Trance(4/17/2013)

4-17-2013Trance

When constructing an opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics China brought in the director Zhang Yimou as creative consultant, which seemed like a logical choice given that he’s made a number of visually spectacular action epics.  Four years later, when the Olympics came to the UK, the Brits needed to find a filmmaker of their own to top China’s spectacle.  That’s not as easy a task as you’d think given that British cinema is probably most famous for social realist cinema from the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach.  There are certainly some British directors with an eye for spectacle like Ridley Scott and Christopher Nolan, but most of them have made careers in Hollywood rather than their home countries and they don’t necessarily seem all that tapped into their native culture.  In the end there was really only one logical choice for a homegrown British director with an energetic and visually inspired style, and that was Danny Boyle.

Boyle hasn’t gained his reputation visual stylist by working with huge budgets (though he has made some films on a fairly large scale), rather, he’s found ways to tell small scale stories in visually distinct ways and with a ton of energy.  For instance, his breakthrough film Trainspotting was mostly the story of a bunch of Scottish junkies going from one hovel to another but Boyle was able to turn it into so much more through some smart editing, creative camera placement, and wise soundtrack selections.  Even as his budgets have grown, his ability to make fast paced and visually exciting work has persisted.  Boyle’s last three films (Sunshine, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours) have shown a filmmaker at the top of his form and his assignment to produce the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was a sort of victory lap for his recent successes.  His first post-Olympics release is a thriller set in the world of fine art auctioneering called Trance.

The film opens with a gang of thieves led by a shotgun toting criminal named Franck (Vincent Cassel) breaking into an auction-house trying to steal a priceless Goya painting.  The head auctioneer at the scene named Simon (James McAvoy) tries to save the painting, but he’s cut off and hit in the head before it can be secured and Franck gets away with the loot only to then discover that Simon (who had been in on the crime from the beginning) pulled a fast one on him and switched the paining for an empty frame.  One week later Simon is released from the hospital and is almost immediately abducted by Franck, who’s mad as hell and wants to know where the painting ended up, but Simon claims he can’t remember where it ended up because of the blow to the head.  Desperate for a way for Simon to regain this memory, Franck decides to send him to a hypnotist named Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson) who will also soon become embroiled in this sordid affair.

Danny Boyle has long been the type of director that’s more than happy to hop from genre to genre.  He’s made everything from a horror film to a family film and Trance is his foray into the world of twisty Usual Suspects style crime thrillers.  It’s also something of a throwback to when Boyle was making films on a smaller scale than what he’s been making lately.  That this is a movie about a bunch of crooks trying to stab each other in the back will remind longtime fans of his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave, and the film’s psychological side will remind viewers of his divisive 2000 effort The Beach.

Sometimes the mark of a great auteur is their ability to take material that isn’t all that great and make it seem a lot better than it is by injecting it with an enjoyable signature style, and I think that’s pretty much what’s going on in Trance.  The film’s screenplay by Joe Ahearne and John Hodge isn’t a complete mess or anything, but I wouldn’t call it brilliant either and I can easily see it being turned into a sleazy direct-to-DVD release if it were being produced by people who are less talented.  Fortunately, Boyle’s style is as infectious here as it is anywhere and he can turn scenes that would otherwise be rather pedestrian into fairly exciting moments.  I’m sure that Boyle will get back to making bolder statements than this soon enough.  Until then I can live with him making fun trash like Trance.  It’s not a movie that one needs to run out and see on opening weekend, but I suspect that it will provide for some mostly positive blind-rental experiences in the coming years.

*** out of Four

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Evil Dead(4/14/2013)

4-14-2013EvilDead

While Hollywood will happily remake just about anything, the one type of film that they seem to like to remake the most are horror/slasher films from the 70s and 80s.   In fact, such remakes have been a staple of middle-budget genre film making ever since 2003 when a medium budget remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre became a surprise hit.  We’ve seen remakes of bona fied classics like Dawn of the Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, we’ve seen remakes of relatively obscure movies like The Crazies and I Spit on Your Grave, and we’ve seen remakes of pretty much everything in between.  And yet I was still surprised when I heard they were remaking Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead if only because that movie isn’t all that well known by the general public even though it had a cult fanbase which would be almost impossible to please and who would surround the project with negativity.  And yet, somehow, this film is rolling out with incredible support from the horror community.  It has the full support of Sam Raimi (who has, along with Bruce Campbell, taken a producer credit) and it’s gory red band trailers have gotten a lot of people looking for something truly “out there.”

Like the original film, this remake is set almost entirely in an isolated cabin in a Michigan forest.  The character of Ash that actor Bruce Campbell made famous is not present here and the film instead focuses primarily on a brother and sister named Mia (Jane Levy) and David (Shiloh Fernandez).  These siblings have been somewhat estranged and Mia has become a drug addict in David’s absence and this trip to the woods is meant to be a chance for her to detox.  They’re accompanied by David’s girlfriend Natalie (Elizabeth Blackmore), a nurse named Olivia (Jessica Lucas), and a high school teacher with an interest in the occult named Eric (Lou Taylor Pucci).  The cabin itself is really run down and when they check the basement they find both the remnants of bizarre pagan rituals and a strange book wrapped in barbed wire and covered in warnings written in blood begging those who find it not to read its contents.  Of course this would be a very short movie if they were to heed those warnings.

This might be heresy, but I’ve got to say that the original version of The Evil Dead is not really a favorite of mine.  For what it is, it’s fairly impressive.  God knows that every year there are hundreds of people trying to make similar micro-budget horror films that end up amounting to nothing and the fact that Raimi was actually able to make one that anyone cares about three decades later is something to be celebrated.  Still, I find a lot of that film’s quirks to be charming rather than scary, and that’s probably why its sequels focused more on comedy than horror.  In a sense, this remake seems to be trying to correct this by bringing the franchise back to its horror roots and remaking the original film in a more straightforward way and with higher production values.

One of the biggest changes this time around is that the character of Ash is not here, and on its face that’s probably a good decision.  While he may not be a household name, Bruce Campbell is a big star in the world of B-horror films, and forcing someone to fill his shoes would not have worked.  The problem is that instead of trying to create some new and interesting character to take his place they’ve instead opted to populate the film with a bunch of stock slasher-film characters.  They at least try to give some backstory to Mia and David, but the other three are completely undeveloped and all five of them are played by nobodies who seem to have been chosen from the set of some teen drama series on The CW.  The characters are also prone to making all the usual formulaic slasher movie mistakes like taking way too long to figure out the rules behind the supernatural happenings around them and being far to hesitant to just kill people after they’ve been possessed by demons.  In fact, a lot of what’s in this film is awfully reminiscent of last year’s horror spoof The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s a little hard to take it all seriously after having seen a parallel situation get skewered like that so recently.

All that said, Evil Dead still sort of works in spite of itself, and that’s directly attributable to the skill with which first time director Fede Alvarez manages to bring this material to life.  Alvarez gives the film a really balanced tone: it largely plays things straight but it doesn’t lose its sense of fun in doing so.  This isn’t really a “scary” movie per se, it’s more like the world’s most aggressive carnival haunted house.  It employs some extreme gore effects that will likely shock those who are unaccustomed to such material, but hardened horror fans likely won’t be grossed out so much as impressed by the film’s chutzpah.  It’s a film that re-invents nothing, but executes on familiar material very effectively.

*** out of Four

The Journey Continues: Skeptical Inquiries into Family Cinema- The Prince of Egypt/The Iron Giant

Prince of Egypt-Iron Giant

I consider myself to be a very well-rounded movie watcher, but there’s been a blind spot through much of my film going experience: family movies.  Live action, animated, whatever; for most of my life I’ve shunned just about anything that seemed like it was being made for children.  I’ve consistently felt that way even though we just went through a decade in which family films have been really hip.  So hip in fact that in 2011 I broke down and started a blog series where I watched every film made by the Pixar Animation Studio and wrote commentary about each one of them.  It was a bumpy but rewarding experience and while I didn’t love all the films I saw in it, I did enjoy a lot more than I expected to.

It’s been a little over a year since I concluded that marathon and looking back I’m not sure my journey was really over.  There were a lot of acclaimed family films made in the last ten or so years that weren’t made by Pixar, and they’re just as much of a blind spot for me as the Pixar movies were.  And so, I’m now going to embark on a new journey into the realm of family cinema, but I’m changing up the format a little this time.  Instead of doing one movie a month I’ll be looking at films in sets of two with each pair having either a theme or a creator in common.  Half of the pairs I’ve chosen are meant to be samples of various trends that existed in family cinema over the last decade.  The other half of the year’s selections will be a sub-marathon looking at the films in the Harry Potter franchise, which I initially ignored only to see it become one of the most popular and acclaimed series of our time.  With this series I mainly plan to look at some of the most popular family films made after the turn of the millennium, but before I do I want to look at a pair of films from the late 90s which, in retrospect, have proven to be important precursors of what was on the horizon.

The late 90s were a chaotic and uncertain time for mainstream animated fare.  Pixar existed during this period, but they weren’t really the mammoth institution that they are today and they hadn’t yet proven that they could succeed outside of their Toy Story franchise.  Meanwhile, Disney-proper was struggling to recapture the success they had experienced earlier in the decade.  While films like Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Hercules, Mulan, and Tarzan were all sizable hits they were both artistically and commercially inferior to what had come before and the “mouse house” would only slide further into irrelevance going into the next decade.  The rest of the major studios could clearly tell that there was blood in the water because we started to see studios like Warner Brothers and Dreamworks dipping their toes into the massive ocean of animation.  One of these studios would work with a future Pixar poster-boy to make a cult classic during this era only to then bow out of animation after they watched it crash and burn at the box office, while the other would make a film that is now regarded as a forgettable mediocrity but be encouraged enough by its moderate box office success to stick with this animation thing, a decision which would eventually make them one of the most profitable ventures in Hollywood.

The Prince of Egypt

1998 was a major year for the newly formed Dreamworks SKG.  It was the year they topped the box office with Saving Private Ryan, but perhaps more importantly it was the year that its animation division released its first two feature length releases: Antz and The Prince of Egypt.  The former film was a clear shot across the bow in the direction of Pixar and is mostly remembered as “that other movie from 1998 about talking bugs” while the later is clearly meant as a film that would out-Disney Disney.  To achieve this goal Jeffrey Katzenberg brought together a group of three directors including Simon Wells, Steve Hickner, and most notably Brenda Chapman, who’s hiring would make her the first woman to direct a feature length animated film for a major studio.

The hiring of Chapman (who would later go on to co-direct Pixar’s Brave) is perhaps ironic given that, between this and future projects like The Road to El Dorado and Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, it’s pretty clear Dreamworks was trying to set themselves up as a more boy-friendly PG rated alternative to Disney.  You’ll notice that this movie pointedly has the word “prince” in its title, which would seem to be the opposite of what their princess-emphasizing competitor would do.  The film also relegates any kind of love-story to afterthought status and its slightly misleading advertising campaign heavily emphasized the film’s actions scenes and epic scale.  In fact, the film does a rather laudable job of scrubbing away a lot of the sillier elements of the Disney formula that turned me off for so many years.  There are no talking animals, the two characters that are meant as comic relief (a pair of aids to the Pharaoh voiced by Steve Martin and Martin Short) aren’t nearly as broad or annoying as their Disney counterparts probably would have been, and the film also doesn’t shy away from many of the story’s darker elements like slavery and deity assisted genocide.  On paper these are all moves that I approve of, but that doesn’t change the fact that this ended up being a mostly forgettable movie.

The fact that this is an adaptation of a bible story was mostly downplayed in its marketing, but the film itself isn’t exactly shy about it.  This is mostly the story of Moses as told in the bible with few major modifications and god himself makes a handful of appearances throughout the story.  To the film’s credit, they do a pretty respectable job of taking a story that took Cecil B. DeMille 220 minutes to tell and having it play out in less than half of that run time.  I also liked the way that the film was able to humanize the Pharaoh by emphasizing that he was once Moses’ adopted brother.  I wish that the filmmakers had found a similar way to flesh out Moses himself, but they really don’t, and every single other character in the film is pretty much a non-entity.  Additionally, even this early on Dreamworks was already infatuated with the prospect of stuffing their films with celebrity voice actors and that really backfires here because Val Kilmer is completely lifeless in the film’s title role.

Hard as the film tries to set a more realistic tone than Disney, the film still tries to be a full-on musical and this ends up being one of its biggest problems.  Aside from the fact that these musical interludes don’t really fit the rest of the film’s tone and the fact that they usually bring the story to a standstill, the songs really just aren’t very good.  The Oscar winning track “When You Believe” is the only tune here that’s remotely memorable and even it pales in comparison to even the second rate songs you’d hear in a Disney film.  The film’s animation doesn’t exactly measure up to Disney standards either.  For the most part the film looks pretty good and they do a particularly good job creating a character model for Moses, but there’s nothing at all special about what they’re able to accomplish and the places where the film tries to integrate computer animation looks pretty dated today.

Overall I found The Prince of Egypt to be pretty generic and boring, but I mostly respect what they were trying to do they just didn’t go far enough.  The film would make about one hundred million dollars at the domestic box office, making it the highest grossing traditionally animated non-Disney film of all time until it was surpassed by The Simpsons Movie in 2007.  That sounds like a success, but that probably says more about how commercially unimportant traditionally animated films would be in the coming decade than it does about the film’s popularity.  In reality this gross wasn’t much higher than the film’s seventy million dollar budget and was only half of what Dreamworks would make on Saving Private Ryan that year.  The studio would go on to make three more traditionally animated films, but that wasn’t the medium upon which they were destined to make their mark.  Instead, Antz proved to be a lot more indicative of the formula the studio would eventually embrace: dumb humor plus simplistic moral equals lots of money.

The Iron Giant

Of course Dreamworks would become a force to be reckoned with over the years and in its wake 20th Century Fox, Sony, and Paramount (via its Viacom partner Nickelodeon) have all followed suit and developed similarly soulless animation divisions.   The only studios that haven’t really bitten are Universal and Warner Brothers.  That Warner Brothers haven’t tried for a piece of the pie is particularly surprising given that they do have an animation legacy going back to the 1930s and is responsible for the ever popular “Loony Tunes” stable of characters.  In fact, Warner Brothers current disinterest in feature length animation seems to be largely rooted in a pair of bad experiences they had with the medium in the 90s when they tried to merge Turner Animation Studios into a larger Warner Brothers Animation Studio.  The first film produced by this division was a film called Quest For Camelot, which was a troubled production from the beginning and which bombed so badly that the studio decided that animation was just not worth the trouble.  Fortunately their next planned animation project was already in production and the studio’s newfound apathy for the whole endeavor gave its young director, Brad Bird, a level of creative freedom which allowed him to turn The Iron Giant into something far more solid than was otherwise likely to have been made otherwise.

The setting for The Iron Giant is a small 1950s town (appropriately called Rockwell, ME) and the film’s visual style reflects that.  The film uses a cinemascope widescreen frame and uses the color palate one would expect out of a 50s Technicolor film like Bigger Than Life, Payton Place, or All That Heaven Allows.  The film’s character models look like they walked straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting and while they aren’t overly detailed they have realistic anatomy and are very expressive.  The film opens with a sequence that’s vaguely reminiscent of the opening scene of the 1954 film Godzilla in which a fishing vessel finds itself in the middle of violent waters as a large figure emerges from beneath the waves.  The water in this scene is computer generated and was reminiscent of some of the weird looking CGI water in The Prince of Egypt, but aside from that and a scene towards the end involving a missile the film wisely chooses to only really use obvious 3D computer animation for effects that involve the titular giant.  In these scenes the alien nature of the computer graphics is appropriate rather than jarring.

When I watched through all the Pixar movies I noticed a marked difference between the studio’s normal output and the two films directed by Brad Bird.  Bird is able to replicate the look and feel of a well made live action film more than any other animation director that I’m aware of.  Bird’s films aren’t any more realistic than any other animated films (they often feature fantastical elements like superheroes and talking rats), instead the magic is in the details.  You can tell that he plans his “shots” more carefully, that he more meticulously creates more detailed and realistic worlds for his characters to inhabit, and he also knows when to avoid cartoonish flights of fancy.  If anything, The Iron Giant is conclusive proof that this professionalism has been part of his approach since the beginning and that he was ahead of his time in this regard.  While The Prince of Egypt took certain half-measures toward making a more realistic alternative to the Disney style, Brad Bird (who complained that Quest For Camelot was a craven Disney imitation) went all the way and divorced what he was trying to do from any traces of what Disney was up to during that period.  There are no songs in The Iron Giant, no dumb comic relief sidekicks, and the film isn’t based on any kind of fairy tale.

That isn’t to say that The Iron Giant is a wildly original story, in fact its main flaw is that it bares an extreme similarity to the film E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and other films where a child has to protect an alien from overly fearful and aggressive adults with guns.  It also suffers from a protagonist that’s something of a stock “gee-whiz” 50s kid who begins to grate on the viewer as the film roles on.  In fact the film has a very simple story in many ways and if it were a live action family film I suspect that it wouldn’t really be all that noteworthy.  That’s the thing about Brad Bird’s style, its so rooted in his ability to make animated filmmaking feel like live action filmmaking that when he tries to make an actual live action film (as he did with the vastly over-rated Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol) there isn’t really much of anything special about it.  Were I to rank it against the other major family film of 1999, Toy Story 2, I would probably rank Pixar’s film higher than the Brad Bird’s even though The Iron Giant is in many ways less of a flawed work if only because Toy Story 2 has better ideas at its core.  Still, being a very well executed family film that never stumbles or panders is accomplishment enough to be more than worthy of praise.

The Iron Giant opened in 1999 on the same day as The Sixth Sense and ended up in ninth place for the weekend (just behind the remake of The Haunting, which was in its third week) in spite of Pixar-like reviews.  This was in part due to a rather anemic marketing campaign on the part of studio that was generally disinterested in the film and was willing to let it suffer for the sins of Quest for Camelot.  To this day, Warner Brothers has never really tried again to break back into the world of feature length animation, but things worked out better for everyone else involved.  Brad Bird would go on to great success at Pixar and his influence rubbed off on and improved that studio’s output.  The film itself also went on to have a pretty strong shelf-life and is frequently cited as a favorite among animation fans.  I can’t say that I see it as a classic, but I did enjoy it quite a bit and feel like it’s given me a better grasp of why Brad Bird is as respected as he is.

In Conclusion

I was about ten or eleven when both The Prince of Egypt and The Iron Giant were first released and I suspect that if I’d gotten someone to take me to them that I would have enjoyed both of them.  Seeing them now I think they both do a handful of things right (one more so than the other) but I’m ultimately more interested in them for their respective places in the history of Hollywood animation than I really am in their merits as fine cinema, but that’s alright.  Most of the films that I’ll be looking at in this marathon aren’t the same kind of sacred cows on pedestals that the Pixar movies I looked at two years ago were and I don’t really have the same kind of chip on my shoulder when they prove to be less than perfect.  Next month I’ll start my inquiry into the Harry Potter series by taking a look at that franchise’s much maligned first two installments: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Stoker(3/24/2013)

3-24-2013Stoker

Park Chan-wook is a filmmaker who frustrates me.  His 2003 film Oldboy is pretty much a new classic at this point; it’s a bold and exciting thriller, the kind of left-of-the-dial genre film that had genuine crossover appeal.  It was a film that would be entertaining not just to art house audiences or to genre enthusiasts, it was the kind of movie you could recommend to pretty much anyone provided they could handle its sometimes graphic violence.  It brought attention not just to Park Chan-wook himself but to a whole world of like-minded thrillers from South Korea and from elsewhere in East Asia.  The thing is, and I think I’m in the minority on this one; Chan-wook has never really made another film that comes close to working as anywhere near as well as Oldboy.   Believe me, I’ve tried to get into other Chan-wook films like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Lady Vengeance, I’m a Cyborg But That’s OK, and Thirst.  Every one of those movies has a number of interesting things in them, none of them have been successful in their totality.  That’s what drives me nuts about the guy, he has a lot of good ideas but they get bogged down by all of the guy’s other strange decisions.

Chan-wook’s latest film is called Stoker and it’s his first non-Korean film.  It looks at a strange family that lives in a mansion in the rural outskirts of a small town somewhere in the American heartland, specifically a teenage girl named India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska).  The film begins shortly after India’s father, Richard (Dermot Mulroney), has been killed in a car crash.  Attending the funeral is Richard’s estranged brother Charlie (Matthew Goode), who offers to move in with India and her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman) in Richard’s absence.  India is not comfortable with this arrangement and grows increasingly suspicious about exactly who Charlie is and what he’s up to.

I think the main reason I’ve had trouble with Park Chan-wook’s filmmaking is that the characters in his films seem to just behave oddly.  They seem to live in an alternate universe where people react to situations in unusual ways and they speak in strange patterns that are generally unrecognizable.  I thought that to some extent this might have just been a cultural difference (although I’ve seen plenty of Korean films that don’t have this problem), and I was kind of hoping that a move to a new location would burst this bubble a little, but it really didn’t.  In fact, the characters in Stoker seem just as strange as the characters in his Korean films and it seems all the more odd here because I know the language that’s being spoken and know for a fact that people don’t use it the way it’s being used here.  Some of the weirdness could be excused if it was confined to the film’s strange titular family, but the people in the town can act just as bizarrely at times.  India’s school seems to be populated by extreme bullies who think it’s appropriate to try to straight up punch at a female, and the one seemingly nice guy at the school seems to turn into some kind of rapist on a dime at one point.

This is a film is about a teenage girl who comes to learn that her uncle named Charlie might be some kind of evil person is clearly a nod toward Hitchcock’s 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt.  Both Chan-wook and screenwriter Wentworth Miller have acknowledged this influence in interviews, and I’ve got to say, the comparison is not flattering for Stoker.  While Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie seemed like a genuinely likable person when he showed up in Hitchcock’s film, Matthew Goode seems like a straight-up unhinged lunatic from pretty much the second we see him here, and yet we’re supposed to believe that the Nicole Kidman character is going to be oblivious to this and allow him into her home.

As is often the case of Park Chan-wook’s films, there’s a lot of good mixed in with the bad.  The film has some really interesting editing in it and also some really cool cinematography.  There are some interesting scenes and a couple of other neat little twisted moments, but once again all of this is undercut but the rest of Chan-wook’s style.  All of these things could also be said about Olboy, but Oldboy had something that neither this nor any of Chan-wook’s other films have really had and that’s energy.  It was a movie that was so well paced that all the off-putting quirks didn’t stand out nearly as much as they do here.  And so, I’m once again forced to ponder what this film would have been like if Chan-wook had just been able to if he’d just adopt a more naturalistic mode of storytelling.

** out of Four

Like Someone in Love(3/16/2013)

3-16-2013LikeSomeoneinLove

When you hear about a filmmaker emerging from a country that’s experienced turmoil you usually expect them to rise to prominence by making films about the issues which plague their homelands.  That’s what Rossellini and De Sica did in post-war Italy, what Satyajit Ray did during tumultuous times in India, and what various Eastern European directors did after the Cold War finally ended.  It is not, however, what the great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami did in order to get the world’s attention.  I’m sure there are some academics that have been able to find subtle meta-textual critiques of the Islamic Republic, but for the most part he seems to be examining much more universal intellectual themes that are unrelated to his country’s politics.  This is probably why in the last few years Kiarostami has been able to make films in Europe and Asia without seemingly missing a beat.  In fact, I found his 2010 Tuscan-set Certified Copy to be something of a revelation.  The use of professional actors, the more comfortable budget, and the looser censorship concerns did a lot to make me better understand what Kiarostami was all about.  Now Kiarostami has opted to bring his ambiguous realism and conversations in moving cars all the way to Japan for a film called Like Someone in Love and while there are aspects of the film that I find baffling it’s still the work of a filmmaker who’s in strong form.

Like Someone in Love is not the easiest film to summarize, it doesn’t have any major The Usual Suspects style twists to give away, but at the same time much of the fun of watching the film comes from not really knowing where it’s going and how it’s going to play out.  At the film’s center is a college age girl named Akiko (Rin Takanashi) who’s sent by her “boss” on a job where she meets with an aged former sociology professor named Takashi (Tadashi Okuno) for the evening.  The rest of the film depicts the events both pressing and mundane that transpire in the next is set over the course of a less than 24 hour period in the life of Akiko and Takashi’s lives.

Certified Copy largely revolved around a central riddle: Were the couple at the center of the film married the whole time?  Like Someone in Love is also a film that should likely be looked at more as a riddle than as a narrative, but what riddle is it asking the audience to solve?  Perhaps the most obvious on is what exactly Akiko’s job really is.  At first we’re set up to believe that she’s supposed to be a prostitute, but once she arrives at the professor’s apartment she doesn’t act like one at all.  She doesn’t follow the instructions of her “john” at all, she can’t so much as tell a dirty joke without blushing, and when she finally jumps into bed she says it’s because she wants to sleep.  Maybe she’s more like some kind of legitimate escort or maybe some kind of modern day geisha, but again, if she’s meant to be any kind of professional companion she does a damn lousy job of it and likely would have been in big trouble if she acted the way she does around a client who was less meek and kindhearted than Takashi.

Afterwards, the film starts to play around with the idea of Takashi as a sort of surrogate grandfather to this girl that he’s seemingly just met.  Maybe they really are related and this is some kind of elaborate play-acting scheme concocted by these two not unlike the rendezvous between the possibly married couple in Certified Copy, but the film presents more evidence that this isn’t the case than evidence that it is.  This is why I say that the film is more of a riddle than a narrative, your enjoyment of the film comes more from trying to unravel all of this stuff rather than just trying to sit back and enjoy the story.  In fact if you do try to just sit back and follow the story the film will probably just end up frustrating you at every stage.  That’s not to say that there isn’t some enjoyment to be found from simply getting to know the characters, which are brought to life brilliantly by some talented actors, but I don’t think that’s not really the point.

If the film is a riddle, I can’t say that it was a riddle that I was really able to solve.  The one aspect of the film that baffled me the most was its insanely abrupt ending which makes No Country for Old Men look like The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.  I’m not going to give what happens away, but the film takes a surprising turn in its final moments and starts to really engage the audience right before pulling the rug out from beneath them and watching as they fall on their faces.  Usually when reviewing a complex film that I don’t fully understand my stance is to ask myself: “do I get the feeling that there is a true meaning behind all of this? And if so do I want to see the film again in order to figure that meaning out?”  In the case of Like Someone in Love my answer to this was mostly “yes,” and even while the solution to the riddle remained elusive to me I never thought that the film was boring at all even though it might sound like it would be.  But I don’t really feel that way about the ending, which almost felt like a deliberate provocation, and not one that I appreciated.  This is not the crossover film that Certified Copy was; this is one for the dedicated Kiarostami fan who’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I probably am more or less in that camp with the die-hards, but I don’t think that’s a very wide camp and I probably wouldn’t recommend the film to someone who’s on the outside of it.

*** out of Four