Search
Archive Navigation
Other Writing

Be sure to check out my blog over at FlickChart, 'The Depths of Obscurity', where I delve into the most obscure sub-genres and decide which film reigns supreme.

Monday
Oct082012

The Hole (Dong


Release Year: 1998
Director: Ming-liang Tsai

Review: It's right before the millennium and something strange is happening in Taiwan. Amidst a constant downpour of rain a new disease has sprung up, turning people into cockroach like invalids. Despite evacuation order from the quarantine area, a few stubborn people stick around, refusing to leave. Two of these people, a woman downstairs and a man upstairs, are forced to interact when a plumber breaks a small hole in their floor. Director Ming-liang Tsai's 'The Hole' is a gritty examination of alienation set in a dystopian hell.

 This being my second Tsai film, his motifs and film making style were already familiar. Like other Tsai films the lack of dialog was challenging for me, but it does underscore the director's favorite theme of alienation. Here the overwhelming feeling of loneliness was palpable. The atmosphere is bizarre. Everyone seems to be going about there lives, as if nothing has changed. The main male character (who is not named), gets up every morning and opens up his small shop. It is located in some kind of underground shopping mall, surrounded by dozens of other shops which have been shuttered. He seems unperturbed by the paucity of shoppers, and sits idly waiting as if this was normal even before the evacuation. The complete indifference to the presumably new occurrence of lack of social interaction highlights Tsai's apparent view that social estrangement is the norm.

Everyone in the film seems content to be alone, each in their own world trying to survive. When the hole is made, connecting the two main characters it creates a rift in this catatonic asceticism. The hole becomes a source of tension between the pair, both unwilling to have any sort of relationship. Apparently unable or unwilling to interact in a socially acceptable way they at first resort to harassing each other through the hole. Again, it shows Tsai's pessimistic view of social interaction when even two utterly lonely people resort to further alienating one another rather than embracing what could be their only chance at a relationship. What was surprising to me was that Tsai didn't revel in this theme, but rather turned it around, offering a hopeful outlook. The two form, albeit begrudgingly, a sort of camaraderie.

Furthering the suffocating feeling of isolation is the visual impact of the rain. Everything is wet in this movie. Water is constantly dripping everywhere, and even the wallpaper is falling off the walls from the moisture. For an unexplained reason it is constantly raining the entire film, and it seems like it has been for some time. Added the rain is the water that has dowsed the downstairs apartment from a broken pipe, which was the impetus of the plumber creating the hole. Everything looks drowned, uncomfortable and altogether miserable. The people resemble wet cats, as they try to maintain some sense of normalcy despite the devastation to their livelihood the epidemic has caused.

Directly contrasting with this visual unpleasantness were beautifully colorful musical sequences inter-cut throughout the film. Seemingly completely out of context, these fantasy dance sequences featured themes of hope and joy with extravagant costumes and flair. Most striking was that these numbers are performed in the exact same setting where the characters are living their lives of despair. It is a brilliant cue by Tsai to highlight the escapism which the characters must yearn for. Each time you feel like you can't take another minute of the bleak world which you are trapped, we are treated to one of these striking vignettes, revitalizing your spirits and furthering the appreciation for the unbearable conditions in which the characters are living through.
 

There is a definite sense of social commentary throughout the film. The disease which is spreading turns its victims into mindless insect-like creatures, forcing them to scuttle around on their hands and knees and hide in dark places. To me this suggests a view of mankind turning into anti-social vermin, which fits nicely into Tsai's overarching theme of alienation. To me, the disease is metaphor for the reaction of people to intense isolation and inability to deal with the harshness of life. One moving scene involves someone going through the transition into the 'insect' state. With her apartment flooding, alone, wet and sick in bed with the flu she breaks down in tears.  Completely helpless and utterly miserable, she has been broken, falling to her knees she scurries around like a cockroach and hides under a mountain of clutter. It's a gutting scene and indicates this disease is more of an emotional detachment from reality rather than a physical disorder.
There is a lot to admire about this Tsai work. As unsettling and uncomfortable the enviornment there is a through line of hope, optimism and life. The  more I see of his work, the more enamored I become with the style and themes of  Ming-liang Tsai. He has an incredible command of visuals, creating an atmosphere which directs the mood of the film and becomes every bit an integral character in relating the themes. I was completely taken by the spin Tsai was able to put on his familiar themes. Somehow Tsai managed to make an examination of isolation and misery not only interesting, but entertaining.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday
Aug032011

The Sting

Release Year: 1973
Director: George Roy Hill

Review: I love a good con, and I don’t think there is one more intense and engaging than in ‘The Sting’. We’re presented with a small-time grifter Henry Gondorff (Robert Redford), who is out for revenge after his long-time partner gets murdered. He joins up with the notorious con artist Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman) to pull the ultimate con on the man responsible for his friends death.

What is remarkable about the film is how unwaveringly cunning it is. Despite the fact nearly the entire movie is just the con unfolding with little outside strife, it is still gripping and intense. The audience gets the same view as the mark. Details are withheld and we're left to sort out whats part of the con and what isn't. Every scene is another slick step in the intricate con and is fascinating to watch play out.

Paul Newman plays cool like no other. Despite how dicey the sting may get, it never seems out of his control. Watching Newman work, you get a sense you are getting a glimpse into the life of a true master of his profession. Whether he is scamming a poker game or plotting a massive con, he is always is five steps ahead of everyone else.

Everyone likes it when the bad guy gets what’s coming to him. ‘The Sting’ takes this concept and plays out in an extended and dramatic fashion. Every moment seems to click into place effortlessly, without a dull moment. As the credits roll, you can’t help but smile to yourself and admire the perfect con.

Rating: 4.5/5

 

Monday
Aug012011

Life of Brian

Release Year: 1979
Director: Terry Jones

Review: Monty Python will always have a special place in my heart. I grew up loving and endlessly quoting their work. Constantly watching their movies and listening to their albums shaped my taste in comedy. Somehow ‘Life of Brian’ always had eluded me. I tried watching it once, but I wasn’t in the mood for that kind of comedy and turned it off. So it was with great anticipation that I finally got to sit down and watch the masters of parody tackle religion.

As the movie began I was immediately reminded of Mel Brook’s ‘The History of the World: Part One’, which is similarly a parody taking place around the same time period. This worried me, since I absolutely detested that movie, and was worried that my beloved Python would also fall into the same pitfalls. Although at times, I did have some of the same problems with ‘Brian’, I can safely say that it is a much better movie. While both have some lowbrow humor that completely missed for me, ‘Brian’ has so much more. The story itself is strong, and it succeeds at being a biting satire of religion.

From the very beginning the table is set for the parallel story between Jesus and Brian, an everyday normal Jewish man just trying to live his life. Unfortunately, due to a series of circumstances, he is continually mistaken to be the messiah, much to his chagrin. By making these connections it throws the life of Jesus in sharp relief, and makes a lighthearted mockery of the entire religion. This is why good parodies are so enjoyable. It pokes fun at Christianity and even casts doubt upon it, but its never mean-spirited. It allows us to laugh at even the most serious subjects.

I can’t say that this was my favorite Python movie, but that’s not a knock against it. The story, rather than the jokes, are what won me over. I probably laughed less at it than their other work, but it was amusing throughout. I can’t say that I loved every minute, but I appreciate what they were trying to do, and it largely succeeds.

Rating: 3/5

 

Saturday
Jul302011

Back to the Future

Release Year: 1985
Director: Robert Zemeckis

Review: The 80’s at its most fun and entertaining. ‘Back to the Future’ is essential viewing even ignoring the nostalgic impression. A kid gets to go back in time in a Delorean and save his very existence by hooking up his mom and dad. It’s completely silly, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.

What makes this movie work are the now iconic characters. Doc, Biff, Marty and George McFly, when you hear these names you instantly see their characters and their scenes come racing back into your memory. Each one has distinctive personalities which are essential to the success of the movie. Doc is the crazy scientist, Marty the cool kid, George the awkward nerd and Biff the bully. In fact, if you imagine anyone of these stereotypes the imagery of these characters probably enters your mind. You change one aspect of these characters and you ruin the movie.

Watching the movie is a thrill from beginning to end. It combines adventure, sci-fi and comedy in a perfect concoction of awesome. Sure it is campy in parts, but that’s part of the fun. By the time Doc utters the now legendary line ‘Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.’, I was all set to start the movie over and watch it again. There is a reason its one of the most beloved movies of all time. It is pop perfection.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday
Jul282011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Pt. 1

Release Year: 2010
Director: David Yates

Review: The Potter films are always hard to review. As a fan of the books I always miss certain details but concede that these are necessary cuts to make the film transition. The trend of the past six films has been encouraging, with each one building upon the last. None of them have reached a point where they succeed solely on their own as a great piece of cinema, but as the material gets meatier, and the actors get more experienced, the films have become solid entertainment independent of the books.

The latest film, based on the final book, is even more challenging to review since it’s really only half a film. This was a challenge going into the theater since you know right when things start to get good the credits will roll and the disappointment will inevitably settle in. This is exactly what happens, but it’s to the films credit that, even at it’s lengthy running time, I wanted the film to go on, and continue developing.

Overall I am happy they choose to split this film up into two parts, and wish they had done this from the start. By giving themselves more time, they can include more of the details from the book and flesh out the characters and stories more completely. The fullness is what I enjoyed most about this installation even if it did drag a bit a result. The minor details make the whole so much stronger. There always were huge holes in the development of the story when so much had to be left on the cutting room floor in the prior installments. Given the proper time a more fully fleshed out story yielded a more satisfying experience.

It’s hard to rank it among the other Potter films since it’s really only part of a movie. It is certainly as technically taught as any of its predecessors. The acting has continued to get better and the cinematography is as beautiful as ever. This is the darkest chapter in the saga which adds depth, but it’s also the least accessible of the batch. Going in without reading the books, or at least watching the preceding films will leave the viewer completely confused. I don’t think this is a bad thing, however. It’s foolish to strive to make a film for a mass audience when the films target audience is so massive anyway. It plays to its audience and I commend it for that.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Tuesday
Jul262011

Alice in Wonderland

Release Year: 2010
Director: Tim Burton

Review: From the moment I heard that Tim Burton was doing Alice in Wonderland I knew the exact product that was going to be produced. A dark, quirky take on the tale with vivid characters but soulless execution. It’s disappointing since Burton is one the most imaginative and talented directors working, yet he seems to have fallen into a groove which he is unable or unwilling to pull himself out of. Rather than casting the same set of characters and dressing them differently, I’d like to see him channel his creative energy into a new property and really stretch his natural artistic talent.

As it stands, the latest trip into Wonderland isn’t quite a reboot, nor a sequel, but a weird middle ground where an older Alice returns to Wonderland but has no memory of it. The biggest downside is that the richly imagined Wonderland is sapped of any actual wonder. It’s a bleak, barren wasteland. If this approach were going to be taken then I’d hope it should at least be consistent. But Burton seems to be content throwing in spurts of jovial energy that comes out odd, and out of place. It turned into an uncomfortable mix of dark imagery and fanciful silliness that does not work at all. All this culminates in an awkward jig by Depp that was hyped the entire movie and was painful to actually see performed.

To make matters worse, the acting outside of Depp and Bonham Carter is universally terrible. Watching Mia Wasikowska as Alice is extraordinarily uncomfortable. Her acting seems to be part of an entirely different film, clashing with anyone else in every scene. The worst offender, however, was Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. I’m not sure what she was going for with her performance, but she comes across as having some sort of physical disability. It’s a distracting performance which adds nothing except to set the entire film off kilter. Add to the troubling acting the even more distracting CG work and there isn’t much going for ‘Alice’.

 

I can’t say my expectations were high going in, and even still the film was disappointing. Any magic or charm the original film had was sapped away and replaced with a clumsy hero’s quest storyline. This quest driven story been done to death and in far more interesting ways. There was potential to have a hugely creative re-imagination of the classic story, but it was squandered away with familiarity and mediocrity.

Rating: 2/5

 

 

Sunday
Jul242011

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Release Year: 1989
Director: Woody Allen

Review: A bleak, black comedy by the master of the genre, Woody Allen, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ is searing examination of morality and happiness. Following two separate story lines of two completely opposite but equally despaired individuals. One a successful doctor who’s affair is starting to catch up with him, and the other a failure of a documentarian who makes advances on a colleague amidst his failing marriage.

I’m not sure there is anything here that raises this to the pantheon of Woody Allen films, but it is solid and thought provoking nonetheless. The story line focusing on Allen’s despondent character provides the lighter moments, keeping the narrative from driving itself into a bleak oblivion. On a whole, it is more of a thinking film, weighing the implications of moral decisions and the ability to live a happy and fulfilling life despite having indiscretions. Allen, seemingly effortlessly, caresses these heavy subjects into digestible morsels, setting the table for you to examine the limits of your own moral fiber. It is film making at its finest, and the reason why Allen is so revered in his craft.

Rating: 3.5/5

 

Friday
Jul222011

Charade

Release Year: 1963
Director:
Stanley Donen

Review: It’s impossible to watch this film and not draw the correlations to Alfred Hitchcock. To be fair, director Stanley Donen doesn’t seem to be cribbing from the suspense master, but rather manages to capture the same mystery-suspense equilibrium that Hitchcock mastered. The plot reads just like any Hitchcock film, Reggie (Audrey Hepburn), a young woman is abruptly widowed when her rich husband is thrown from a train, revealing a web of lies which tie him to a band of deadly thieves. In the midst of this confusion Peter (Cary Grant) a seemingly trustworthy gentleman takes Reggie under his wing and the pair embark on their quest, trying to unravel the mystery of her late husbands death and recover the small fortune that has gone missing.

Like any good mystery, the details of the case are peeled away like any onion, layer by layer, gradually building suspense and intrigue. It’s a sign of a well made mystery if every scene draws you in closer to the reveal, and yet always keeps you at arms length. The more that is revealed the more complex and convoluted it gets. Donen, to his credit, manages to pull off this technique while keeping things entertaining rather than frustrating.

This balance is mostly kept in check by the romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Grant. Both are enormously charismatic. To say that George Clooney channels Cary Grant is understatement. The two are nearly indistinguishable, both dripping with a sarcastic sexuality that melds so well when paired with a sharp, independent minded woman. In this case Hepburn plays the perfect foil to Grant’s charm. She is a strong woman, who nonetheless shows her vulnerability that Grant works to exploit. What really works are the subtle, playful flourishes between the two that maintains the chemistry between them and keeps the ever-escalating danger light and palatable.

While it’s a solid mystery thriller, and draws comparisons to Hitchcock, it’s still not on the same level as the best Hitchcock. There are elements that are a bit sloppy, especially the handling of the three goons after Hepburn’s character that seem too bumbling to ever pose a serious threat. All the same, it is a great watch and blew my expectations out of the water.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday
Jul202011

Helvetica

Release Year: 2007
Director:
Gary Hustwit

 

Review: This is a documentary on a font. Not typography in general, but a single font. If this doesn’t sound interesting to you, then you probably would be best to skip this one. It’s a fine documentary. Nothing all too earth shattering, but informative nonetheless. I guess that’s my problem with it. I wanted something more, and it just wasn’t. It tried to stretch what would have been a fantastic short documentary into a full-length feature, and try as I might, I just could not muster enough interest to stay focused for the duration. There are some interesting historic explorations of the font and it does touch on some general principles of typography which did briefly snap me out of my bored trance, but in general its one note.

Helvetica is used a lot, in every walk of life. It is omnipresent in modern life despite the majority of people being oblivious of how the type influences them. This sentiment is repeatedly constantly in every possible way for the entire documentary, and it just doesn’t really go anywhere. If a documentary of this nature can’t excite my passion in some way, or at least make me understand someone else’s passion then I can’t say it succeeds.

Rating: 2/5

 

Monday
Jul182011

Pearl Harbor

Release Year: 2001
Director: Michael Bay

Review: You can count on Michael Bay for two things: big explosions and even bigger stakes. The man just doesn't do anything small. This is the problem with 'Pearl Harbor'. He tries to fit too much into a movie that should have a tightly constrained frame. Instead of focusing on the cruxes of the story, the attack, he gets waylaid in an obtuse love story. The attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the most devastating events ever to take place on American soil and should invoke strong emotions of anger and patriotism, but the long winded, glossy portrayal here only ignites feelings of frustration.

Rather than focus on intimate details, Bay opts of grandiose spectacle that adds nothing but an empty feelings and a vague hint of the epic nature of the tragic battle. What is most puzzling is why Bay tried to stretch the material so far and take the love story to such preposterous lengths. What is sad is that he actually has a nugget of truly moving conflict with the love triangle he creates, but he takes the scenario and blows it way out of proportion. What could have been a heart-wrenching saga becomes a far-fetched hypothetical played to fruition. I may be too hard on the movie, as besides being entirely too long and, at times absurd, it is an enjoyable popcorn war drama. Given the subject matter I just wanted so much more.

Rating: 2.5/5