Sunday, October 15, 2017

CURRENT REELS: DENIS V.'S "BLADE RUNNER 2049"

It's been a good week since Blade Runner 2049 (2017) came to a theatre near me, but I am just now remembering to jot down my thoughts on it, a sign in and of itself regarding my lukewarm feelings, and a sad truth that the film has failed to hold my interest since the viewing. Visually rich and narratively balanced, it is altogether forgettable, and that's a shame, because Villeneuve's passion for the original is clear as he tries to navigate Ridley Scott's acclaimed landscape of the dystopian future. The run time of a whopping 2 hours and 44 minutes must have put off a fair share of movie goers, while those who did brave the film's length left the theatre wondering why at least a half hour of it wasn't left on the cutting room floor. I am reminded once again that brevity really is the essence of great story telling, whether on celluloid or in print. 

Blade Runner 2049 looks quite the clunker, I thought to myself whilst watching the trailer months before its release. How can a trailer be tedious, I wondered? Having felt every minute of the film's length, I stand by it being a rather cumbersome watch, and this kind of entertainment should not take effort to enjoy. The universe is there, the script is not a hollow mess, in fact, it lends more to the universe than the original did, expanding on things in greater detail and allowing for emotional investment. But, the investment never manifests, because Villeneuve has too many angles to show and too many stories to tell. He is so eager to do it justice, to continue the legacy, to tie his reimagining with that of Scott's neo-noir standard, that every last frame is saturated with inflexible importance. I shudder to think what a "director's cut" would look like.

One character, however, hooked me to the core. Luv, a replicant enforcer brilliantly played by Sylvia Hoeks, is a standout in a sea of sapless faces, a fierce, mean bitch, an antidote to the soft spoken, delicate Rachel with whom the original blade runner, Deckard, fell in love all those years ago. If only the rest of the film had even a hint of her enviable chutzpah...

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

CURRENT REELS: DARREN ARONOFSKY'S "MOTHER!"

Not since A Serbian Film (2010) have I seen the public so divided at the movies. Usually, it's a foreign production that becomes the center of attention when controversy and filmgoers' sensibilities are involved. Europeans and Asians in particular have a knack for pushing the envelope, testing boundaries (or doing away with them altogether), all while challenging and/or reframing the cinematic experience as we know it. This is not to say American filmmaking is exempt, but we talk about 'those' works as niche, arthouse, or indie, whereas Darren Aronofsky's latest effort had a mainstream marketing campaign and a nationwide release, starring current America's sweetheart Jennifer Lawrence. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Theatrical trailers suggest it to be a psychological thriller. A little bit of haunted house, a sprinkle of home invasion with many an uninvited guest, a dash of a egocentric, gaslighting husband, wrapped in a crisp layer of token horror misogyny. Turns out, it is all that and more. We are treated to an exceptional biblical allegory that is so prevalent, to call it "on the nose" would be too kind. The gist of it is that Lawrence as "Mother" is mother Earth, Javier Bardem as "Him" is God, while Ed Harris as "Man" and Michelle Pfeiffer as "Woman" are Adam and Eve. The house, located in the middle of nowhere with no visible roads or trails leading to it, is their Eden. And so begins the descent into Aronofsky's great parable. Many have called Mother! high concept, pretentious theological drivel but, in truth, there is not much to mull over here. Every little detail is painstakingly charted out for the audience, if they've stayed long enough to look and listen that is. It reminded me of the kinds of films we would watch regularly in film school. That's not a bad thing, but Mother! is at once too imposing for the general public and too obvious for the cultivated cineaste, successfully alienating both groups.

As the credits rolled, the viewers in my theatre were nothing short of livid. Mind you, they were mostly frat bros who giggled and whistled at the sight of Lawrence's protruding nipples, but it was clear the marketing team missed the mark on this one. Having said that, we complain when theatrical previews reveal too much, so a little mystery is always welcome. People were expecting too see Lawrence in a new role, but not one so brutal. Yes, Aronofsky has a history of 'mindfuck' films under his belt, yet the systematic obscenity and mounting violence of Mother! go far beyond what Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2010), or Black Swan (2010) had to offer. Did I enjoy this film as a whole? No. However, the cinematography is top notch as are the film's promotional materials. There is thought behind them and undeniable creativity. Mother! deserves to be seen. It deserves to be discussed, vehemently so, but remains largely style over substance and although all involved have secured it a cushy place in film history as one of the most polarizing films to date, we should call their bluff. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

CURRENT REELS: ANDY MUSCHIETTI'S "IT"

This is the most terrifying fun I've had at the movies in recent years. Paradoxically, I never considered horror a genre that required the theatrical experience of a dimmed auditorium, a massive screen, and the most nuanced Dolby surround sound. But, really, great horror is best experienced in exactly this format, as the new reimagining of Stephen King's IT proved with two screenings this weekend. I am one of many who knows of the book yet still haven't read it. I am vaguely familiar with the miniseries from 1990, but not enough to have vested interest in whether or not this version performs better, or who fares as the creepiest Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Tim Curry or Bill Scarsgard.

Yes, this film will draw inevitable comparisons to Netflix darling Stranger Things (2016-), even sharing a child actor, with parallels of young misfits and outsiders who uncover a town's dark, dirty secret, soon banding together to save one of their own whilst also ridding their hometown of demonic menace. IT, however, is firmly planted on the horror spectrum, having stripped its science fiction elements from the novel (and happens to be all the better for it). Almost every scene in the film has a sense of urgency and impending peril, using the often comedic coming of age banter between friends as a breather for the audience from one ghastly Pennywise setup to the next. Not all of them work well, some manifestations of the kids' fears are truly unsettling, gross, and morbid, others are less so, but every frame with Pennywise is doused in mouthwatering fright.

There is something to be said for cinematic horror and how we consume it. Many go to the movies to turn their brains off and relax. We laugh through comedies and get our adrenaline fix with action blockbusters. We curtail our fears of global doom with superhero franchises. The horror genre serves to exorcise something within ourselves as well. Scary movies are essentially the experience of terror without mortal danger or consequence. At the end of the day, none of it is real, and after being throughly put through the ringer in the darkest corners of our imagination, we can walk out of that dark room with a sense of safety and go on with our lives. What makes IT so special, timely, and spine-chilling, is that "it" transcends the cineplex. Regrettably, we are living in a climate of political and social chaos where anything goes. "It" is all around us, in the news, papers, twitter feeds, status updates, and conversations. It may not go by the name of Pennywise, but its favorite shape is still that of an orange haired, evil clown. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

CURRENT REELS: DAVID LEITCH'S "ATOMIC BLONDE"

Berlin kitsch has never looked this delectably vibrant. The saturated backdrop for Charlize Theron's femme fatale action star vehicle is so intricate, so lofty in its composition, it easily overtakes her as the real headliner of Atomic Blonde (2017). A cultural, visual extravaganza indeed.

Yet, this is where the awe ends for me, because the narrative and character motivation are not fleshed out as best they could be, despite the heroine's commendable chutzpah. I remember Theron stating that her character's motivation was deliberately vague, as if to take the focus off the usual revenge flick trope, where a lover or family member are fatally hurt, and the hero/heroine must embark on a quest to avenge their death. The fatally hurt lover is briefly acknowledged here, and may be the initial motivation for Lorraine Broughton's venture into Berlin, but it evolves into something bigger, paralleling the historic events in the East prior to the fall of the Wall. Lorraine is an agent, but is she a double agent? A triple agent? The climax blankets the viewer in an array of espionage possibilities, but I can't say the "Aha!" moment had me emotionally invested. It was merely an afterthought to an already bloated plot trajectory. At my most superficial, I was distracted by all the work Theron had done to her face since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which was glaringly obvious in every unforgiving close-up.

Atomic Blonde had a lot going for it - fantastic title sequence, pulsating soundtrack, commendable stunt choreography, and costume design to die for - adding aural, spatial, and textural depth that leapt off the screen. The umbrella march (no doubt a nod to Hitchcock's famed sequence from Foreign Correspondent (1940)), the pristine Volvo that dazzled briefly with no less glamour than Bond's famed Aston Martin are the moments etched in my mind. The film faltered where most do nowadays - on the page, in the dialogue, in character development and plot progression. As credits rolled, I had a hard time recalling the names of main players. But, when I left the screening, a character's last words echoed my own sentiment, "I FUCKING LOVE BERLIN!"

Saturday, August 5, 2017

BOOKSHELF: R. WARE'S "THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10"


Dear readers! After a 2 year hiatus, I've decided to return to this blog and will try to slip back into things as best I can. Without further ado, this summer's reading list takes off with my late introduction to Ruth Ware's The Woman in Cabin 10, a novel some critics have posited as conceptually similar to Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train. While I see the desire to lump Ware's novel with the these bestsellers, it falls short of the others in its narrative structure, uninspired reveal, and surprisingly lacking vernacular. To my great annoyance, it's written in first person, which I've found to be the weakest perspective to read & write from because of how unpolished it often sounds.

Our heroine, Laura "Lo" Blacklock, is a boozy, anxiety ridden, commitment phobic journalist for a travel magazine in London, who fills in for her boss on an exclusive luxury cruise through the Norwegian fjords. Right off, we are made to question her as a reliable narrator, for her intoxicated memories and emotional distress, massaged by a home robbery right before the cruise, bring on a wave of insomnia, further muddying the waters of her authenticity. Once on board, she borrows some mascara from, you guessed it, the woman in cabin 10, and the mascara serves as our proof that the mystery woman is not a figment of Lo's imagination. Convincing others on board, however, is a different matter. Lo does find a possible confidant in her ex, Ben, who is also on board for his work, but he remains both a confidante and a suspect well into the last chapters. Lo is adamant that she heard the woman thrown overboard into the frigid waters, but when she rings the alarm, all the physical proof of the woman's existence is gone, her cabin empty, scrubbed clean with no signs of occupancy. When we do find out who she was, her purpose, and perhaps untimely demise, it doesn't seem all that exhilarating. Ware spends so much time on structuring Lo's character, she foregoes the very ones who would have made this into a heart-pounding page turner. The mouthwatering opulence of the luxury cruise, its moneyed passengers with their quirks and decadent frivolities, the icy, foreboding setting of the fjords, are all robbed of their full Hitchcockian potential, especially by Ware's modest, almost infuriatingly barren lexicon.

What I did find incredibly fresh, was Ware's use of foreshadowing in the form of newspaper clippings, forum chats, and email exchanges at the end of every 'part' into which the chapters are divided. Reading an article about a missing journalist from a Friday paper when she is still very much with us in the story on a Tuesday, creates that splash of eeriness and dread I wish was sustained throughout the novel. Overall, The Woman in Cabin 10 is a decent throwaway read, the kind of book you take with you on a trip to keep you occupied, but it won't linger in your memory for long.


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BOOKSHELF: SHUICHI YOSHIDA'S "VILLAIN"


Shuichi Yoshida's Villain is the fifth Japanese thriller on my themed summer reading list, and I am no closer to experiencing the wow factor I so longed to discover. Another well-written novel, it suffers, first and foremost, from ofttimes reading like a transportation manual. There is a level of proficiency required for a reader to feel comfortable in the setting, but, at some point, excessive details serve to take us out of the story. Villain's most pertinent action takes place at Mitsuse Pass and, aside from an eerie park and a coveted lighthouse that reappear in the narrative, Yoshida's pedantic mapping of every road, sidewalk, and alley does a disservice to his work.

More importantly, is Villain a genuine thriller or another marketing misrepresentation? Initially, we are meant to be concerned about the murder of Yoshino, a young woman killed at Mitsuse Pass. There are only two suspects, young men Yuichi and Keigo, wildly different from one another in looks, character, and social standing, and Yoshida keeps that pendulum swinging well into the third act. It's a cheap tease, because the perpetrator is obvious from the start, and the constant attempt to infuse doubt only reinforces that fact. Almost immediately, the thriller morphs into a character study, with appearances by so many new people, the identity of the lead protagonist becomes entirely unclear. There are parents, grandparents, uncles, sisters, best friends, co-workers, past lovers, and many more folks who muse about the difficulty, darkness, and loneliness of life and, if we are lucky, tie it back to one of the main characters.

Aside from keeping track of the ever-mounting pyramid of secondary personages, the reader is tasked with slipping in and out of first person narration. I'd think it a valuable tool of manipulation had it been limited to a specific string of characters, say the possible killers, or the victim herself, but there seems to be no rhyme or reason for shifts between third and first person POV, and the tactic becomes a nuisance awful fast. What I do give Yoshida credit for, is making the murder victim out to be so utterly unsympathetic and shifting reader alliances, even if the rest of the characters remain too distant for us to forge a connection. In short, no one is likable, nobody wins, and the most intriguing aspects of the novel become its inquisitive chapter headings:

1. WHO DID SHE WANT TO SEE?
2. WHO DID HE WANT TO SEE?
3. WHO DID SHE HAPPEN TO MEET?
4.WHO DID HE HAPPEN TO MEET?
5. THE VILLAIN I MET

Saturday, August 15, 2015

BOOKSHELF: M. MIYABE'S "ALL SHE WAS WORTH"


If you are looking to achieve textbook-like proficiency in Japan's consumer debt crisis of the 1980s, then Miyuki Miyabe's All She Was Worth will hit the sweet spot. If, however, you have set your sights on the promised top tier mystery of stolen identity and murder against the stormy, forlorn, noir-ish backdrop of Japan, you are in for a bit of a let down. I was partial to the writing style, because it reminded me very much of my own. While there is no doubt this is a well-written, competent work, the nearly clinical description of the credit crisis by way of dry character monologues and its role in fostering the economic bubble that would soon burst was poorly integrated within the established tone of the novel. The mind often meandered for pages on end.

The book introduces us to Detective Honma, a widower with a 10-year-old son, on leave from his job after an accident left him with a bum leg. During his recovery, he is visited by a distant relative, Jun, a young banker, whose fiancée bailed on him during a confrontation about a credit card application that revealed her history of insurmountable debt. He enlists Honma to find her, but when an early investigation turns up a case of stolen identity, Jun refuses to believe it and storms out. Honma remains intrigued, and continues poking and prodding the history of "Shoko Sekine," the fiancée, and the "real" Shoko Sekine, whose identity was assumed. Is the real Shoko dead? Is her impostor also in trouble? Were both women unknowingly running from the same crisis? The book reads like a massive procedural, every chapter dedicated to a different witness. The beauty of solving the mystery lies in Honma's creativity and perseverance, as he is off duty and unable to merely flash his badge to get people talking. Most of the persons of interest aren't receptive to his initial wiles.

The book falters in the very last chapter by denying readers even the most basic idea of closure, not a shred of accountability, not a hint of due process. All She Was Worth is a striking (if heavy-handed) commentary on the dangers of materialism in a consumer-driven culture, pitting frowned upon individualist tendencies against collectivism and cross-generational familial responsibility. The problem? Just about every question you may come to ponder throughout this text will go unanswered. Some call that an open ending, but it feels as if Miyabe became exasperated with her own novel and decided to quit abruptly. So it stops, just as things finally stir your interest, and you find yourself baffled, if not altogether cheated, staring at those last italicized words and nervously leafing the leftover blank pages, but, alas, that's all she wrote.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

BOOKSHELF: OTSUICHI'S "ZOO"


Otsuichi's Zoo is a collection of 11 strangely unremarkable short stories breaching genres of horror, psychological thriller, science fiction, and fantasy. Advertised as a much needed booster shot into tired genre tropes, Zoo falls short of providing readers with a revived take on fantasy infused horror. United by a theme of death and decay, the ideas are there, and many a premise appears destined for a grand payoff, but it never comes to fruition. Whether it's AI existentialism, a man receiving daily polaroids of his decaying ex-girlfriend, a deformed recluse building a house in the woods from dubious matter, an abused twin who plans the demise of the other, or a child intrigued by the seeming bottomlessness of a sandbox, none of the stories maintain a fitting climax. 

don't propose a neatly wrapped up conclusion, but there is a difference between an open ending and an author who has  written himself into a corner. With no way to reconcile his intentions, he presents a work that feels unfinished, a hasty sketch of fluid features in lieu of fleshed out, concrete details. To Otsuichi's credit, every narrative has a decidedly visceral build-up, only to be followed by a decidedly rushed, uninspired finale. All stories, both in language and structure, read like a first draft.

The dreaded first person account is prevalent in 10 out of 11 stories. The intention is for them to read like diary entries, yet most are so monotone in style and simplistic in word choice, that it's hard to grasp at anything remotely wondrous. If this prose is supposed to be skillful and emotionally engrossing, it is lost in translation. It's too bad, because Otsuichi is a solid writer and has better works to showcase his talent (the novel Goth, for example). If it wasn't for the often clinically gruesome subject matter, I'd say Zoo reads more appropriately as a Young Adult entry. As it stands, this collection is neither here nor there, and I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to the author, but rather complementary reading for die-hard fans of Otsuichi's craft.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

SUMMER CAPER: DONG-HOON CHOI'S "THE THIEVES"


Inspired by TCM's "Summer of Darkness," I turned to my favorite South Korean cinema for some quality chills and thrills. What held my interest was a 2012 caper, The Thieves. Pegged as Korea's Ocean's Eleven (2001), The Thieves is everything its Hollywood counterpart should have been, and I say that as a fan of Clooney's Vegas shenanigans.

The Thieves is not a restrictive all-boys club, where women are instrumental only as play things and/or seductresses. They can be that, too, but their skills are no less important than those of the group's male members. Likewise, where Ocean's Eleven was straightforward in its dynamics, loyalties, and the tasks at hand, The Thieves is all about old grudges, betrayals, and mistrust of the ever-expanding crew. There are two groups within the master crew, the Chinese and the Koreans, who come together in spite of initial standoffishness to pull off a grandiose heist in Macao. Yet, within the Korean posse brew deep-seated, duelling rivalries between head honchos Macao Park and Popeye, both of whom feel betrayed by each other for a previous sting gone off script.

All these personalities and character trajectories culminate in a larger than life adventure that can get a little muddy from one thrilling sequence to the next, but one that keeps its eyes on the prize and won't bottom out under the heavy weight of multiple storylines and varying time frames. Fans should recognize plenty of familiar faces from this transnational cast, with a most animated performance by Hong Kong veteran Simon Yam, who looked to be having an absolute blast. And, despite young ladies frolicking about in tight heist gear, his romantic storyline with "Chewing Gum," a lonely, aging woman from the Korean crew, is full of genuine chemistry and wonder.

The film is a contagious ball of energy, with beautiful locations, expertly choreographed action, and enough character development to chew on for those who appreciate meaningful down time between endless chases and explosions. It is very slick, surprisingly humorous, impeccably stylish, and deserving of attention.  The perfect summer caper.