Friday, December 2, 2016

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Review #1,376

Director:  Tom Ford
Cast:  Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney
Plot:  An art gallery owner is haunted by her ex-husband's novel, a violent thriller she interprets as a veiled threat and a symbolic revenge tale.

Genre:  Drama / Mystery / Thriller
Awards:  Won Grand Jury Prize (Venice)
Runtime:  116min
Rating:  M18 for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language.
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“When someone loves you, you have to be careful with it.”

It has been seven years since Tom Ford's debut feature, A Single Man (2009), which saw the famed fashion designer turning to cinema for artistic expression.  While largely critically-acclaimed, I felt his first stab at filmmaking was mixed—perhaps there was too much style and subtlety to the extent that it didn’t feel involving. 

In Ford’s sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals, surely a marked improvement in my opinion, the film is a neat balance of both style and substance, with some tonal shifts that somehow blend into the big picture.  Awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, Nocturnal Animals is also a balance between mainstream accessibility, largely due to its strong A-list Hollywood cast headed by Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, and a more artistic (I wouldn’t say arthouse) endeavour. 

The fact that Universal is handling international rights shows the studio’s great confidence in the film’s marketability.  However, Ford’s work will be a head-scratcher for casual moviegoers without any inclinations toward a more layered and carefully constructed film. 

The performances are superb, with Adams playing Susan, a married career woman (she is an art gallerist) whose ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) unexpectedly sends her a self-written novel, an intellectually piercing and emotionally devastating crime-fiction story (which could be his very own traumatic experience) that keeps her wide awake at night. 

By intercutting sequences of present day with flashbacks of their early romance, while at the same time, splicing them with sequences directly from the novel that could either function as Edward’s memory or fantasy, or perhaps Susan’s imagination, Ford gives us a textual and textured film that is rightly ambitious, engaging, and certainly meta in approach. 

The meta-textual connections transcend reality and fantasy.  For example, Isla Fisher, who plays Edward’s wife in his novel, bears physical resemblance to Adams.  Textured elements marked by shifts in genre expectations and visual styles create harsh, desolate environments (somewhat reminiscent of the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) and No Country for Old Men (2007)) that bring about fear and paralysis for the characters.  This is in contrast to Susan’s world of rich, polished, and overtly sensual surroundings.  Whatever your thoughts about the film, one can’t deny that Ford is a stylish craftsman. 

Verdict:  Tom Ford is a stylish craftsman who delivers a textual and textured psychological thriller that is ambitious and engaging.


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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Review #1,375

Director:  Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Cast:  Andy Lau, Tony Leung, Anthony Wong, Eric Tsang
Plot:  A story between a mole in the police department and an undercover cop.  Their objectives are the same: to find out who is the mole, and who is the cop.

Genre:  Crime / Drama 
Awards:  Won 5 Golden Horses - Best Film, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Sound Effects.  Nom. for 7 Golden Horses - Best Leading Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Visual Effects, Best Action Choreography
Runtime:  101min
Rating:  PG for violence
International Sales:  Media Asia

“Do all undercover cops like rooftops?”

Back in the early 2000s when Hong Kong cinema was having some kind of stagnating crisis, one inspired film woke a fair deal of people—audiences and filmmakers alike—up.  Infernal Affairs, penned by Felix Chong and Alan Mak, and directed by the latter together with Andrew Lau, swept major awards at the Taipei Golden Horse Awards and Hong Kong Film Awards, revitalising the police-and-triad crime-thriller for a post-millennial viewership, and essentially reminded the world that HK cinema has what it takes to succeed both economically and critically. 

Starring Tony Leung as Yan, a cop undercover as a mole in an organised crime syndicate, and Andy Lau as Inspector Lau, a cultivated gangster working undercover in the police, Infernal Affairs is a fascinating story of two faux identities at odds with each other (and themselves), and I’m sure many have read it as symbolic of the faux symbiosis that is the HK-China relationship post-1997 takeover.  There are certainly political overtones, explicitly or otherwise, and in fact, there has been an alternate ending created for China viewers, which I find irksome.   

It is natural for anyone to compare Infernal Affairs to The Departed (2006), the American remake by Scorsese, which is a superlative film in its own right.  Having first seen the latter ten years earlier, the plotting in Infernal Affairs is certainly familiar but still ingenious.  Perhaps the most direct advantage of the original film over its remake is its sheer economy.  Clocking almost an hour less, Infernal Affairs runs like a tight ship, but never at the expense of character development, or the intricacies of plotting. 

Despite the tendency for HK thrillers to impress through its gritty if occasionally overdramatic action set-pieces, be it violent gunfights, car chases or fisticuffs, Infernal Affairs seems to deliberately eschew such obvious performative action hooks, but instead leaves much of how things will play out psychologically—with unnerving uncertainty.  It doesn’t need pyrotechnics, money shots or excessive style to work; it simply relies on strategy and mystery to hypnotise viewers.  Fourteen years on, it remains refreshing and inspiring.

Verdict:  A tightly-scripted and suspenseful film that inspired the superlative The Departed, which doesn’t quite come close to the satisfying economy of this well-made cat-and-mouse crime-thriller.


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Monday, November 28, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Review #1,374

Director:  David Yates
Cast:   Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell, Ezra Miller, Alison Sudol
Plot:  The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York's secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Genre:  Adventure / Fantasy
Awards:  -
Runtime:  133min
Rating:  PG  for some fantasy action violence.
Distributor:  Warner Bros

“Aww, I wanna be a wizard.”

It has been five years since the last ‘Harry Potter' movie, but while the frenzy has died down somewhat, and it is impossible for Warner Bros to predict how screen extensions to the Potterverse would fare in a world more fixated with the Marvel and DC movies, the decision to greenlight a new franchise of five films, starting with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, is as I would like to see it, an inspired one, at least from the quality of the first instalment. 

David Yates returns to direct, no doubt his familiarity with the fantastic world of wizards and wands is paying dividends.  Together with J.K. Rowling, who delivers her first screenplay (which is excellent by the way), they bring us back to the magic of old, yet this is a brand new story with a touch of darkness and a lighter touch of warmth. 

Fantastic Beasts stars Eddie Redmayne as Newt, a young Englishman who travels to New York in search of lost beasts to tame and care for.  He meets two key figures whom I'm sure will continue to play major roles in the subsequent movies—Tina (Katherine Waterson, who first caught my eye in P.T. Anderson's Inherent Vice (2014)) and Kowalski (Dan Fogler in a bumbling, charming performance). 

They meet other characters, both inherently good and ambivalently evil, as they serve up a story that is not only well-told, but one that is satisfying enough to pave way for what will surely be another big screen popular culture phenomenon. 

As usual, this is a tale of light and darkness, magic and sorcery.  Newt, in the middle of the maelstrom that is to unfold which threatens to reveal the wizards and witches in our midst, is seen to be malignant by the authorities, while he tries to prove his innocence and worth—with the aid of his assortment of creatures hidden in the cavernous world of his briefcase. 

The visual effects are top-notch, some of the finest I’ve seen this year, though one could tell that the filmmakers have tried to restraint themselves, not just in service to the narrative, but also to pique our curiosity.  I’m sure in time to come these fantastic beasts, happily in Newt’s expanding collection, will feature more prominently and become wholly integral to the development of the franchise. 

Verdict:  The magic of old with a largely involving newfound story combine in what is a decent beginning to what will surely be another big screen popular culture phenomenon.  


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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Woman Under the Influence, A (1974)

Review #1,373 

Director:  John Cassavetes
Cast:  Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk
Plot:  A blue-collar man tries to deal with his wife's mental instability.  He fights to keep a semblance of normality in the face of her bizarre behavior, but when her actions affect their children, he has her committed.

Genre:  Drama 
Awards:  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Director, Best Leading Actress
Runtime:  147min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be NC16 for some mature themes)
Source:  Jumer Productions

“Dad... will you stand up for me?”

John Cassavetes was a misunderstood and polarising figure in his time.  Most of his signature works defy narrative conventions, both in structure and characterisation, often to the dismay of critics who couldn’t pigeonhole these films.  Like Robert Bresson, he had infamously proclaimed that his films were the truth and his methods true.  But like Bresson, Cassavetes was also an immaculate filmmaker, a visionary as he sought to transform American independent filmmaking into an artistic triumph no matter the struggle. 

His passing in 1989 has since opened the doors to a re-appreciation of this master filmmaker, and his words, hollowed back then now ring with a resounding truth.  A Woman Under the Influence, arguably his finest film, is a superlative testament to the legacy of this remarkable man.

Here’s a film about marital problems and domestic strife, so brutal in its depiction of a middle-class family on the brink of self-destruction that it is at once fascinating and harrowing to experience.  It is certainly essential viewing, starring Peter Falk as Nick, a blue-collar worker who has to deal with his psychologically unstable wife Mabel, played by Cassavetes' real-life wife Gena Rowlands. 

The duo gives two of the rawest performances I’ve seen in ‘70s American cinema, dovetailing along tortured emotions of tolerance, bewilderment and fury, yet their characters are deeply—madly—in love with each other, and care for their three children.

Cassavetes' incisive and scathing script outlines how insanity affects relationships inside and outside of the family, but sheer irony begets the inquiry: the film is not so much about why Mabel is behaving as such, but how the people surrounding her has made her as such. 

Despite largely set within the confines of a house and its private spaces, Cassavetes' camera is always searching for signals from the actors, be it a shrug, a blink, a sigh, a gesture, any gesture.  And it is with this ‘inquisitive’ spirit that so embodies the Cassavetes modus operandi, that gives A Woman Under the Influence a kind of impetus for forward narrative momentum. 

Instead of relying on traditional ways of editing for dramatic emphasis, this cinematographic ‘inquisition’ pushes the film to pursue a kind of realism seldom created by the apparatus that is traditional (or staged) cinema.  Through long takes, blocking and selective focus that magnify in their minutiae the physical performances and improvisations of Falk and Rowlands, Cassavetes has carved out a new kind of cinema even at the heart of the New Hollywood Cinema of the late ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Verdict:  One of Cassavetes’ greatest triumphs, this is a harrowing drama of the highest order with astonishing performances, and scathing and incisive screenwriting.


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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Dreamers, The (2003)

Review #1,372

Director:  Bernardo Bertolucci
Cast:  Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green
Plot:  A young American studying in Paris in 1968 strikes up a friendship with a French brother and sister.  Set against the background of the '68 Paris student riots.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  -
Runtime:  115min
Rating:  R21 (cut!) for explicit sexual content.
International Sales:  HanWay Films

This review is based on my viewing of the original uncut version.

“I don't want to be loved very much, I just want to be loved.”

In The Dreamers, the three main characters play a game testing their knowledge of cinema.  One of them describes a scene, and the other two have to guess which film it comes from.  Of course they fail and have to perform a forfeit: to have sex with each other.  It is quite literally the screen representation of every sexually repressed (male) cinephile’s wet dream. 

Bernardo Bertolucci, in his 15th film, has concocted a mesmerising erotic drama centering on Isabelle and Theo, two French incestuous siblings played by Eva Green (in her feature debut at age 23) and Louis Garrel respectively, who befriends Matthew (Michael Pitt), an American studying in Paris at the height of the ‘68 student riots.  The introverted Matthew emboldens in the company of the wild duo, bonded by a passionate love for cinema, and later experiencing a powerful sense of sexual awakening as he finds himself falling in love with Isabelle. 

The trio gives bold performances, in particular Green who is completely nonchalant about screen nudity.  In many scenes, we see them shedding their clothes, exploring each other’s bodies and their sexuality.  Sex in cinema has always been a potent combination for disgust and ecstasy, and Bertolucci, having made one of the most controversial films in history—Last Tango in Paris (1972)—is no stranger. 

The Dreamers, less controversial but no less explicit, is stylishly directed with a strong visual style, accompanied by a string of thoughtful and invigorating music selections ranging from film music e.g. The 400 Blows (1959) by Jean Constantin, to songs by Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and The Doors. 

From a larger historical context, Bertolucci’s work is a confluence of politics, sex and cinema, painting with a broad brushstroke both the liberalisation of attitudes towards sexuality in the West in the ‘60s, as well as the social revolution against capitalism, consumerism and the establishment by youths and workers which, in the case of France, culminated in the May ’68 riots. 

There’s intercutting of footage from older films with present scenes in The Dreamers.  A superlative example of this is the sequence where the trio recreates the infamous race through the Louvre, as seen in Godard’s Band of Outsiders (1964).  This commingling of past with present, and screen fantasy with historical memory is perhaps the most fascinating facet of Bertolucci’s film. 

While it doesn’t go deep into its subject matter like some of his greatest films such as The Conformist (1970) and The Last Emperor (1987), The Dreamers manages to pull through with a fine balance of homage, titillation and love for its characters. 

Verdict:  The confluence of politics, sex and cinema is on display in this stylish erotic drama by Bertolucci.


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Monday, November 21, 2016

I Live in Fear (1955)

Review #1,371

Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Cast:  ToshirĂ´ Mifune, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki
Plot:  An aging, industrialist Japanese man becomes so fearful of nuclear war that it begins to take a toll on his life and family.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  103min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG)
International Sales:  Toho

In a way, one might see I Live in Fear as a companion piece to Ishiro Honda’s cult classic Gojira (1954), both produced by Toho.  Of course, they are both different kinds of films that target dissimilar audiences.  Gojira is a monster movie that operates as entertainment first, and then allegory, albeit a rather strong and potent one, on the collective fears of nuclear disaster and radiation.  I Live in Fear (also known as Record of a Living Being), on the other hand, is Akira Kurosawa’s unexpected follow-up to the swordfighting period epic Seven Samurai (1954), a low-key urban drama that tackles similar issues to Gojira

The difference is that while Gojira sees such fears manifest themselves physically in a destructive giant lizard, I Live in Fear centers on an elderly patriarch who is paranoid that Japan will suffer a hydrogen bomb attack.  It is a psychological problem that has caused much anxiety and distress to his family, who wants to certify him as mentally insane via a family mediation court, so that his plan to relocate everyone to Brazil is scuppered. 

That old man, Nakajima, is played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune, who was only 35 at that time.  Aged through makeup, the almost unrecognisable Mifune delivers an awkward performance that straddles between being too dramatic and too exaggerating.  Kurosawa’s lack of restraint in directing Mifune is the film’s most obvious flaw, seemingly pushing for ‘more’ acting than subtlety. 

The story, however, is told excellently, sometimes from the vantage point of an ‘outsider’ played by Takashi Shimura, whose character Dr. Harada volunteers as a part-time court mediator amid his busy work schedule as a dentist.  Struck by how a man could be so paranoid over his mortality in relation to a nuclear attack, Dr. Harada struggles to understand Nakajima's perspective, yet feels the same ‘Japanese’ trauma and paranoia festering inside him. 

Some scenes in I Live in Fear occur in a mediation room in sweltering heat, which similarly reached unbearable levels in Kurosawa’s superlative High and Low (1963) when police investigators in their confined office struggle to make sense of a kidnapping crime.  Such scenes are in stark contrast to heavy rain (typical of Kurosawa to play with natural elements)—in one scene, a blinding lightning strike and loud thunder clap following sounds of aircraft, frightens the living wits out of Nakajima.  It is a virtuoso moment in a film not quite up there in the director’s formidable canon. 

Verdict:  One of Kurosawa’s lesser urban dramas that deals with the trauma and anxiety of nuclear annihilation through the eyes of a paranoid old patriarch.  


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