Period Piece

The Witch trailer photo
The Witch trailer

Watch a chilling trailer for Sundance horror sensation The Witch


Does she weigh less than a duck?
Aug 19
// Hubert Vigilla
This year's Sundance Film Festival showcased two notable horror movies. One was Rodney Ascher's sleep paralysis documentary The Nightmare, and the other was Robert Eggers' 17th century period piece The Witch. Of the two, ...

Review: Kundo: Age of the Rampant

Aug 31 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218270:41800:0[/embed] Kundo: Age of the RampantDirector: Yoon Jong-binRelease Date: August 29, 2014 (Limited theatrical)Country: South Korea It's not that I dislike long(er) movies; I just need to be in the right mood to see them. Much of watching a film, reading a book, playing a video game, or doing any sort of thing is being in the proper mindset for that thing. Blue is the Warmest Color requires a very different mindset than Detention, and the 135-minute pseudo-epic that is Kundo: Age of the Rampart requires a different mindset than the 100-minute Robin Hood-esque action film I expected. None of this is Kundo's fault, of course, and it actually speaks to how generally enjoyable the film is that I never really got bored despite the unexpected extra half hour. I did, however, get confused a few times by who was who. Certain characters looked enough like characters that I thought I was seeing flashbacks when I wasn't. For the most part, characters simply are who they are, no backstory needed. In essence, Kundo is ultra-violent Robin Hood. The merry band of thieves don't just steal from the rich and give to the poor; they sentence the rich to death for crimes against the poor. Also, no one is merry. The violence is Kundo's bread and butter. When the drama get hamfisted (which it does regularly), you can rest assured that it will soon be over and then people will be beating each other up. And by beating each other up, I mean killing each other. Essentially everyone in the film fights with weapons of some kind – whether it's a ball and chain, the aforementioned butcher knives, or swords – and that leads to large scale fights that often end rather quickly. One strong sword swipe means instant death, so the unfortunate masses caught in the middle perish in a spray of blood. Kundo follows Dolmuchi, a butcher who joins the Kundo after his mother and sister are killed in a fire. It's worth noting that while actor Ha Jung-Woo gives an excellent performance, he is also the least convincing 18-year old I have ever seen. Ha is 36 years old and looks at least his age in this film. But apparently he's 18. The first time a character said this they were saying that he was only a few years older than some children who they were trying to scam out of food. I assumed that this was just part of the scam. But it came up again, and again. When he shouted (after a time jump) "I'm 20 years old!" I actually laughed out loud, and I'm shocked he didn't do the same. (They must have done a lot of takes.) The age thing is sort of a problem throughout, because it's never really clear how old certain people should be or how they relate to others. The film's antagonist, Jo Yoon, is played by the 33 year old Gang Dong-Won, and he looks much younger. But I got the impression that they're supposed to be the same age. But then again, maybe not. Jo Yoon's sister is older(?) and gives birth, which is narratively important but the ages of everyone involved are just too confusing to make heads or tails of the family tree. And the film actually understands how confusing it is, because it frequently turns to extensive voiceover, for example a long explanation of Jo Yoon's past (what backstory there is is a bit excessive). Footage of him being good with swords is talked over by a woman who (as far as I could tell) has nothing to do with the film itself. She simply piped up every so often to explain things about the people or the time period. I don't know how much of Kundo was attempting to be historically accurate, but the filmmakers sure wanted it to feel authentic. People just keep talking and talking, explaining everything and making it actually feel more like people practicing for a historical reenactment than an actual moment in history. Still, there are some dramatic beats that strike the right tone, and the performances by Ha Jung-Woo and Gang Dong-Won do a good job of propelling the narrative forward. I was actually surprised at how deep both characters were. Although much of Jo Yoon's "development" takes the form of that voiceover, he still has room to grow and change. His final scenes are especially poignant, and reveal some fascinating things about the character. At one point, it threatens to become too reductive, but the moment is salvaged by the finale. But he is cruel, and much of Kundo centers on the cruelty of his class. Peasants are scammed, stolen from, and generally taken advantage of by the well-to-do. This is a film for the 99% if I ever saw one, but it's got the stereotypical brutality of Korean cinema. It makes the film hard to watch at times, and there are points where it feels like they may be going too far. And while Robin Hood was always going to succeed (spoiler), it's comes at an extremely depressing cost. No one comes out of the battle unscathed, which makes the eventual victory bittersweet. A feel-good family film this is not. But it's absolutely worth seeing- if you're in the right frame of mind.
Kundo Review photo
Robin Hood for adults
When I decide to watch a movie, it is usually based on two thing: Whether or not the press picture implies some kind of action. The runtime. While there's obviously some leeway on the first one, once a movie pushes past the...

Review: A Field in England

Feb 13 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]217297:41244:0[/embed] A Field in EnglandDirector: Ben WheatleyRelease Date: February 7, 2014 (VOD/Limited Theatrical)Country: United Kingdom  A Field in England is set during a battle, but not really on a battlefield. Beyond the opening moments, there's nothing really to indicate that any kind of war is even going on. If they weren't holding guns, it would be extremely easy to forget about the supposed conflict surrounding them. Even the big shootout that ends the film lacks any sort of war-like power, because it's between characters who have been with each other for a while, not from the entrance of a new faction looking for blood. Everything is very insular, focusing on four characters with two others in lesser roles. From the frequent "Get down"s, it seemed like they were supposed to be hiding in the grass from an unseen enemy, but because that enemy never rears its ugly head, it seems like a weird formality. There aren't even gunshots or shouts in the background. They're getting down because the director told them to, not because they have any need. What that all adds up to is something extremely boring. Which is a problem, because this is a film that demands your attention while doing everything in its power to lose it. For 90-ish minutes, basically nothing is happening, and the entirety of the film's intrigue comes from the audiovisual presentation rather than the thing itself. Visually, it's bizarre, and I don't mean really mean that in a good way. The opening warns of a stroboscopic sequence (a word I had never seen before), but for a long while, I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Early on, takes are long and uninteresting. People stare at things and talk. There are tableaus. Tableaus! At several points in the film, everybody just stops moving and the camera cuts between them for a minute or two. It's every bit as uninteresting as it sounds.  Plus, A Field in England does nothing to feel like a historical thriller. The period costumes and weapons are all well and good, but it feels more like a filmed reenactment than something actually set in the past. A big part of this is due to the decision to release the film in black-and-white. There's something inherently bizarre about a black-and-white film shot digitally. It looks cheap, like it's trying to replicate some old-timey feel without doing any work. Sometimes film grain is added in post, or the gain is jacked up in-camera, to give it a film-stock feel to push its appearance a bit further into the past, but there's nothing like that here. It's a pristine, completely desaturated image. And it stops being interesting immediately. At one point, a characters says something like "Look at the colors!" and I wished that I could; it probably would have made the film a bit more bearable to sit through. Maybe the lack of color and action says something about the monotony of war, or maybe director Ben Wheatley is just weird. Which I would believe, because it finally struck me during the stroboscopic sequence (fueled by hallucinogenic mushrooms) why I disliked the movie so much: because it's an experimental film masquerading as a narrative. The story doesn't make sense because there is no story. The first half of the film has the pretense of a narrative, but that disappears and then it just goes crazy. And when I realized that, I didn't start to like A Field in England, but I finally understood what I was watching. I have no idea what it means or what the images were trying to tell me, but when it hit me that that may have been the point, I was willing to forgive it, just a little bit. I don't like experimental films, but I can appreciate their existence. What A Field in England does with its resurrecting characters and tableaus and poorly-done black-and-white and horrendously long moment where the soundtrack is entirely screams (if I had been in a theater where I couldn't turn the volume down, I probably would have gone more insane than the screaming character) is make an unpleasant experience that keeps the viewer constantly at arm's length. And if that's the point, then fine. It's not going to make me like the movie, but it will subdue my rage just a little bit.
A Field in England Review photo
I feel like I missed something
Did you know that there was an English Civil War in the middle of the 17th century? I had no idea, but apparently from 1642 to 1651, there were three sets of battles between those who followed the king and those who beli...

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Sep 27 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216430:40706:0[/embed] Inside Llewyn DavisDirectors: Joel and Ethan CoenRating: RRelease Date: December 6, 2013 (limited); December 20, 2013 (expanded) There's a line by James Baldwin about how from the point of view of an artist, it seems that the universe is conspiring against his or her talent, and it's because of this sense of universal contempt and public indifference that artists feel compelled to make their work important. That's what Llewyn's facing in life. His friends are making it while he can barely get by. There's Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), for instance, who hope to make enough in the music scene to eventually make a life outside of music. For  Llewyn, that sounds like artistic and personal compromise. Worse, people that Llewyn despise are doing much better because they're more palatable and sellable. Nothing makes money like the middle of the road. So on goes the couch-to-couch life for Llewyn, playing crappy clubs to make a meager subsistence. Everyone wants to embody the holy idea of the starving artist, but being an actual starving artist? Forget it. While that pain is supposedly good for the art, it's always a blight on the soul. There's no indication of how long Llewyn's been living this life at the beginning of the film, but it's been long enough to make him a bitter man. He hates his friends (and they hate him back), he hates their friends, and he hates himself most of all. If you've been on the outskirts of a creative scene of any kind, these feelings are all too common, and it can only be tolerated for so long before something finally gives. Maybe the reason these moments feel so real is because Llewyn and other characters throughout the picture are fictional composites of real people involved in the pre-Dylan folk scene. A lot of credit needs to go to the way Llewyn's written and the way Isaac plays the character. The best way I can describe his whole attitude toward life is melancholy rage. Llewyn is a great example of the difference between likable and sympathetic. He's not necessarily likable, but there's something sympathetic about him that makes me like him. Could be the weathered, beaten, palooka look of Llewyn, or it could be the honest way that he lashes out at the people he relies on, like Llewyn's a wounded animal. He feels real because he can be so unlikable. This all sounds glum, but there are plenty of bright spots early on in the film thanks to the Coens' penchant for creating genuine characters and memorable oddballs. The two most memorable oddballs are a scene-stealing John Goodman as a blowhard jazz artist en route to Chicago and a golly-shucks folky played by Stark Sands. (Stark Sands would make a hell of a stage name.) The verbal jokes tend to be driven by a white hot anger, though, and the ultimate butt of the universe's cruel jokes is Llewyn. It's as if the Coens were conspiring against Llewyn during this long, cold week of his life -- our hero is like Daffy Duck in a non-meta folk version of "Duck Amuck." The music in the film is a bright spot as well. The first two songs we hear involve Llewyn. There's "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" played to a sparse crowd in the Gaslight Cafe, the opening shot so washed out it's almost black and white, as if the color slowly creeps in via Llewyn's performance; then there's the bittersweet "Dink's Song (Fare Thee Well)," which we hear in a stunning sequence that reveals the New York of the past and the disheartening road ahead for Llewyn. ("Dink's Song" was closely associated with real-life folk musician Dave Van Ronk, whose book The Mayor of MacDougal Street was a source of inspiration for the Coens when crafting the film.) If you listen closely to the music as it's sequenced, the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis seems to unfold song by song. There's an especially funny recording session that epitomizes the difference between art and commerce, and it's one of the most memorable light scenes in the film. In that scene we also meet one of the other oddball side characters, a fake cowboy-looking kid who goes by Al Cody. Ultimately, all of Inside Llewyn Davis is contained in "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and "Dink's Song." In the story of the film, the latter was a minor hit for Llewyn when he was part of a folk duo. Now he's a solo act. Nothing's gone right since, or that's the sense of things, at least. The Coens set Llewyn out on a little adventure full of heartaches, emphasis on little (and heartaches). In a couple ways the film is the chronically depressed nephew of O Brother, Where Art Thou? This isn't a straight reinterpretation of The Odyssey, though. The framework might be there, the allusions are, but the Coens are using that idea of a journey to explore a few ideas that creative people wrestle with when things don't go as planned. One of these, and it's biggie: What does it mean to fail as an artist, and can it be done with dignity if it's the only thing an artist knows? Another biggie: If every artist feels that the machinery of existence is working against his or her abilities, should they then sell out or check out? And that gets at the heart of Inside Llewyn Davis. It's a movie about the nature of authenticity. People can look back at the supposed glories of the past, but that's all nostalgia. There are forgotten musicians, ugly elements of the folk scene, and even ugly things people do to be a part of the scene. Around Llewyn, there are folkies with fake names to sound more folky, and there are folkies of limited talent whose real gift is their ability to schmooze and to glad hand. To know a folky is to have some connection to Greenwich Village and some hip cachet. Forget that it should be about the music and the history behind the music, one of my best friends is a folky! Here, the scene is more important to people than the songs, and the scene is mostly inauthentic. No wonder Llewyn Davis is such a lovable schmuck. I notice critics have taken conflicting stances on what we're supposed to make of Llewyn and his music. Is he an unrecognized genius? Is he a good talent, but just not good enough? Is he just another mediocre hack in a world that's 95% mediocre hacks? Amid the clever visual callbacks, the modulations in tone, the expert imagery to communicate the inner workings of Llewyn's head, the Coen brothers never give their take on his music, at least not overtly, but I think their point of view is in there and I have my opinions about what it is. Every time Llewyn sings, just listen closely to the music and ask yourself, "Does it sound like he means it?" And then ask yourself "Why?" [Inside Llewyn Davis will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, September 28th and Saturday, October 5th, and at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday, October 11th. For tickets and more information, click here.]
Llewyn Davis Review photo
If at first you don't succeed, fail and fail again... and again
The trailers for Inside Llewyn Davis don't quite capture the feel of the film. If you watch them, there's a kind of satiny look about the imagery, something that to me denoted an air of nostalgia for New York in 1961. Yet the...


Japan Cuts Review: The Floating Castle

Jul 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216081:40494:0[/embed] The Floating Castle (Nobou no Shiro | のぼうの城)Directors: Shinji Higuchi and Isshin InudoRating: TBDCountry: JapanRelease Date: November 2, 2012 (Japan) Our first glimpse of Lord Bone is out in the rice paddies with the people. As they ready the fields for planting, a child asks Lord Bone to help. It's tactless, but Lord Bone doesn't mind. He joins them, and some of the villagers seem uneasy about it. You see, Lord Bone's a total buffoon. There's no rhythm in his step, no grace in his gait, and then there's mud all over his kimono. Just looking at Lord Bone brings up all these clownish associations. There's the mustache that's empty in the center with little tips out at the ends. It's like the dimples of facial hair, but not as endearing; the cul-de-sac bald spot of the upper lip. Lord Bone smiles all the time, and his skinny, wiry neck accentuates every gulp and ever action in a way that only cartoons can. This is the man who will lead a couple hundred people in Oshi Castle, his loving villagers included, into certain doom. More accurately, it's doom that's coming to them led by Mitsunari Ishida (Yusuke Kamiji). His army of 20,000 camps and lights fires in the hillsides at night, and it's an imposing sight that would buckle even the boldest person. At one point after countenancing the enormity of the impending battle, Lord Bone wilts. The inspirational heroism and leadership that would have been in another movie is subverted and played here for laughs. When Lord Bone decides to stand his ground, it comes as a welcome surprise to his warriors. Part of it plays right into the honor and samurai spirit of Feudal Japan, but I think there's a kind of romantic/cinematic heroism to such recklessness when it comes to insurmountable odds, whether it's at Helm's Deep or The Alamo. Lots of that has to do with the personalities, and around Lord Bone are some compelling people willing to die for the cause. He has two seasoned fighters in Izumi (Tomomitsu Yamaguchi) and Tanba (Koichi Sato). There's also the eager Sakamaki (Hiroki Narimiya), a promising neophyte who thirsts for combat even though he's never been in a battle before. Each of the warriors gets a chance to shine. Tanba is a hardened pro, Izumi is like Toshiro Mifune on crank, and Tanba is just what you'd expect out of a rookie. The Floating Castle slowly ennobles Lord Bone. Part of it has to do with the film's plot and how it depicts the siege of the castle and what comes after the initial attack. The film can't outdo Kurosawa's Ran for sheer scope and elegance, and it doesn't reach the levels of excess and brutality of Miike's 13 Assassins either. What The Floating Castle does offer on the battlefield up are some genuinely rousing bits of adventure played in an exaggerated way. Nomura's performance winds up being the real anchor of the film rather than the promise of sweeping martial carnage. We see little changes in Lord Bone's demeanor that hint at some greater cunning that's behind the bad mustache and the constant smile. He's a charismatic leader and someone well loved among his subjects. It's a quality he uses to his advantage, both when he intends to and when he doesn't. So on the one hand there's the incompetent Lord Bone, the in-over-his-head imp who's left in a leadership position he shouldn't be in. On the other hand, maybe he was ready for this in an unorthodox way. At 144 minutes, The Floating Castle runs a little long, though that's becoming the case with a lot of films with large set pieces. While the scope is epic in some ways, it doesn't feel like the film has the material to justify this mini-epic run time. There's a mostly unrealized love triangle in there, and the little intrigues on Ishida's side of the battle field don't seem quite as intriguing as the plight of Oshi Castle or its people. But to that, I wonder if I'd have the same feelings about about Lord Bone if he wasn't allowed to unfold slowly the way he does, or if his plans weren't allowed to come to fruition in the manner that they do. If people go into The Floating Castle looking for a series of pitched battles, they'll wind up pretty disappointed. The Toyotomi forces decide that instead of a traditional war, they'll instead ruin the morale of Oshi Castle. Their act is of Biblical proportions, and that's all I can say without spoiling it. I don't know if it was necessarily true to history, but it's a great piece of insane (bordering on totally silly) spectacle on par with the disaster films of the 1970s. The CG effects of the primary battle and this other form of attack -- the two blockbuster set pieces of the film -- are serviceable. Some shots look better than others, and in the case of the second barrage on the castle, I think the CG-ness really shows despite the actors doing their best to sell the sheer dread of the moment. Instead of a thrill-a-minute, action-packed chambara war movie, it helps to go into The Floating Castle expecting an eccentric period piece rooted in an action-figure/army man/sandbox version of history. What ties it all together, fittingly, is Lord Bone. Not only was he charismatic enough to get his people to fight in a battle that seems unwinnable, he was charismatic enough to make me care even when the film felt like it outstayed its welcome.
Floating Castle Review photo
The spectacle and the silliness of impossible odds
There's inherent drama in stories about impossible odds, and some of the better one involve samurais in Feudal Japan. In Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, it was the title band against a horde of bandits (I think it's 40 t...

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12 Years a Slave trailer delivers drama and power


Oscar bait if we've ever seen it
Jul 16
// Matthew Razak
Update: A poster has been released and can now be viewed. It has running on it.  Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave may mark the directors first foray into a bigger budget film, but it doesn't look like he's lost any...

NYAFF Review: The Bullet Vanishes

Jul 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215968:40391:0[/embed] The Bullet Vanishes (Ghost Bullets | Disappeared Bullets | 消失的子彈)Director: Law Chi-LeungRating: TBDCountry: China / Hong KongRelease Date: August 14, 2012 (China) The material above the cut sort of makes it sound like I didn't enjoy The Bullet Vanishes, but that's not the case at all. It's such a stylish, fun period piece with welcome surprises along the way. While it's set in the 1920s, it melds the sensibilities of other times, cultures, and genres. This is a movie where gunfights out of a contemporary Hong Kong film feel right at home with Western-style quickdraws, and where the fastest gun in the East belongs to a man with incredible skills of deduction. The two leads of the film are Nicholas Tse and Lau Ching-Wan. Tse plays Captain Guo Zhui, an action-oriented young detective who's fast on the trigger. We're first introduced to him when he's hot on someone's trail in the red light district. A daring leap from a building is followed by a quick yet meticulous dissection of small clues, the sort of stuff that wouldn't feel out of place in Sherlock Holmes stories or the Batman TV show with Adam West. Lau plays Inspector Song Dalu, an older criminologist who's got a finely-tuned mind. We're first introduced to him in what seems like an attempted suicide, but it's really just unorthodox forensics. This is how far he's willing to go to get his man. Our detective duo and a rookie policeman named Xiaowu (Boran Jing) are sent to investigate a series of strange murders at a munitions factory. The victims are found shot on the premises, but with no trace of an actual bullet anywhere in the bodies or at the crime scene. The workers attribute it to "the curse of the phantom bullet," which involves a co-worker who died playing Russian roulette after being accused of stealing bullets. So think The Hound of the Baskervilles by way of The Deer Hunter. There's a compelling dynamic that develops between Tse and Lau. It's not like one's a dumb rookie and the other's a by-the-books veteran, and it's not just another union between the hothead and someone who's cool as a cucumber. These cliche pairings are hinted at but avoided. Instead there's a mutual respect. These are men who admire each other's minds and methods and are committed to cracking this case. Maybe it's like Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes (this would be Tse) teaming up with Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes (this would be Lau). I got a sense that each of these guys would have been able to solve the mystery of the phantom bullet on their own, but by working together, they get the job done faster. You can also contrast the characters with the two women in their lives. For the young captain, it's a fortune teller/tipper he knows named Little Skylark (Mini Yang). She might be able to ground his devil-may-care ways with her growing concern for his well-being. On the flipside for the older inspector is Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan), a female prisoner who orchestrated a perfect crime. While there's the possibility of romance for Tse's character, I never got a sense of it for Lau's. It seems like love's no longer a possibility for Inspector Song. What he and Fu Yuan get to share is a realization about the nature of good, evil, and moral compromises. Technically there's a third woman in Li Jia, a coroner/forensics specialist played Yumiko Cheng. She's more a helper during the CSI moments of the film (with many shots looking out of a cadaver through the rib cage and sternum) rather than a potential source of love. To put it another way, she's a source of functional knowledge rather than the fount of new outlooks on life. Actually, there's a fourth woman in our detectives's lives if you count the ostrich that Li Jia keeps in her workplace. (Don't ask.) Too clever isn't necessarily a bad thing. (And neither is stupid, come to think of it, at least in some films.) I don't think the eventual too-cleverness in The Bullet Vanishes undermines the rest of what works in the film, because a lot of it does. It hits that odd sweet spot where if enough elements I enjoy are brought together -- old industrial machinery, kooky sleuths, unconventional solutions, dapper old-timey fashion, an unexpected sense of melancholy or pathos under the humor -- I'm willing to forgive the shortcoming or the overreach. If anything, this overreach is a way for the movie to come back to the characters at the heart of this film. The plot is a way to explore two detectives, with focus on their methods and their philosophies of life. Like Captain Gho, I can at least follow the footprints and figure out why the film did what it did even if I didn't think it worked. And yet so many other solutions presented in The Bullet Vanishes are so good, and director Law Chi-Leung successfully gives his overarching mysteries, sub-mysteries, and interpersonal intrigues room to breathe. It's all a question of how much is too much and how clever is too clever. The more that I think about it, The Bullet Vanishes ended on the right emotional note for me. The problem is how it got there. Given, it gets there with a very tense and well-crafted scene, but something about it seems off key. This is the kind of stuff that doesn't make sense in the moment, and it makes even less sense the more you think about it. I'm curious what the guys in Spinal Tap would say about being too clever for your own good.
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The intrigue of the improbable and the false step of the impossible
There's an observation in This Is Spinal Tap that sums up the dilemma of many detective stories: there's a fine line between clever and stupid. Successful detective stories provide satisfying solutions to mysteries, no matter...

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Trailer: Inside Llewyn Davis


The Coen Brothers are just folking around
Jul 01
// Hubert Vigilla
A new trailer dropped today for Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the Coen Brothers. Like the red band trailer from a while back, this trailer has a lot of deadpan humor and dry delivery. I'm not quite sure what to make o...
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Trailer: Inside Llewyn Davis (Red Band)


A week in the life of a folk singer who ought to double wrap it
May 09
// Hubert Vigilla
Here's a new red band trailer for the Coen Brothers's Inside Llewyn Davis, and it's pretty similar to the previous trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis back in January. There's some new and different snippets of footage slipped i...

Review: Something in the Air

May 03 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215538:40044:0[/embed] Something in the Air (Apres Mai)Director: Olivier AssayasRating: NRCountry: FranceRelease Date: May 3, 2013 (limited) Assayas's analog in the film is Gilles (Clément Métayer), who's just about to graduate from high school. He's got it pretty good, all things considered, especially for someone who's really still a kid. His beautiful semi-girlfriend Laure (Carole Combes) is really into his artwork. She's the embodiment of his young ideals of free-spirited Bohemia, and her live-for-today attitude serves as a strange sort of complement to Gilles's own political consciousness that's being awakened in this month of strikes and tumult. For all the lovey-dovey peace and art of 1960s counterculture, there were also explosions and beat downs. Something in the Air follows Gilles and his friends as the spend their summer revolting, resisting, traveling, loving, and then slowly succumbing to the reality of this situations: after the month of May, the world will mostly go back to being what it was like before May. The revolt was just an explosion, no matter how legitimate its causes, but it was not a lasting conflagration, or at least not in the way that was hoped. This winds up being the same in everyone's young lives. While vandalizing his school and lobbing Molotov cocktails, Gilles falls for a pretty young comrade named Christine (Lola Créton), but whatever they have might be fleeting, just like whatever Gilles had with Laure. What's remarkable about Something in the Air is how it meanders without losing its hold. I'm not quite sure how it was done. Every now and then I became conscious that I was compelled not by a rousing plot or by major scenes with emotional kick. Instead what captivated me was a kind of clean and astute act of observation. Assayas and cinematographer Eric Gautier let the camera meander with control, which results in some long takes that pan through crowds or past shadows of bramble and ivy to arrive at some gorgeous tableaux. The scope of the film is similar in a way -- wander, linger, then arrive unexpectedly. I think a big part of the allure in Something in the Air had to do with Assayas's closeness to the material. It's as if he's lifting memories right out of his own youth to insert into this film as needed. This gives Something in the Air a lived-in, memoiristic quality rather than a novelistic one. The grand arc of Gilles's coming-of-age comes in small spurts as the promise of May fades off, not necessarily in grand decisions or major plot points. By the end he's a slightly different person in the way he sees himself in the world. Even his hair looks less goofy somehow, as if he's either grown into it or grown out of it. Assayas probably filtered these memories and made Gilles a better version of his young self -- that's what most people do with characters as analogs anyway. It makes me wonder if there were actual Laures and Christines, or if Assayas had proudly attempted to harm campus security guards. There's a sort of fond way that the film looks back on these days, like going through an old shoe box full of photos and saying wistfully but affirmatively, "Yeah, that was me." Since I'm not sure of France's social climate in the late 60s and how that's viewed in France today, I can't comment on the authenticity of the recreated era. It seems spot on, though, at least in terms of clothes and attitude, like the in-fights between anarchists and revolutionaries over who is more anarchic or revolutionary. I'm forced to think of the late 1960s in France in terms of the late 1960s in the US, I suppose. But even then, that spirit of the late 1960s is a sort of late-adolescent idea of what the future ought to be like, as if everything was so simple, and in those terms, it makes perfect sense to set a coming-of-age story at that time. Adolescence and the late teens are probably the best ages to get swept up in the romance of revolution. You're still too young to know any better, but you're just old enough to start creating adult certainties about life despite limited experience. It's the brashness of youth at the cusp of maturity, eager to define itself too early. This all may be summed up in Gilles's first on-screen act of rebellion: carving an anarchy symbol into his desk. It's adorable how small the act is, how timid the rebellion, how unsophisticated it seems, but to Gilles, it probably means the world to him. But this is 1968, after all, and those little actions matter; especially when you're young, especially when there's a sense that something big is about to happen. The French title of the film is Apres Mai ("after May"), which likely has more resonance in France, but Something in the Air seems fitting as well. Thinking in stateside terms, Woodstock was still a year away from the events at the beginning of this film, and those days of peace and music would be the decade's mighty crescendo. The good vibes would crash and burn about five months later with the ugliness of Altamont. Funny the difference that a few months can make. That thing in the air may be a lot of things, but I think in Assayas's film it's mostly revolution that turns into adulthood and healthy disillusion. At the end of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test there's the famous refrain for the era: "We blew it!" For all the hope and promise of the 1960s, the sea change never came. If there's a refrain for Something in the Air, it might be, "We blew it, and we grew up."
Something in Air Review photo
You say you want a revolution...
Confession time: the only Olivier Assayas movie I'd seen prior to Something in the Air was Irma Vep starring Maggie Cheung, which I really enjoyed. Summer Hours, Clean, and Carlos have been on my to-see list for a while, and ...

Review: Blancanieves

Mar 29 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]215183:39882:0[/embed] BlancanievesDirector: Pablo BergerRating: PG-13Release Date: March 29, 2013 (limited)Country: Spain With any retelling of a fairy tale, part of the fun is knowing the original tale, spotting the differences in it, and finding out how these differences affect the retelling. Immediately in Blancanieves we are struck by the sense of variation. There's the look of 1920s Spain, which has an odd timelessness to it since many of the clothes and design elements don't seem out of style. There's also the brutal romanticism of bullfighting. Viewed as an outsider to Spanish culture, I think bullfighting also adds to the timelessness of Blancanieves. It's something elegant and macho and bloody, but also oddly chivalric. Think dragonslaying but as a spectator sport; something that could only be lauded in a time when there were only nascent animal rights movements around. The opening of the film shows the tragic circumstances surrounding the birth of Carmen, the title character, played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a young woman by Macarena García. Her father was the celebrated bullfighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and her mother the beloved singer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta). Both of them prevail in her blood. In an early scene, young Carmen is being fit for a dress and she begins to dance. There's no gramophone nearby playing a record. The music is entirely on the movie's soundtrack and in Carmen's head. It's one of many moments in the movie where music signifies recognition and memory, and each separate moment has a power to it. I come back to the silent film form again and think that another reason for the choice is that working within the constraints of a silent film allows skilled filmmakers to engage in acts of enchantment and bewilderment. Berger's using these sound and music cues to tap into character's heads while propelling the narrative forward, and he's also showing a kind of magic that's exclusive to a movie without sound. Suddenly all sound and all absence of sound have meaning, and so do the origins of these sounds and absences. It's almost like a little bit of sleight of hand that reminded me of how movies can still captivate through relatively simple means. Initially raised by her grandmother, Carmen eventually winds up living in her father's house, which has been taken over by her wicked stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú of Y Tu Mamá También and Pan's Labyrinth). Verdú plays the role with relish and elan, wandering through each scene like she's part evil queen and part silent film siren. Child endangerment and abuse is par for the course in Grimm, but here the labor seems downright Dickensian at times. Carmen's hair is cropped to look boyish, her pet rooster is banished to the chicken coop, and she's forced to live in a dank coal cellar. Encarna forbids Carmen from going to the second floor of the house, which is where her father (whom she's never met) might be kept. Another bit of Berger's directorial sleight of hand precedes Carmen's arrival at her father's house: the simple act of dying a white dress black. It's another one of those things that I think fits in the silent film form, though it's done with a lot of modern sophistication. Not only is it a great image, but it's a beautiful expedient that conveys a somber event, the passage of time, and a change in the film's mood. The same goes for Carmen's transition into adulthood, which is a great blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. (There's a less artful transition involving the falling pages of a calendar, but it's less an act of sleight of hand and more a wink to silent film conventions.) But Berger's able to use his filmmaking technique to very fragile, human, heartbreaking ends as well. Without saying too much about a certain scene in Carmen's father's house, there's a moment that involves music as memory and the sudden appearance of a character who merely walks into the frame of an extended shot and walks out. It's such a haunting second or two, and seeing the performance play out after this brief reappearance tempers the rest of the scene with a kind of solemnity -- there's happiness, but it's one that makes a character long for a happiness that can never return. So many of the scenes in the house of Encarna are about the joys and sadnesses people are forced to endure. It's a reminder that while this is a retelling of a fairy tale, there's a melancholy note to much of it. Blancanieves unfolds with a sense of wonder and beauty. The cycles of sound and vision as externalized memory continue throughout, and there's even a magnification of familiar images when they recur. A small bell tinkling in one scene becomes larger bells tolling toward the end, an impossibly gorgeous music cue from one moment will return when it's most needed for a character (and for a scene to have the most impact). It makes sense that these magnifications occur as Carmen grows into a young woman, and it also makes strange sense that there's a cycle of history that needs to be repeated and overcome. What's more apt for a fairy tale than the story of child dealing with the monster that destroyed her parents? But with any fairy tale retelling, it's not just the variations that get me. It's the inevitability of it all. I know what's coming, so what happens when we get there? There will be dwarves, the showdown with the wicked stepmother, and the presence of the dreaded poisoned apple. And what then? Because while I know what's coming, this is a riff on the tale I know, not the tale retold the same way, and part of the fun of any retelling is to be surprised when the surprises come, and to be moved by these surprises when you realize that they were also inevitable. It's the eagerness of knowing and the dazzling mystery of not knowing all in one, like being a child at a magic show watching a new take on a familiar trick. That may be the most apt analogy I can think of for what Berger made me feel during Blancanieves.
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A silent film-style retelling of Snow White set in 1920s Spain (with bullfighting!)
Pablo Berger's Blancanieves will inevitably draw comparisons to Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist since both are silent films. (Blancanieves was Spain's official Oscar entry last year, and I suspect the silent film form was pa...

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Details on Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel


Fox Searchlight may release film at the end of the year
Mar 28
// Hubert Vigilla
Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom was our pick for the best comedy of 2012. Anderson's latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is another period piece and it may lead to back-to-back Golden Pterodactyls for best comedy. Fox Sear...
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Featurette: Gangster Squad


Jan 10
// Liz Rugg
I feel like I've been waiting for this movie since I saw Drive last year and now it's almost finally here! This brief featurette for Gangster Squad features short clips of some of the main actors describing what it was like ...
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Trailer: The Assassins


Chow Yun-fat stars in Zhao Yiyang period epic
Dec 27
// Hubert Vigilla
There's a certain kind of sumptuousness to Chinese period epics, like John Woo's Red Cliff or the films of Chen Kaige. Zhao Yiyang's The Assassins has a pretty good vibe going here in this trailer, and I'm interested to chec...
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Big ensemble cast for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel


Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, Edward Norton, and more
Dec 27
// Hubert Vigilla
The cast for Wes Anderson's new film is set, and it's one hell of an ensemble. (Johnny Depp is not involved with the film, by the way, contrary to our report a few months ago. Ditto Angela Lansbury.) The Grand Budapest Hotel ...

Review: Django Unchained

Dec 24 // Geoff Henao
[embed]213985:39269[/embed] Django UnchainedDirector: Quentin TarantinoRating: RRelease Date: December 25, 2012 Two years before the Civil War, a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx) is bought by the dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schulz (Christoph Waltz) in order to help Schulz track down three wanted criminals whom Django is familiar with. In exchange for the assistance, Schulz offers Django freedom. However, after realizing Django's potential, Schulz takes him under his wing and mentors him. Schulz agrees to help Django find and save his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Unfortunately, Candy is a ruthless slave master that runs Candyland, a slave plantation that trains male slaves to fight one another to the death. Quentin Tarantino is known for his stylistic, over-the-top approach to cinema, and Django Unchained is no different. While the film is heavily rooted in antebellum America, there are still a few Tarantino-esque anachronisms, including Rick Ross musical segues and his patented dialogue scenes that obviously feel out of place for the period, but still add an extra layer of humor to said scenes. In a surprising turn for Tarantino, Django Unchained is a linear film, devoid of the twists/chapter breaks of his past films. However, despite the change in narrative format, Django Unchained still takes genre conventions and spins them around the way Tarantino knows how. The film is a Western through and through, but shares typical Tarantino elements like black comedy, the aforementioned long dialogue token scenes, and over-the-top action sequences.  Because of the linear approach, Django Unchained stays focused on Django's and Schulz' journey. Without the divergences and shifting perspectives found in previous Tarantino films, this leads to stronger lead characters... or so you would hope. That's not to say that characters in previous films weren't already strong characters, but with a cast that stays relatively small, more attention is driven towards the two leads. However, one actor clearly outshines the others. Three guesses, but the first two don't count. Tarantino has this innate ability to write and tailor his characters perfectly for the actors cast to play them. This leads to an effect where not only is the character inherently more interesting, but Tarantino's pinpointed writing also elevates the actor's abilities to the fullest. The most recent Tarantino "product" is Waltz, and his take in Django Unchained shows that his award-winning performance in Inglourious Basterds wasn't a one-off thing. Don't let the marketing fool you: Waltz' Dr. King Schulz is just as much of the lead character as Foxx' Django, perhaps much more so. Schulz is a German ex-dentist-turned-bounty hunter/slave sympathizer, whereas Django is a freed slave out for revenge, as well as the safety of his wife. The biggest gripe is not so much Foxx' acting, but perhaps Django's writing. Waltz kills every scene he's in with this balance between proper gentleman manners and condescending, passive aggressive badass. Where Waltz' performance relies on subtlety and balance, Foxx' Django is pretty one-dimensional. Look no further than the dialogue/accents every character takes up in the film: every other character, from Waltz to Candie to even Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen, speak with period-appropriate language. Django, on the other hand, feels too much like an anachronism. I'm entirely unsure if this was done on purpose by Tarantino, Foxx' acting, or just the way Tarantino wanted to portray slaves in his universe; whatever it may be, Foxx' Django felt lacking. Old and new Tarantino fans know what to expect of him by now, and Django Unchained won't change any previously held conceptions. It's a thoroughly-entertaining film, although has a tendency to run a bit slow in between the "meatier" segments of the film. There really aren't many better ways to celebrate the holiday season and end of the year than watching Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz kill wanted criminals and slave owners, especially when the film is buoyed by another amazing performance by Waltz and the captivating writing/directing from Tarantino.
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Tarantino does it again
Quentin Tarantino and his style of filmmaking really don't need an introduction. With a directorial career spanning over two decades and eight films (not including the films he's co-written/produced/introduced/etc.), Tarantin...

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Trailer: Drift


Kowabunga!
Dec 17
// Thor Latham
As much as I hate to say it, Sam Worthington is "that guy" of the movie industry. He's starred in huge blockbusters (Avatar, Clash of the Titans, Terminatior Salva...oh wait, that one doesn't count) and yet remains completel...

Review: Lincoln

Nov 16 // Geoff Henao
[embed]213688:39141[/embed] LincolnDirector: Steven SpielbergRating: PG-13Release Date: November 16, 2012  Recently re-elected to a second presidential term, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) was facing the Civil War's fourth year. Instead of brokering a peace treaty and secession by the Confederate States that would end the war, Lincoln focuses all of his attention on getting the 13th Amendment passed through the House of Representatives. However, with the large number of Democrats opposing the abolition of slavery, Lincoln must rely on the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and a number of his Cabinet members to sway the moderate Democrats in order to make history. Lincoln covers the last four months of Lincoln's life, which was a good window of time to cover without being overwhelming with information. While the main plot revolves around Lincoln and his associates attempting to pass the 13th Amendment, there are few subplots thrown in involving Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Lincoln's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) interest in joining the Army, abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens' (Tommy Lee Jones) personal interest in abolition, and the marital woes Lincoln had with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). An important draw to period pieces is the film's ability to ingulf its audiences into believing that they're really witnessing something from that time period. Thus, costume design plays a large role in Lincoln. From the varying uniforms worn by the US and Confederate Armies to the elaborate hairstyles. Let me be frank: Joseph Gordon-Levitt has a mustache. Of course, costume design doesn't mean much if a film's actors aren't able to deliver performances of a lifetime (or lifetimes, as it were). Day-Lewis is known for his intense obsession to his roles, and it definitely shows in Lincoln. From the way he limbers on as he walks to the cadence in his voice, Day-Lewis practically IS Abraham Lincoln. He's able to balance pensive moments with emotional delivery in his speech. His ability to simply transform into the character he's portraying have made him a remarkably talented actor, and it won't be surprising to see him receive Oscar nods for this performance. Of course, Lincoln appeals to a specific demographic. As such, those not interested in 19th Century politics, the abolition of slavery, or Day-Lewis might not find much with Lincoln. Spielberg's accomplishments precede him, and Lincoln feels like a pleasure piece made for himself rather than for others. That's not a backhanded way of saying it's a frustrating film that nobody but him will enjoy. Rather, it's one that he has personal interest in that doesn't feel like it has to please anybody else. With that said, however, the film can feel dry at times. It's a very dialogue-heavy film with little to no real drama or suspense built in, so it sometimes feels like the film is dragging. However, there are glimpses of Lincoln's humor sprinkled throughout as he has a tendency to go on irrelevant tangents or share funny anecdotes to break the mood. It's those moments that help break the otherwise tedium of the plot. Lincoln is one of the better period piece/biopics in recent years. However, most might not find the subject matter very interesting or engaging. Those that take the plunge will be rewarded by Day-Lewis' performance as the titular Lincoln. If anything, Spielberg found a more compelling way to tell the story behind the 13th Amendment that history books will ever be able to achieve.
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Depicting another person's life has to be one of the most daunting jobs to take in Hollywood. Considering the protagonist of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is, arguably, the greatest President the United States has ever had,...

Review: Anna Karenina

Nov 16 // Xander Markham
[embed]212876:38843[/embed] Anna KareninaDirector: Joe WrightRating: RRelease Date: Nov. 16th, 2012 There's no question that the movie looks gorgeous. Every part of the theatre is used, from the basement beneath the stage to the catwalks above it. Beautifully crafted props flow in and out of shot, redefining the landscape as the camera moves from one area to the next. While much of this is obviously an in-camera illusion, it's an astonishing feat of showmanship, turning an auditorium into a snow-covered train station, or a grand derby with horses charging across the stage. Wright may be showing off, and certainly isn't subtle about it, but his movie is given a flair and dynamism uncommon in this stuffiest of genres. It's the polar opposite of the brutal realism Andrea Arnold brought to her Wuthering Heights, but while Wright's trick is unlikely to work a second time, the cheeky revisionism is no less potent. The technique makes a thematic connection to Tolstoy's narrative as well. As much fun as Wright is having in mocking the excessively choreographed ballroom scenes which have clogged up the genre since time immemorial, the theatrical setting gives the impression of a gilded cage to the Russian high society which exiles Anna once news of her affair breaks, even though her lover is subject to no such recriminations. To make the point explicit, Levin's story, wherein he wins the heart of a society girl and takes her for a hard-working but happy life in the countryside, is shot almost entirely outdoors. The landscapes are barren and rough compared to the stage's glamourous interiors, but wide open and free. Whereas Wright's extended tracking shot across the battle-scarred beaches of Dunkirk in Atonement was a meaningless piece of directorial egotism, Karenina's gimmick is at least appropriate to the novel. Unfortunately, while Wright engages intelligently with Tolstoy's themes, he shows no such knack for telling a story or forming any kind of emotional bond with his characters. Perhaps Tom Stoppard's screenplay should be commended for condensing an 850-page novel into a two hour movie while still making sense, but everything feels too rushed and clinical to allow the material or audience room to breathe. Anna barely spends more than a few minutes with her son, despite their separation later being a primary reason for her going mad. Levin's story has a thematic connection with Anna's, yet little reason to exist in narrative terms, with the two characters barely sharing a single scene. Anna surrendering her beliefs to have an affair with Vronsky seems to be told in a series of checkpoints, rather than allowed to develop naturally: she's initially repelled by her attraction to him, then isn't, with little in-between to contextualise why she would be willing to give up everything to be with this man, other than boredom and perhaps a fondness for pube moustaches. The failure of the central romance is in large part down to Aaron Taylor-Johnson's simpering interpretation of Vronsky. Far from the passionate, swarthy officer of Tolstoy's conceiving, Taylor-Johnson minces through the movie with the syrupy expression and posture of a schoolboy with a testicle caught in his zipper but too embarrassed to do anything about it. He's no more believable as an experienced womaniser than as an officer of the Russian army, where any squaddie worth his helmet would be using this milquetoast goon of a Vronsky as a human shield. I seem to be one of the few people who considers Keira Knightley a perfectly good actress (although better on stage than on screen), but she never feels a good fit for Anna. Though Knightley is twenty-seven and Anna married at eighteen, she looks far too young to be a mother. The numbers may add up, but there's something which doesn't sit right about watching it in practice. Furthermore, Knightley's interpretation of madness still involves little more than jutting out her jaw and scruffing her hair a bit, which doesn't lend much gravitas to her character's downfall. She has some well-handled moments and is better at wordlessly communicating feelings and inner turmoil than she used to be, but it's a struggle to stay interested in a love story when both leads are miscast. It's an uphill battle for her, as no-one could share chemistry with the mesmerisingly awful Taylor-Johnson, but the kindest summation of her performance is that she gives a brave attempt but never really stood a chance. The supporting cast are significantly better, with Matthew Macfadyen easily stealing each of his scenes as charismatic socialite Oblonsky. Jude Law lends a quiet, intense dignity to Anna's wronged husband, Alexei, who suffers greatly for his crime of being tremendously dull. (The whole situation might have been averted if only he'd learnt a few knock-knock jokes and read Fifty Shades Of Grey). Levin is given a strong inner honesty by Domhnall Gleeson, completely out of place in the backstabbing high society world, and Ruth Wilson, Olivia Williams and Emily Watson make for a marvellous trio of bitchskis. Sadly, for all the strong work done on the periphery, the many storytelling failings doom the movie to appearing every bit as shallow as the social snobs it so condemns. Once the novelty of the staging wears thin, and even Wright seems to get bored of it near the end, there's nothing left to hold the interest. Despite endless talk of love, the exaggerated (literal) theatricality forces a disconnect between the characters and audience. While Law, Macfadyen and Gleeson give powerful enough performances to win sympathy back, Knightley and Taylor-Johnson are too stiff and out of place for their doomed affair to feel anything other than dishonest and bereft of feeling. Tolstoy famously had little time for the stage, and Wright's adaptation perhaps shows why. A deep, passionate novel is reduced to a series of beautiful but forced encounters, while the vast scope of its story cannot help but feel reduced and enclosed by the theatrical framing device. The props are elaborate and stunningly put together, but it's a shame Wright put so much effort into them that his main characters feel like they've been lifted off the shelf at Ikea.
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Keira's got her period on again
[This review was originally posted in September to coincide with the UK release of Anna Karenina. It has been reposted to coincide with the US release of the film.] After a run of trying-too-hard Oscarbait pictures, Joe Wrigh...

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Thomas Vinterberg to adapt Far From The Madding Crowd


Dane-gerous liaisons
Sep 25
// Xander Markham
Period dramas are ten a penny these days, as someone from a period drama might say, so you need a writer or director with an interesting voice to put a witty spin on the exhausted genre. Even so, finding the right balance bet...
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Trailer: On the Road


Aug 06
// Geoff Henao
The second trailer for the On the Road adaptation has emerged. While sharing some of the same scenes as in the first trailer, the editing makes it feel more lively and upbeat. Reviews out of Cannes were pretty mixed for the highly-anticipated film, but my reservations will be held until the film is released in theaters around Christmas time. Is anybody else as excited about the film as I am?

NYAFF Review: Sacrifice

Jul 08 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]211180:38523[/embed] Sacrifice (Zhao Shi Gu Er | 赵氏孤儿 )Director: Chen KaigeRating: RCountry: China  If you don't know anything about Chinese history, you will find Sacrifice very confusing. I know that, because that's how I felt. There are a lot of names thrown tossed around, and a lot of characters have roles that are never actually explained. The focus is on the Zhao clan, which is entirely meaningless to me. All I know is that Zhao is a surname, and someone is not a fan of that surname. I think that the king was a Zhao, but I'm not sure that he was a king or if China even had kings at the time. Either way, all of the Zhaos are wiped out for some reason that I never understood. I assume that people with a knowledge of Chinese history will have some basic context for this, but I could be wrong. It's quite possible that the beginning of the film is just nonsense, but I can't say for sure. After the massacre, things become more self-contained and thus work for the less historically educated. During the massacre, a doctor named Cheng Ying (Ge You) helped to birth to the last of the Zhaos (fittingly, that is the Chinese title of the film) and ended up having to sacrifice (which is also a completely legitimate title as well) his own child to keep that one alive. That makes Ying sound like a monster, but it's not quite so simple. A lot of people died trying to save the baby, and he felt like he was in a position where it was the Zhao baby or no baby. It should have been a moving scene, but it happened before I got my bearings, so aside from the shocking death itself, I wasn't particularly affected by that scene.  Ying then raises the last Zhao as his own, and the man who killed Ying's actual son (and his wife as well), General Tu, becomes Zhao's godfather. Only Ying is aware of the connection, and his long-term goal is to use it as a way to give Tu a life worse than death. He wants Tu to die, but he really wants Tu to suffer for what he did. It's a noble enough goal, even if it's got some holes in the logic, and Ying is willing to wait 15 years to see it take hold. I don't know how much I buy that part of it. No matter how determined someone was, I don't think that anyone would force themselves to interact with his worst enemy for 15 years (he never sets his "son" out of his sight) for the sole purpose of enacting some kind of revenge. But it's a movie and not a historical document, so I can let that part go. There are some larger holes in the story that stuck out a bit too much to be glossed over, but there's no need to spoil them here. There are two big action setpieces in Sacrifice, one of which is quite a bit better than the other. A few more one-on-one battles are sprinkled around throughout, but by the end they go completely off the rails. The big final fight turns to fancy wire work, something that is not found at any other point in the film. It makes a scene that should be cool (and does look kind of cool) stand out from the rest of the film in a bad way. But with the other fights, things are a bit more grounded in reality (although one of the coolest moments in the film verges on the ridiculous). The first is that massacre I talked about earlier. It's huge, it's crazy, and it's got a dude wielding a hammer. He is awesome, and basically everything he does is awesome. The scene in general, aside from having a few too many cuts for my taste, is very well done. It's the highlight of the entire film.  Then it goes downhill. The biggest problem is that the swords never actually hit the victims. I can't think of another film I've seen that failed quite so hard at making it seem like the weapons connect. A battle on horseback (which also has no context, "going to war" really isn't good enough) consistently shows swords missing their marks by about 2 feet. The sword swipes the air, and the person falls, but the illusion doesn't work. Sad, but true. Sacrifice did have some moments where I thought, "This is a good movie" and one moment (that fight) where I thought "This is great!", but they were all cut short too quickly and replaced with something less compelling. The problem is inconsistency. The film is not bad by any means, it's not even average. It's decent. Completely acceptable and mostly enjoyable. But it squandered potential. The idea of a man who must sacrifice his child to keep the final member of a royal clan alive is fascinating, and it should be the catalyst for a really interesting story. Unfortunately, this one isn't it.
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[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF...

Review: The Sword with No Name

Jun 18 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]210605:38416[/embed] The Sword with No Name (Bulkkotcheoreom Nabicheoreom | 불꽃처럼 나비처럼)Director: Kim Yong-GyunRating: RCountry: South Korea  If I had to guess the meaning of the English title, I would guess that it says something about the role of a protector, and how protagonist Mu Myeong (Cho Seung-Woo) is nothing more than his sword (which is really more of a really big knife). Mu Myeong is not actually the protagonist's name. His name is Johannes, a Christian name bestowed upon him by his mother. But after his mother was murdered (for being a Christian), he changed it. Mu Myeong means "no light" in Korean (or, alternately, "no name"), but that says nothing about his disposition, which is really quite cheery. Mu Myeong is a hitman of sorts, but he also runs boats down the river. Or at least he does when pretty women ask him to. In this case, the pretty woman is Ja Yeong (Soo-Ae), who is about to marry the king (Kim Young-Min) and thus become the queen. Unfortunately for her, Mu Myeong quickly falls for her, and spends most of the movie trying to protect her and/or take her for himself. A noble goal, certainly, albeit a pretty stupid one.  Ja Yeong, whose name roughly translates to "Red Flower," likewise has a noble yet stupid goal. As queen, she gives herself an exorbitant amount of power, and actually seems to have more political success than her husband (or anybody else). Her attempts to bring in peace from other countries are mostly successful, but they paint a target on her back, and a number of hits are ordered upon her. So maybe The Sword with No Name is a political movie. Certainly a lot of time is spent dealing with the ramifications of Ja Yeong's work. AsianWiki says that Ja Yeong is based on a real character (although her relationship with Mu Myeong is made up), and I wonder how close to history the film is. Regardless, the history it claims to tell is very interesting. A large portion of the conflict comes from the role of the Japanese Empire in the Korean monarchy. What Ja Yeong does hurts the relationship between those two powers, and her death is intended as a message, one coming primarily from Japan. But in order to carry out the hits, people have to go through Mu Myeong. That's not such an easy task. Although the film never shows him carrying out any hits (a missed opportunity, if you ask me), he is clearly very skilled in the art of murder. As the film went on, it was not always clear if people were being killed or simply incapacitated, but it didn't really matter. Either way, they were done. And he would stand triumphant.  In fact, Mu Myeong seemed to have a much harder time with the one-on-one fights than with large groups. Although that's because he usually fought Noe Jeon (Choi Jae-Woong), who is referred to as the best fighter in Korea. The battles between those two are intense and really, really bizarre. Aside from taking place in weird settings, the fights turn heavily CGI and the characters start flipping around and doing things that nobody else does in the film. It's a combination of the actors, CG, and green screen that really never worked for me. I wished that they had chosen less crazy locales and simply done some fancy wire work if that's the look they were going for.  What made the scenes especially strange is their use of depth. I felt like I was watching a movie that was intended to be shown in 3D. Not because it would benefit from another visual dimension, but because the occasionally gimmicky action sequences look specifically designed for one. Knives are thrown towards the camera or a character's leg whips around in an unnecessary flourish. But the film was never shown in 3D, as far as I know, so I'm really not sure what the motivation was there.  As a romance, The Sword with No Name is unique, because the relationship is never consummated. There are a few moments where the characters are forced to be close together, but they are nonetheless entirely chaste. The one sexual moment in the film does not take place between the lovers, which makes it all the more significant. Although there is the appearance of lust (certainly on his side, if not hers), the film does more to create the feeling of actual love. It's nice in that respect, actually, and it explains the rashness of Mu Myeong's behavior. Whether his love is requited or not, he certainly feels it and tries earnestly to pursue it. Scenes that could be considered creepy come off as caring instead, and moments that, out of context, could seem disturbing work within the framework of the story. It's a fine line between obsessive/stalkerish and loving/caring, and the film treads it carefully, fortunately never falling too far towards the former. What they have is sweet, distant and unfortunate though it is. There is a lot to The Sword with No Name, and that's not necessarily a good thing, but it does most of those things well. I was not a fan of the animation-heavy combat (though the more realistic fights were enjoyable) and I got caught up a few times when I wasn't quite sure about the allegiances of some key characters. On the whole, though, I was able to follow the film's ups and downs without too much trouble. It was a bit wonky along the way, but (aside from the ice fight) never really went off the rails. But if I'm going to see this metaphor to its logical conclusion, I must say that I definitely enjoyed the ride.
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[Korean Movie Night NY finishes its "Epic Romance" series with Kim Yong-Gyun's The Sword with No Name. If you live in New York City, you can see this film for free at the Tribeca Cinemas tomorrow night (June 16th) at 7 P...

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