mother!(9/16/2017)

Warning: Review contains plot spoilers

In the abstract, it’s often assumed that directors working in the indie space ultimately want to use their small scale successes in order to convince Hollywood studios to finance their bigger and more expensive visions.  Darren Aronofsky at one point seemed like he was destined to do just that after the increasing successes of his micro-budget debut Pi and his indie classic Requiem for a Dream.  In fact he was actually approached to pitch ideas for Batman movies around the same time that Christopher Nolan (a guy who has very much succeeded in blending his vision with Hollywood sized budgets) was, but unlike Nolan Aronofsky style and vision proved to be a little too weird and intense for general audiences and he didn’t seem interested in making a compromised commercial work like Insomnia as a stepping stone to bigger things.  Instead he put all his efforts towards The Fountain a crazy little movie made on a lower budget than he probably wanted and which likely baffled the few general audiences who went to it.  From there he went back to indie ambitions and made a pair of small movies about obsessive performers called The Wrestler and Black Swan, the latter of which became an unexpected hundred million dollar hit with the mainstream.  With that clout it seemed like Aronofsky was finally going to enter the world of blockbuster filmmaking but the big budget movie he chose to make with his clout was of all things a biblical epic called Noah which did make some money but was seen more as an oddity (and not the good kind of oddity) than as any kind of artistic triumph.  As such he’s back to the world of small budgets and seems to have picked up where Black Swan left off with his new film mother!.

mother! is set entirely within a large house in the country in an unknown state and features characters who aren’t given proper names, for simplicity’s sake I will largely be referring to characters by the names of their actors.  It begins with a character played by Jennifer Lawrence waking up and looking for her older husband, a poet who’s been experiencing writer’s block played by Javier Bardem.  The two are childless and the wife is in the process of renovating the old home that they live in.  Everything changes one day when a man played by Ed Harris shows up at their door and the husband quickly invites him to stay with them, in part because he seems to be a fan of the author’s work, without consulting with his wife.  Harris quickly proves himself to be a bore who smokes in the house and overstays his welcome, especially when his wife played by Michelle Pfeiffer shows up and proves to be even more intrusive than her husband and things very quickly escalate from there.

As you might guess from the business with the names and a few other rather surreal aspects, mother! is not a movie that you should necessarily take literally although this isn’t readily apparent from moment one.  Right away it becomes apparent that, like Black Swan before it this is a film that draws heavy inspiration from some of Roman Polanski’s more paranoid early films like Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby and much of the film’s tension lies in the way its protagonist finds herself in situations she finds sinister while everyone else seems nonplussed.  However, there are other elements of the film which feel surreal in ways that a Polanski thriller wouldn’t and there are elements that go entirely unexplained like an open wound she spots on Ed Harris’ back and the medication that she takes throughout the film and as things progress it becomes more and more clear that this film is set in a sort of world of the mind rather than conventional reality.

That the main character here is a woman is integral and not just because of the title.  The Jennifer Lawrence character here is in a very decidedly unequal marriage to a domineering husband who is twenty years her senior, views the home they’re living in as his rather than theirs, and doesn’t seek her permission or advice when making decisions that affect both of them.  In some ways she almost feels like a woman driven mad by the “benevolent” control of her husband like the protagonist of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” and it might not be a coincidence that one of the first things we see her do in the movie is paint one of her walls yellow.  There is also the element here that Bardem’s character is a celebrity of sorts and that adds a certain element to their relationship.  Aronofsky was married to Rachel Weisz from 2001 to 2010, perhaps this is an expression of what it’s like to be married to a movie star who has people constantly trying to find out more and more about their personal lives.  Alternately the movie could be something of a confessional effort expressing his own guilt for having subjected the various women in his life to the pressures of being married to someone who’s perhaps more dedicated to their work and the inspiration thereof than they are to their marriage and who constantly has people coming in and out of his life telling him how much of “genius” he is while ignoring the woman next to him.

So far I’ve looked at ways to interpret the movie when looking at it as a somewhat straightforward narrative, things get even crazier when you start looking at it as an elaborate biblical allegory.  Perhaps Bardem is a stand-in for God (the creator), perhaps Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are Adam and Eve, the study is Eden, the crystal is the fruit from the tree of life, and the sink breaking which transitions the film into the second half is the great flood that occurred at the end of Genesis.  The second half can similarly be interpreted as the New Testament and its aftermath with the child being Jesus, the published poem being the bible, and the finale being a stand-in for the apocalypse.  The parallels are pretty hard to deny once you spot them.  What isn’t so clear is what Jennifer Lawrence’s role in this allegory is supposed to be.  Her role as the mother of the child who is killed and whose flesh is then eaten to save people would suggest that she’s Mary, but she’s no virgin and her presence in the first half would seem to clash with this interpretation and so would the timing of the Messiah’s birth and her place in the film’s ending.

It is more likely that her role ties in with another coded allegory embedded in the film involving environmentalism.  In this view of the film she is playing “mother earth” or a sort of spirit of and personification of nature.  Someone who looks on with disgust as Bardem/God lets loose humanity upon her paradise and watches powerless to intervene as they wreck things and generally abuse the freedoms they’ve been granted and get it into their heads that they own the place.  This would certainly explain her general ineffectualness in stopping all the unwanted guests and under this framing the film’s climax would perhaps be a stand-in for global warming causing humanity’s extinction and the rebirth of sorts at the end would perhaps suggest the Earth persevering eventually after humanity has died off.  The spirit of the earth, of course, is not really part of the bible so this fusion of Judeo-Christian stories with a strong environmental message is certainly reminiscent of what Aronofsky was trying to do with Noah and the vaguely new age idea of the Earth spirit perhaps points to The Fountain.

Either way, the fact that he’s mixing his allegories like that is certainly audacious if perhaps a little messy.  All that said, I don’t want all the search for interpretations to overshadow the fact that mother! simply works as a piece of cinema.  The early scenes are tense in the way they put you in the middle of Jennifer Lawrence’s frustration and they way things get increasingly crazy in the second half is pretty thrilling.  That second half reminded me a little bit of the ending of Ben Wheatley’s High Rise but I think it works better here, in part because it establishes a point of view character better and it “goes there” in a way that feels more organically interesting.  The film also reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist with it’s unnamed protagonists, religious imagery, dips into surrealism, and occasional interest in shock value during its second half.  What the film is not really is a horror film, which is what the film’s trailers make it look like.  That misleading advertising is probably a big part of why there have been a number of reports recently about angry audiences leaving the film confused and unsatisfied.  That reaction is unfortunate, but perhaps not unexpected.  If Luis Buñuel had somehow gotten Paramount pictures to finance The Exterminating Angel and made it with major movie stars and got it released nationwide in-between screenings of Dr. No and How the West was Won I’m guessing that wouldn’t have gotten a great Cinemascore either, but sometimes filmmakers need to break out of their usual mold and if they’re able to do it on a scale like this that’s something that should be celebrated.

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Dunkirk(7/22/2017)

Christopher Nolan.  That has become one of the most strangely controversial names in certain film circles.   In many ways he’s the guy who’s been doing everything we’ve been asking our Hollywood blockbuster filmmakers to do: he doesn’t abuse CGI, he takes his craft seriously, and he makes original self-contained stories (at least when he’s not making Batman movies).  This has led Nolan to be greatly praised and has given him a very loyal fanbase but as with most nice things there’s also been something of a backlash to him.  There are a lot of people who resent Nolan’s role as Hollywood’s savior and they’ve come to lash out at his (admittedly sometimes hyperbolic) fans.  I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit on the internet pushing back against that backlash as a defender of Nolan, but at the same time I’m not a delusional stan for the guy.  I don’t necessarily think The Prestige is quite as good as some people say it is and I outright disliked his last movie Interstellar.  I was also skeptical about his latest project, Dunkirk, when I first heard about it and when early trailers were released.  It’s not that there was anything about the project that looked “bad” per se, it’s just, in the nearly twenty years since Saving Private Ryan came out the World War II battle film has gotten pretty un-noteworthy and I hadn’t gotten much indication that Nolan was really bringing something terribly special to this one.  I mean, I was still had every intention of being there on day one, but I had my doubts.

In Nolan’s film the battle is divided into three different theaters each with slightly different casts of characters which intersect occasionally.  The first is labeled “The Mole” and mostly follows a couple of rank and file enlisted men stuck on the beach named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), Gibson (Aneurin Barnard), and Alex (Harry Styles) who are trying to get off of the beach by various means and we also get to meet a couple of officers commanding the evacuation named Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy) who have certain insights into what’s going on which the desperate men on the beach don’t.  The second theater, labeled “The Sea,” is on board one of the civilian vessels that famously set out to rescue some of the men on the beach.  This one captained by a guy named Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) who is accompanied by his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney) and his son’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) and before they reach France they will need to contend with their first rescue, a soldier found on a wrecked boat (Cillian Murphy) who has been left shell-shocked by his experiences in Dunkirk.  Finally in the third theater we follow a pair of fighter pilots named Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) who have been sent to protect the men on the beach and the evacuating boats from the Luftwaffe.

One thing I neglected to mention from that description is that, while each of these three stories play out in a linear fashion they aren’t meant to be happening simultaneously and they don’t play out over the same length of time.  We are told through title cards that the beach sequences are set over the course of a week, the “sea” sequences are set over the course of a day, and the “air” sequences are set over the course of a single hour. Occasionally these stories intersect; for example at one point a plane goes down in the “air” segment and then the pilot is rescued later in the movie by the boat in the “sea” segment when that timeline catches up.  That sounds more confusing on paper than it is in the film and when watching it I wouldn’t recommend you spend too much brainpower trying to piece it all together as it really isn’t essential to enjoying the movie.   In fact, I feel like whatever confusion that this format does cause actually kind of improves the movie in a roundabout way because it sort of places you in the mind of these characters that have been thrown into this confusing and chaotic situation.

Dunkirk is a film that is more experiential than narrative in its nature.  One could perhaps liken it to an extended version of the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan in its intensity but it lacks that film’s graphic violence and really doesn’t focus on actual combat at all really.  We rarely actually see German soldiers in the movie outside of the aerial dogfights, but there presence and the terror they elicit is omnipresent.  If asked to liken it to another war movie I might actually point to the 2001 film Black Hawk Down, which also looked at a number of soldiers trying to live through a chaotic military situation that went wrong in a major way.  But really I’d more easily liken it to something like United 93 or Gravity which really just place you into a situation and have you just watch as people try to get through it.  There isn’t even much dialogue in the movie, so people who’ve criticized Nolan for his exposition in the past should see this as an improvement but that’s not to say that the film is a non-stop action scene as there are some quieter moments.  The scenes with Mark Rylance on the boat aren’t entirely action packed and these sections gain a lot of gravitas from Rylance’s quiet strength and there are also moments of relative calm on the beach, but even when things aren’t actively popping off in these segments there’s still a constant threat and no one ever fully feels safe.  The section that is pretty much nonstop action are the aerial sequences, which are some of the most intense World War II dogfights I’ve seen.  When actual combat with the Nazi fighter pilots is occurring Nolan often opts to focus in on the inside of the cockpit and it can be very suspenseful to watch as Hardy lines enemy planes up in his sights and he prepares to shoot.

Now let’s talk about the presentation options.  Christopher Nolan has been perhaps the most outspoken advocate for shooting and presenting movies on film rather than digitally and has made it known that the ideal format to watch the movie in is IMAX 70mm, which is the format I watched it in.  In the past I’ve tended to avoid IMAX, in part because the only true IMAX theater (as opposed to the “lie-MAX” theaters that you can find in multiplexes) in my area is at this zoo that’s kind of a pain to get to and the smell from the zoo kind of carries over to it.  I’ve also resisted the IMAX presentation for Nolan’s previous movies because none of them have ever been fully shot in IMAX because of both the costs involved and the fact that IMAX cameras are big and unwieldly, and have instead opted to be primarily shot on standard 35mm and broaden out during certain action scenes resulting in aspect ratio changes throughout.  That’s always rubbed me the wrong way.  I feel like a movie’s framing should be consistent unless there’s some artistic reason for the frame to be changing and to have it just arbitrarily re-frame itself simply because one scene is more expensive than another seems problematic to me.  Dunkirk is a little different than some of Nolan’s other films in that the IMAX is now the primary format and conventional 70mm shots are the exception but there are more non-IMAX shots than I expected and their insertion is noticeable both in terms of aspect ratio shifts and the noticeable uptick in film grain during these sections and it was a bit jarring to me.

There are of course upsides to the IMAX presentation though.  The screen is obviously huge and the clarity that the 70mm film provides is kind of amazing.  There’s also something kind of interesting about seeing a modern blockbuster of this size and scope which is essentially being presented in the old Academy ratio and on a screen that’s actually set up to accommodate it (as opposed to the smaller movies of today in that ratio which look even tinier when presented on multiplex screens).  This is especially impactful in the airplane sequences, which are really immersive and use the full height of the screen to really give you a sense of the space between these airplanes.  Interestingly enough I almost found the extra oomph of the IMAX sound system to be as impactful as the giant screen.  There are moments in the movie where shots suddenly ring out and really shock you with their intensity.  A lot of people will tell you that IMAX is the “only” way to see this movie, and while that is a worthwhile experience I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it in a regular theater either, in fact I’m thinking about seeing it again in a more conventional setting (one that doesn’t smell a bit like animal shit) just to see for sure how it plays out in that format.

Really what stands out to me most about the film isn’t its technical acumen but the emotion it leaves you with.  Though I’m sure the movie has been in production for longer, I think Christopher Nolan may have inadvertently made the perfect movie for the mood of (non-deplorable) people in the wake of Brexit and the Donald Trump election.  The Dunkirk evacuation was after all less of a victory than it was a loss mitigation.  It was a save that kept a defeat from being a total decimation, and the soldiers who lived through it knew this and didn’t have the benefit of knowing that years later the world would rally to defeat fascism.  The film captures that feeling of realizing you’ve been utterly defeated while still being left with a desire to regroup and fight back.  That’s a feeling that a lot of people were left with when they heard the bad news on those election days and carry with them into the “resistance.”  But you don’t need to be building connections to modern politics to see value in Dunkirk.  On a simply visceral level it’s a very exciting movie and it leaves you with some interesting glimpses into what people do in a crisis whether they rise to the occasion or crumble under pressure and makes both of these reactions seem organic and believable but also understandable.

Jackie(12/23/2016)

12-23-2016Jackie

A lot of the people who lived through the 60s are almost unanimous in their belief that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was one of the most important days of their lifetimes… why?  It’s certainly a human tragedy but people die every day and often in much larger numbers.  Was it a matter of all the great things Kennedy promised being compromised by his death?  Maybe, but Lyndon Johnson didn’t really do too bad a job of carrying on Kennedy’s legacy on civil rights, cold warfare, and putting men on the moon and the argument that Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten us mired in Vietnam is… debatable.  From a sheer policy perspective the murder of his brother may well have been the more impactful turning point.  No, the legacy of that assassination and its impact on a generation is a lot more complicated and deeply psychological in nature and had a lot to do with just how good Kennedy made people feel both as a leader and as a person.  It wasn’t so much that he had policies that were universally loved (quite the opposite, there were definitely people who hated him) but something about him just made people feel good about their country and about the times they lived in.  He felt like someone who just did things right, he was young, handsome, had proven to be courageous during the war, and perhaps most notably he had a seemingly perfect family… and the fact that all of this may have been a bit of a charade is almost incidental.  It’s an interesting little web of national iconography to untangle and the new film Jackie, while essentially a “biopic” is really all about getting to the bottom of where the truth lies in all of this.

The film begins about a week after the assassination as Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) invites famed journalist Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) to allow him an exclusive (and heavily edited and micromanaged) interview for Life Magazine, the interview that would famously cement the “Camelot” interpretation of the Kennedy years.  This interview acts as a framing story for the rest of the movie, which recreates some of her most famous moments like the making of the 1962 “Tour of the Whitehouse” special but mainly focuses on the days immediately after the assassination where she needs to both grieve her husband’s death and reckon with the meaning of it all while also planning the extravagant state funeral and occasionally clashing with titans like Robert Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), Lyndon Johnson (John Carroll Lynch), and Lady Bird Johnson (Beth Grant).  These events do not get played strictly in chronological order and there’s even a sort of framing story within a framing story as we frequently cut to a discussion she has with a priest (John Hurt).

Jackie was directed by a guy named Pablo Larraín who is probably best known for his 2013 film No, which looked at a similarly impactful if much more upbeat turning point in the history of his native Chile.  That film employed an interesting technique where it seamlessly integrated a lot of archival footage into his scripted film and he’s clearly interested in the way that images can implant themselves into a national consciousness.  He does something similar with this new film by using famous Kennedy era footage ranging from the “Tour of the Whitehouse” special to the Zapruder Film.  It’s a little different from No, which was actually shot in its entirety on camera equipment that resembled the video quality of 80s news broadcasts so that this all blended together while the majority of Jackie was shot on Super-16 and clearly differs from the archival footage and the scenes shot to resemble said archival footage.  The goal seems to be to take these images that are burned into the public consciousness and give them context, to show the human side of the iconography.

I hesitate to even spend too much time talking about Natalie Portman’s performance in the movie as I do fear that this one element has come to dominate discussions of the film to the detriment of everything else, but it is indeed stunning.  On the shallow basis of imitation she does indeed manage to capture the looks and voice of Mrs. Kennedy but what’s even more impressive are the many aspects of the character she needs to convey.  During the shooting of the “Tour of the Whitehouse” sections we see her as she was as a first lady, which is to say someone who was playing up her shallower traits and putting on the persona of the perfect housewife.  During the reenactments of her tumultuous post-assassination period we see her in the depths of grief and managing to conjure a dutiful dignity as she fights to make sure she’s heard over the powerful voices of people like Robert Kennedy.  During the conversation with Father McSorley we see her at her most candid and most introspective; leaving little doubt that there’s more to her than the “socialite” she was seen to be by the public.  Finally, during the interview framing story we see her at her sharpest and most canny even if that isn’t always entirely apparent to the interviewer.

That interview section is, in fact, the most important part of the film even if it wouldn’t seem to be initially because it’s where the film’s central themes of legacy and myth-making comes most to the forefront.   The man interviewing Jackie is a seasoned journalist who was in China reporting on the fall of Chiang Kai-shek, and yet Jackie is still able to get him to write a story that he would later call “misreading of history” through sheer force of personality.  The movie certainly has no illusions about the fact that the Kennedys were less perfect than they appeared and Jackie goes into that during her conversation with the priest, but the movie also doesn’t entirely dismiss the Camelot version of those years as a cynical lie either.  John F. Kennedy might not have been a perfect husband but it’s clear that he did mean a lot to Jackie and she did quite genuinely believe him to be a great man even if that greatness didn’t necessarily manifest itself in exactly the way that the American people thought it did.  In other words Jackie would admit that the American Camelot was indeed a myth when looked at as the kind of literal truth that a journalist like Theodore Harold White would ordinarily demand (the “truth of accountants” as Werner Herzog would put it), but that in a more poetic way there was a truth to it both in her own heart and in the hearts of the American people and when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.  The fact that she was using a literal legend in her analogy would seem to betray that it was this kind of truth she was shooting for.

Simply as a movie Jackie may have a bit of a hard time finding its audience.  It’s not the simple nostalgic biopic that a lot of people are going to walk in expecting, which may be off-putting to people looking for something a little warmer and less challenging.  At the same time its technique may prove to not be quite as openly iconoclastic and novel as the kind of fare critics really yearn to champion and that could leave it as something of a Jan Brady this awards season but that is perhaps a mistake because it is in fact a very smart and in its own sneaky way very relevant film.  I mentioned earlier that I used to find it a little odd that a whole generation were so invested in Kennedy and considered his death such a major event.  The key phrase there is “used to.”  In 2008 our generation got its own Camelot in the form of Barak Obama, a president who like Kennedy might not go down in history as having an ideal resume of accomplishments but who makes up for it by simply being the kind of leader we want as a people.  While he was in office it was easy to think “everything’s going to be alright” and while everything he stood for didn’t end in bloody tragedy, the fact that he’s being replaced by a crass vulgarian who revels in uncertainty is a similar shock and a trauma that may well stick with my generation for decades to come.  That Trump was able to do this by creating a series of counter-factual “truths” is of course a bitter irony and one that gives me pause when I think about praising the myth-making presented in Jackie.  There is, however, a difference between spinning a story that makes people feel good about their country and themselves and spinning lies that divide people and exploit toxic fears.  If anything the next four years are likely to make us mourn all the more for “a magic moment in American history, when gallant men danced with beautiful women, when great deeds were done, when artists, writers, and poets met at the White House, and the barbarians beyond the walls held back.”

4.5

The Handmaiden(10/20/2016)

10-20-2016TheHandmaiden

There are some directors who build long lasting careers by continually topping themselves or at least keeping a pretty consistent turnout over many years, but then there are also a lot of directors who find themselves haunted by an early success and need to work like hell to reach that level again.  Orson Welles is possibly the greatest example of that given that no matter how great his films were it was basically impossible to ever top Citizen Kane.  A more recent example is probably Quentin Tarantino, who certainly made a number of great films that any other filmmaker would be jealous of, but for however good Jackie Brown or the Kill Bill movies were the simple fact was that they didn’t feel like the revolution that Pulp Fiction was and it was only with his recent successes with period pieces like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained that he really stepped out of the shadows of that landmark achievement.  In many ways the Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook has been in a similar situation.  I don’t know that his breakout film Oldboy is exactly a landmark or anything but it’s a damn good twisty little thriller that sits well alongside films like Fight Club and Memento in the pantheon of cool twisty 2000s movies and it did a lot to bring the recent wave of cool Korean movies to the west.  Since then Chan-wook has remained relevant and made a number of pretty cool little movies like Thirst and Lady Vengeance that have certainly had compelling elements but they’ve all been a bit thornier than his breakout and have had odd tonal shifts that never quite worked for me.  My disillusionment probably reached its peak with his first (and so far only) English language work Stoker.  That film has its fans and as usual with his work there were some interesting elements but for me it didn’t really work at all.  However, I’ve continued to follow his career and it seems like my patience has finally been rewarded with Chan-wook’s very promising latest work The Handmaiden.

The Handmaiden is based on a contemporary novel set in Victorian England called “Fingersmith” by Sarah Waters.  For the adaptation the action has been moved to South Korea during the 1930s Japanese occupation and begins from the point of view of a young woman named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who grew up on the streets and knows quite a bit about pickpocketing, forgery, and various other rackets.  One day she’s approached by a fellow con artist / friend of the family (Ha Jung-woo) who has a scheme to pose as a Japanese count named Fujiwara to win the hand of a shut-in Japanese heiress named Hideko (Kim Min-hee) who has been living her entire life in a mansion in Korea with her strange and slightly domineering uncle (Cho Jin-woong) and then have her committed to a Japanese insane asylum so he can keep her fortune.  In order to do this he employs Sook-hee to be Hideko’s handmaiden and help push her towards him when he arrives at the manor but this plan starts to go awry as Sook-hee’s sympathies start to change and she begins to sympathize with Hideko and even begins to form a Sapphic attraction towards her.

The film is set in an old estate that was built in both the British and Japanese style one should not be misled into believing that Park Chan-wook has compromised his often twisted sensibilities just because of the Masterpiece Theater trappings on the surface.  The movie is not shy in regards to sex and while there isn’t a ton of violence there is one scene that would be right at home in the vengeance trilogy.  The characters in the movie generally speak in unpretentious dialog rather than the formal wording you expect in this sort of thing, in part because two of the main characters are lower class conmen rather than true blue bloods, in in general the movie just moves along rather than bloviating about class and manners.  The fact that the film is set during the era of Japanese occupation is definitely important, but I’m still sort of unpacking why.  The film rarely ever shows actual Japanese soldiers or the more overt atrocities that happened during this era but it’s no coincidence that the film is set during this time and Chan-wook seems to be making some sort of statement about a more insidious cultural imperialism that was also going on during this era.

All three primary characters in the film are bi-lingual and conversations can go from being in Korean to being in Japanese quickly, sometimes within the same sentence (Magnolia Pictures has helpfully subtitled the two languages in different colors to mark this) and you get some sense that the Korean characters are in some ways sort of jealous of the Japanese characters, or at least of their power and wealth, while the Japanese are themselves seemingly trying to emulate the British.  One could perhaps intuit some sort of metaphor between the Koreans who are forced to conceal their own cultural pride and the women characters who are forced both into the closest and away from greater freedom by a patriarchal society.  However, I’m no expert on this moment in Korean history so I’m pretty sure that there’s something there that I’m not fully comprehending on the first watch.  You do not, however, need to be looking too deeply at the themes to enjoy The Handmaiden as it works just fine as a twisty little con artist movie with a great structure and interesting characters mixed in with some of that perverse Park Chan-wook flavor to spice things up.  There’s little doubt in my mind that this is Chan-wook’s best movie since Oldboy and I might even prefer it to that movie.

4.5

Our Little Sister(9/17/2016)

9-17-2016OurLittleSister

Japan, what happened to you?  During the 50s and 60s Japan seemed like an international force on a par with France and Italy in the world of fine cinema but everything just seemed to go to hell in the 70s.  As far as I can tell this was mostly due to television taking a bigger toll on cinema in their home market than it did elsewhere but they’ve really fallen behind other nations, especially if you’re talking about the kind of non-genre arthouse fare that wins Oscars and respect.  One of their great hopes is a writer/director named Hirokazu Koreeda, a filmmaker who’s been around for about twenty years but has risen to greater prominence abroad in the last five or ten years.  Koreeda (whose name is sometimes spelled Kore-eda, I’m not sure which is correct) is known for making small scale intimate dramas, often about families.  In this sense he could be compared to the second most famous of all Japanese directors, Yasujirō Ozu, but Koreeda has a bit more of a sentimental streak and obviously doesn’t have the same signature formal style.  I haven’t seen a lot of Koreeda’s movies at this point, pretty much just his last movie Like Father, Like Son which certainly had its moments but which never quite worked for me, but I’ve been meaning to catch up with more and his latest movie Our Little Sister seemed like a good place to start.

The film is set in modern day Kamakura (a small coastal city known as something of a vacation destination) and revolves around three sisters in their 20s whose father left the family when they were younger and ran off with another woman.  Their mother has also been out of their lives for a while but they seem to have landed on their feet and have good jobs.  All three of them still live together in a family home (I’m not sure how unusual that is or isn’t in Japan, but this mostly seems to be by choice) and generally get along with each other.  They hit a turning point of sorts though when they learn that their father, who had long since moved to a remote town in the North of Japan, has passed away leaving their fourteen year old half-sister without a blood related parent as her mother is also out of the picture.  The sisters meet this teenager for the first time at the father’s funeral and extend an offer to have her stay with them in Kamakura for a while and she opts to take them up on this offer.

Describing the appeal of this movie is not always easy, in part because Koreeada makes a lot of what he does seem quietly effortless.  In many ways it shouldn’t work.  It’s a movie with very little conflict and no traditional three act arc, and yet it still works through the almost voyeuristic thrill of looking in on the lives of a handful of ordinary yet interesting and likable characters who are very well drawn and believable.  This isn’t a revolutionary concept exactly.  Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a similar movie that comes to mine and Richard Linklater has been known to do similar things in his own chilled out way, but it is still something that’s relatively rare to see and rare to see done this well.  Our four main characters each have distinct and believable personalities between the mature and driven eldest sister who is perhaps a bit addicted to being needed, the slightly wilder younger sister, or the middle child who is… well, the middle child.  Then there’s the much younger half-sister who initially seems to just be a simple good kid, and who is a good kid, but who occasionally reveals a sadness beneath the tough façade.

Through all this Koreeda’s direction is careful and confident but also unobtrusive and unpretentious.  It’s easy for these sort of observational movies to get a little too obsessed with realism and authenticity to the point where they become a little hard to watch but Koreeda is not above using the traditional language of dramatic filmmaking and doesn’t get carried away with filling his movie with mumbled dialogue or other such silliness.  It’s all a pretty tricky balancing act and I think Koreeda mostly pulls it off, though I do think this is a movie that you need to be in just the right mood to enjoy.  Seeing it in a theater probably helps with that, I can definitely picture someone watching it on DVD, pausing it a bunch of times, and missing some of the interesting nuances of the performances and seeing the movie as kind of pointless.  I don’t want to oversell the movie too much as I do think there are definitely movies out there that have pulled off this sort of trick better, but at the same time I do think this is worth considering and makes me want to look a little deeper into Koreeada’s career.  Above all I like the movie for how gosh darn pleasant the whole thing is and that’s a rarity in the world of well made artistic world cinema like this.

4.5

Embrace of the Serpent(4/2/2016)

4-2-2016EmbraceOfTheSerpent

One of the (mostly) undisputed entrants into the cannon of English literature is Joseph Conrad’s novella “Heart of Darkness.”  To call this book heavy would be an understatement given that it takes a deep dive into both the psychology of its protagonist and by extension that of the western world given its unflinching look at the legacy of Western exploitation in Africa.  For a while I viewed it as one of the most powerful critiques of colonialism ever written despite its flawed depictions of actual Africans until I studied it in college and realized that it wasn’t a critique of colonialism so much as conquest and that it mostly stood to legitimate the more “benevolent” form of colonialism perpetrated by Conrad’s native Britain.  Either way, “Heart of Darkness” casts a long shadow and pretty much any book or movie that depicts a river journey into a jungle while dealing with the downsides of Western colonialism is probably going to have some relation to that book.  Enter Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which is certainly not an adaptation of “Heart of Darkness” but is almost certainly in dialogue with it and takes a decidedly more 21st century look at its themes and brings a couple other ideas of its own to the table.

Embrace of the Serpent is set in the Columbian Amazon and intercuts between two separate but connected stories set in 1909 and 1940 respectively.  The first deals with a German ethnologist named Theodor Koch-Grunberg (Jan Bijvoet) who is traveling with a local named Manduca (Miguel Dionisio Ramos) whose tribe has been slowly taking on western ways.  The two encounter an Amazonian shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres), among the last of his tribe, who reluctantly agrees to lead them to a rare plant called the yakuna that has strange hallucinogenic properties but could also cure Theo of an illness that he’s contracted.  Thirty years later this same shaman (now played by Antonio Bolívar) also agrees to lead an American botanist named Richard Evans Schultes (Brionne Davis) to this same flower, retracing the steps of that previous journey and seeing the further degradation that colonialism has wrought on the native communities.

Both Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes are real historical figures, but to the best of my knowledge Karamakate is a fictional character and this film is by and large a fictional story, albeit one that’s rooted in the actual realities of what was going on in this area at the time.  It quickly becomes clear that the rubber-barons have done a number on the local population and that other more seemingly well intentioned white people like missionaries seem to do just as much harm without realizing what they’re doing.  Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that this film is just a parade of imperialist horrors because there’s a lot more going on as well.  For one thing, it’s an interesting look at these two white guys who were by all accounts a couple of the “good guys” to come out of interactions between natives and Europeans but nonetheless have plenty to learn and who occasionally aren’t sure what the best way to help the Amazonians without being patronizing and aren’t quite sure how much to embrace their teachings.  The real protagonist of the movie though is Karamakate, who is the common bond between the two storylines and who is fascinatingly different in both time periods and who struggles with how to react to all the awful changes around him.

Director Ciro Guerra has opted to film Embrace of the Serpent in black and white which proved to be a canny choice for a number of reasons.  Partly I think this was a smart way to impart the period the film is set in, something that would have been slightly obscured otherwise given the absence of cars and western hairstyles and other usual signifiers of setting.  More importantly I think Guerra was trying to suck out some of the beauty from the rainforest scenery, which is necessary because this isn’t supposed to be some kind of exotic travelogue for the audience to vicariously enjoy.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t some really breathtaking bits of landscape here because they’re totally are, but the way they’re photographed makes the area seem less like they belong in a colander and more like they belong in a history book.  In addition to filming in monochrome Guerra makes a number of other canny choices like choosing the perfect visual language to transition between the two timelines and his excellent attention to period detail in the scenes that do have manmade structures.

The two elements that really sets the movie aside from the likes of The Mission and even Aguirre, the Wrath of God are its spiritual and psychedelic elements, which are probably the two things that I probably found the hardest to get a grasp of on an initial viewing.  Central to the film is a hallucinogenic drug which would seem to be the Amazonian equivalent of peyote.  Karamakate and his people believe the visions imparted by this substance to be visions sent by the gods or something and the movie kind of goes along with this.  It’s always a challenge for secular-minded liberals like myself us to question the validity of indigenous religions in much the way we’d question major western religions given how often these people were persecuted for these beliefs and this has led to a lot of New Age hooey over the years, but this movie does a pretty good job of staying just on the right side of all of that and does a good job of addressing the honest minded skepticism of the two westerners.  Honestly though I’m still probably going to struggle a bit with that element of the film and if someone asked me to explain the film’s ending and a few other sections I’m not necessarily going to be able to give a satisfying answer, but to some extent I think that’s intentional: there are some things that most modern westerners just aren’t going to be able to understand and that’s okay.

Some of the film’s dialogue could maybe be punched up just a little and while all the performances are serviceable I can’t say they were standouts.  Despite that the film more than makes up for that both in ambition and sheer originality.  Embrace of the Serpent is exactly the kind of movie we’re all looking for out of modern cinema: something with just the right mix of technical ambition, insights into the human condition, and political ideas that are intelligent without being didactic.  It isn’t every day that a film comes along that feels this dissimilar from all the other ongoing trends in cinema while being this confident and assured in what it’s doing.  It hits that perfect sweet spot where a movie is artistic and unique while still giving its audience plenty to grasp onto and allowing for a certain degree of entertainment value along the way.

4.5