Sunday, October 23, 2016

King of the Hill (1993)

Review #1,359

Director:  Steven Soderbergh
Cast:  Jesse Bradford, Jeroen Krabbé, Lisa Eichhorn
Plot:  A young boy struggles on his own in a run-down motel after his parents and younger brother are separated from him in 1930s Depression-era Midwest.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  103min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for thematic elements)
Distributor:  Universal Pictures

“When Aaron here works for his meal the way I did, he can have some.”

In retrospect, Steven Soderbergh’s third feature—and first studio movie—King of the Hill feels like an anomaly in his superb body of work.  Known to be a sharp, incisive filmmaker with style and wit, Soderbergh has been versatile enough as a filmmaker to traverse different genres and methods of storytelling. 

But right after his eye-widening Cannes Palme d’Or-winning feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), based on his own original screenplay, and the elusive Kafka (1991), which he directed from a screenplay by Lem Dobbs, Soderbergh refused to be pigeonholed by adapting A.E. Hotchner’s (who, at the time of this writing, is still alive at 96) memoirs, which chronicled living through the Great Depression in the ‘30s. 

It is with this context that King of the Hill feels strangely free—now as it was then in 1993—from any markers that try to classify it as a ‘Soderbergh’ picture.  Perhaps this is why not many have heard or seen it.

Jesse Bradford plays Aaron, the boy at the heart of Hotchner’s memoirs, who has to take up a series of adult responsibilities when his family are circumstantially separated from each other.  His brother is offloaded to an uncle in another town so that they could “save a dollar each day”, while his mother has to stay in a sanatorium; his father eventually needs to make ends meet, and his new job of selling watches at other towns means that Aaron is left alone in a rented room at a time of great poverty and hopelessness. 

Soderbergh fashions a coming-of-age tale with an unexpected touch of warmth, which has rarely been felt in the director’s subsequent films.  A unique use of camerawork and sound to capture the interiority of Aaron’s psychology is intriguing—particularly in the third act when he is faced with sheer isolation and hunger, a technique Soderbergh would later polish and manipulate.

King of the Hill is also rich in its period detail, and in the restoration by the Criterion Collection, we see crisp images with strong, earthly colours.  Despite its assortment of interesting supporting characters and Soderbergh’s visual panache, the film unfortunately still feels neglected today. 

I like to see it as a companion piece to the Coens’ more darkly-comic Barton Fink (1991), set roughly in a similar period albeit a little later in the early ‘40s, focusing on a writer in a hotel who is ‘starved’ of ideas and living his ‘Great Depression’. 

Verdict:  Soderbergh’s first studio effort is rich in its ‘30s Depression-era period detail, while also functioning as a coming-of-age tale with an unexpected touch of warmth. 


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Friday, October 21, 2016

Virgin Spring, The (1960)

Review #1,358

Director:  Ingmar Bergman
Cast:   Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom
Plot:  A kind but pampered beautiful young virgin and her family's pregnant and jealous servant set out to deliver candles to church, but only one returns from events that transpire in the woods along the way.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Special Mention (Cannes).  Won 1 Oscar - Best Foreign Language Film, nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Costume Design
Runtime:  89min
Rating:  M18 for a rape scene and some violence.
International Sales:  AB Svensk Filmindustri

“You are not alone, Mareta.  And God alone bears our guilt.”

The Virgin Spring is still best-known for inspiring The Last House on the Left (1972), the exploitative first feature by Wes Craven, yet Ingmar Bergman's work was very much based on the 13th-century Swedish ballad ‘Per Tyrssons döttrar i Vänge’. 

However, much of the film’s style was, according to Bergman, “a lousy imitation of Kurosawa”, alluding to the Japanese director's 1950 masterpiece Rashomon, whose central incident also occurred in the woods.  Bergman's film is, of course, less radical, but no less powerful in its portrayal of humanity through darker forces of lust and vengeance. 

A family sends their only daughter off by horse to make a trip to a church to deliver some holy candles.  Along the way, she is raped by men and left for dead.  It is a harrowing film, with the rape scene courting controversy (Bergman’s remarkably concise letter that responded to the moral uproar showed his maturity and integrity as an artist), and ultimately chopped up by censors when the film was released. 

The rape, though inexplicit by today’s standards, is a very important counterpoint to the violence that comes in the climax.  The inherent savagery of Man is laid bare, but Bergman is also interested in Man’s desire to redeem himself from the sheer weight of guilt. 

Set in a time when religion was still finding its way into the hearts and minds of the common folk, The Virgin Spring looks at the moral vacuum and existential crisis caused by past spectres of Paganism haunting the present, and the perceived incredulity of Christianity as Man's salvation charting the future.  

The Virgin Spring is also one of Bergman's quietest films—there are long stretches with no dialogue, particularly in the climax which speaks purely through visuals.  It meditates on the frustrating notion of God’s silence, a thematic precursor to the director’s ‘Trilogy of Faith'—Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963), while also serving as the last of his early series of films centering on medieval Sweden.  It is, of course, noted for being Bergman’s first true collaboration with the legendary Sven Nyqvist, who would lens nearly all of the master's subsequent pictures.

Verdict:  One of Bergman’s quietest films, but therein lies a powerful and existential meditation on religion, vengeance and guilt.  


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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Dance of Reality, The (2013)

Review #1,357

Director:  Alejandro Jodorowsky
Cast:   Brontis Jodorowsky, Pamela Flores, Jeremias Herskovits
Plot:  Alejandro Jodorowsky was born in 1929 in Tocopilla, a coastal town on the edge of the Chilean desert where this film was shot.  It was there that Jodorowsky underwent an unhappy and alienated childhood as part of an uprooted family.

Genre:  Biography / Drama / Fantasy
Awards:  Official Selection (Cannes)
Runtime:  133min
Rating:  R21 for nudity and violence
International Sales:  Pathe International

“You and I, have only been memories, never reality.  Something is dreaming us, surrender yourself to illusion.”

Absent from filmmaking for more than twenty years, and sorely missed, director Alejandro Jodorowsky made an unexpected comeback at the grand age of 84 with The Dance of Reality, the first of five biographical pictures he plans to make—his latest, Endless Poetry (2016), is already out in the festival circuit. 

Back in his groove again, The Dance of Reality is a welcome, belated return to the director’s unique filmmaking style, suffused with loads of surrealistic flourishes, and what he terms as “psychomagic”.   Indeed the film deals with both psychology, in the form of trauma and memory, and magic, as things miraculously (or phantasmagorically) appear or disappear.

Jodorowsky appears in the film occasionally as a kindred spirit, a sort of guardian angel to his much younger self—a little boy who enjoys his mother's warmth, but has a love-hate relationship with his single-minded father (intriguing played by the director’s son Brontis Jodorowsky).  The bulk of the film centers on the father-son dynamic against the historical backdrop of the rule of Chilean dictator Carlos Ibáñez del Campo. 

The setting is the 1930s, and through the film’s flamboyant use of colour and an overly aestheticized art direction—one that could rival Wes Anderson's—The Dance of Reality is an imaginative work that dazzles in its stage-like artifice, by turns a self-indulgent portraiture of Jodorowsky's own unhappy childhood, and a fantasy willed by an artist who tries to come to terms with alienation through a kind of screen psychosis. 

Like Endless Poetry, there’s a carnival-like triviality to the proceedings that allude to his father’s relationship with the circus.  Jodorowsky also dreams up of scenes that straddles into politics.  The second half of the film centers largely on his father’s story, a tale that couples a devious plan of political assassination with existential struggle, which is bizarre and seemingly fictional to say the least. 

Jodorowsky’s screen mother, a character who physically reminds me of the large-breasted woman who titillated young boys in Fellini’s Amarcord (1973), doesn’t speak, but sings.  And in three of the most provocative scenes in the film, actress Pamela Flores, who plays her, is so at ease with her full, no-holds-barred nudity (one with her screen son no less), that I’m sure Jodorowsky was up to some Oedipus-al mischief when he wrote the screenplay. 

Verdict:  Jodorowsky’s return to filmmaking after 23 years is a dazzling, self-indulgent portrait of his childhood under the surrealistic veil of psychomagic. 


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Monday, October 17, 2016

Sausage Party (2016)

Review #1,356

Director:  Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon
Cast:  Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, James Franco, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Salma Hayek
Plot:  A sausage strives to discover the truth about his existence.

Genre:  Animation / Adventure / Comedy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  89min
Rating:  R21 (with cuts) for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use.
Distributor:  Sony Pictures

“Where's the f---ing sausage?”

Sausage Party has been on my radar ever since it was announced, not because it is my cup of tea, but that its premise suggests something revolutionary in the context of mainstream Hollywood animation—we would finally get the raunchy R-rated title that we deserve.  To add on, I was once a huge fan of this television cartoon from the early noughties called ‘The Babaloos', where normally inanimate objects at home would come alive when humans are asleep. 

Sausage Party loosely puts that idea into practice on food, in particular a mega-supermarket housing countless aisles of perishables.  One of them, Frank (Seth Rogen), a sausage who finds himself in a precarious position of discovering the brutal truth of his existence—and essentially everyone else’s—and attempting to warn about the great lie that has blinded all of them.

Sausage Party is about believing that mindsets can be changed.  These food items believe in ‘The Great Beyond’, where the Gods (humans) would bring them to live happily in eternity.  The reality is that they are leaving the supermarket into the hell of chopping boards, boiling pots and frying pans. 

Frank’s tumultuous journey sees him encounter an assortment of different foods—most of which are stereotyped both culturally and racially.  There’s a load of politically incorrect stuff going on, and the filmmakers have no qualms going on the offensive.  It is also utterly sexual—there’s homoeroticism, sex-related dialogue that you could see coming, and an orgy to end all orgies.  Watching food having sex is just about the ultimate anti-aphrodisiac ever conceived.

The novelty of seeing such a raunchy adult animation wears off pretty quickly, but you are in for a mixed bag of both good and meh chips.  The movie is no doubt funny, and at least you will have an acid trip while it lasts.  The best sequence in Sausage Party involves a human on a recreational drug so powerful that, to his horror, he could converse with his food.  Still, some of the jokes get too repetitive, or that the countless F-bombs get so lost in the mix that when there should be a point of dramatic-cum-comedic emphasis, things get irksome. 

It may be interesting to some that Greg Tiernan, one of the animation’s co-directors, spent nearly all of his directorial career making ‘Thomas & Friends’ cartoons.  What a coming-of-age story indeed.  Please pardon all the sexual puns—so stimulating and pretentious aren’t they?

Verdict:  The novelty of seeing a raunchy, utterly sexual and politically incorrect R-rated animation wears off pretty quickly, but you are in for a mixed bag of both good and meh chips.


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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Monster Calls, A (2016)

Review #1,355

Director:  J.A. Bayona
Cast:  Sigourney Weaver, Felicity Jones, Lewis MacDougall, Toby Kebbell
Plot:  A boy seeks the help of a tree monster to cope with his single mom's terminal illness.

Genre:  Drama / Fantasy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  PG for thematic content and some scary images
International Sales:  Lionsgate
Singapore Distributor:  Cathay-Keris Films

J.A. Bayona is a fantastic director, and in his third feature, A Monster Calls, he has made what I think is his best film yet.  The successes of his breakout horror hit The Orphanage (2007), and his follow-up, The Impossible (2012), the tsunami disaster drama with Naomi Watts, have proven that he is no one-trick pony, and with his latest, he has also proven to be incredibly adept and versatile in handling tone and visual storytelling, playing with and subverting genre conventions, while at the same time drawing affect in normally outlandish scenarios.

It is difficult to pigeonhole A Monster Calls into any genre, but what is certain is that it has a lot of warmth and heart.  It is a loose cross between Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Iron Giant (1999), but because of its imagination and vision, Bayona's film stands on its own as a remarkable, if somewhat under-the-radar offering that should be regarded as one of the year’s most emotionally satisfying works. 

A boy, tortured and bullied at school, lives with his sick mother diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Whenever the clock strikes 12:07, his imagination would bring him up close and personal with a seemingly menacing Ent-like talking tree, who would tell him harsh stories of injustice and personal loss. 

In the hands of Bayona, Patrick Ness’ screenplay (based on his novel of the same name) is given the most beautiful of treatments.  The director’s sense of visuals and how composition and camera movements can elevate the narrative are put to the fore.  The film also intercuts live-action with animation, and the seamless incorporation of the CG-talking tree (voiced by Liam Neeson) into the eclectic visual style make A Monster Calls a very arresting picture. 

But what triumphs all is the whirlwind of emotions that are handled with great sensitivity.  It is a sad film, but an infinitely life-affirming one as well.  A dying mother’s enduring love for her kid is all-powerful, but it is the kid who needs to heal by letting go.  Bayona's visual approach to capturing such ideas is both refreshing and reassuring.

A Monster Calls stars such accomplished actresses as Felicity Jones (who plays the boy's mother) and Sigourney Weaver (his grandmother), but the perfect casting of newcomer Lewis MacDougall as Conor gives us a splendid performance and character who embodies Man's infantile fear of acknowledging a loved one's mortality, but also the courage to believe in a shared and intimate immortality marked by an intertwining web of memories and imagination. 

Verdict:  One of the most emotional screen experiences you will find this year, J.A. Bayona’s imaginative third feature is an assured and affirming tale of love and letting go. 


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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Better Tomorrow, A (1986)

Review: #1,354

Director:  John Woo
Cast:  Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung, Chow Yun-Fat
Plot:  A reforming ex-gangster tries to reconcile with his estranged policeman brother, but the ties to his former gang are difficult to break.

Genre:  Action / Crime
Awards:  Won 4 Golden Horse Awards - Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Sound.  
Runtime:  95min
Rating:  NC16 for violence
Source:  Fortune Star Media Limited

“Mark, this is not our world anymore.”

A Better Tomorrow has eluded me for the longest time.  So what better way to see it for the first time than in digitally restored 4K, and in Cantonese no less.  I would like to convey my heartfelt thanks to the Asian Film Archive for the opportunity.  

Directed by John Woo, one of Hong Kong cinema's stalwarts, the film stars Chow Yun-Fat, Leslie Cheung and Ti Lung, in what feels like a cheesy if outrageously violent comedy (as seen through the lens of the 21st century), but in actual fact, it is a terrific actioner that has been elevated to the highest echelons of Chinese cinema since its fruitful release back in 1986.

A story about two brothers—one (Ti) on a treacherous path as a counterfeiting criminal but longing to 'get out' and seek redemption, the other (Cheung) an uncompromising cop who has no qualms putting law over family, and whose career is continually blighted by his brother's vice activities—A Better Tomorrow also brings in Chow's character to make up the brotherhood triangle, functioning as both comic relief and vicious hitman. 

Woo's incisive development of these three characters, backed by fine performances, and integrating them into the larger narrative of good versus evil, virtuosity versus corruptibility, loyalty versus betrayal, has largely inspired much of HK action cinema to follow suit over the years.

Spawning the 'Heroic Bloodshed' subgenre and making violence acceptable—or more accurately, tolerable—to the mainstream, A Better Tomorrow sees Woo coming into his own and finding a voice as an astute action craftsman.  He would later make such brilliant action films as The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). 

I think it’s fair to say that without A Better Tomorrow, HK cinema would probably have suffered the same fate as Taiwanese cinema in the '90s—struggling to find an identity, a supportive home audience and sustainability.

The birth of a new star in Chow and a talented director in Woo through the success of A Better Tomorrow shows that no matter the genre, when the time is right and ripe, audiences will set the path for growth and progress. 

Action cinema has long been trivialized as insubstantial and inconsequential, but when you have Woo in his A-game, action becomes choreographed art, and violence becomes a ballet of carnage.  To our good fortune, he would get even better.

Verdict:  You really can’t get any more ‘Hong Kong classic’ than this masterful actioner by John Woo.


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