Movie Review – Phantom Thread

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EXPECTATIONS: Something classical and elegant, which lives up to the reputation of both the director and lead actor.

REVIEW: I must be a really bad film critic since I have realized another error of my film-watching ways. After other mistakes like never seeing a Agnes Varda film before until Faces Places, there is another mistake that I have to confess about and rectify: I have never seen any of the works of Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered to be the best actor of this generation, his work in films like Lincoln, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father and My Left Foot have gathered massive acclaim all due to his intense commitment in method acting. When it was announced that his latest film would be his last, filmgoers had their hopes up in what would be a swan song and not a swan dive.

And once again, I have another mistake I have to confess: I have only seen one of Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films, which is his romantic comedy/drama Punch Drunk Love. From that film alone, it’s perfectly obvious that Anderson’s direction is idiosyncratic, unorthodox and delightfully playful even during serious moments.

To rectify my barbaric ways of my lack of film knowledge, I ventured to watch Day-Lewis’ and Anderson’s latest collaboration, Phantom Thread. Considering the massive buzz and my lack of knowledge of both the film and the filmmakers, my mind was fresh to expect anything. Does the film live up to the buzz?

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Set in 1950’s London, renowned dressmaker and “tragic” artist Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) are the milestone of British fashion, dressing royalty, movie stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes and dames with the distinct and famous style of The House of Woodcock.

Women are used and dispensed with in Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across a young woman, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who soon becomes an asset in his life as his muse and his lover. Once feeling meticulous and in control, he finds his carefully tailored life (pun definitely intended) derailed by love.

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Reading into the synopsis, it sounds like Phantom Thread is a film about the whining of a supposedly reclusive artist who complains about his way of life being disrupted until a woman comes into his life and supports him through this supposed dilemma. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson film, so don’t expect it to follow any genre conventions, as it is really a romantic comedy disguised as a period drama.

Anderson (acting as the cinematographer and writer in-between directorial duties) basically conveys a magical and wondrous mood mixed with acerbic wit to themes that usually wouldn’t warrant such things like sadomasochism, toxic masculinity, gastronomy and of course, tailoring and dressmaking.

But even with doing all of these things, and accomplishing them very well, he never forgets the humanity of the distinct characters. And the storytelling never goes through certain cinematic conventions and tropes, always keeping the audience on edge, particularly during the climax, despite being oddly similar to other 2017 films, due to using the exact same plot device.

Jonny Greenwood‘s score is absolutely magnificent. Emotionally stirring, incredibly catchy and in perfect synchronization with Anderson’s twisted storytelling, the score is basically a main character of the film itself. While Greenwood has made many great musical scores like with Norwegian Wood and We Need to Talk About Kevin, he really takes the cake here.

In fact, the sound design by Christopher Scarabosio is done so well, it complements the story, it adds punch to comedic scenes, it aids the unraveling characters and even adds a sense of palpable tension. And to think that all of this can come from the simple act of buttering toast.

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The acting is also a major plus. Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Reynolds Woodcock (no, really), as he isn’t afraid to delve into the flaws of the character as well as imbuing a bit of a tongue-in-cheek quality that makes Woodcock fun to watch, if not repellent in retrospect. Whether he is swearing at his colleagues or beating Alma at mind games (or in one scene, backgammon), Day-Lewis makes Woodcock strangely magnetic.

As good as he is, the actresses are the stand-outs of the film. Vicky Krieps (who is best known to Westerners in films like Hanna and A Most Wanted Man) is absolutely brilliant as the multi-faceted Alma. The more Woodcock (or in another case, Anderson) pulls on the thread about Alma, the more she unravels as an alluring, strong, off-kilter and charming person, and Krieps opens up convincingly, sweeping the audience off their feet in the process.

The interactions and chemistry between Krieps and Day-Lewis sway between wonderful, acidic, funny and a little bit psycho (intellectually and humourously speaking; especially during a dinner scene where they argue about such minuscule issues like how asparagus should be cooked. What’s best about their chemistry is that it never feels rehearsed or prepared; it feels intimate and immediate. In every relationship, there’s always that person that has the upper hand, but in the case of Woodcock and Alma, it’s hard to know who has it, and it becomes quite fun to figure it out.

And of course, there is Lesley Manville. Mostly known for her collaborations with acclaimed director Mike Leigh, she brings much humanity to the role of Cyril Woodcock, that she easily avoids conveying her character as a one-dimensional thorn on one’s backside.

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While the film is definitely unconventional, Phantom Thread can be seen as an experience that can be quite irksome due to the fact that Anderson always avoids cinematic conventions to the point that it can feel artificial and self-satisfying. But if one were to look at it in a different way, that kind of creative influence could apply to the character of Reynolds Woodcock himself.

As beautiful as it is twisted, Phantom Thread is a film worth unraveling, with its wonderful performances, Anderson’s unpredictable storytelling and Greenwood’s emotionally stirring score that is sure to appeal to adventurous cinemagoers.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic acting from the three leads, especially Vicky Krieps

Glorious musical score by Johnny Greenwood

Interesting chemistry between characters and their interactions

Great curveballs in the story

CONS

May be a bit too offbeat for it own good

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Camilla Rutherford, Gina McKee, Brian Gleeson, Harriet Sansom Harris, Lujza Richter, Julia Davis
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenwriters: Paul Thomas Anderson

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Movie Review – Call Me By Your Name

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EXPECTATIONS: Hopefully something that is brimming with passion and not passivity.

REVIEW: As of writing this review, the Australian Parliament has passed the law, allowing same-sex marriage. What great timing, right?

Anyway, Call Me By Your Name. This film has been gathering up critical buzz ever since it made its premiere splash at Sundance back in January. Then it showed at many other film festivals like Toronto International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and our very own Sydney Film Festival (to which yours truly regretfully missed out on).

And now finally, near the end of the year, it’s finally here out on local release. Does the film live up to its rapturous hype with claims of passionate romance, astounding performances and emotionally stirring drama? Or will it succumb to be something underwhelming and be thrown away like the pit of a peach?

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The film is set somewhere in 1983’s Northern Italy (it’s stated that way in the film and not due to my lack of research) and we follow Elio (Timothee Chalamet), a 17-year old boy who’s enjoying the Italian summer with his parents (Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar).

His father is a professor of archaeology and in every summer, he invites a student over for the summer to help out with his academic paperwork. This summer, he invites an American student, Oliver (Armie Hammer).

Elio, who’s a bit of an introvert due to his fascination with literature, doesn’t really click with Oliver due to his outgoing personality, but over a short amount of time, the two begin to have a growing desire for one another that will change their lives forever.

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Does the film live up to its immense hype? Well, firstly, let me get down to the problems of the film just to get things moving. The film can be a bit overlong and…well…that’s basically it really, because overall, Call Me By Your Name is one of the best films of the year.

One of the main reasons why it succeeds with flying colours is because of Luca Guadagnino‘s unpretentious direction of the small story. Sure, the story may be about a romance that involves homosexuality, but it is exactly that. There are no prejudices, no conflicts arising from said element; it is simply a love story and the filmmakers treat it just so.

The story is incredibly universal with its themes of first love, hidden sexual desires and coming-of-age elements and yet what Guagadnino has come up with has so much passion, so much feeling and so much heart, it makes the film much more eventful and fruitful than it really is.

What always makes first love so memorable are the sights and sounds that accompany it and in Call Me By Your Name, these are very notable indeed. The cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (famous for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives and the upcoming Suspiria remake, also directed by Guagadnino) and shot compositions convey the small moments that stick; shots that linger on fruits, people and beautiful summer landscapes that make you almost feel like you’re being a voyeur, spying on these characters.

The blocking in many scenes (i.e. a scene where Elio and Oliver walk around a fountain) convey the development of the relationship perfectly, showing the distance and eventually closeness between the two characters.

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Then there’s the sound design, which consists of buzzing insects, the breeze of the winds and even the sound of a peach being squeezed, it makes the small story feel like it’s brimming with fire and immerses you in with ease. And there’s of course, the soundtrack. All love stories have musical choices that one would remember with fondness and Call Me By Your Name has a couple of doozies. Although I do not want to spoil what songs they are, any film that has a song that featured in the dance film Flashdance gets a thumbs up from me.

The camera also lingers on the two leads as if they are the Greco-Roman statues that are being studied in the film, but unlike the statues, these are full-bodied characters and the film never lets you forget it. And while the interactions between the two never become prurient or salacious, it’s the chemistry between the two actors that make the film and bring it to life.

Armie Hammer has never been more charismatic and alluring here; playing Oliver as an charismatic and confident character who gradually reveals layers under the bravado. Whether he is owning the floor with his unruly dancing or impressing the adults with his American banter, it’s pretty easy to see why the attraction is there.

But really, the film truly belongs to Timothee Chalamet. He plays Elio as pure of heart, even when he is saddled with his naive perceptions on lust and adulthood, his actions ring genuine and true and Chalamet brings a nuanced and convincing portrayal of that. He never hides his feelings about Oliver, but when he tries to hide under a facade of denial, Chalamet hits the mark with his physical acting chops. There is a scene with just him involving a peach that conveys so much of the insecurities and contradictions of the character, that it is both beautiful, enthralling and slightly terrifying.

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And while the supporting cast do well with their parts (including Esther Garrell as Marzia, who brings a timid innocence to her breezy character), the big standout is Michael Stuhlbarg as Elio’s intelligent and supportive father. In a five-minute scene in the third act, he basically steals the entire film with a monologue that shows love, compassion, understanding and regret all at once, and Stuhlbarg completely nails it.

Overall, Call Me By Your Name is a masterfully told story about first love, hidden sexual desire and coming-of-age experiences with great performances, immersive production values and nuanced direction that will surely dazzle the eyes, enchant your ears and warm your heart.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads (especially Timothee Chalamet)

Guagadnino’s great direction elicits passion and sensitivity

Supporting cast make the most out of their parts

Production values back up Guagadnino’s vision

CONS

A bit too long

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Armie Hammer, Timothée Chalamet, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garrel, Victoire Du Bois, Vanda Capriolo, Antonio Rimoldi, Elena Bucci, Marco Sgrosso
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Screenwriters: James Ivory, Luca Guadagnino, Walter Fasano

Movie Review – The Disaster Artist

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EXPECTATIONS: Something funny, mesmerizing and heartwarming.

REVIEW: “You’re tearing me apart!” When one hears this line these days, aside from thinking that the person saying it is crazy beyond belief, what film do you think comes to mind when one says that line? Would it be the classic 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean? Or would it be the 2003 cult classic film by multi-talented (You in the back, don’t laugh!) filmmaker Tommy Wiseau? Chances are that it’s the latter.

For those who don’t know about The Room, it is a 2003 film that has gained cult classic status (Or is it classic status?) due to how incredibly awful it is. The filmmaking, the acting, the production values, the plot all amount to something that is so terrible, that it actually becomes brilliant by how hilarious and strangely mesmerizing it all is. It’s as if Wiseau shot for the stars but not only did he not make it up there, he fell so hard that he crashed through the planet Earth, tumbled through the core, crashed out from the bottom of the Earth and came upon the stars anyway.

And now we have The Disaster Artist, a film by director/actor James Franco that is based on the book of the same name, co-written by Greg Sestero, who acted in The Room. Unlike the source it’s based on, it received critical acclaim due to the heartfelt and hilarious portrayal of the events that happened behind-the-scenes. With talented screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (500 Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now) and a wealth of acting talent, it looks to be a good one.

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In 1998 in San Francisco, the film starts off in an acting class (headed by Melanie Griffiths of all people) and we see Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) an aspiring actor who’s having stage fright. He is then wowed by a performance from his eccentric and fearless fellow acting student Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Hoping to learn from the mysterious Wiseau, Greg and Tommy strike up a friendship due to their shared passion in acting and James Dean (who has been portrayed by James Franco before) and eventually move to L.A. to try and make it as actors.

When they both struggle due to lack of experience and/or drive, Greg suggests they should make their own movie. Tommy, who is wealthy, although the source of his income is as much of a mystery as his origin (he claims to be from New Orleans, despite a blatant European accent) and his age (he claims to be 19), backs the movie and also writes the script, direct, and stars. With production on The Room underway, Greg and Tommy’s friendship begins to fall apart due to Wiseau’s direction, in many senses of the word.

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In order for The Disaster Artist to truly work as a film, it needs to have two things down pat. Firstly, we have to empathize with the lead character and his/her ambitions and motivations. Secondly, we have to get into the spirit of the character, regardless of how much we know about him/her. Fortunately, the film sticks the landing and provides a funny and sincere look at the making of The Room as well as the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero.

It becomes very clear that the involvement of scriptwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber were a big asset to the project because the sensitivity and heart that they have contributed to their previous projects like The Fault in Their Stars, The Spectacular Now and Our Souls at Night is very much present in The Disaster Artist. We understand the ambitions of Wiseau and Sestero and we understand the insecurities of both of them as well.

And what clinches it is the chemistry between the Franco brothers. Despite being nothing like the people they are portraying, their brotherly love translates really well into the film and make the relationship between Wiseau and Sestero convincing, affable and even lovable.

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James Franco is a wonder as Wiseau, as he takes all of the eccentricities and oddities of Wiseau and portrays him as a three-dimensional human being whom we can laugh with as well as empathize with. He nails the accent and the look while also keeping the enigmatic presence in check. Dave Franco is great as Sestero. At first glance, it may be a thankless role of being the straight man reacting to all the craziness, he does it really well and provides a great proxy for the audience.

Speaking of proxies, Seth Rogen is a great one, playing Sandy Schklair, the script supervisor and eventually the ghost-director. He points out all the problems with the production and he does it with hilarious aplomb. The supporting cast which include our very own Jacki Weaver, Josh Hutcherson, Zac Efron, Hannibal Buress, Charlyne Yi, Sharon Stone, Melanie Griffiths and many more; make the most out of their variable screen-time, displaying moments of pure shock and disbelief, earning many laughs.

That’s not to say that the film shies away from the darkness of Wiseau like his arrogance, his terrible working habits like showing up late and treating his cast badly (including the non-catering of basic human necessities like water) and his jealousy over Sestero; the film delves into that side and bares it all. For example, Franco literally bares it all in a scene where he treats one of his co-stars badly due to her appearance and the scene culminates into a free-for-all between him and his crew and it becomes quite captivating and compelling. It’s clear that the making of The Room couldn’t all have been peaches and cream and the scene makes that perfectly clear.

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Although The Disaster Artist maintains a great reverence for The Room, the film can be seen as a funny comedy about how such true-to-life absurdities can be a catalyst for such a terrible, yet mesmerizing piece of art. But the film can also be seen as an experience about what can be defined as art and the sheer commitment to accomplish making said art and it is clear that Franco believes in that.

There’s a scene in The Disaster Artist with Jacki Weaver’s character commenting on why she continues showing up to the set despite her advanced age and terrible working conditions, she says “The worst day on a movie set is better than the best day anywhere else”. On that note, The Room was worth the pain, as there is nothing more noble than not only finishing what you started, but to own it, despite what people think.

But enough about my review. Anyway, how’s your sex lives?

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the cast

Reliance on character pays off, resulting in a heartfelt piece

Never shies away from the flaws of the subject

CONS

May be a bit too esoteric for some

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow, Hannibal Burress, Jerrod Carmichael, Bryan Cranston, Zoey Deutch, Zac Efron, Nathan Fielder, Ari Graynor, Melanie Griffith, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Mantzoukas, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Megan Mullally, Paul Scheer, Sharon Stone, Jacki Weaver
Director: James Franco
Screenwriters: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, based on the book “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room,’ the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made” by Greg Sestero, Tom Bissell

Movie Review – Snow Woman (Japan Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something appealingly surreal, beautiful and thematically powerful.

REVIEW: Kwaidan films (literally translated as “ghost stories”) are films I was always fascinated with ever since I saw films like Ringu. Now I know that this isn’t a prime example, but it got me exploring the classic genre entries like Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko, Nobuo Nakagawa’s The Ghost of Yotsuya, Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan and others.

The incredibly mannered feel, the beautiful artifice of the production design, the meditative pacing and the lifeless yet brimming acting; those are just some of the many things of a Kwaidan film that draws me in.

So when I heard that director/actress Kiki Sugino, whom I’ve only seen in an acting capacity in films like Kim Ki-duk’s Time and Koji Fukada’s Au Revoir L’Ete, was making a modernization of Japanese Kwaidan folklore, I was intrigued. It also helped that the trailer for the film had me sold on the tone of the film. So does Snow Woman succeed as a throwback to the Japanese ghost stories of yore?

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The film starts off in black-and-white, in a medieval setting (or maybe it doesn’t?) and we see Minokichi (Munetaka Aoki) and his aging mentor Mosaku get caught in a snowstorm. When Mosaku is too exhausted to carry on, they seek shelter in a dilapidated hut in the woods.

While they sleep, a ghostly Snow Woman (known as a yuki-onna) sneaks into the hut and gently breathes her frostbite-inducing breath on Mosaku’s face, gradually killing him. Minokichi wakes and witnesses this, but the Snow Woman (Kiki Sugino) spares him, on condition he never tells anyone what he has seen.

After an unspecified amount of time, he meets the beautiful Yuki (also Kiki Sugino) in the woods and falls in love with her. She kind of resembles the Snow Woman, but she has no background, no family, no previous life. If Minokichi knows who she is (and there might be an inkling to this), he isn’t going to talk about it to anyone. Especially her.

The two marry and have a daughter, Ume (Mayu Yamaguchi), who blossoms into a lovely teenager. But over time, unexplained deaths begin occurring in the woods in the presence of Yuki and/or Ume. And much to Minokichi’s horror, the victims are found scarred with the unmistakable look of frostbite.

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Does the film stack up as a modernization of the famous ghost tale as well as being a good film in of itself? Thankfully, yes. While the script (co-written by Kiki Sugino) is faithful to the source material, Sugino adds enough flourishes and amps up the character dynamics to get her directorial stamp into the mix.

The first ten minutes of the film are absolutely stunning. The black-and-white cinematography and the swell musical score all feel like they were swiped from classic Kwaidan films and Sugino is dead-on as the titular character. All of these elements are combined to make a promising intro that foreshadows many promising elements as well as feeling like a great short film in of itself.

After the title card shows up, director Sugino starts to modernize the source material by playfully subverting audience expectations of the genre. For example, the time period the film is set. With the forest setting and houses, we are led to believe that the film is set in the Medieval era, but later in the film, we see other settings like factories and we’re now led to believe that the film is set in a war era.

Another example is how the characters interact with one another. In cases of Kwaidan films, when a person encounters a ghost, it’s usually that they are scarred for life and if they ever witness anything that would bring back memories of that encounter, they would cower in fear. But in the case of Snow Woman, when Minokichi encounters Yuki (who is a dead ringer of the Snow Woman), he recognizes the resemblance, but he doesn’t hesitate and continues to keep her accompanied to the point that the two get married and start a family.

The input of modern relationship social-isms as well as deep, seething curiosities add a certain refreshing outlook to what could have been seen as old-fashioned or esoteric to today’s audiences. Even the sex scene between the two characters (set in a onsen) is surprisingly racy in comparison to the typical Kwaidan film.

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The cinematography by Shogo Ueno becomes more crisp after the title card ends, as well as the musical score by Sow Jow becomes more electronic, rather than the usual woodwind sounds that accompany the usual Kwaidan film, lending a sense of realism rather than the artifice the genre is known for.

The mediative pacing is still in place and while it does lend a chilling feel at times (especially in scenes set in the nighttime), most of the time, the pacing is utilized to gain a more intimate feel for the characters, as Sugino relies on long-takes during character moments, which allow the actors to shine.

Speaking about the actors, the leads are great in their parts that they imbue life to the characters as well as look like they belong in the period setting, unlike those who have a contemporary look. Kiki Sugino nails the look and the haunting feel as the titular character, while imbuing a sense of sympathy in her ghostly actions (another genre subversion), while making Yuki, her second role, feel more than just the trope of the supportive wife.

Aoki Munetaka is great as Minokichi, as he conveys the inner torment of fear, the contradictions of his role as the patriarch as well as being convincing as a loving father. The scenes they share together have a palpable sense of intimacy that always foreshadow a conflict that is absolutely inevitable and it pays off beautifully in the climax. The supporting cast all do fine in their roles, but Sugino and Munetaka are the most notable.

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As for its flaws, for those expecting a ghost story with actual shocks and scares will be disappointed, since it never really aims for those targets. Aside from that, the most nagging flaw is the film does suffer from its storytelling ellipsis, since it does away with character backstories and motivations. But the editing and the script does make the film feel like we’re witnessing a fever dream at times, relying on what the audience should feel rather than what the audience should know.

Simple scenes of conversation are edited as if they are cut off in mid-question while scenes supposedly set in dreams are rarely ever signaled as dreams unless the score picks up. It may be a bit disorienting, alienating or even quite maddening, but it eventually becomes rewarding emotionally, thematically, and even takes flight.

Overall, Snow Woman is a great modernization of a classical Japanese ghost story, with fine performances, fantastic cinematography and a fitting musical score, but what makes the film stand out is its refreshing details and the attempts of subverting the Kwaidan genre. While the film doesn’t aim for more of a mainstream execution in terms of scares, the film has enough palpable atmosphere and filmmaking chops to make Snow Woman a film not to be examined, but to be experienced.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances from the leads

Beautiful cinematography and stirring music add to the film

Great touches in refreshing and modernizing the kwaidan genre

CONS

The story is too elliptical for its own good

Those expecting scares will be disappointed

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kiki Sugino, Munetaka Aoki, Mayu Yamaguchi, Shiro Sano, Kumi Mizuno
Director: Kiki Sugino
Screenwriters: Mitsuo Shigeta, Kiki Sugino, Seigan Tominomori based on a story by Lafcadio Hearn

Movie Review – Love and Other Cults (Japan Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something edgy, funny and transgressive like Uchida’s previous work.

REVIEW: Director Eiji Uchida is back with another Third Window joint after the recognition gained from the pitch-black yet sweet Greatful Dead and the first collaboration with the controversially scabrous Lowlife Love. Having earned accolades with his daring and darkly comic works, he has had two successful collaborations with Third Window Films via Adam Torel and his latest film, Love and Other Cults is one of them.

The story encapsulates all of Uchida’s pet themes about the upper/lower/middle-rent media industry and lost souls yearning for a sense of belonging and with a mix of young talent and veteran actors in the midst, it looks to be an absolute screamer. Will the film live up to the hype it has gained?

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Newcomer Sairi Ito stars as Ai Shima (also known as Ananda), an innocent looking girl who basically crashes through life, colliding from home to home, adopting one persona after another, while looking for somewhere to belong.

Throughout her tumultuous quest, she ends up in a variety of weird situations including her landfill/apartment with her religious nutjob of a mother, a cuckoo cult that would make you beg for the Kool-Aid, an actual family that is not an euphemism, a bunch of chemically and recreationally imbalanced dropouts and of course, the vibrancy of the horizontal/vertical refreshment industry. Oh yeah, there’s some Yakuza involved in there too, I forgot to mention that.

And it is around the moments, Ai always has her fellow high school friend by her side in varying capacity, Ryota (Kenta Suga). The two fall in love at first sight, if you could call it that, but Ryota isn’t exactly the knight in shining armour. His circle of friends includes orange-haired aspiring Yakuza scumbag Yuji (Kaito Yoshimura), and his brute protector buddy Kenta (Antony) They work for small-time crime boss Kida (Denden), though Kenta tries to keep any serious criminal activity at a bare minimum.

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Keeping the punk-rock sensibility of his previous films, director Uchida also steers the story at a brisk pace at a 95 minute runtime. But with the huge amount of characters and relationships, is the director able to explore all of them thoroughly? Thankfully, the answer is a resounding yes. Thanks to the editing by Masashi Kumino and the sharp script by Uchida, the two are able to juggle all of the character arcs swiftly and effectively, making every scene count.

And the dark humour adopted by Uchida like his prior films still hits the mark very well, sending up the character dynamics (like how Kenta and Reika first meet), expected comedic setpieces (like the revenge scheme enacted on Ai) and audience expectations (like a massage scene between father and daughter) in a gleeful and anarchic fashion.

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But major credit goes to the actors, as well as the casting director who actually cast suitably aged actors for the roles. Newcomer Sairi Ito runs through the entire gamut of emotions and personas of her character like a pro, as well as portraying the loneliness and angst of her character in a subtle and convincing fashion. Kenta Suga does well as the quiet, brooding Ryota while Kaito Yoshimura is great as the despicable, yet vulnerable Yuji. The biggest standout however is Antony as the brute protector Kenta.

Known as a comedian in Japan, he easily plays the imposing part of the character easily, but it is the nuanced humanity he brings to the role that makes him a character easy to sympathize with. He is also part of the best relationship in the film, between Kenta and the knowledgeable Reika, played by Hanae Kan. The two have matching chemistry and the bond is so sweet, that I would love to see a whole movie just from these two alone.

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The supporting actors all add spark and energy to the film like Ami Tomite, who plays a rebellious girl who barks a lot more than she bites; Hana Matsumoto as the adoptive sister of Ai who gradually begins to regret her rash decision; Reona Hirota as the nutjob mother of Ai, who switches religion as if she’s deciding on what to eat; and of course Denden, as the crime boss who genuinely enjoys his social status as a senior and has the best entrance for a gangster on film ever.

Apart from some loose details about the characters and narration gaffes (How does Ryota know about the family Ai resides with?), the only problem, which is a big problem, is the ill use of a certain character that is subject to a film trope of sexual assault. It is really off-putting in of itself but the way the arc of that character ends is a serious fault of the film that had me on a bit of a sour note, despite the overall quality of the film.

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Overall, Love and Other Drugs Cults is another hit from Eiji Uchida thanks to his uncompromising and anarchic punk-rock direction, the bizarre ensemble of characters, the great array of performances and the gleefully black humour. I just wish that Uchida, or all film really, would just cut it out with the sexual violence on film just to drive a story through.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic cast and crew

Uchida’s energetic direction and black humour

Efficient storytelling and character development

Brisk running time

CONS

Some loose details with storytelling and character development

Use of the sexual assault trope

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Sairi Ito, Kenta Suga, Kaito Yoshimura, Antony, Hanae Kan, Denden, Nanami Kawakami, Yoshimasa Kondo, Leona Hirata, Matsumi Maiguma, Ami Tomite, Atsushi Shinohara, Tarou Yabe
Director: Eiji Uchida
Screenwriters: Eiji Uchida

 

Movie Review – Mudbound

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EXPECTATIONS: Something a little more introspective with its issues.

REVIEW: Over the years, we had gained several films about racism in various genres, like 12 Years a Slave, The Birth of a Nation, I Am Not Your Negro, Get Out and others. While some of these gained critical acclaim, the former two films have come under criticism due to the severity of the violence, which took some of the audience out of the film.

Racism is a definite wrong in the world, so it’s absolutely understandable that it is shown as bluntly as possible, but when the lead characters involved are nothing more than ciphers, without not much character development, it comes across as slightly cheap and the film never truly earns its natural human drama.

Now we have Dee Rees‘ film, Mudbound, a period drama about racism starring a great pool of talent like Carey Mulligan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Garrett Hedlund among others; and it has gained fantastic buzz from festivals like Sundance. Will the film avoid the mistake that other films have fallen into or will it succeed over it and live up to the hype?

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Laura McAllan (Carey Mulligan) is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm, a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land.

Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund), Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband Henry (Jason Clarke) is not – charming and handsome, but he is haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell), eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, now battles the prejudice in the Jim Crow South.

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Going off the synopsis, the seeds of drama are all planted firmly, the potential for genuine human drama is high and the cast and crew are all capable of great things, so does Mudbound live up to the hype?

The answer is a resounding yes. One of the factors that makes Mudbound more successful than its thematic predecessors is its subtlety. Instead on overly relying on violence, director Dee Rees relies more on mood and character to not only get its point across, but to deliver a compelling film.

The main credit goes to cinematographer Rachel Morrison, as she helps create a beautiful look that always has a sense of foreboding that something bad will happen. There are moments of sheer brutality, including a scene that made me wince, but they are relegated to the third act, they have palpable buildup until that point and it never revels in gore or shock tactics.

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The story itself feels surprisingly contemporary, despite its period World War II setting, showing that Americans are bound to their place of land, accumulating all of the prides and prejudices that come with it. The storytelling is incredibly balanced, as Rees is able to juggle six lead characters all at once with ease, particularly with the editing by Mako Kamitsuna and with the use of voice-over.

While it could’ve been used lazily to excuse the acting chops of the cast, instead it’s a refreshing way of showing character development and all characters deliver their own, usually contrasting with how they act on the outside eg. Laura’s view on being a housewife despite maintaining the status quo for her husband or how Florence dislikes taking care of Laura’s children, despite showing a positive exterior.

It even gradually reveals more facets about the characters, making them more than just one-dimensional cardboard cutouts as well as thematic symbols of the story. Aside from Johnathan Banks‘ despicable character, none of the characters are portrayed to be morally simplistic, as there are all morally grey, with contradictions that makes them human.

In the case of Laura, she is not portrayed as sadistic nor is she a white saviour. She does lust over another character and yet she is loyal to her husband; she has pointed criticisms towards the land and people she now resides in but she does have empathy and understanding. It is the care and effort towards character that makes Mudbound succeed as much as it does.

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But none of it would be effective if it weren’t the actors, who deliver wonderfully nuanced performances. Mulligan unsurprisingly delivers on the facets of her character with aplomb while Hedlund transcends his character of being a charming drunk and adds layers of humanity and turmoil convincingly to his performance. Clarke gives good work, portraying both human decency as well as his prejudice passed down from his father, very well.

Mitchell is fantastic as Ronsel, especially in contrast of his feeling of belonging when he’s at war and his feeling when he comes back to his hometown, brimming with racial tension. Blige and Morgan portray their roles with warmth and brimming tension towards the life they’re living in while Banks is absolutely despicable as his Klan-member character and father of Jamie and Henry.

Much like the characters in the film, the story isn’t all one foreboding mood signalling doom and gloom, but there are fleeting moments of hope, moments of sympathy and empathy between characters and it never feels phony nor unearned, leading towards the optimistic ending that Rees nails.

Overall, Mudbound fixes the problems of similar films having one-dimensional characters and excessive violence used to gain sympathy, with particular attention to character, mood and subtlety and that’s thanks to director Dee Rees and her wonderful cast and crew. Go see the film when it comes out on Netflix.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its ensemble cast

Efficient storytelling and assured direction from director Dee Rees

Subtle approach to its themes ensure easy approach to character development

Characters are three-dimensional and compelling

CONS

Needed more of Hedlund and Mitchell on-screen together

SCORE: 9/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige, Rob Morgan, Jonathan Banks, Garrett Hedlund
Director: Dee Rees
Screenwriters: Virgil Williams, Dee Rees, based on the novel by Hillary Jordan

Movie Review – Columbus (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A beautiful and fully-realized character piece.

REVIEW: In my many reviews about romance films and dramas, it may be fair to assume that I’m not really a fan of either genres, but the truth is I am a fan of those, especially with projects like the Before films by Richard Linklater, the many filial dramas of Hirokazu Koreeda, the down-to-earth films by Isao Takahata and so on.

The main ingredient that is needed for such films is the human connection. We need to have something at least plausible to cling on to, which can help us relate to the characters. Even in stories that revolve around something that very little have foreknowledge on, (like in the case of the film up for review: architecture), that connection is essential in succeeding as a compelling drama. Does Columbus succeed in that regard?

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The film starts off with a renowned architecture scholar going on with his day, examining and ruminating the buildings in tow. But suddenly, he falls ill and Eleanor (Parker Posey), his assistant, contacts the scholar’s son, Jin (John Cho) to come visit him in Columbus, Indiana, which is famous for its modernist buildings.

While being stuck between a building and a hard man, he comes across Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a library worker and architecture enthusiast who dreams of leaving Columbus to pursue her dreams, but feels she is held back due to her troubled, but loving mother (Michelle Forbes). Together, they explore the many buildings in the town as well as themselves, becoming more intimate as they go along.

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If there’s one thing to say about this film, it’s that it is very soft-spoken. Visually recalling the work of Yasujiro Ozu, who has made films like Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon, which are contemplative and deal with relationships, director Kogonada uses architecture as a backdrop, which lends to some beautiful scenery, captured crisply by cinematographer Elisha Christian.

The architecture in the film is basically shown as a group of characters themselves. Small actions from the characters like smoking a cigarette or taking a phone call are amplified due to the architecture design, like an iron fence, but throughout the film, the architecture might not also separate them, but could also bring them together.

Kogonada, who also wrote and edited the film, clearly has an ear for conveying human interactions on-screen, recalling films like Lost in Translation and Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. None of the dialogue sounds fake and the editing is minimal, which lends an easy leeway for the audience to empathize with the characters as well as feeling like voyeurs, listening to their interactions.

Even in emotional crescendos, Kogonada dials back by showing the characters at a distance or in one scene, dialing the music down to the point where we can only hear the character’s turmoil through sound, not dialogue. In other words, his characters converse and are portrayed like real people. But are they portrayed well enough by the actors?

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John Cho is basically an acting veteran, who is famous for being in the recent Star Trek films, the Harold and Kumar films and recently, a recurring role in The Exorcist TV series. Here, he has never been given a solid chance to play a leading man and he does a great job as Jin, conveying the character’s conflicting moods of expectations, regret and anger convincingly, with warmth and understanding. In one scene in particular, he basically role-plays his father. A cinematic trope that has been in many films, even in wuxia films where one would dress up like the one they love, sometimes love involves imitation and Cho nails it.

Parker Posey, who usually plays perky and slightly unhinged characters (in a comical fashion) is surprisingly and likably down-to-earth as Eleanor, while Rory Culkin lends good support as the friend of Casey.

But the real stand-out is Haley Lu Richardson. Showing promise in supporting roles of films like The Edge of Seventeen and Split, the newcomer proves herself to be a wonderful actress playing the role of Casey. With her character basically growing roots in her hometown, convincing herself that she’s fine the way she is, Richardson has to convey the many emotions brimming in Casey and she does it soulfully and gracefully.

Cho and Richardson share palpable chemistry together that it almost feels immediate as soon as they first meet. But the real wonder of the film is the gradual foundation of their relationship. Just as how they view the architecture, they view each other basically from face value but they never really say how the feel. But throughout the film, their feelings become more prominent and it explodes off the screen better than any pyrotechnic could.

Overall, Columbus is a fantastic directorial debut for Kogonada and a great showcase for its two leads, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. It is said that that with any building or relationship, a good solid foundation is needed and in the case of Columbus, it is a beautiful foundation indeed.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from its two leads

Palpable chemistry

Beautiful cinematography by Elisha Christian

Assured direction from Kogonada, retaining the human connection sorely lacking in films

CONS

May be too slow and covert with its intentions

SCORE: 9/10

Cast: John Cho, Haley Lu Richardson, Parkey Posey, Rory Culkin, Michelle Forbes
Director: Kogonada
Screenwriters: Kogonada

 

 

Movie Review – Blade of the Immortal

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EXPECTATIONS: Slice-and-dice, blood-and-gore, limbs-flying fun.

REVIEW: Takashi Miike, back in the V-cinema (straight-to-video) era, was a complete madman. Not in a human state (or maybe he is, who the hell knows?), but in his creative state, the images and ideas he comes up with can only come from a man who is completely bonkers.

This is the man who directed a film which had to have barf bags in some of the cinema screenings (Audition). This is the man who filmed a TV episode for a horror anthology that had been banned for being too disturbing (Imprint in Masters of Horror). This is the man who filmed two giant animal robots having sex…in a children’s movie! (Yatterman) This is the man who filmed the most amazing cockfight ever seen on screen (The City of Lost Souls).

Okay, the last one is debatable but the point is, this is a man whose filmography cannot be seen without one thinking with befuddlement and interest. With a man who has made so many gonzo works (including Fudoh: The Next Generation, Audition, Gozu, Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q etc.), where does his 100th film to date, Blade of the Immortal rank in the gonzo meter?

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The film starts off with a ultraviolent prologue, shown in black-and-white, where we first witness Manji (Takuya Kimura), a skilled samurai who is caught between a rock and a hard place when his sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) is captured by bandits.

Due to tragic circumstances, Manji goes into a fit of rage and slaughters all of the bandits, which leads him to be involuntarily treated by a mysterious nun, Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto), who uses blood worms to magically realign his veins and tissues, cursing him with immortality.

In the present day, we follow the story Rin (also played by Hana Sugisaki), the daughter of Kendo master, Asano. One night, the swordsmen of Ikki-ryu school, led by Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) storm into her father’s dojo and slaughter all of the students as well as Asano, leaving Rin helpless.

Swearing vengeance, she is led by Yaobikuni to hire Manji as a yojimbo (bodyguard or protector). Although his first impression of leaves Manji more than just annoyed, her striking resemblance to his sister motivates him otherwise on an adventure that will surely leave blood, gore and limbs in its path.

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Does this film rank up with Miike’s best? Not really, but it is still wildly entertaining nonetheless due to Miike’s ability to still surprise and entertain with his vivid direction, an enthusiastic cast and ample source material that provides tons of fun opportunities to exploit on screen.

Based on a manga that spans across 20 years worth of volumes, screenwriter Tetsuya Oishi thankfully distills it to a plot that that involves many mano-a-mano duels, wrapped in a classic tale of revenge that is quite reminiscent of films like True Grit, Logan and unsurprisingly the cult-classic anime film, Ninja Scroll, due to its wide variety of bizarre adversaries the leads face.

With characters like the monk Eiku Shizuma (Ebizo Ichikawa), the prostitute Makie (Erika Toda), Anotsu’s nemesis, Shira (Hayato Ichihara) and many more, the actors have plenty of material and characterization to sink their teeth into and they make the most of it.

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Takuya Kimura does well as Manji, as he conveys the world-weariness of his character convincingly and is capable of handling his action scenes well. The extensive facial makeup certainly helps with his performance, obscuring his baby-faced appearance.

Hana Sugisaki, who is incredibly talented for such a young age, thanks to films like Pieta in the Toilet and Her Love Boils Bathwater, doesn’t have a role that is as solid as in those films, but she displays much-needed verve and spirit into the part of Rin, that she makes her strong-willed character more substantial more than the script allows, especially when her character is written that she is threatened with assault many times throughout the film.

The supporting cast, which include many of Miike alums like Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko are all great in their various scene-chewing parts, but the standouts are Sota Fukushi, Erika Toda and Hayato Ichihara.

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Erika Toda, who has gone a long way from her cutesy performances in her early days, is both surprisingly sympathetic and enjoyably campy as Makie, a bipolar killing machine of a prostitute, who often sheds tears of remorse of her actions and even the sight of blood.

Hayato Ichihara, whose acting method can be as hammy as Netflix’s Okja, is put to great use as the unhinged and unruly Shira while Ebizo Ichikawa is compelling as the eerily understated monk Eiku Shizuma, who actually has a surprising character reveal that adds to the story and has a sadistically funny fight scene with Kimura.

And of course there’s Sota Fukushi as Kagehisa Anotsu, the main antagonist. Unlike the entertainingly over-the-top caricatures, Fukushi plays his character with a moral conscience that is very effective and makes Anotsu more than just a one-dimensional villain, that we can actually empathize with him.

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With that much adversaries, that’s a hell of a lot of fights to witness. Fortunately, the fight scenes differ just enough from each other in various ways to avoid tedium, thanks to Keiji Tsuji and Masayoshi Deguchi‘s stuntwork.

While it may not be as garish as the fight choreography in the Rurouni Kenshin films or as cartoonish like Miike’s prior work (although it has plenty of gallows humour), it compensates for its more graphic and overstated approach to violence with copious amounts of stabbing, slicing, dicing, impaling and other ways that no human should ever go through.

And all of this is captured to its full-bore glory thanks to regular cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita, who pulls back so we can witness the many mutilated corpses. It certainly helps that the source material hints supernatural elements that allow Miike to break chanbara (Japanese term for “sword fighting”) conventions. Special credit must go to Akira Sakamoto, who is credited as the special weapons master and the props he comes up with on-screen are delightfully insane.

As for its flaws, like all of Miike’s recent work, the 150 minute runtime could use some trimming, but with the amount of characters on display and the simple yet dense plot that has many interesting threads (like a political conspiracy and double-crossings between kendo schools), it’s hard to be bored by it all.

Overall, Blade of the Immortal is a wildly entertaining entry from Takashi Miike that proves that he can put his stamp on terms such as “excess” and “overkill” and with a fantastic cast, crazy fight scenes, an engaging if overlong plot and gonzo characters, you’ll get red on you but you won’t give a damn, if it’s this much fun.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great cast

Bizarre characters

Assured and unhinged direction from Miike

Great fight scenes

CONS

Overlong running time

Some script problems

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sota Fukushi, Ebizo Ichikawa, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yoko Yamamoto
Director: Takashi Miike
Screenwriters: Tetsuya Oishi, based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura

Movie Review – Claire’s Camera (San Diego Asian Film Festival 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Not sure, to be honest.

REVIEW: The work of Korean director Hong Sang-soo is, unfortunately, a blind spot of mine that I desperately need to rectify. The only film of his I have seen is In Another Country, which starred Isabelle Huppert and was a charming, frothy comedy about the amusing failings of human behaviour.

So when I heard that director Hong was reuniting with Huppert on their second film on another frothy, fluffy light comedy with Korean actress Kim Min-hee (fresh off her critically acclaimed performance from Hong’s last film, On the Beach at Night Alone), despite my lack of knowledge of Hong’s work, I had to say yes. Does the film live up to the director’s sterling reputation and entice me to discover more of his prior work?

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Kim Min-hee stars as Man-hee, a film sales assistant who, in a very amusingly dry scene, is suddenly fired by her boss Yang-hye (Chang Mi-hee) for reasons unknown, except for the fact that she is dishonest. And all of this happens in the smack-dab middle of the Cannes Film Festival.

Left adrift in a beach (where else?), she meets Claire (Isabelle Huppert), a Parisian teacher who is in town to support her friend’s film. Unbeknownst to Man-hee, Claire happens to know Yang-hye as well as director So Wan-soo (Jung Jin-young) by taking pictures of them with her Instamatic in a serendipitous fashion.

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To reiterate again, I’m a neophyte of the work of Hong Sang-soo and in the case of his film, Claire’s Camera, not much of a plot or even an actual event happens at all here. So, why did I have the biggest smile on my face from beginning to end? Basically down to two reasons.

Firstly, it’s the charisma of the actors involved. Seeing actresses Kim Min-hee and Isabelle Huppert free and unburdened from their emotionally draining performances from On the Beach at Night Alone and Elle, the two look like they’ve having the time of their lives, just appearing in a film and being naturalistic as possible.

Isabelle Huppert, who’s probably never given a bad performance, does very well as Claire, who she convincingly conveys a mysterious allure that makes the other characters very receptive towards her. Her artistry with her Instamatic and her backstory drives her to never take the sights and sounds of life for granted.

Kim Min-hee can convey joy and vulnerability in a matter of seconds and she does very well as Man-hee, especially in the scene where she finds out that she’s fired, delivering lines like “Let’s take a photo of us to commemorate my firing” in an amusingly dry way.

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Secondly, the interactions between the characters. Knowing Man-hee’s backstory (including the reason of her firing as well as a sexist backlash) her interactions with her Korean co-stars (like the dryly amusing Chang Mi-hee and the loutish Jung Jin-young), as well as between the co-stars themselves are always blunt but still somehow passive in their emotions.

Whereas her interactions with her and Claire, although they are not speaking in their native tongues, it becomes clear that they always say what they mean and adds a sense of intimacy and closeness. It also helps that their interactions (in English) are amusing and likable to the point that you can believe that they can actually become soulmates, thanks to their tangible chemistry.

And even for devotees for Hong Sang-soo, there are plenty of references to his previous work (the most blatant being a movie poster of his) or even his private life involving Kim Min-hee on (Jung Jin-young, being an obvious doppelganger of Hong himself).

Overall, Claire’s Camera is the cinematic equivalent of milk ice tea. It doesn’t really add up to much substantially. But it’s sweet, looks nice, goes down smooth and if the drink it’s made really well, it might end up being quite the memorable thing.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic leads

Amusingly dry and improvised sense of humour

Has a substantial sense of intimacy between the characters

CONS

Not much of a plot or story or deeper meaning

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Kim Min-hee, Chang Mi-hee, Jung Jin-young, Shahira Fahmy
Director: Hong Sang-soo
Screenwriters: Hong Sang-soo

 

Movie Review – Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

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EXPECTATIONS: Something wonderful.

REVIEW: Biopics these days are a hard genre to execute due to the fact that whenever actors star in them, it just gives off a vibe that he, she or they are acting for awards. Like the formula for Oscar Bait is to talk in a funny accent or shout. To truly nail a true character, there’s more to it than just imitation.

Bad examples of biopics include films like Patch Adams, Diana and yes, even A Beautiful Mind fail to succeed from a filmmaking standpoint (due to sappy music, biopic cliches, lacking in exploration of the spirit of the subject etc.) and have performances that come off as a collection of tics, rather than a true embodiment of the subject that they are playing.

With great biopics like Walk the Line, Nixon and I’m Not There, these are films that capture the spirit of the real-life subjects with the combination of fantastic performances that inhabit the subject and stellar filmmaking that does more than just recount a series of events.

So when I went into seeing Professor Marston and the Wonder Women and all I knew about the film was that it involved the creation of the popular female superhero, Wonder Woman. What I didn’t know about the film until I saw it was something that led me to think this is one of the best movies of the year.

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Luke Evans plays Professor William Marston, a famed college teacher and psychologist who is in the middle of creating an invention that would go on to be the lie detector. Collaborating with his wife, Elizabeth Marston (Rebecca Hall), who is also a teacher, they become stuck in the way of progress and decide to hire a college student to help get them out of their creative slump. Their search for the perfect aide leads them to Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote).

Little do they know is their solid relationship that they will forge together will not only lead to the creation of the first female superhero but also a relationship that shows love knows no bounds.

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Once again, I had no clue of what the film was truly about, even when I saw the final trailer, which thankfully doesn’t spoil any of the moments. But this is a story that is about sexuality, dominance, submission, femininity, poly-amorous relationships and how they were treated and of course, the creation of Wonder Woman and the rapturous reactions it got from people.

With Angela Robinson‘s assured direction and screenwriting, she gamely handles all of the themes above with integrity and sincerity, easily resonating with the audience. Even the sexuality is handled tastefully, but never to the point of either being exploitative or lacking in passion.

Even in scenes of sexual discovery, character epiphanies and empowerment eg. when Olive wears what would end up being a prototype of the Wonder Woman costume, Robinson subverts expectations of that scene and it ends up being surprisingly tense, emotionally stirring and inspiring, rather than going along the lines of prurience.

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But even with the direction and scripting of Robinson, none of the film’s emotional power would be as effective as it stands without the trio of stellar performances from the three talented leads, as well as their palpable chemistry.

Having seen Luke Evans last in the mediocre live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, being miscast in the role of Gaston, I remember saying that he looked too smart to play a buffoon like that. In the case of Professor Marston, Evans pulls off the charisma, intelligence and passion of the character with gusto. Finally having a role on-screen that is worthy of his talents, Evans is an actor that will be following steadfastly from now on.

In the case of fellow Australian actress Bella Heathcote, she has given some good performances in films like The Neon Demon (where she is more like cyborg than human) and The Rewrite (where she charms and delights with maturity). In the case of Olive Byrne, Heathcote makes the progression of her character from timidness to empowerment play out in a convincing fashion that it makes the scene where she dons the prototype outfit of Wonder Woman that much more powerful.

But the best out of the three leads is Rebecca Hall. To think that she already peaked with her underseen performance in Christine, Hall gives a fantastic performance as Elizabeth Marston, conveying her tenacity, her quick wit and especially her vulnerability so brilliantly, it’s no wonder that Professor Marston would fall for such a fascinating woman.

And the chemistry the three share is compelling, making it incredibly easy for the audience to root for them. Even when Robinson edges over the line of overusing the musical score by Tom Howe, it never annoys when these characters are so wonderfully human and engaging. So much so that it makes the story about the creation of Wonder Woman look inferior by comparison, which by the way, did make me look at the female superhero in a different light after I left the cinema.

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As for its flaws, aside from the slight overuse of the musical score, the film does suffer a bit from creative licensing due to some questionable events that may seem a bit too phony to be true, but in retrospect, it’s not that much of a flaw due to the fact that the film works because of the creative licensing.

For example, the Oliver Stone film JFK took major liberties with the events of history, but that never stopped it from being a great film. So why would such creative licensing stop Professor Marston and the Wonder Women from being a great film?

In either case, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women succeeds as a poly-amorous love story, a fascinating biopic, a compelling view on the creation of Wonder Woman and as a showcase for Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote.

Over the times, I usually say I love a film when I enjoyed it immensely, but Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is the first film in 2017 that I fell in love with. Don’t let it fall into obscurity and go see it as soon as you can.

Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances/chemistry between the three leads

Angela Robinson’s assured direction and scripting rises above biopic cliches

CONS

Slight overuse of the musical score

Creative liberties may irk some

SCORE: 9.5/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Monica Giordano, JJ Feild, Chris Conroy, Alexia Havins, Oliver Platt
Director: Angela Robinson
Screenwriters: Angela Robinson