Friday, February 24, 2017

Jackie (2016)

Review #1,413

Director:  Pablo Larrain
Cast:  Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt
Plot:  Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband's historic legacy.

Genre:  Biography / Drama
Awards:  Won Best Screenplay (Venice).  Nom. for 3 Oscars - Best Leading Actress, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score
Runtime:  100min
Rating:  NC16 for brief strong violence and some language
International Sales:  IMR International
Singapore Distributor:  Shaw Organisation

“I will march with Jack, alone if necessary.”

We return to the early ‘60s when Jacqueline was a Kennedy, eased into a historical space and time by the wonderful performance of Natalie Portman, who never for one moment fail to convince that she’s ‘Jackie’. 

Hers is one of the year’s best performances, almost a shoo-in for her second Oscar if not for the youthful energy of Emma Stone (backed by La La Land’s relentless awards momentum), and the daring and outright brilliance of Isabelle Huppert in Elle, both of whom are now considered frontrunners in a two-horse race, with Stone edging out in popularity. 

Portman is blessed with costume designers who constantly dress her in an elegant wardrobe.  And her character, all grace and poise, complements the regal production design that she finds herself wandering in. 

Jackie sees her wander in and out of rooms, tending to her kids, giving a tour of the White House on camera, enjoying a solo music performance on cello, etc.  It takes a bit of time to get into director Pablo Larrain’s unconventional style and structure, but what is consistent is Portman’s mournful look as she recalls the days just before and after her husband was assassinated. 

The film is plotless and has no particular narrative shape, but what it does best is to draw a haunting, lingering effect on the viewer (Mica Levi’s idiosyncratic, subtly dissonant strings-heavy score plays a huge part, a fantastic follow-up to her avant-garde work on Under the Skin (2013)).  There’s an overwhelming sense of tragedy, and as a character study, Jackie is poignant at best, sombre at second best. 

Intercutting re-enactments and dramatizations with historical footage, Jackie tries to paint a portrait of a lady who despite having to suffer tremendous trauma, still had the courage and drive to etch her husband’s legacy as President into the collective mind of a grieving nation.  As far as the history of 20th century America is concerned, JFK and Jackie remain steadfastly assured of a place far away from mere footnotes. 

Larrain, arguably the most important filmmaker to emerge from Chile in the last ten years, has made a film that is as non-traditional a biopic as it could be (huge credit also goes to screenwriter Noah Oppenheim for his distinctive script). 

In a way, no American filmmaker could have possibly made a film like this.  Instead of just formulaically receiving the movie, the experience of watching Jackie is more akin to witnessing the intimate spectres of fragmented history flow resplendently back to life.  This is one of 2016’s underrated gems.

Verdict:  An unconventional if poignant character study on Jacqueline Kennedy that draws a haunting, lingering effect as if we are witnessing the intimate spectres of fragmented history flow resplendently back to life.


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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Dekalog: Two (1988)

Review #1,412

Director:  Krzysztof Kieslowski
Cast:  Krystyna Janda, Aleksander Bardini, Olgierd Lukaszewicz
Plot:  Dorota is in love with two men: her gravely ill husband, Andrzej, and a fellow musician who is the father of her unborn child.  Andrzej's doctor, himself no stranger to loss, is Dorota's downstairs neighbour; she implores him to swear to a prognosis for her husband, and in doing so puts a very serious decision into his hands. (from The Criterion Collection)

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize & Children and Cinema Award (Venice).  Official Selection (Cannes).
Runtime:  60min
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
Source:  Telewizja Polska S.A.

Dekalog: One


Dekalog: Two continues Kieslowski’s fascination with the people who inhabit and orbit an apartment complex that is one of the series’ recurring visual motifs.  In this second episode, we follow a stressed-out Dorota (Krystyna Janda), who is facing a personal dilemma: pregnant from an extra-marital affair with her colleague, an orchestra musician, she has to decide on whether to abort the baby, though this is dependent on whether Andrzej (Olgierd Lukaszewicz), her severely-ill husband, will recover or die. 

In the center of this is Andrzej’s elderly doctor (played by the mournful-looking Aleksander Bardini), also Dorota’s downstairs neighbour.  Through the film, Dorota pesters the doctor to give a prognosis of her husband’s condition, unwittingly placing the burden on him to decide on who should live or die.

Kieslowski’s work here, as you may have already guessed, is a powerful if also ambiguously-layered treatise on dilemmas and decisions.  The mysteries of life and death, and its associated pain and loss, as faced by these characters, are portrayed with such nuance that you can’t help but imagine a possible metaphysical force dictating ever so subtly the mystical ways of their world. 

The doctor, in particular, whose professional demeanour hides a sorrowful past, had been a victim of unknowable metaphysics.  In a few brief scenes centering on him and an old woman who drops by his apartment occasionally as a caretaker of sorts, we listen to him recounting small, revealing snippets of his life.  This is a man who has felt the most profound of losses.

Dekalog: Two thus can be seen as a tale on fate.  Life is a pack of cards, Kieslowski seems to say.  One day, you could be dealt with a good hand; on another, a bad hand.  And when you least expected it, a miraculous hand, or a devastating one. 

Morality, another main theme of the film, also lends an ethical slant to the conundrum faced by these characters.  Should we ever place any kind of burden on someone?  Do we always make the right choice?  What is right anyway?  Is it when there is no absolute wrong?  These are psychological, even philosophical questions, to which there are no answers.  The genius of Kieslowski is that he tries to make us feel them, however naked they are in their nebulousness and perplexity.

Verdict:  A tale centering on fate and morality involving a doctor, a woman and her severely ill husband, in this ambiguously-layered second episode of ‘Dekalog’.


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Monday, February 20, 2017

Silence (2016)

Review #1,411

Director:  Martin Scorsese
Cast:  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Issei Ogata
Plot:  Two priests travel to Japan in an attempt to locate their mentor and propagate Catholicism.

Genre:  Drama / History
Awards:  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Cinematography
Runtime:  161min
Rating:  NC16 for some disturbing violent content
International Sales: IM Global
Singapore Distributor: Golden Village Pictures

 “I pray but I am lost.  Am I just praying to silence?”

A film that unfortunately didn’t catch a good whiff of the awards buzz, landing only a solitary Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for Rodrigo Prieto, who is one of the masterful if underrated cinematographers working today, having lensed amongst others the early films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Lee Ang, and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). 

He should win his first Oscar for the breathtaking work in Silence, a film that has been gestating in Scorsese’s mind for nearly thirty years.  It is his passion project, shot largely in the remote natural landscape of Taiwan, and concludes his ‘religious trilogy’ that began with The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), one of the director’s greatest works, and Kundun (1997), arguably his most beautiful film.    

Silence’s slow (I prefer to use the word ‘meditative’) pacing is not for everyone, but turning 75 later this year, any new picture from Scorsese is a privilege to see on the big screen.  Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver star as two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan to spread Catholicism and to search for the missing Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson).  This is the 17th century, a time of brutal religious persecution, and their journey is ridden with terrifying dangers. 

The title ‘Silence’ refers to both the silence of God, and the silence of believers, a duplicitous condition marked by a continuous and unbearable psychological torment.  Scorsese, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, adapted from Shusaku Endo’s novel (first adapted by Masahiro Shinoda in his 1971 film), lets the film operate with an ambitious canvas.  Running twenty minutes short of three hours, this is an epic with startling intimacy. 

Its unhurried pacing also unfolds with stately elegance—almost every other shot holds a hypnotic power that lures us into an old world.  A scene as a procession exits a forested area echoes Kurosawa’s first short in his omnibus Dreams (1990), so are some of the Japanese courtyard scenes.  But some of the film’s most indelible images show the Jesuit priests travelling by boat through the foggy night, surely a direct homage to Mizoguchi’s monumental masterwork, Ugetsu (1953). 

Silence is possibly Scorsese’s quietest film, with an almost non-existent score, and lots of inner existential rumination manifesting as voiceovers.  The film is not an affirmation or critique of Christian theology, though it does challenge us not to act in blind faith which is sometimes conflated with spiritual strength. 

Silence’s compassionate power ultimately makes this a work about humanity’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with mortality.  The greatest paradox—itself a torment—is that religion seems to bring about pain inasmuch as it helps to deal with that suffering.  Such a wretched existence that we endure… for the love of life, for the love of love, and maybe for the love of God.

Verdict:  The film operates with an ambitious canvas, unfolding with stately elegance, but it is Scorsese’s existential dissection of Christian theology that lends it its thought-provoking, even compassionate, power.


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Friday, February 17, 2017

Lego Batman Movie, The (2017)

Review #1,410

Director:  Chris McKay
Cast:  Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Zach Galifianakis
Plot:  Bruce Wayne must not only deal with the criminals of Gotham City, but also the responsibility of raising a boy he adopted.

Genre:  Animation / Action / Adventure
Awards:  -
Runtime:  104min
Rating:  PG for rude humor and some action
Distributor:  Warner Bros

“Hey mom, hey dad, I um, I saved the city again today, I think you would have been really proud.”

Expect more Lego-lising of popular culture in the near future.  For now, the novelty hasn’t worn thin yet, and with the expected success of The Lego Batman Movie, we should be ready for a series of such family fun in the next five years (The Lego Ninjago Movie is coming out later this year). 

Coming right after the wildly popular The Lego Movie (2014), which was tragically left out of the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature, this ‘Batman' version, a stylistic sequel if you will, maintains the former's full-throttle visual style, somewhat akin to a bombardier’s view of unmitigated chaos. 

Among the flurry and blurry lies a story of heart and warmth, about the need for companionship and family, values that Batman is absolutely incompatible with.  It is this tension that needs to be resolved, and the movie does so in typical Hollywood fashion, perhaps even mocking the one-way street that it operates on, without really trying to be different. 

An interesting approach of The Lego Batman Movie towards the notion of a shared, but sharply divided Gotham City is Batman’s relationship with his arch nemesis, the Joker, who in this film is a sensitive man in every sense.  There’s still that beloved anarchic spirit, but the Joker here is more carefully drawn out to be part of the overall equation, and so are his nefarious friends. 

Good and evil combine to sustain a world that can only operate if there is a dichotomy.  One can’t help but draw ironic parallels with the current political situation in the States, albeit very reductively.  There’s even a sharp jab at Trump... well, even Batman pays his taxes!  Plot-wise, you will get what you desire—a straightforward quest for Batman to right many self-created wrongs, with numerous intertextual references that fly at you at the speed of light.

The only real bother of The Lego Batman Movie, and one which kinda affected its predecessor too, is that it never lets up.  It is addictive like a game app you can’t stop playing even if you might be a tad bored with it at some point.  But you can’t resist because it wants to entertain you, and you want to be entertained. 

Verdict:  A full-throttle family entertainment that never lets up, like a game app you can’t stop playing even if you might be a tad bored with it at some point.  


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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Terrorizers, The (1986)

Review #1,409

Director:  Edward Yang
Cast:  Cora Miao, Ku Pao-Ming, Chin Shih-Chieh, Lee Li-Chun
Plot:  A metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks.

Genre:  Drama / Crime
Awards:  Won 1 Golden Horse - Best Feature Film.  Nom. for 2 Golden Horses - Best Leading Actress, Best Original Screenplay
Runtime:  109min
Rating:  PG for violence and some mature themes
Source:  Central Motion Picture Corporation

Snug in between Taipei Story (1985) and A Brighter Summer Day (1991), The Terrorizers marks the artistic levelling up of Edward Yang as a filmmaker, who would find in himself the ambition and ability to create even more powerful cinema that illuminates the human condition. 

The Terrorizers is certainly not as sprawling and all-encompassing as A Brighter Summer Day or Yi Yi (2000), but it is arguably Yang's most complex work.  It is a tale of intersecting narratives, centering on the stories of three different couples whose lives would intertwine with one another, quite like the early films of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu such as Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), which were made more than a decade later. 

Yang’s work here achieves a metaphysical quality, built on themes of coincidence, nihilism and futility.  It is not exactly a bleak film, but it captures the malaise of urban existence, marked by a sense of being trapped in a cycle of despondence and glumness. 

Yang has always been interested in urban relationships, a far cry from his counterpart and fellow master filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien, whose early films such as A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984) and A Time to Live, a Time to Die (1985) often detailed with much lyricism and nostalgia the lives of intergenerational families living in rural areas. 

In The Terrorizers, Yang continues his fascination with urbanity through its people and spaces.  Taipei city, a symbol of Taiwanese pride and economic vibrancy, conceals a darker force of stagnation and dispiritedness.  And in the aforementioned three couples—whose characterisation and place in the film’s narrative arc are too complex to be described here—we are privy to their interconnectedness, and how a series of cause-and-effect scenarios affect their lives drastically. 

I must mention one character, a writer struggling to pen her first fiction (is it really?) novel.  Yang cleverly makes use of the dialectic between imagination (arising from the limitlessness of fiction) and reality (arising from the mundanity of life), in particular during the picture’s widely-debated final act to construct a film that exposes our preoccupation with seeking for a singular truth to the world that we live in. 

In short, we want answers.  In Singapore, the answers seem to be dictated through structure and routine—but we remain unfulfilled.  We all need that bit of imagination and rebelliousness to spark us from our collective rat race-chasing, system-worshipping stupor.  The Terrorizers is not just a competently-constructed stunner; it is also Yang’s warning to urban dwellers to break free of that toxic, self-terrorizing cycle.

Verdict:  Yang’s complex, metaphysical tale of intersecting narratives continues his fascination with urban relationships—of people and spaces—in this competently-constructed stunner.


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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Review #1,408

Director:  Kenneth Lonergan
Cast:  Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler 
Plot:  An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew after the boy's father dies.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for 6 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay
Runtime:  137min
Rating:  NC16 for language throughout and some sexual content
Distributor:  United International Pictures

“I can't beat it.  I can't beat it.  I'm sorry.”

If you are still not convinced of Casey Affleck as an actor, Manchester by the Sea will pull you across the fence.  He is the brooding presence of Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited third feature (he takes long breaks between projects), giving us a performance that is best described as socially withdrawn, and likely to win him his first acting Oscar. 

He plays Lee Chandler, a man suffering from a deep sadness, which the film through its dexterity in non-linear editing would reveal different time periods of his troubled life.  His is a fully-developed character, a janitor-cum-handyman working in Boston, whose past continues to keep him from moving on, but when he receives news that his brother in Manchester has died, he reluctantly becomes the legal guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges in a pleasantly surprising Oscar-nominated role).

That sets the narrative gears running in what is a slow-building but assuredly-crafted tale of grief, guilt and loss.  But Lonergan, in his development of the Lee-Patrick relationship, doesn’t forget about human connection, hope and redemption, even if these seem to be hard-to-reach fantasies for Lee. 

What makes Manchester by the Sea engaging despite a heavy sense of abject is Lonergan's astute balance of dialogue and silence.  The ‘silence’ here is expressed poetically through a wordless series of images, be it of boats in the sea, snow-covered roads and houses, or in the film’s most formidable depiction, a key montage paired with the elegiac strings of ‘Adagio Per Archi E Organo in Sol Minore’, which is left to play in its entirety. 

The only times when Lee could afford a rare smile are when he’s on the family boat, with his brother and nephew, a trio of guys enjoying fishing and the small, intimate moments of life.  That was in a different, simpler time.  It reminds us: we all had our boats, now long gone.  But Lonergan tells us: as life goes on, there are other boats to get on, though they don’t come by easily.  He deserves to win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

Manchester by the Sea eschews, for better or worse, a sense of emotional catharsis for a deep exploration of what makes a wounded soul.  If a heavy heart could ever materialise in a physical, cinematic form, it would become this picture. 

Verdict:  A slow-building, assuredly-crafted tale of grief, guilt and loss, carried forth with brooding intensity by the remarkable Casey Affleck.


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