Saturday, June 29, 2013
Nearly 20 years..
When then former indie-darling, Richard Linklater sought to give the mainstream romantic drama a chatty art house spin with his tale of a chance meeting between a young American would-be writer, and a fiery french activist on a train to Vienna, who would have expected this unique pairing to become one of his most enduring creations. A success story in no doubt made in small part by stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, who effortlessly embodied these characters, and infused enough of themselves into the parts, making them virtually indistinguishable. Before Sunrise remains an invigorating piece of 1990s cinema that continues to reward new viewers with an almost voyeuristic peek into the birth pangs of an almost miraculous one-day meeting. And when Before Sunset came about in 2004, and both Jesse(Hawke) and Celine(Delpy) had found themselves rekindling unrequited feelings, despite their respective lives (with Jesse long having become a well-regarded author, and married with child), it became resoundingly clear that these were characters and locales that had become somewhat iconic reflections of the film's writer/director, and stars themselves. By this point, the Before saga had asserted itself as a one of a kind success story, replete with long takes, naturalistic performances galore, and an unerring manifesto of honesty that is rare in film regarding matters of love and life.
Flash-forward to 2013..
During a vacation in Greece, Jesse is seen sending his now preteen son, Henry on a plane back to the states. Upon returning to the vehicle containing Celine (and some very important new changes that have come about since last time we saw them) , we become privy to the facts that despite now being enveloped in the arms of paradise, not everything is as facile as traditional notions would like to sell. Upon their return to their friend's home on the Peloponnese Peninsula, and further notions are exchanged about the endurance of love despite the oncoming storm of changes that often come counter to expectations, it becomes clear that Linklater has come around in a near-seamless circle. In a very real way, Before Midnight is as personal as films such as this can become, and it does so with such candid ease, that it defies description. And despite all the picturesque beauty around them, there is no respite from the difficulty that is lying there waiting underneath. And these are difficulties that we as viewers may have been privy to as observers, but the two have long perhaps hoped would find course correction via autopilot.
Just as the previous films are all about communication, and the often strange things that can indeed manifest, Midnight continues this thread to an almost bitter end. As their world has changed significantly in the few years since Sunset, communication has taken on a multitude of new dimensions as displayed by a younger couple they meet at their friend's dinner gathering. With technology ever so within reach, it seems as if the world of our central pair have reached a panic point where matters can make or break them. And its effect on them is made clear as technology seems primed to challenge everything that their low-fi-borne relationship had built. Even as we get to better know Jesse's world in lieu of all that has happened, we are never granted any ease. Things haven't gone as romantically as the younger him once imagined it to be, and Celine's wish to assert herself as an active figure in world matters of reparation has reached a crossroads where it is either a new wrinkle in her career, or to become a more domestic figure. (IE- something she has never been interested in) Cracks have begun to show despite their natural chemistry, and it delivers some of the series' most nakedly personal moments.
And the choice of Greece is far from lost in this matter, as Delpy quips that this "world is f---ed", implying an impending finale looming none to far in the distance. Just as the gorgeousness of old Grecian architecture, art, history, and lifestyle is embraced, it is also granted an almost mournful presentation. Just as the youthful vitality of our duo has given way to age, and often confused humor, there is also a feeling of unease that is well-manipulated as we are led to understand that this is meant to be a grand culmination of all that had come before. Almost as if small bombs had been set throughout the last two movies almost deliberately, just waiting patiently for them to deliver the series of painful (and painfully funny) blows to come here. Linklater and crew could not have delivered a more delicate and effective way to pay off the series than what happens here. And even as moments appear that are almost eye-cover inducing, there is also a need to weather it through with them. Performances that are again so open, so packed with rawness, that one cannot help but feel like a voyeur catching up with their favorite long-term subjects. Such a prolonged investment is soundly earned, and will likely reward repeat viewings.
Just as the film seems concerned with personal end times, it is also a brutally honest tribute to the need for greater context regarding preconceived expectations. Just as Jesse and Celine witness their love reaching a difficult impasse, we are also granted visions of a world often rife with complexity. A most telling scene takes place within an ancient miniature cathedral, which despite it's enduring beauty, also carries scars of long forgotten conflict within it. Even as friends romanticize the relationship between our leads, we already know a sinkhole is forming. Complexity borne out of age. Age, and often a lack of hindsight lead to what this trilogy has been leading up to; a rough third act that is both astonishing in its depth, but also absolutely wrenching in its knowledge between audience and subjects. Even the final act of the film takes place in what one could easily consider to be a trendy designer's ninth level of hell.
All of this talk of struggle, and often misdirected strife, and yet Before Midnight offers up signs of hope as an old world crumbles, and new ones form. Notions are exchanged regarding the ever malleable texture of love, and in how perhaps both the previous world's perceptions and the new contain with them nuggets of possibility that lie beyond the obvious. Even as complicated (and occasionally) and treacherous it all can be, Linklater and company posit that it is in our intermingling, yet eternally contradictory natures that life is truly defined. With each look, reflection spoken aloud, and barb exchanged, there is a little of that enduring need for recognition from the familiar. This is easily my biggest vote for favorite Linklater creation, and instant chime-in for film to beat this year. A beguiling summer divergent that doesn't shy away from the scars of love, Midnight is a pitch perfect epilogue to one of the ultimate Gen X romances.
Monday, June 17, 2013
One week into an arranged marriage, a Tokyo woman's salaryman husband(Koji Nambara) vanishes during a business trip. No longer willing to sit at home, waiting to call the husband's employers yet again, Teiko Uhara ventures toward the rural corners near Kanazawa in hopes of best finding the clues as to Kenichi's whereabouts. Forgiving the fact that the pair certainly had a healthy future in store due to his elevated rank at his company, a number of clues reveal with terrible urgency, that she may have never truly known him at all. It is in the snow covered and borderline desolate countrysides of Japan that Yoshitaro Nomura's Zero No Shoten is another intimately composed reminder that a mystery's key power lies in the potency of its clues, and in the miniscule shockwaves they send bouncing off and around our central characters. And in the role of the quietly determined wife, Yoshiko Kuga, we have what functions almost seamlessly between domestic mystery noir, and telling melodrama.
And to think it all depends on calculated execution..
In near breathless fashion, we are given flashes forward and backward in time. Laying down the central couple's arrangement and subsequent marriage as if to imply that where most films end, ours is mere prelude. And all seems well, until the inciting incident hits like a rift opening. And Teiko's growing concerns over how little is actually known about her husband, even by people whom he has worked with for years. Train and bus rides, meetings and more questions as the clues never seem to gather steam. And initially, it even feels like Kenichi's brother, Sotaro(Ko Nishimura) is unwilling to fear the worst as time grows ever desperate. So when matters begin to touch a somber tone, this is where the film spirals into truly volatile territory and never lets up. Rather than relying on a "mystery box" format, this is a piece that is aware of the importance of character motivation, as well as the power of solid atmosphere.
Doing all I can here to avoid revealing too much in regards to plot, but will just state for the record that this is a very model of carefully written and directed tale told in a most broken down of environments. The script was co-written by crime novel legend, Seicho Matsumoto, who's stories often carried tight narratives laced with troubling social commentary, and Zero No Shoten is no exception. As carefully played as the film's structure is , it all seems to be in the name of calling out some of the less considered shades of collateral damage strewn about in the wake of World War II. The further away from the growing noise and lights of Tokyo, the more we are witness to more ignored parts of the country, often with their own plights often coated in quiet sadness, with only so much employment, and even more women unable to have what Teiko just recently stumbled upon. Where options are minimal, and name is final. And when we discover the truths behind all that has happened, it is with the delicately planted & enabled silence of a bomb.
And all of this in no small way comes from some truly effective acting across the board. Most notably by Kuga, who's painfully real beauty and determined gaze make for some deeply memorable images. There are also wonderful turns by Hizuru Takachiho, as a gal who has risen to local prominence due to marriage to an elder local businessman, and Ineko Arima in a small but pulverizing role. As we are made witness to testimonials, and turns leading to some of the film's most inescapable concerns, the drama of what we come to understand between the women of the story remains as potent now as it likely had back in 1961. Merely one out of eight films Nomura made with Matsumoto as consultant and co-writer, this is a disquieting journey that continues to enthrall as well as challenge societal norms in an era flirting with miniscule change.
Saturday, June 15, 2013
Speedy confession time: while I had long known that the Superman character and mythology was set to be brought back to the screen, a part of me had initially seen the choice of Snyder as something to be a little twitchy about. Even as his take on Dr. Manhattan was one of the shining lights of his WATCHMEN adaptation, I wasn't sure if the material and the director were the most harmonic match. Most of Snyder's films have largely been visual affairs, often flirting with slightly denser-than-average graphic novel fare, with only middling results. It isn't that I find him to be a poor director, but rather less interested in the affairs of people as opposed to how they will look in almost stereoscopic fashion amongst opulent backgrounds, and questionable music cues. The tale of Clark Kent/Kal-El, as he struggles to retain his goodness whilst accepting himself as both Kryptonian and human is one of greater sensitivity alongside rousing bombast. For all the romanticism the character carries with him, there is also a bevy of human characters that shape and mold him. There is a greater need for these characters to inspire him, to challenge, and to help make him the legend he will inevitably become. And to varying degrees, this has been achieved more than once on film, but it is something that has since eluded Snyder for whatever reason - mostly that the works he has served duty on have often been moodier affairs that are often strewn in viscera of one manner or another. And even if filmmakers choose to go "dark" with the character and his world, it takes a certain amount of layering to make it work.
So does it?
Yes, and no. For all intents and purposes, this is easily the one Snyder film that doesn't make me renege on the few scenes he makes that actually leave an effect on me. Man Of Steel whizzes by at such a breakneck pace, and has enough gall to make even non-superhero fans quake in their seats. There are some truly breathtaking moments and images populating major sections throughout. And Henry Cavill (Clark/Kal-El/Superman) is boosted by some impressive supporting performances. Even his performance has shades of true charm as the conflicted alien, but like so many other things here, much of it is buried in that oh-so-familiar need for summer blockbusters to just gun headlong into the action, which in this film is jaw-dropping to say the least.
Right away, this is a film eager to establish its own identity upon the world with the reinvention of Krypton, and an expansion of how its civilization condemned itself into ultimate cataclysm. In an unexpectedly drawn out prologue, we are given full view of Jor-El & his wife, Lara's wish to alter course on a home that is already far gone, even as their comrades turn on one another. And with a presentation that evokes memories of even David Lynch's DUNE, there is plenty to enjoy on the artistic and conceptual level that it almost buys itself a pass. It's a sequence that in many ways encapsulates the film as a whole; visually arresting and packed with imaginative possibility, but distant in ways that are difficult to quantify. It is as if the film knows how personal it has to go, but will not, because feelings are perhaps a little too icky? I wish there were a more eloquent way of putting it, but there it is. What the film offers up as a new sheen, is at times very close to something that could be one worthy of endless re-examination, but as it is, it's happy to go about unrestrained, and often bereft of the emotional baggage a film like this perhaps needs at its core.
Even as it goes out of its way to re-introduce the characters, there is an air about the film that screams a wish to replicate previous success. From the arrival of Kal-El on Earth, to the rapid-fire flashes back & forth that is meant to fill us in on his life as a Kansas farm boy, and his subsequent journey of self-discovery, the whole is attempting to achieve the mostly terrific non-linear structure of one Batman Begins, but lacks any of that film's thematic focus. We are also introduced to a much more knowing and aggressive reporter, Lois Lane (Amy Adams) as she is obsessed with trailing the adventures of a special man with an unerring habit of saving those in need wherever he seems to stop. It is here that the structure problems make themselves the most apparent, as we are given almost unforgivably brief glimpses into Clark's younger days. And while we do luck out, and have some of the film's best quiet moments here between teen Clark (Dylan Sprayberry), and adopted father, Jonathan Kent (played by the much missed Kevin Costner), these scenes are never give a chance to breathe. And this is the core issue, if we are to take this bold new course with such a character, then it is essential for us to understand why this character feels the way he does about a people he will learn to have a unique relationship with. This section is an opportunity for us to bond with his yen for good, and while we get a general idea, we never feel the weight of it. One of Begins' biggest strengths lies in that film's need to establish why Bruce Wayne will not kill. And Nolan & Goyer do so by illustrating the coldness of a firearm, and the seductiveness it offers. Visually, the film never lets us forget what is at stake for young Bruce Wayne should he ever seek the easy solution. No such dilemma or examination is made in MoS, and it in many ways hurts any chance we get at connecting with him beyond the fact that he is Superman. So much of the groundwork is rendered perfunctory, and assumed, and that is a troubling trend I have witnessed quite a bit lately.
So when worlds finally (and literally) find themselves on a collision course, placing Clark into a wildly unsubtle end game against the driven and vicious General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a fantastic turn), we are forced to cast aside the thematic, and are witness to the expected action barrage. Cars are smashed, bullets ricochet, buildings collapse, and entire areas are laid waste, but the emotional foundation upon which all of this depends seems lost in the cacophony once the conflict hits Smallville, and inevitably threatens the world. (because what else could be threatened?) And even as the context is top light, there is much to enjoy here as Snyder does what he had long yet tried, which is apply filming in mostly open environs. Surroundings that actually allow the action to have a sense of gravity. It's a touch that never ceases to add that little extra something to a big production like this, and for what it is, it is deeply impression making.
So how about the relationships forged between Clark, his family, and his comrades. As mentioned before, they are mostly made on the move, and largely lacking the kind of intimacy needed to make the action matter. Most notably unexpected, was the connection between Clark and Lois. While one can almost imagine Nolan balking at the classic "mild-mannered reporter" claptrap, there is something altogether strange about forcing these two together now that they are not established early on as co-workers. The dichotomy of Kent as a good-natured weenie is eschewed completely, thereby making Superman a much larger part of the story, often to the point of being patently goofy. Especially considering how many people see him without his iconic glasses. It's to the point that the world must accept him as alien, full stop. It seems to be the film's singular driving force, and what we have in return, while interesting, seems light on the potential. We do get some sweet moments here and there, even with Diane Lane as Ma Kent, but again, we are never give the kind of coverage that is necessary to counterbalance all the plot obfuscation happening throughout. Clark begins as a ghost, and pretty much ends the film as one. So when we are meant to take all of this as prelude to the Superman we all know and apparently love, it becomes a little tough to buy.
And even as the film screams to be seen on a subtle level, there are far too many themes fighting for dominance to make any significant statement. Even as Snyder's team lays out large black text messages representing varying intentions on both the human and radical Kryptonian sides, so much focus is lost as the film seems to be victim of additional re-shoots up to the last second. Where the myth has long leaned toward Superman being an ultimate immigrant, a man pitted between two worlds, the film vacillates between being concerns of national security, and an overall need for a society to seek its long forgotten pluralistic roots. It becomes kind of difficult to suss out when a film cannot decide what to focus on, so we eventually just throw up our hands and rely on the spectacle to do the talking.
Even when one wishes to just allow the tale to weave itself, and to envelope us as participants in the trials of our modern mythological deities, it does help to know that deep down, they truly are no different than us. So why is it so difficult to do this when your lead character is as simple as they come? Man Of Steel, while truly visceral in many respects, seems unwilling to level with its own background. While it so wishes to dole out some new wrinkles about the big blue boy scout, it should have done so with a little more faith in what makes him so special; his innate humanness.
Sunday, June 9, 2013
Two complete strangers run across each other on the local metro, and spark up a most discordant and yet irresistible fondness. Both on the surface quite average, city professional types, it is also quickly revealed that their shared awkwardness carries with it a disturbing secret that if not faced soon, could manifest in disastrous ways. But this is merely the surface of the tale PRIMER helmer, Shane Carruth weaves in this borderline impenetrable offering. And it is not with any offhand sense of dismay that I express this confusion, but rather of feeling both distressed and thrilled that Carruth's follow up to perhaps the ultimate time travel film turns out to be anything resembling commercially safe, or comprehensible. Upstream Color is cold, calculated, and defiantly ambitious. And while It may not work completely, it is made with a sure hand that is incredibly rare.
Taking an almost Malick-eque approach to allowing the camera to play omnipresent observer, we are witness to some truly horrific acts in the first third that is meticulous to the point of obsessive. The initial 30 minutes involves the harvesting of a most unique form of blue plant that is digested by plant-eating mealworms. The worms are then used on unsuspecting city folk, who are soon rendered open to suggestion, and eventually released back to what wreckage remains of their former lives- with zero memory as to what happened to them.We are not made privy as to the identity of those who would do this, let alone why. They seem on the surface to be as benign as anyone we would meet outdoors, minus the creeping curiosity. The remaining moments of this first third of the film illustrates the fate of digital art producer, Kris(Amy Seimetz), who is subjected to systematic conditioning, and eventually used in numerous financial crimes and rituals. Soon after, she is eventually "cured" by a local sound artist, and returns home, a shell of her former self with no memories of days past, and re-entry into a world that has become alien to her newfound behavior.
And this is all before Kris meets Jeff (played by Carruth himself), a man from the city's law sector who seems just as broken as she is. Not much time passes before the two share a burgeoning relationship largely based on these huge missing sections of life and logic. They have a rough time conveying their detachment, and inner turmoil, and yet they are drawn together. Not much time passes before they truly feel as if they are the only two people capable of handling their altered psyches, awkwardness and all. The film seems primed to be discussing the onset of mental illness, and what we would do if we knew what was introduced into our bodies that caused this all to occur. If we were capable of seeking blame in a realm where more often than not, none can be made.
The rest of the film tinkers with the lives of these two as they seem almost subconsciously drawn to a nasty truth that could mean more than their newfound existence. Carruth isn't as interested in the answers so much as the questions in how a society could turn a blind eye to mankind's intervention of nature. While Kris once knew a life bound in vision and fantasy, she is soon host to a bevy of personal horrors. And Jeff's vast gulf of a life as a man of the legal world, there seems to be a constant scrambling of memories that he and Kris both seem incapable of knowing with a modicum of certainty. And with that observer's eye that Carruth and Co. are employing here, we are often left scrambling just as frantically as they are. It's not a puzzle to be solved, but an ever shifting sense of loss permeating every frame. While Kris is increasingly paranoid and internal, Jeff grows more frustrated with the gaps laid at both their feet. The compelling performances and overall ethereal gloom of the film creates the feeling of a series of very personal dreams. This is only made more troubling as we are given no island of reason to ground us. We're just as adrift as they are. It's not as interested in warmth as it is about allowing us to feel as helpless, yet resolute as the pair become over the film's length.
So when the film wanders from horror to almost parody of mumblecore drama, there seems to be a knowing jab being made. Much like how PRIMER characterizes its core conceit as something horrendously mundane, yet mysterious, Upstream takes independently financed breakthrough genre such as horror and mumblecore comedy, and plays with them in surprisingly fun but affecting ways. Carruth seems eager to do away with what has become something of a modern phenom as home video has gone streaming. With overt access comes saturation, and ultimately blandess, and somehow a lot of the film has a thinly veiled beef with it. All bound by a mostly droning score by Carruth(again), it is clear that this is meant to be an all-encompassing response to the scene over the last few years. The whole affair is a personal one.
And yet not all is congruent, yet how could it be considering the subject matter? The work is more an amalgam of ideas and concerns than a specific theme. There are moments when it is clearly turning tangential with its leads, rather than allowing the story to gel organically. The finale feels pretty forced and pat, while the use of Walden could be seen as entirely too on the nose for something so breathless everywhere else. So is it an exploration of the love lives of the mentally affected, or a rally cry for New Domesticity? I couldn't say. As capable of entrancing as it is of leaving viewers deeply unsettled, Upstream is a challenging piece of work that defies simple description. It dares you to explore, and to find your own thoughts in between, and come up with your own impressions post-viewing. Definitely not a film for every taste, but a welcoming dip into the uncanny for those with the inclination.
Tuesday, June 4, 2013
Upon suggestion by my ever asian cinema-curious roomie, I decided to at long last catch the rarely seen in the west Kim Ki-young film, Hanyo (AKA- The Housemaid). And to consider this as seminal might be understating it by an impressive mile. While on the surface, this is a film that feels borderline primitive, and even quaint scene-wise, there is something utterly punishing and prophetic here that solidifies the film's reputation. On one level, a caustic melodrama involving the plight of a factory music teacher's family after hiring a mysterious newcomer to handle their domestic duties. While on the other, it is a darkly funny satire of South Korea's burgeoning upper middle class complete with technological terrors, desperate women, and an even more desperate populace.
What initially leapt out to me about this film, was the lush, often decadent composition laid forth for a black and white Korean film made in the 1960s. Ki-young's attention to set detail, placement of objects, characters, and even lighting predates and clearly laid the foundation for well over a decade of phenomenally articulate filmmaking from a country long considered a non-entity in international cinema circles. There are plenty of visual choices here that predate the works of Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho, and even Kim Ji-woon in their almost obsessive symbological drive. Influences ranging from Hitchcock to Honda, there is a confident, painterly feel to the entire film, as if it was a tale demanding of our attention. From the use of a cat's cradle in the opening, to the heavy use of stairs as "escalating" motif, the piece is composed to burn deep into the panic recesses of the mind. And considering the era that the nation was just slowly crawling out of, there is plenty on the heart of the film and its maker to justify it.
And the funny part about the entire affair is that despite its many of its glaring issues, Housemaid is a potent, almost seething nightmare. Unlike what eventually became something of a suspense movie staple; the usurping nanny manipulating the well-to-do family, the story takes full advantage of everything at Ki-young's disposal to weave a vision of middle-class in awe of the west's ideals, to the detriment of human logic, or understanding. The central family of the film led by a struggling piano teacher, and a career seamstress find themselves yearning for a life beyond, only to find themselves endlessly at odds with their current state. As they are both career-minded, and not at all shy about coming clean about their ambitions to have the biggest house with the best machines and accoutrements, the main setting never lets us forget just how squalid their success really is. Even as they are now dependent upon government funded factory works, and women are entering the workforce with great speed, there is this unerring feeling that the advancements have themselves led to even more work, greater exhaustion, and yet some notions that towing this line is key to infinite happiness.
So when the piano teacher, Mr. Kim(Kim Jin-kyu) finds himself at the center of affections by one of his students, leading to the entry of a new home student, and inevitably the titular character, we are granted insight into the film's more paranoid leanings. Despite the advancements whirling through asian society like a torrent, it is also a delicate one where a once sidelined population (in this case, females) has suddenly seen a shift in fortunes. It is to the point that not unlike everyone else in the film, they are attracted to this newfound sense of empowerment inherent in the system that is now providing far more than had previously been possible. It's so pervasive, that even marriage doesn't seem to be much of a deterrent for some of the younger generation. And even as the film's elder's terribly wish for things to maintain their noble lustre, there is an inescapable clawing effect taking place that seems uninterested in the artifice all around them, and rather more about living up to an approval that will never truly come. Even the children of the Kims don't seem like simple kids. They have seen too much, and can be considered every bit as questionable.
This is made all the more bold once the housemaid arrives and begins to make clear just how much she really doesn't seem terribly interested in the family she is tasked with caring for. She kills rats out in the open, harbors secrets, and inevitably tears herself into the world like a being possessed. It is not about the affections of the piano teacher, but rather what he represents; an illusion of security and community acceptance. And even as the film's emotional pitches reach almost absurdly operatic heights, there's a very real sense that the apolitical Ki-young is highlighting an attraction to a perpetually unfulfilling lifestyle where all that gathers is material, and little else. Working their souls and bodies to ruin in the name of something that offers no respite, and even less love, Housemaid cuts deep into what Ki-young must have seen somewhere on the horizon, and what we are perhaps just barely becoming aware of..a hell of our own making.