Many worlds collide in Park-Chan Wook’s THE HANDMAIDEN. The old, vibrant mansion against the new and muted cityscapes of the early 20th century, the Korean and Japanese spoken here, the sometimes dark and brutal subject matter to the dry humor that Wook can excel at (see: Oldboy). Essentially, juxtaposition is key here. In some ways, this film is an indescribable one; it’s so many things at once. This is a ride, one that I don’t even want to describe much because this is a movie you should go into blind. But I’ll do my best.
The best character in THE HANDMAIDEN is Park-Chan Wook’s camera. It’s defined and rigid, fluid and omniscient, measured and constantly moving, flamboyant and timed for comedic effect, wide and even gorgeous. Meanwhile, this camera captures the fantastic production design, putting an absolutely enticing and breathtaking culture onto celluloid, all the while capturing the beautiful performances of Wook’s leading ladies.
Kim Tae-ri and Kim Min-hee both give complicated performances that reflect the complicated plot, one in which Sook-Hee (Tae-ri) tries to scam Lady Hideko (Min-hee) into an insane asylum, taking the money and running away with her accomplice and planner, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), but not before experiencing a sexual awakening of sorts with Lady Hideko. This brief plot synopsis is just not enough to describe the intricacies of this three-dimensional narrative, one which involves not only twists and turns but an ingenious flashback structure. Subtext is also key here: this is a film taking place during the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, a time of oppression with a huge dose of melancholy. Park-Chan Wook uses this to meditate into complicated issues of feminism, sexuality, and a whole lot of creepy 1930s erotica. Yes, this is a perplexing film, but it’s also a wondrous and successful attempt to make an uncensored, exhaustive Hitchcockian fever dream into a hell of a time at the cinema.
But there’s a controversy here I need to address.
This is a contentious film because of its lesbian sex scenes, which were described as bloated, perverse and perverted. This is somewhat true; I never found the scenes to be quite “male gazey” as some would call it, mainly because this film is a lot about discovering who you are, including sexually, making the camera’s BRIEF focuses on the female anatomy be more about a repressed, uninvited sexuality than exploitation. However, the scenes are a little long, even if they are mostly filmed with wide angles and in a non-voluptuous way. In fact, this entire film, clocking in at 145 minutes approximately, is a bit bloated in the way it emphasizes points we have already gotten, especially in its protracted and occasionally repetitious montages. Its ending especially feels extended and familiar with each scene, making points already understood by the viewers more and more obvious as the third act stretches its welcome into a redundant conclusion.
THE HANDMAIDEN isn’t for everyone; the squeamish and homophobic should beware. But otherwise, this is an extremely entertaining thrill ride that will make your jaw drop in places but become an idiotic grin in others. (The so-far unmentioned score is also a strong part of this film’s somewhat off-putting yet delightful charm). An extraordinarily satisfactory experience. Catch it if you can.
The title of LA LA LAND hints at so much of the film you’re about to watch: LA stands for Los Angeles, the city featured beautifully here; la la is a song thing, hinting at the fact that this film is a musical; and when someone says you’re in la la land, it means you’re in a dreamlike state, just like this film. The rest of the film isn't necessarily as complex as the layered title would suggest, but LA LA LAND makes up for it with subtle nuances and details throughout that add to the larger facade here, one of upbeat and jaunty fun, while still retaining a visceral core that will affect you deeply by the end.
LA LA LAND follows Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who isn’t aspiring too well because casting people refuse to take any unknowns seriously, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of eventually starting his own jazz club but for now must settle for Christmas music in restaurants. LA LA LAND charts Mia and Sebastian’s slow but wonderful fall for each other, as well as the ups and downs of their relationship, mainly the conflict each person has when reality interferes with love.
Blue is the color of dreams in LA LA LAND. From the opening shot -- a pan down from the gorgeous blue sky of Los Angeles -- to the luscious blue lighting of jazz clubs and L.A. sunsets alike, Chazelle holds a precise control over his color palette that adds a certain beauty to the film, even more so when the red of reality is juxtaposed with this blue dream. And speaking of dreams, this seems like Chazelle’s dream project. His first feature, the student-film like GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH, is basically a devolved version of LA LA LAND. His breakout film WHIPLASH provided him all the resources he needed to make this nostalgic picture, one that literally starts with the statement “filmed in CinemaScope.” In the digital age, this statement is somewhat of a lie -- but hey, can’t he dream?
This is also an extraordinarily romantic movie (please go to this film with a significant other of some kind, you won’t regret it); it romanticizes the Hollywood musical and the charm of modern love into an old-fashioned contemporary affair. There’s always love in the air, most obviously through the staggering chemistry of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone (their third pairing as lovers), but also through the passion on display in almost every character. Sebastian speaks of jazz as if it is his one true soulmate, Mia is a passionate actress despite the job not always reciprocating her feelings, and Damien Chazelle’s direction is a love letter to cinema itself. In a grandiose, stylistic approach to the musical, Chazelle pulls out all his stops for a continuous series of long takes that flow with grace and elegance, in a way dancing to the rhythm that cinema can conjure up when done effectively, as it is here. This approach is so much fun to watch, and the precision with which Chazelle tackles both complicated dance numbers and the still, extremely well-written show stoppers lends to the film in such a wonderful way.
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, despite not exactly being Broadway stars (theater friends I respect and admire who saw Stone during her Broadway run of CABARET weren’t very kind), make their singing and dancing work pretty well; still, great acting by both is their true power. Other stars make the most of small roles, ranging from John Legend to J.K. Simmons, who must really like this Chazelle kid after he got him his Oscar in 2014.
LA LA LAND is an inspirational film. I went home after a lucky early screening and felt inspired to write about the film because it’s just so filled with love and heart. It made me love film even more. I’m willing to look past my nitpicks of some occasional lip-syncing issues as well as some on-the-nose dialogue that directs a potential criticism of the film -- being too imbued in nostalgia -- directly at us, because this is a film about pursuing your passions. It’s the best version of that, too; inspirational films are normally worn out after a day or two for me. I’m still reeling from the charm of this beauty, just as I was leaving the movie theater almost three weeks ago. Most films make me want to smile, but this one makes me want to dance.
For a mainstream release, Arrival is an extremely weird movie. An alien movie without a fast pace or blockbuster action scenes, it instead taps into your brain. In that respect, Arrival is awesome and should be admired by all, even despite something being a tiny bit lacking here.
Arrival starts with aliens arriving on Earth in the form of 12 different elongated spaceships. We see this from the perspective of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics professor at an unknown university who is suddenly tasked with translating the newly arrived alien’s strange language, one that cannot be translated verbally but instead through circles with splattered marks around the circumference. This is juxtaposed throughout with visions that Amy Adams gets of her daughter, who died from cancer. As she gets closer and closer to communicating with these aliens, her mind changes in the way that everyone does when learning a new language; their brain starts to process things differently. In an ironic twist, each of the 12 stations located outside the alien ships slowly loses contact with each other, refusing to collaborate as a cause of their different methods of communication with the aliens. Some even start to look for a violent approach.
Despite co-stars like Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, I only mentioned Adams because it’s truly her movie. The camera tracks her beautifully, rooted in her own perspective not only through the sequences of her daughter but also through simple camera placement; the film is less concerned with her face then it is with her back (and not the Sir-Mix-A-Lot kind), tracking her various walks at every chance it gets. This is just a starting point to the cerebral nature of this film, rooted in Louise's mind; as the film gets deeper into Louise’s head, we get deeper into our own minds as we think as hard as we can to uncover what’s going on, while the film never really backs down to give us a solid answer until the bizarre ending.
In fact, the film never really gives us an answer on most things which is greatly appreciated. Even the aliens are literally in a mist throughout the film, with their design not even telling much: their legs are long and skinny. Or are they legs? The pair of aliens entitled “Abbott and Costello” (a nod to the iconic “who’s on first, who’s on second, I don’t know who’s on third” bit, since the skit is largely involved around the miscommunication that is also present in this film) could actually be a pair of hands on some sort of B.F.A. (Big Friendly Alien). Or could it be..?
The director, Denis Villeneuve, is a master of mood; his previous film Sicario had a growing dread present throughout that made it one of the best films of 2015. In this film, his direction is discombobulating. The fear the characters have of an unknown life form comes through in full force, Dutch tilts and Hitchcockian dolly zooms aplenty leading the way for a tense and uncomfortable mood. The score by Johann Johansson adds even more to this effect in an eerie yet ethereal sound. The whole film feels like a roller coaster, but not in the usual way that metaphor is used: it has a kinetic energy and a loud wind screaming in your air as you yourself scream in anticipation and horror.
The problem, though, is something that no film can ever achieve perfectly for each audience member: it didn’t connect with me emotionally. While my brain was at work, my heart was beating normally. There’s none of those moments that truly made me emotional, even more so after the ending of the film gave me enough information for me to infer something and it kept on going, making what I had already figured out blatant and uninteresting. There’s also some lines in this film that stray into cheese territory, such as the trailer’s “now that's a proper introduction.”
Arrival is an intelligent film that, in a way, constructs its own language for you: it sets a mystery that you slowly put together through different puzzle pieces, slowly unraveling the whole picture through your interpretation. I may have some minor issues with it, but at the end of the day I’m glad that a mainstream release like this isn’t just popcorn fodder, teaching us while not being a Ted Talk and allowing us to apply the information we’ve learned practically, even if we have an answer sheet nearby.
The cinematic equivalent of normcore , MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an exercise in the mundanity of life. The direction here is simple and precise, with absolutely no flash of grandiose style. People going to film for a visual experience probably won’t find much to like here, since everything is not necessarily what most would call cinematic. (The director of photography here probably just sat around doing nothing 99% of the time). In fact, it felt like it could have been Oscar bait for the first half hour, building on the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams to garner a golden statue for their work while the film would be forgotten in a year or two.
What threw me off was the humor.
This film is surprisingly hilarious in both its dryness and wittiness. The dryness comes through the cringe felt when any number of characters talk to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an uncle who is forced to take care of his nephew (Lucas Hedges) after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies a sudden and expected death, despite living with heart problems for several years. Lee is abhorrent at being a father to Lucas for a reason made clear almost immediately: he is reticent and introverted, while he can also be kind of a dick. The reason for that is eventually explained in a full emotional style. However, while the film may revolve around a depressing subject matter, Lee’s prickish nature is the cause of some very well-earned punchlines that sneak up on you, just as the wit of the nephew, a boy named Patrick, earns some nice jabs of laughter that, while brief, provide the film with a heart.
Casey Affleck’s performance here is subdued but powerful; his brief outbursts of emotion are even more effective against the rest of his restrained performance. The emotional bursts, too, are not your typical Oscar ones: screaming out about the cynicism of life and the horrors that [insert character who won the performer an Oscar here] have had to face, but small bursts of outpouring in which he doesn’t even speak but just acts. His surges of anger here feel extraordinarily real and relatable, providing gateways toward empathy that, while brief, provide us with the opportunity to enter his headspace. You never really know Lee, and yet he always feels like an undeniable human being, as do the rest of the cast, including brief turns from Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams, and Matthew Broderick. Lucas Hedges as Patrick is given some not-quite believable dialogue (“you are fundamentally unsound,” for example, instead of “what the fuck is wrong with you”), but makes it work through his sheer charm as your typical teenager, even as he struggles to maintain a Boston accent.
Powerful without feeling exploitative, amusing while never contradicting the grievous subject matter, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a great picture that, while never relying on the incredible imagery that tends to define pure cinema, always manages to surprise and connect.
Black Orpheus, Marcel Camus’ 1959 magnum opus, opens with foreshadowing: Everything is happy: children are dancing, kites are flying, and then that kite flies away. The happiness flies away. It sets the tone so perfectly for the rest of the film; everyone dances and laughs, and eventually that happiness flies away.
Black Orpheus is a retelling of the greek myth of Orpheus set in Rio de Janeiro. Set during carnival, it’s about Orpheus (Breno Mello) falling in love with Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn) while she is on the run from Death. While it’s a simple story, one that has been told time and time again, Rio de Janeiro truly makes this film work.
The most notable thing about Black Orpheus is the life it captures so well. Instead of emphasizing the poverty of these favelas, the film decides to make these people be happy, dance around, and be a tight-knit community during the carnival that is going on. The film almost always has a light drumming going in the background, showing the life that is part of these peoples lives, despite their economic conditions. Whip pans and quick camera movements make the film feel fast and add more to the life. And despite the tragedy present in the story, there’s a sense of humor throughout the film.
This is juxtaposed when Death makes his appearance. The appearance is always interesting as well; Death moves like a dancer, with elegance and grace. There is no sense of Death's gender, either. When we're away from the dancing and life, Death cancels out that light drumming in the background. And, most surprisingly, Black Orpheus continues to be relevant by the police present at the carnival being on death's side. They break up the life of the party, they block people from helping Eurydice escape from death, and they reflect the modern-day views people have about cops. It was certainly something I was not expecting when watching the film, but it was made in 1959, a time when the police were hated just as much as they can be now.
Another astonishingly different thing Black Orpheus does is have the story the film is adapting, the greek myth of Orpheus, be acknowledged in the film. It actually exists and these people are aware that it does. It’s why Mira is so resentful towards Eurydice; people think Orpheus and Eurydice belong together because they’re part of the tale. Orpheus literally says “There was an Orpheus before me. And one may come after I’m gone.” It gives the film a feeling of timelessness, that throughout life there will always be an Orpheus and Eurydice who will love each other and whose tale will end tragically. (By the way, the actual romance between Orpheus and Eurydice is tender and yet always ends up avoiding being cliche; you never even see them kiss.) And yet the film introduces these characters to us before it fits the characters into the adaptational nature of the film so the story feels original.
The film is magnificent visually as well; the already mentioned beautiful Rio gives the film a background that looks like a painting. The colors employed include neon yellows and cool blues for scenes of life, as well as blood reds and pitch blacks for scenes involving death. The visually striking nature adds quite a lot to the juxtaposition of life and death.
The ending of Black Orpheus is a simple one, yet it has a transcendent beauty. Two children watch the sunrise and one asks the other to help the sun rise like Orpheus does, with his beautiful music. He starts to figure it out, the sun rises while a girl watches, and then they all dance. Orpheus says “There was an Orpheus before me. And one may come after I’m gone,” and he has come. This kid is the new Orpheus. He makes the sun rise, and while the sun may eventually set, there will always be an Orpheus to bring it up. It ends on life, a common occurrence in the film.
The version of Black Orpheus I watched had camera flickers, an odd lip-syncing issue, and yet I never cared. It’s a timeless film, one which stays relevant to this day. It’s truly a perfect film, one which I could imagine watching many times again.
*WARNING: SPOILERS FOR A FILM BASED ON A TRUE STORY*
The Birth of a Nation is a film that is in the heat of a lot of controversy right now. If you’re unaware, Nate Parker, the person who directed, wrote, produced, and starred in the film was involved in a 1999 case wherein he and his friend were accused of rape. Parker was acquitted, his friend was found guilty but later acquitted on appeal. In 2012, the person accusing Parker and his friend of rape committed suicide. But completely ignoring that controversy, judging the art separate from the artist, The Birth of a Nation is still a controversial film for me; there’s parts of this film that I find fascinating, with smart imagery and interesting characters. There’s other parts that are boring, unsatisfactory, or just plain pretentious, particularly in the buildup.
The Birth of a Nation is the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved African-American who lives his slave life by preaching to other slaves the word of the Bible. Often, these Bible passages he has learned to read are ones that giving slaves the impression that they must submit to their masters. However, over time, Nat Turner starts to get fed up, and slowly starts to get more and more insubordinate. Will Nat Turner rise up after living on his knees for so long?
Yeah, he will.
This was a film that had a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance this year, where it shook the crowd in wake of recent police shootings. Hearing about it makes it seem bold; it named itself after D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation, a film that is often taught to prospective film students for its innovative use of cuts, but is also heavily criticized for being a very racist movie. The title for the 2016 movie actually fits (more on that later). But the problem here is that the title is the boldest thing in the movie; it’s actually a very standard biopic instead of an innovative film that is not afraid to go against the norm.
The movie’s best moments come in visual form; despite most of the movie dropping expository dialogue, a sign of a lack of creativity, the film also has moments of imagery that manage to stick in the brain; most of these moments are subtle enough to not warrant a pretentious feel, such as a freshly pulled piece of corn bleeding dark red blood. They’re moody, visceral, and warrant discussion. However, some other images -- such as a man being killed in the foreground of a religious tapestry -- feel straight out of a CollegeHumor video, aiming for provocation but landing short and feeling pretentious.
But pretension isn't necessarily the greatest obstacle The Birth of a Nation fails to overcome: the movie has an excruciatingly slow buildup. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing -- A Brighter Summer Day is three and a half hours of buildup and it’s a masterpiece -- but that film’s buildup is interesting. Here it is not all needed. With slavery, we don’t need to see too much to understand a slave’s motivation. However, the change in Turner’s character doesn't feel realistic; he already seems on edge for the majority of the film, and we don’t get an idea of what truly pushes him over, either.
I feel like I may be going too hard on this movie. It’s certainly not all cliche -- the action scenes here are very short and never feel bloated -- and the title of the film, despite seemingly being a shot at the original film, also fits in the context of this film. The film ends with Nat Turner being hanged with the peanut gallery jeering at him. As he dies, we cut to a close-up of a small child watching Nat Turner dying. This idea of cutting to a child reacting to Nat Turner has been a prevalent thing throughout the movie, and it leaves us wondering until here, in which that child watching him die becomes an adult before our eyes. This adult is marching into battle during the Civil War. Nat Turner’s story is “the birth of a nation” because he has inspired the younger generations of slave children to fight for their freedom.
And then the credits tell you what I just inferred: they say that Nat Turner’s remains were flayed, beheaded, quartered, cut into pieces, and that it was all done to prevent Turner leaving a legacy. Right after you told me that he did.
So The Birth of a Nation is a movie that has something powerful to say, says it pretty well, and then undermines it through either:
The Birth of a Nation is stuck in a hole. It nearly gets out, but always trips and falls back down to that hole. The hole is not necessarily the worst hole you could be stuck in -- Buffalo Bill isn’t yelling about lotion at the top of it -- but, I mean, it’s still a hole.
The Light Between Oceans is the kind of prestige picture you expect when you get into the fall season. It’s got two good performances by two prestigious actors and a lovey-dovey nature that can occasionally appeal to the Academy, sometimes even winning with films like Shakespeare in Love.
Actually, Shakespeare in Love is a good comparison because The Light Between Oceans is not a very good film.
The film stars Michael Fassbender as Tom Sherbourne, a World War I vet who gets hired to watch a lighthouse. Along the way he falls in love with a local girl named Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), whom he marries in 1921. Isabel gets pregnant twice, but miscarries both times. Lucky for them, a baby and a dead man show up in a row boat. They decide to take the baby as their own, but when Tom realizes who the baby’s mother is (Rachel Weisz), we know it’s gonna be hard to keep the baby away from her.
Performances are the thing that draws people to these kind of movies, and the performances are almost always good, as they are here. Vikander in particular pulls off a subtle sadness. Fassbender, as well as Weisz in a supporting role, both keep the movie going through their natural charisma. The director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) gets good performances out of all his actors as well as having a good, subtle style that works in conjunction with the slow-moving story.
And when I say slow-moving story, I mean slow-moving story. The beginning drags by trying to develop an interesting relationship, which doesn’t quite work. The dialogue doesn’t have much charm; most of the time, it just feels tedious. We get you want the characters to fall in love slowly, but the conversations here don’t develop that relationship well enough. It doesn’t help that the film has a melodramatic aspect to it.
There are montages of Tom and Isabel being in love with each other frequently in The Light Between Oceans, and each one is quite boring; they all tell you similar things (these people are in love) without adding something new. They just serve to increase the running time unnecessarily.
I’m having trouble remembering what else to tell you about The Light Between Oceans because I’ve forgotten almost all of the film. It’s boring melodrama that has been done better multiple times. I saw the film a month ago and barely remember anything about it; in a year, I’ll try to remember it again and will fail to visualize anything except Fassbender and Vikander with their faces tightly against each other, along with a cheesy score playing underneath. So just imagine that and you’ve seen the movie.
The Girl on the Train is a book, and now a film, that has been compared to Gone Girl quite frequently. I wouldn’t necessarily compare the books together because they’re different -- mainly because one is an average page-turner and the other is a smart book that has interesting things to say AND is a page-turner. But comparing the films together is actually an accurate comparison; not in the way The Girl on the Train wants it to be, though.
The Girl on the Train follows Rachel (Emily Blunt), a girl (on a train!) who is depressed, an alcoholic, and divorced because her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) cheats on her with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), who he is now married to. While she “commutes” into New York City every day(she doesn’t actually have a job, she lost that because of her drinking), she slowly develops an image of a couple she sees as she passes by their house: the perfect couple, the marriage she once had, what she aspires to again. She admires them everyday while passing, but it turns out they’re not perfect and that the wife (Haley Bennett) is cheating on her hubby (Luke Evans). The next day, the wife disappears and now it’s a mystery!
In the book Gone Girl, one of the most interesting aspects is the idea of the “Cool Girl,” the girl that every man wants because:
The movie The Girl on the Train tries to do everything I just mentioned. It tries to be hot (it’s not), tries to be smart (it’s not), it tries to be funny (it’s not funny intentionally), and it loves sex (well, that one’s still true).
What I’m saying is that Gone Girl is the cool girl to The Girl on the Train. It so wants to be like it. It wants to aspire to being an above-average, smart thriller. And it utterly fails.
The Girl on the Train opens with three different scenes of narration from three different characters, every single line of each separate voiceover being boring and unintelligent. The narration is supposed to show us 90% of what we need to know about the characters, which is just a dull thing to do, especially when it’s not done gradually. The small things we don’t know are given in ways that are completely ludicrous; there’s a scene where Anna tells her husband, Tom, that she misses being his mistress, being the other woman, being the girl that will eventually break Rachel’s heart.
In the book, she contemplates this same thought and immediately acknowledges that it’s an absolutely horrendous thing to have thunk and wishes she didn’t feel that way. In the movie, she basically just says (paraphrasing) “oh yeah, I wish I was screwing you on the side again because I enjoyed being the other woman.” WHAT?!?! WITHOUT ANY BUILDUP?? WITHOUT ANY SORT OF REALISM, WITHOUT SOUNDING LIKE A HUMAN BEING??
It’s this kind of writing that shows just how bad this script is. There’s nothing written here that feels realistic. Sometimes, the lines were so dumb I had to stifle a laugh.
The crappy narration and plot holes would probably be enough to make a bad movie, but the ending of the film kills it for me. Just like in the book, it turns out that Tom is the killer, and he’s kind of insane. He’s also slept with all three women. So Anna and Rachel kill him, everyone cheers, etc. and then we go to the police questioning the characters. Anna basically says that all of the girls were completely innocent and did nothing wrong.
Nothing wrong, huh? The alcoholism, the consensual sex (and marriage) with the crazy guy, the stalking that Rachel does to Anna and Tom, all of that and much more is nothing wrong?
Don’t get me wrong, Tom is obviously at fault here. I mean, he killed a girl and tries to kill another. But the fact that the film heavy handedly tells us that these girls did absolutely nothing wrong is not just dumb, it’s insulting. Can we not think for ourselves? Does your audience have a brain? Do you assume that everyone who sees the movie will like it just as much as the book?
Let me think of what I liked: Emily Blunt was good. Ummm… ooh, there’s this cool rain shot that’s reminiscent of this other rain shot earlier in the movie that subtly tells us that the girl is thinking about what happened in that first rain shot.
Yeah, that’s it.
The performances are phoned in to bad from everyone else besides Blunt. Danny Elfman’s score basically tries to carbon copy the electronic, creepy scores that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do for David Fincher in Gone Girl, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and The Social Network. The movie lacks any ostensible aura of fun that the best thrillers have; in fact, it’s a slog to get through. Unlike the best films, the more I think about it, the more mad I am that a movie was made lacking any sort of intelligence, fun, or interest. This is the worst film I’ve seen this year, and I saw Batman v. Superman.
I think I’m alone on this one.
Hell or High Water is one of the highest rated films of the year. A 99% on RottenTomatoes, an “88” on Metacritic, pretty much everyone likes this movie. But not me. As always with this kind of situation, (see my reviews of Room and Love & Friendship) I ask myself if I’m in the wrong. Do I just not get it? Am I too young at the age of 15 to “understand” it? Critics didn’t like Citizen Kane and 2001: A Space Odyssey when they came out. Am I going to be one of them? Will I overlook a masterpiece? In this case, I don’t think so. And while I may be committing some form of heresy, I think this movie has legitimate problems that most are overlooking.
Hell or High Water is about two brothers, Tanner (Ben Foster) and Toby (Chris Pine) who go on a spree of bank robberies. Toby does it to save a family farm from foreclosure, hoping to let his children live a better life. Tanner does it for the hell of it. Meanwhile, they are pursued by Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto, (Gil Birmingham) two Texas Rangers who are close on their tail.
Hell or High Water certainly has good aspects to it. There’s good performances all around. There are great scenes that are intense and suspenseful, and they manage to capture a feeling of unknowing; you don’t know who’s gonna die. It’s hard to do that, and I especially appreciate it in the superhero age where no one can stay dead or even be close to death. There’s some good banter, particularly between Marcus and Alberto.
But for me, all the good here is overshadowed by one key thing:Toby, and how one-dimensional he is.
The first time we see Toby he is robbing a bank, but I like him from the start. For one, he doesn’t want any unnecessary death, emphasized through David Mackenzie’s close-up direction; while Tanner threatens a lady with a gun to her head, Toby tells him to calm down. And from there, this dude is one of the least cynical people I’ve ever seen. His entire reasoning for doing this is to get his kids and ex-wife into a house that he won’t even get to live in. I would be fine with that if there was something I didn’t like about him, but there’s not a single thing. He robs, but for the right reason. Making someone a robber but for a good reason doesn’t make someone three-dimensional. And while some people like the character who has no unlikable qualities, for me it gives a film no depth, no purpose. The best characters are the ones who are not good and not evil; Toby is good in every sense of the word, and that’s the big problem here.
The other thing about Hell or High Water is that it has a sense of “action movie” to it despite the somewhat original concept. There are moments in the film with soft piano playing in the background that unintentionally made me laugh. The movie has accidental jumpcuts which always took me out of the film.
The direction felt kind of bland; it never truly felt “cinematic,” that feeling of euphoria that you get when you’ve watched watching incredible visually. I was surprised the film was only 102 minutes long because it felt like I was in that theater for two-and-a-half hours.
It’s a shame; this is a good idea which wasn’t executed well. But that’s just me. And I literally mean just me.
I have liked Laika’s last films.
(I saw an opportunity for alliteration and I took it.)
Laika, an animation company, has made the films “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” (Also “The Boxtrolls” but I haven’t seen that.”) I like the two that I’ve seen, and they both benefit from Laika’s stop-motion style. Plus, and always the most important thing in a film, they tell interesting stories.
Laika’s newest film, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” shares the former. It’s got a good animation style that works in harmony with the story. The problem is the story; it’s cliched and familiar, and done in a way where the film is keeping up with you instead of the reverse.
Kubo and the Two Strings is a Japanese-inspired fable about a mother who flees her evil family to protect her son, Kubo. A couple years later, Kubo is found by the evil family after he stays out after dark and escapes narrowly with his mother’s help. He awakes with a monkey and beetle who were magically made by his mother to help protect him from the evil family that’s still following him, along with a magical instrument that Kubo can use to make paper fly. He must look for three magical items -- an unbreakable sword, helmet, and chestplate -- that will help him defeat his evil family.
Kubo and the Two Strings is absolutely gorgeous to look at. As I’ve already said, the animation is fantastic and, since paper-folding is a thing the character Kubo uses in these fun performances at the beginning of the movie, the look of the movie being paper-like is justified. It’s also got a fantastic variety of color.
The film also has a great cast. Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, George Takei, and Rooney Mara all lend their voices to the film and they all do good voicework, particularly Rooney Mara who manages to be creepy as hell and continues to be one of the greatest actors of the 21st century.
Kubo’s story has heart and charm, as well as some funny moments. Despite being a take on the “Hero’s Journey” that Joseph Campbell brought attention to, its take has some twists that work. It still manages to stay predictable, though, and the ending wraps everything up by making the lesson of the film quite obvious.
The thing that most irritates me about Kubo, however, is the editing. Everything Travis Knight does as director is good; it’s subtle and smart. The problem is that we just hold on these shots too long. It’s as if the editor wants everyone to be 100% on board with what’s happening in the story, but it should have been snappier. The story isn’t a slow one, and yet the pace was slow simply because of the way the movie was cut in the editing room. There’s also moments where the writing wants to keep everyone up to date and spells things out for us that were told by the camera. For example, there is a scene in which Kubo performs for a village with his magical instrument. The camera moves and moves, and occasionally holds on the sun, which continues to set as Kubo goes on with his performance. It was clear to me that time was important in this scene. Finally, a bell rings and Kubo rushes back to his mother. It is clear that he is on a time limit, most likely from the evil family that we’ve already established. And yet as soon as Kubo gets back, his mother talks about that time limit, why it’s there, and all that subtle direction is thrown out the window. Couldn’t we have inferred instead of spelling everything out?
Despite the problems I have with Kubo and the Two Strings, I would still recommend seeing it simply because I’m happy that in a time when Disney dominates the box office, Laika has made a movie that looks wholly unique and even put twists on a tired plot. It’s hard for wide releases nowadays to not feel like they’re churned out of a machine, and Kubo feels handmade and unique while still being fun. We should try to reward that, even if it’s not something that’s normally rewarded.
So please see Kubo and the Two Strings.