Archive for January, 2017

la_la_land_filmLa La Land (2016)

Starring- Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, Finn Wittrock, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Callie Hernandez, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott

Director- Damien Chazelle

PG-13- some language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pdqf4P9MB8

Star-crossed lovers sing and dance their way through Hollywood in pursuit of their dreams of fame and fortune.

Believe me — no one resisted La La Land harder than me. A 50s-style musical about attractive young people chasing dreams in the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, made by and starring a ton of recent awards darlings — you couldn’t better engineer a movie to win Oscars if you actively tried. And I feel strangely obligated to oppose the sort of fluff that tends to earn frontrunner status as early and as permanently as this did.

Alas, I come bearing bad news for the narratives of my fellow film snobs: La La Land is great, and when it cleans up at the Oscars (and I’m betting it will), it’ll be at least in part because it deserves them.

And I’m saying that as someone who’s usually a tough sell on this sort of thing. I’ve always said that I like musicals in theory but struggle with them in practice — the image I have in my head of this huge song-and-dance production is glorious, but just about every time I sit down and watch one, I’m immediately reminded that, oh, right, this kind of thing isn’t really my jam. Something about characters abruptly bursting into song at the end of normal conversations and a million bystanders joining in for no reason just takes me out of the story. I don’t intend that as a criticism of movie musicals, simply an expression of taste.

La La Land was like that at first (especially since the lead-ins to a few of the songs are so labored early on). But despite those early missteps, it does a really good job of acclimating you to its world, namely in that there’s a lot of variety to the musical numbers, in presentation if not in style (pretty much all of it is jazz). Most musicals stick to the same format throughout; every number has lyrics, choreography, singing, sweeping orchestral accompaniment. La La Land has a few scenes like that, but it also has extended sequences where Ryan Gosling plays a piano or people dance wordlessly to diegetic music. Every musical has big, upbeat numbers, and slow, emotional ones, but few are willing to settle down as much as La La Land does — and that gives it a diverse setlist that prevents it from being as exhausting as other, similar films. It understands that, sometimes, the joy of music is tuning into something simple and moving — those songs where you can hear the strumming of guitar strings or the breath of a softly-played saxophone.

And that’s really where the film succeeds — it’s that rare musical that’s capable of subtlety, of slowing down, of going quiet, of getting intimate. It needs to be; I think its most powerful statements relate to the communicative power of music beyond lyrics that bluntly explain the meaning — as Gosling’s character, Sebastian, tells Emma Stone’s aspiring actress Mia, jazz arose among foreign workers who had no other way to talk to one another, and the film is at its most beautiful when its characters sit down and express themselves in that way. Only two productions into his career, Damien Chazelle has proven that he knows how to end a movie — La La Land’s finale just wrecked me. And that’s partly because of the music, yes, but it’s more importantly what that music signifies — what each individual character is hearing as he or she listens to and/or performs it.

La La Land is the sort of movie that appears formulaic in the sense that such throwback, nostalgia-driven features are, but its structure is deceptively straightforward — it’s much more narratively daring than a lot of other musicals. That’s true not only true of the contours of its plot (which is simple and somewhat broad, as is the case with most musicals) but of the stylistic decisions it makes. The average musical is building toward something the same way an action movie is building toward the spectacular final battle. It starts with a bang — something huge and fun, with complicated choreography and a ton of singers and dancers — then goes smaller and allows the rest of the musical numbers to build in scale and intensity in preparation for the showstopper of a finale. It’s what the audience expects — you do it that way because that’s the way they’re supposed to do it.

In that sense, La La Land is a very unique film that simply isn’t behaving as though it’s unique. The surface of it is largely indistinguishable from its forebears; however, the mechanisms driving it are entirely different. It opens in much the way that such films are supposed to, with a big, attention-grabbing number — an insane, one-shot scene in which possibly hundreds of motorists stuck in traffic on a Los Angeles freeway suddenly exit their cars and launch into a fun, meticulously choreographed song about life in Hollywood. And the rest of the movie never gets bigger than that — it doesn’t even try. Chazelle reverses the structure of the typical musical from there — the songs stay upbeat and fun for a while, but each one is smaller than the last. As the film progresses, it only gets quieter and more intimate. It strips away the choreography, then the orchestral accompaniment, and eventually even the lyrics. Its climactic showstopper is one character in a black room standing stock still and singing quietly to minimal accompaniment.

And it works — it works beautifully — because Chazelle is so much more invested in the feeling of music, the emotional side of it, the inexplicable way that it speaks to us, than in the pure spectacle of it. He knows that one character singing will be worth a thousand choirs if we know what it means to that character, and he uses that knowledge to absolutely destroy you as the film approaches its finale. I wish I could tell you what Chazelle does in the last ten minutes without spoiling it; it’s absolutely staggering. La La Land is joyous, energetic, and beautiful, but if you’re a crier, you’d better bring tissues; you can thank me later.

Really, I think the only sense in which it’s picking up awards for what it is rather than how it is is on the acting front. The performances here are kind of a mixed bag. Ryan Gosling nails it in the non-musical scenes — he seems to have figured out that, despite his Hollywood heartthrob image, he’s actually best in roles where he’s kind of a loser, and a bit of a jerk. But he isn’t much of a singer — the musical numbers ask very little of him to begin with, and it feels as though he invests all of his energy just staying on key. Emma Stone’s voice is pretty enough that it manages, in my opinion, to overcome similar problems, but the performance (which may well net her first Oscar) just doesn’t have a lot to it, which isn’t really her fault — I don’t think there’s much to Mia as a character beyond her dream of being an actress. It works within the context of a broad musical crowdpleaser but doesn’t give her a lot of room to flex her muscles. Then there’s John Legend, who delivers the sort of obviously bad performance that leaves me wondering how he got the part in the first place (it’s fortunate that his role is mostly singing, which he’s more than qualified to do). And the movie in general has a few problems — there are moments where it invests more energy into being the movies it idolizes (Singin’ in the Rain, most obviously) than in being itself. It’s also weirdly snobbish about certain genres and styles — most of that comes from Gosling’s character and may be intended to say more about him than the subject at hand, but it nevertheless feels like a consistent enough thematic undercurrent that the film’s ultimate refusal to address it comes off a bit egotistical.

Yet somehow it all feels like a minor quibble in the shadow of La La Land’s enormous accomplishments. It’s an emotional tour de force with a ton of great music (Chazelle seems determined to make the world love jazz as much as he does, and he may well succeed), and it must also be said that it’s absolutely gorgeous — it reimagines Los Angeles as a dreamlike and magical place rich in color and life. It’s going to win approximately all of the Oscars.

Yes, it’s the most awardsy movie of all time, but I’m afraid it’s legit. We may be able to say something for a number of the films it’ll beat come February 26, but we’ll be able to say very little against it. Simply put: One of the best movies of the year.

florence_foster_jenkins_filmFlorence Foster Jenkins (2016)

Starring- Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, Christian McKay, David Haig, John Sessions, Brid Brennan, John Cavanagh

Director- Stephen Frears

PG-13- brief suggestive material

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HszfdNS0JSc

In the 1940s, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep), an aging heiress and lifelong financier of the arts, decides it’s time to pursue her dream of a singing career. The problem? She’s absolutely awful at it.

Serviceable Oscar bait — that defines my feelings toward most of Stephen Frears’ work of late, and so it goes with Florence Foster Jenkins. It’s becoming increasingly clear that I may be my own worst enemy, or at the very least, a massive hypocrite, when it comes to such films as these — I use phrases like “Oscar bait” pejoratively, but it occurs to me that it’s possible I like them more often than not, even if I don’t love them. They’re often stale and unadventurous and can be obnoxiously self-important at their worst, but their performance-drivenness and emphasis on emotion, while sentimental, tend to win me over so long as their flaws don’t press too many of the wrong buttons. Florence Foster Jenkins falls somewhere in the middle — messy, uncertain, and definitely annoying in at least a few respects, but with a spark of a halfway decent (and more topical than you might expect) idea somewhere in there, as well as predictably solid acting and a genial approach that helps it through its clumsier moments.

In a lot of ways, it’s a film for its times — and I know that’s a weird thing to say about a movie set in the world of the elites of opera and classical music in the 1940s, but to an extent, the story of Florence Foster Jenkins foreshadowed America culture circa 2016. She was a viral video before most people even dreamed of the Internet — the product of a culture of morbid fascination. She had fifteen minutes in the sun as a result of patrons who bought tickets solely to marvel at her. And like the subjects of today’s viral hits, whoops, turns out she was a human being and you might be a bad person for laughing. In much the same way that a person who has a funny emotional outburst on camera quite likely has not-so-funny mental health problems (or is otherwise reacting that way because of the unseen, not-so-funny context or his or her life), a person who takes to the stage of Carnegie Hall oblivious to her complete lack of a singing voice probably only got there for reasons that would take all of the humor out of it if you knew them. (Granted, there’s some evidence that the real-life Florence Foster Jenkins knew how bad she was — or at least knew that other people thought she was bad — unlike the fictional version, who genuinely has no idea. I think the point stands in either case.)

Your reaction to Florence Foster Jenkins is going to depend heavily upon how you want it to handle that dynamic. And mine is mixed because it’s a bit all over the map but leans mostly in a positive direction, despite some of the seemingly unintentional condescension in the margins of the plot. I never got the sense that it was presenting Mrs. Jenkins as an object for our amusement — or at least, when it does, it’s for the purpose of making you feel a little bad for laughing later on. It portrays her as a fundamentally decent person — she’s a bit air-headed, obviously, and she can be condescending in the way of those born into riches, but she always means well. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of ego in her dreams of being a singer; she just loves music and wants to share it with the world. She’s a lovable, harmless sort, for the most part.

And the movie understands that her story can, in a way, be read as a tragedy. If nothing else, there’s the fact that she had syphilis, courtesy of the ex-husband who didn’t warn her, and lived every day knowing it might be her last (though the movie doesn’t get into it, the disease’s impact on her nervous system may have affected her hearing, thus adding another layer of dude-not-funny to the fact that she couldn’t sing). The movie’s a little more preoccupied with the way everyone around her wrings her dry and then abandons her when she’s no longer useful. Her ex-husband has already destroyed a number of her dreams when we first meet her, amidst fake friends who insist she’s an excellent singer in order to maintain access to her money, resources, and connections; her current husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), butters her up by day and consorts with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) by night; and the public sets her up for catastrophic failure for a laugh. In light of all that, if she was a little deluded, can you blame her?

There are definitely a lot of interesting ways to tell that story; I’m just not sure the movie ever really commits to one. For one thing, I’m not actually sure which of these characters is supposed to be the protagonist — I don’t think it’s Florence, because we usually see her through the eyes of others, but the characters who surround her aren’t really arcing through any kind of story either. Grant does excellent work as her husband/manager, making him a complicated figure who takes advantage of Florence and doesn’t care for her the way he should but also clearly feels some distant sort of admiration, and maybe even love, for her; however, the movie mostly allows that performance to exist unto itself without expanding upon the character it reveals. I think Florence’s pianist, Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg), comes closest to acting as a successful audience stand-in, but the movie abandons his arc as soon is it starts to work — it seems as though the intent was to have him start as a young man concerned about the effect his association with Florence would have on his career, only to befriend her, see how terribly everyone is treating her, and start trying to protect her, but it feels like he reverts to his career-driven perspective as soon as the moment that realization strikes him. It’s strange, and substantial portions of the movie are largely stagnant because of it — wheel-spinning in search of a story that kind of materializes but never really takes shape. The movie’s Oscar-y innocuousness doesn’t help — it leans into the tragic elements but is careful never to go too far; it’s trying to be a crowdpleaser, which doesn’t quite fit the angle of the script.

But it’s winsome and entertaining enough as movies I won’t remember a year from now go.

And Amy Adams was robbed. With all due respect, Mrs. Streep.

kinopoisk.ruTrain to Busan (2016)

Starring- Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-Seok, Jung Yoo-mi, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Kim Soo-Ahn, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Gwi-Hwa, Jeong Seok-yong, Kim Chang-hwan, Jang Hyuk-Jin, Shim Eun-Kyung, Park Myung-Shin

Director- Yeon Sang-Ho

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyWuHv2-Abk

Passengers on a train to Busan fight for survival after Korea is decimated by a sudden viral outbreak that turns its victims into bloodthirsty mutants.

Train to Busan isn’t the sort of movie I would have seen without significant acclaim attached to it — I have enough trouble with run-of-the-mill American blockbusters to want to get into the international scene as well — but the strength of film culture’s praise for this high-concept zombie actioner piqued my interest, as someone who’s sort of fascinated by what the current zombie craze signifies culturally but desperately wishes literally any of it would actually be good. So maybe that’s why it rates as such a disappointment for me — not because it’s bad but because it’s so far removed from the greatness I’d been led to expect.

If nothing else, I thought I would be in for something unique. I thought it would do something new with this tired premise — breathe a little life into the undead, so to speak. But what’s most personally disappointing about Train to Busan is that it feels like a collection of zombie and disaster movie cliches dutifully arranged in the same order as always and knocked down with plenty of energy but hardly any invention.

I mean, stop me when you’ve heard this one before. Estranged father/daughter stranded in the middle of the apocalypse fight for survival. Father spends too much time at work. He missed her recital and bought her a birthday present she already had. Their group of survivors include the following: A teenage couple who kind of sort of have feelings for each other, a selfish businessman, a spacey homeless guy, and a pregnant woman and her husband who are arguing over what to name the baby. The zombies themselves are nothing new — basically a less exaggerated version of the ones in World War Z. The metaphor and premise are lifted directly from Snowpiercer. You can outline this movie in your head right now. You probably know who lives and who dies and maybe even how. You can predict the major disasters and what causes them. You’ve probably got a picture of how the climax unfolds.

I don’t want to sound too negative, because it’s all functional. I liked the characters and wanted them to make it; the zombie mayhem is pretty fun and strikes the proper balance between silliness and narrative heft; the evil businessman is a complete stereotype, but he’s delightfully slimy and I loved to hate him (the movie’s seething, cartoonish hatred for high finance is pretty therapeutic in general). There are problems — the emotional undercurrents lean a bit cheesy, and the movie struggles to find organic ways for the characters to deal with their personal issues in the middle of all this madness, and it suffers badly from the horror movie problem of “characters who do not run until the last second and let their guard down in the dumbest imaginable situations” (more than one dead character in this movie absolutely should have lived to see the end credits). But the movie does what it intends to do, for the most part — I just wish it wanted to do more.

Because when I analyze it, there’s little about it that rises above the level of “adequate.” The direction doesn’t stand out, the score’s just kind of there, the cinematography is functional, the performances are perfectly fine with very few standouts, the script moves from one set piece to the next with relative efficiency. It’s good. It’s entertaining. Very little of it is memorable. It would’ve taken so little to elevate it — honestly, a few minor tweaks to the ending would make the themes of unselfishness and cooperation resonant so much more deeply. But instead, it chooses to end the way nearly all of these movies end, and it isn’t half as satisfying.

I had fun, but I have to admit that I don’t quite understand how it rose above the pack and managed to cross over. It’s a functional zombie flick, but that was it for me. Maybe you’ll find something more.

the_monster_posterThe Monster (2016)

Starring- Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine

Director- Bryan Bertino

R- language and some violence/terror

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0fKILXUNIs

A mother (Zoe Kazan) and daughter (Ella Ballentine), stranded in the woods after a car accident, find themselves pursued by a terrifying, otherworldly creature.

You won’t hear me calling The Monster great. It has a lot of problems. It’s the sort of movie that’s more enjoyable in the moment than it is in retrospect. But I simply do not understand the way horror fandom seems to have just shrugged it off. To the extent that it’s been ignored, I think The Monster might be one of 2016’s great underrated movies.

Is it sort of workmanlike? Yeah. I don’t think it offers any great surprises. Whatever you imagined it to be based on the premise is probably what it is. But we haven’t had anything quite like it — anything worth taking seriously, anyway — in a long time, and I think people have overlooked how good it is. Maybe it’s just knocking down the genre dominos, but boy is it having a blast doing it.

Bryan Bertino — I’ve never seen The Strangers, so this is my introduction to his work — is the MVP here, or at least one of the two strongest candidates for the title (we’ll be getting to Zoe Kazan) in a moment. His handle on the tone and atmosphere of this creature horror is superb; this movie wrung me dry and left me exhausted. The moment the monster was introduced as a player — and a while before that, for that matter, when the characters only know that something is out there — the movie grabbed me by the throat and never once relaxed its grip. It’s short and contained enough that it’s under no obligation to let its audience breathe, so it never does. The threat hangs over everything; no matter where the characters are or what they’re doing, you know death is lurking in the shadows, waiting to strike. It’s nearly insufferable — you can see the wicked smile on Bertino’s face as he teases you, dragging out the monster’s first appearance, setting up a million opportunities he refuses to take, letting your imagination fill in every unknown sound, every glimpse of movement. I was silently begging the movie to just scare me already and get it over with.

You could argue it’s a bit of a closed-room thriller — technically, the setting is an entire forest, but the leads spend most of the movie hiding in a vehicle, trying to figure out how to escape. Bertino makes the most of it, though: This dark forest is fully, frightening alive. The trees are dark, with flashes of sickly green from the feverish, yellow flickering of a nearby street lamp. Wind and rain course through the branches, keeping the leaves in constant movement — and every now and then, a shadow that seems as though it has to be the result of a living being. The forest is creepy long before we know something sinister lives there. It’s a shadowy hand that seems to close around the protagonists, who are locked in a small, claustrophobic car with nowhere to go and nothing to do about the darkness that engulfs them.

Every horrific moment lands — and the movie’s solid character work has a lot to do with that as well. Whatever its narrative flaws (and there are plenty), The Monster wastes no time bringing you into its characters’ inner lives and making their personalities and motivations stick. You have a thorough sense of this pair and their relationship with one another within the first five minutes, so there’s a strong rooting interest long before the creature even shows up. That it does so despite the lead being fundamentally unlikable is all the more impressive. It would be easy for a movie like this to go the usual route and give us a functional family with no significant reason for self-doubt fighting against entirely external forces, but Kazan’s character is established from the get-go as an emotionally (and even, sometimes, physically) abusive addict throwing her life away, and probably her daughter as well. But Kazan is tremendous in the role, playing the character not so much as the “evil stepmother” type but as broken beyond repair and lashing out at the world around her. The movie never gives you the reasons, but Kazan leaves you with no room to doubt. She finds a balance few performers in such roles are able to — she’s selfish and abusive, and her impact on her child is almost entirely negative, but you can see the part of her deep down that loves the kid and sees her as the only positive thing she could possibly leave behind at this point. As the daughter, Ella Ballentine is fine, perhaps a little too “child-actory” for my taste — she carries herself with an adult poise that I never really believed (obviously, with such a neglectful mother, the character would be strong and self-sufficient; I’m talking more about the maturity with which she speaks and reacts to things). But given the circumstances, she does a good job — being the kid in a horror movie is a thankless job, and she acquits herself well enough.

And what the hey — the creature’s pretty great, too! It appears to be mostly practical, and it’s a really well-realized effect. It looks like a living thing that belongs to its environment; there are no  bad animatronics or obvious guy-in-a-suit moments. It’s tactile and threatening. I found it thoroughly convincing.

The script is where the whole thing falls apart. Obviously, as stated, it’s a little formulaic, but that isn’t a problem of all of the components work. I admire that it’s trying to be about something more than B-movie thrills, but the execution is a little clumsy. The metaphor is obvious and so broad there’s really no way to make it stick — abuse and addiction are monsters, and also there’s a real monster! They’re all monsters! Monsters! Get it? They’re bad! I appreciate the way the flashbacks to that effect deepen the characters, but they ultimately have no bearing on what’s happening in the main story. Without Kazan’s strength in the role, I’m not sure it’d work at all; her ability to capture the character’s neglect and nurturing in equal measure, and to make them feel like understandable pieces of one person’s psychology, is what sells it. Beyond that, the main storyline is a little thin — obviously, it’s a small movie with a limited in-universe timeframe (one night, more or less) and setting, and it’s about people running from a bloodthirsty monster, so it was never going to be a rich examination of the human condition, but it still needs to function and feel like it’s going somewhere. Too much of it feels like a waiting game, there are too many payoffs that aren’t set up, the character development doesn’t really satisfy the plot’s most immediate needs, and too many scenes feel purposeless. The characters also suffer from a bit of horror movie stupidity — not as dramatically as in worse films, but to an extent that’s worth noting. There’s a lot about the ending that’s unsatisfying because of this.

Even so, The Monster is really well-made, and it bugs me that it isn’t getting its due. A24 has really been knocking it out of the park with these low-budget genre films, and while The Monster is no The Witch or Green Room, it’s another notch in the belt. Give it a chance — if you’ve been dying for a quality modern creature feature, The Monster might be just what the doctor ordered.

the_handmaiden_filmThe Handmaiden (2016)

Starring- Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, Hae-suk Kim, So-ri Moon

Director- Chan-wook Park

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKpZLtt4Ctg

A young thief (Tae-ri Kim) is sent to work as a handmaiden for a rich man’s niece (Min-hee Kim) as part of a scheme to walk away with her inheritance. The plot goes awry, however, when the thief finds herself falling in love with her mark.

I feel as though I could say a million things about this movie, and none of them would add up to anything cohesive. It’s a Chan-wook Park movie, and I went into it completely blind, so as you might expect, I still feel as though I just got run over by a train. He’s one of those directors with whom I have just enough familiarity to theoretically know better but not enough to brace myself whenever I watch one of his movies. I went into The Handmaiden expecting a simple tale of forbidden love, and it was downright stupid of me to think Chan-wook Park could ever be that straightforward.

Not to say the movie isn’t simple — in a way it is, albeit deceptively so, hiding complexity beneath something that plays broad and easy to follow. It is, in a lot of ways, a stripped-down love story. It just strategically places information dumps and wild plot twists throughout, amidst its prolonged silences and character-focused structure. It’s a love story framed against a backdrop of something significantly darker and more depraved — textbook Chan-wook Park, in other words.

It’s so much more than it appears to be, in ways that thrill and discomfit in equal measure. There really isn’t any way, short of spoiling it for yourself, to properly guess where it’s going or how it intends to get there. It’s commanding, fearless, beautiful, and moving, and you could also make a really strong argument that it’s nothing more than exceptionally well-made pornography. At the very least, the differences are subtle.

No one can deny that Chan-wook Park is fearless, possibly even to a fault. There appears to be no subject too extreme for detailed and thorough big-screen exploration. The madness of his vision — and the alchemy of his approach — is the extent to which he’s able to have it both ways. The Handmaiden seems as though it will play equally well to both the exploitation B-movie audience and the arthouse crowd; they will come away from it with very different experiences, and all of them will be equally valid. Chan-wook Park has an inimitable ability to probe the darkness while also luxuriating in it. Take Oldboy, for example, a movie that on a thematic level could be described as a cautionary tale centered on how vengeance warps its characters’ minds and ultimately undoes them. It’s also a gleefully bloody genre flick with a pitch-black sense of humor that undeniably enjoys its twisted, blood-spattered plotting. It’s fascinating the way movie critics with a distaste for violence as entertainment circle around that movie and say, “Not that one, though.” Oldboy is just too insistent to be denied.

And so it goes with The Handmaiden. Chan-wook Park has cast another spell, and it’s rapturous. It’s also deeply perverse, and this is the rare case in which I think its makers might take that as a compliment. It’s also that rare case in which I’m not entirely sure I mean it as an insult. I mean, I mostly do, but I have to admit to being abstractly impressed at the casual boldness of its indecency and the way Chan-wook Park manipulates it. He truly is the arthouse cinephile’s trash director — someone very good at what he does, to the point of being impossible to ignore, who trades in lurid pleasures but is conscious enough to weave in thematic depth that may be the point of the movie or may simply be the excuse that allows viewers to convince themselves it’s okay to keep watching. And thus we end up with a movie like The Handmaiden, which reads as critical of pornography and exploitative art while arguably being both of those things. It’s the sort of movie that can play at feminism and progressivism while also delivering the sensual goods, primarily because the director ties them together so well that you could convincingly argue that it’s all necessary. I think the word for it in some circles would be “sex-positive” — it’s not about abandoning the prurient interest but in reframing it in a more human context. The movie attempts to reject the more exploitative elements by portraying them as a product of objectification — wrong not because sex is involved but because one person’s wants, needs, and humanity are being denied for another’s pleasure. Its characters don’t reject their sexuality but embrace it in a context where they are loved, valued, and equal.

Basically, if The Handmaiden is porn, it’s a humanistic new variety of porn where the catharsis is drawn as much from empathy and humanity as the pure sexual spectacle of it all. And it’s one where the whole thing functions equally on a metaphorical level, where the objectification is extended to a society that views women as things that can be traded for property, status, or wealth. And it’s one with extremely strong, empathetic storytelling that values its characters and knows how to seed them with complexity that simmers beneath its broader tone. These characters, particularly the leads, are layered and interesting, and their interactions reveal rich inner lives that only deepen with each new turn in the, again, incredibly screwed-up plot. The Handmaiden knows how to budget its plot twists; each one turns the film on its head but never leaves you feeling cheated. It’s broken into three parts, clearly marked on-screen, and each functions as something similar to an episode of a TV show. They’re anchored in different characters’ perspectives and allow you to know everything they know, so there’s no feeling of obfuscation, like the movie is fighting tooth and claw to drag you away from figuring it out. The beauty of it is that it’s a movie with plot twists that doesn’t feel like a movie with plot twists until the first of them land. Chan-wook Park knows how to manipulate his audience’s expectations, opening on what plays like gaudy, conservative historical fiction, the South Korean version of what wins Oscars in the U.S., then hard-rights into B-movie territory, becomes a genre film, and then spirals off into who-knows-where. I always thought I knew where the movie was going, and I was always wrong — even though everything in it is quietly building toward its chosen conclusion. The split structure may cause it to drag in places — it’s a long movie, and it could probably stand to lose a few of its redundancies. But it’s a worthwhile trade for what it does for the film emotionally. The performances are universally stellar, the leads have excellent chemistry, and the cinematography and production design are effortlessly gorgeous.

The Handmaiden is undeniably fascinating, moving, intelligent, layered, beautiful, and at least half-insane, and part of me kind of loved it even though it made me really uncomfortable. It’s the sort of movie that leaves me feeling like I need more viewings in order to fully comprehend it but also somewhat disinclined to actually give it those viewings. So it lives in the memory as a tantalizing but evocative mystery. I’m sure to be thinking about it for quite some time.

Short version: Chan-wook Park is a freakin’ sorcerer, and I wish I hated his movies anywhere near as much as I feel like I should. They’re just too good.

clinical-netflixClinical (2017)

Starring- Vinessa Shaw, Kevin Rahm, India Eisley, Aaron Stanford, Nestor Serrano, Wilmer Calderon, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, William Atherton

Director- Alistair Legrand

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eth7JUKVwok

A psychiatrist, Dr. Jane Mathis (Vinessa Shaw), finds herself on the other side of a table after a young patient (India Eisley) attacks her and then attempts suicide in her office. Scarred by the event, both physically and mentally, she refuses the trauma cases that once defined her career. But when Alex (Kevin Rahm), a trauma patient left horribly disfigured after an accident, draws her compassion, she agrees to treat him and soon finds herself haunted by her previous failure.

Scratch that — two! We begin the year with two forgettable TV movies courtesy of Netflix! Like Coin Heist before it, Clinical isn’t terrible, but it never rises to the level of a movie someone might conceivably pay to see. It’s perfect fodder for the psychological thriller/horror section, which suffers from a dearth of quality films and can safely throw a five-out-of-ten on the top of the page where horror junkies looking for something good might click on it out of desperation.

It’s somewhat better than Coin Heist; its mediocrity isn’t as overpowering. I can imagine someone finding it basically satisfying, depending on how badly they need a new thriller in their lives. It’s essentially functional; it’s just frustratingly skin-deep. You can see an interesting movie taking shape in the margins, but it never comes to fruition.

It’s a low-rent Sixth Sense with no ghosts — a psychiatrist fails a patient who stages an attempted murder/suicide in the opening scene and then falls into a twisty plot as he/she tries for redemption with a new patient who has a similar affliction. The Sixth Sense benefits from its final twist being a very good one, enriching and deepening rather than upending the movie that precedes it. I don’t know that Clinical’s twist ending necessarily ruins it, but it encapsulates the movie’s biggest problems — its prioritization of superficial thrills over character and storytelling. Bigger is not always better, and few movies better testify to that than Clinical — it’s certainly dramatic, but what it’s not is dramatically satisfying.

It doesn’t have a twist ending so much as an escalating series of twists, and each one compromises the much better storylines the movie develops previously. It could have been an interesting movie about healing and refusing to let our pasts define us that just so happens to have a horror twist as the main character experiences what may or may not be hallucinations related to her own trauma. It almost is, but the movie, unfortunately, is more interested in generic horror and the associated tropes, which it dutifully knocks down without enthusiasm or imagination. It approaches its leads’ respective conditions too broadly, so it’s never able to dive too deeply into the healing process. Its take on psychiatric therapy feels a little stereotyped and false. And each twist completely changes the nature of the story — the board is reset, the focus is on something new, and no one’s arc meets with a satisfying resolution. Character motivations are buried and make very little sense in retrospect. What did anyone learn in this movie? What did we learn? What am I supposed to talk about after the credits roll?

It’s just a lightweight psychological thriller that isn’t even that great at driving up the tension (partly because one of the twists it conceals ought to have been revealed from the start; not knowing it actually makes the movie less scary). It keeps you going with the promise of surprises just around the corner, but none of them actually live up to the hype. All I can say is that we no longer have to go to theaters to catch this year’s generic mid-winter horrors.

Hoping for better from Netflix in 2017. What’s their next movie? Let’s see here… iBoy, a movie where a teenager apparently acquires all the powers of a…smartphone.

Awesome.

mv5bndm4nzhhntqtzmuymy00otfllwflmzgtytq5ote3yjbmmta5l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvynjczote0mzm-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Coin Heist (2017)

Starring- Alex Saxon, Alexis G. Zall, Sasha Pieterse, Jay Walker, Michael Cyril Creighton, Mark Blum, David W. Thompson

Director- Emily Hagins

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUyTRSlmXf4

After their headmaster is arrested for embezzling funds from the foundation, four teens plot to rob the U.S. Mint to save their school.

And so we begin 2017 in cinema the way I suspect we’ll begin every year as long as Netflix continues with this experiment — with a subpar, forgettable TV movie.

I’m beginning to wonder if even Netflix has embraced the concept of the direct-to-streaming movie and all the implications thereof, because it’s reached the point where it’s premiering movies no one would ever pay money to see with absolutely no fanfare or marketing whatsoever. Half the time, they bury their releases where no one who didn’t already know they were coming out could ever find them. They know they’re not obligated to release movies, right? They don’t have to buy whatever comes their way to be charitable or something. They’re allowed to restrict their purchases to movies they think people will actually want to see.

Coin Heist isn’t that bad, but only a few of Netflix’s offerings have been. That they’re bad isn’t what confuses me; there are plenty of terrible movies in a year that at least make sense on paper purely as a business proposition. Transformers is the worst, but there’s obviously an audience for it; I’m not confused that it keeps getting sequels. What gets me is that so many of Netflix’s originals don’t appear to have any particular audience in mind — they aren’t good enough to appeal to the cinephiles, they aren’t flashy enough to grab general audiences, they never appear to be trying to tap into any cultural moment. They’re simply released upon an unsuspecting public to do with what it will. They really are the equivalent of TV movies — made for shoestring budgets solely to be watched by people who want to turn something on in the background and don’t care to pay for it. That’s a viable business model for television, which sells groups of channels as packages, but for Netflix? Netflix needs to persuade people to subscribe specifically to its services. And no one is going to sign up because they desperately want to see Coin Heist — if you don’t already have Netflix, you probably don’t even know it exists. It’s there as filler between larger acquisitions, except here’s the problem — Netflix is a streaming service with a broad library you can pick and choose from whenever you want. It doesn’t need filler to play before and after the movie of the month and pick up the ratings leftovers. And with that large a streaming collection, who other than people like me who arbitrarily decided to review all Netflix originals and are coming to deeply regret that is actually watching these? Who’s looking at a film and television library with some of the biggest names of all time and thinking they ought to make time for Coin Heist?

I just don’t get it. Movies like this have no reason to exist, and boy do they feel like it. Coin Heist has it worse than most; at least Netflix’s low-budget genre stuff has some distant claim to Real Movie status on a production level. Coin Heist is basically a slightly edgier Disney Channel movie. It’s pretty grounded, at least on the visual level, so the low budget shouldn’t be that much of a problem for it; nevertheless, you can feel how spare it is. It takes place at a fancy prep school, but there’s nothing interesting inside it — it looks like a mediocre high school except smaller. The characters’ activities inside the Mint feel as restricted as possible — the fewer the places they go, the fewer the sets that need to be built. Nowhere is interesting or lived-in; they’ve built rooms, filled them with random stuff, and turned on the camera. So few characters outside the main four matter that the backgrounds start to feel somehow empty; most of it takes place at a school, but the winter formal might be the only time a crowd appears. Everything’s weirdly quiet and subdued, and not in a way that feels like a deliberate artistic choice. The movie simply has nothing going for it that isn’t directly in front of the camera.

And what’s there is pretty insubstantial. There’s no particular flair in the direction, and no one in the cast manages to stand out — none of the actors are bad, but none of them bring much life to their roles either. The plotting is pretty basic, and most of it doesn’t stick on a character level — there’s too much inevitability in the relationships (it’s one of those movies where you know from the get-go that everyone’s going to get paired off with one another, regardless of their chemistry or motivations), and the movie tries to force its beats into a certain mold rather than letting things unfold organically. The leads insist on building a team to do this before they even know how they’re going to do it — the protagonist insists upon this, literally, because he watched a bunch of heist movies to prepare and all heist movies have teams. This isn’t played for comedy or to indicate that this character is stupid; the movie takes it in complete seriousness.

Thematically, it’s…weird. I think its message is that if adults can break the rules and screw up the world, kids can do so to protect their interests as well. This isn’t treated as a commentary on the cyclical nature of wrongdoing but rather a fact of the matter, worth emulating. I suppose it’s of-the-moment, politically speaking, and I empathize with it, but it’s an oversimplification, and it’s weird that a generally light-hearted teen flick would be that cynical in the end.

There just isn’t much of anything going on here, and I can’t imagine what audience Coin Heist would appeal to. There are people out there who won’t dislike it, certainly, but it’s difficult for me to picture someone considering it a new personal favorite. It’s just there, wandering without purpose, hoping someone will accidentally click on it and not hate it enough to return to the menu screen.