneven. So: definitely worth seeing - although, if you are allergic to crazy Japanese culture, this film will make you foam from the mouth... Good fun for all the rest of us!
Tit sam gok (2007)
Multiply - Not Divide - by 3
Fear not: the juicy premise of putting three masters of HK violent cinema in one movie delivers one of the most entertaining action movies of 2007.
The film is a palpable thrill-ride, with an air of unmistakable cool and sheer brassiness of style. With scarcely time to slow-down, the silly and initially confusing but heavily entertaining and ultimately straightforward plot runs through a hundred twists and turns on its way to the seat-gripping finale that is the last third of the film.
The three segments directed by Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam and Johnny To (apparently in that order, although it was not indicated in the film) are distinct in style and mannerism, but near-seamlessly integrated into a single experience. Not only did they use three directors, they also used multiple script-writers. Do not expect any section-markers here, though: it is not three stories, but one story told in three consecutively more elaborate segments which represent the vision and prowess of one director each - without, however, appearing needlessly patched-together or unfocused. So, to compare this to that other Asian 3-in-1 package, the excellent Three Extremes (with Takashi Miike, Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook), is to miss the point. Here we are dealing with a unitary experience, one not divisible by three.
Fans of each director will find much to comment on the stylistic differences between each section. Best known perhaps for his kung-fu productions (at least in the West), the multi-talented Tsui Hark delivers a cool, crafty ambiance in his piece. Ringo Lam, a long-line police action-drama director, likewise carries the torch with a surprisingly mellow and tactful show-of-hands. It is really the last segment of the film, under the steady hand of the miracle-worker Johnny To - the brilliant director of gems such as Election I & II and Exiled - that really puts this work in the category of must-see cinema. It would be impossible to describe just what makes the last act so good without giving something away, but suffice to say the success lies in its mixture of suspense, action and black humour in a dazzling tour-de-force. And yet, To's section makes sense only in the context of the whole; it would not be possible to appreciate the finale without going through the first and second acts. The third act is the charm, but only because the first two acts lead to it and suggest it with force and clarity. By its combination of three geniuses, the impeccable thrill of the film gets multiplied by three, making the end result something greater than the sum of its parts.
The actors are adequate and the chemistry between them works well. This is not an especially 'deep' thinking-man's movie by any stretch - character-development especially is among the real weaknesses of this movie - but for what it's worth, the characters deliver their lines and express their emotional range quite convincingly (with a few notable exceptions). The fraternal chemistry between the main characters saves much of the hapless script. But really, this film is about action, violence, crime, morality and love - the stuff of entertainment. Maybe not serious or tight enough for some, the over-the-top story proves highly entertaining as a backdrop for the stylish visual work emanating from the three great directors.
I'm willing to forgive this movie its obvious shortcomings: its unexplained plot-ends and side-tracks, its focus on action and shine over drama and substance, its use of three writers in the seemingly impossible task of writing a single storyline. Bottomline: It works! Sometimes heckling about details seems petty when what is iffy in ideation is saved in execution. Minor script is turned into a major movie.
Absolute entertainment, with a touch - or two, or three - of genius.