Not compelling, but somehow still cute and enjoyable
Jenny, Juno is a Corean romantic comedy released in 2005 that deals with teen pregnancy. Despite the rather serious subject matter, the film actually manages to keep a very lighthearted, primarily romantic, tone, which led to the ratings board to initially slap it with a 18+ rating, despite its otherwise innocent nature, with the argument that the film trivializes teen pregnancy and makes it seem rather easy. Eventually, the film ended up with a 15+ rating.
The story opens with Jenny (Park Minji), a high-achieving middle- schooler, discovering that she's knocked up and quickly informing Juno (Kim Hyesun), her middle-school boyfriend. There is brief ensuing drama, very similar to Apatow's Knocked Up, where the two decide to keep the baby and raise it together. From there it's a matter of keeping the pregnancy thing secret from parents and further building their relationship.
Something that immediately impressed me about Jenny, Juno, was how it was able to keep dramatic urgency, despite the fact that the conflict remains rather light throughout the first half of the film. Instead, we primarily see Jenny and Juno continuing their very sweet relationship and working to both help Jenny be a healthy mother and Juno be a responsible father. The trick to retaining drama, it turns out, is the unspoken threat of parental action should the parents find out about the baby. (And it should be no spoiler to note that they eventually do.) Overall, the story kind of reminds me of female-centric comic books popular in both Corea and Japan, as the story progression, action, scenes from flashbacks, have a very Asian comic book feel and some of the comedy draws from that sort of visualization. I also liked how it retained a light hearted cheerfulness throughout. When things are supposed to get serious, they do, but unfortunately, the drama is more than a little hamstrung, because of the film's continuing push to keep its very optimistic outlook intact. Ultimately, though, the end problem with the story lies in that we don't actually get to see any development in either Jenny and Juno or the people around them (and it should be the parents that we see the most development in as Jenny and Juno both seem like a pair of "magical" characters, who affect those around them). Also, the film really is rather unrealistic throughout, with little drama in the high school and setting up a rather pregnancy friendly situation for Jenny by giving her a wealthy family.
The film is modern and composed adequately. I was very impressed by the two young actors, both young teenagers themselves, although the roles weren't all that challenging. The supporting cast was well done too, although their characters were also more archetypal than complex. The music is understated with the exception of the theme song to the movie, which is rather catchy, but gets a little overplayed throughout.
Honestly, I have to say that I found this film rather refreshing, despite its rather notable problems, in both that it somehow manages to stay sunny throughout the first half and still retain its drama, as well as enjoying the romance between the two kids. That doesn't absolve the film of its problems with being so light-hearted that it floats away from dramatic grounding or its too-good-to-be-true atmosphere. And yet, somehow I found myself enjoying the film regardless. It's not great and is only arguably decent, but I liked it. It was cute. 7/10.
Spider-Man 3 is the first movie where Sam Raimi has disappointed me. It's certainly a Sam Raimi film and it very much follows the previous movies in terms of style, presentation and even in terms of where its story goes, but where it fails is to tell a well woven tale.
The story follows after the events of Spider-Man 2 and both of the previous movies are briefly summarized visually during the opening credits, which is nice for those who have to catch up. Spider-Man has become the talk of the town and Mary Jane is opening up a show. Uh, then a whole ton of stuff happens in a hurry, including the introduction of three villains and a retcon of the first movie, which leads to a whole lot of emo-spidey/Peter Parker.
And there's so much attempted in this story that it just doesn't hold together. Several elements of the stories feel heavily contrived, just to get all the villains present. The Harry Osborn, the the Black Suit and Eddie Brock have enough going for them that they could have all held together their own movies separately, using just the Sandman as an intermediary villain, but so little time is spent developing any of the major story lines that the film literally tells us what's going on most of the time and does things like retconning events of the first movie to fit in motive for the second emo-Parker. Which in itself is an inversion of the whole "Raindrops Are Falling On My Head" sequence from the second film. Unfortunately, the charm wore off and the sequence went on far too long this time around. Also, because the film has to juggle so many events, it felt like I was a ping pong ball bouncing back and forth between a heated game of "let's change up the entire tone of the film with a dramatic twist" over and over again. I really didn't appreciate that we hit emo-Spidey/Parker three entire times over the course of the film, with him "getting better" each time. The stories, the Mary Jane/Peter Parker story, the Harry Osborn story, the Eddie Brock/Black Suit story and the Sandman story all just aren't given enough time to breathe and set before things change over again.
I got bored and I got frustrated. Furthermore, the Sandman, as a character is poorly developed and so are his powers, which ultimately seem overwhelming and it's surprising how easily he's defeated. The only character that gets some interesting development is Harry Osborn, but not enough time is spent with him and it doesn't feel like, at the end, what happens with him is earned by the film. So almost every element of the film seems a little forced.
Technically, the film is up to the standards of the previous films. It looks great and Raimi and company maintains their eye for color, for camera-work, for adding cheese when wanted and providing kinetic action. The actors all remain up to the standards established by the previous films and I really do like how the film feels so much like the previous two in terms of the overall presentation.
Ultimately, the only problem with Spider-Man 3 happens to be a huge one. The story essentially tries to sandwich what might be three movies worth of plot into a two hour movie (and yes, the movie really felt too long) and it just fails to pull me into its world, making me feel like I was getting smacked around by a giant plot stick. And it just seemed too obvious that it was trying to do that. And, so, I was quite disappointed by Spider-Man 3. It's not "the suck" entirely, because, contrived as it is, it still does try to tell a story (or two, or three) that might be coherent and meaningful if more time was given to it, but it doesn't succeed. I'd say it's fine to stop at Spider-Man 2 and leave the series on a good note. 5/10.
Works best when it focuses less on the direct mythology of The Matrix
The Animatrix is a compilation companion piece to the Matrix films that collects nine short animated films set in the world of the Matrix. While it helps broaden and inform the world of the Matrix, the individual segments vary in their success in storytelling.
"Final Flight of the Osiris" opens up the film and is the CG animated number. In itself, it's just a short story about events that occur off- screen during the second Matrix film. At it mostly acts as backstory, it doesn't lend itself very much dramatic weight and spends a whole lot of time at the beginning showing off CGI attempts at life-like animation as well as CGI skin. While the visuals themselves are fairly impressive, I was ultimately underwhelmed. 5/10.
"The Second Renaissance Parts I & II" are two short films that chronicle the events leading up to the dystopia of The Matrix. An animated fauxcumentary, it sets the background of the Matrix world, step by step, showing how humans created the machines and the machines beat the humans after tons of abuse. While it's all quite well drawn (and contains dozens upon dozens of references to other films), I found it about as interesting as reading a poorly written history textbook. It does contain more interesting text than "Final Flight", especially as it deals with humanity's errors, but I have to say that despite it's strong visual style, it edged on being a yawnfest. And it doesn't pull punches. Another downside is that the more it exposed some of the backstory about how the world of the Matrix happened, the harder I found to buy it, which consequently had a negative effect on how I view the original Matrix movie. 6/10.
"Kid's Story" is really where this collection begins to pick up. I found it's hand-drawn blurry style to be rather catching, especially in capturing the waking-dream-like world of the Matrix. While the story mostly just deals with a kid's escape from The Matrix, it holds some interesting subtext about the nature of dreams (even within dreams) and ideas of fate. Not to say that this is masterful, but rather, it's a decent little piece, for what it is. 7/10.
"Program" is a piece that left me unsatisfied, because it raised questions that it failed to resolve. Essentially set within a swords- and-samurai simulation, the protagonist encounters a friend-as-adversary in the program. They talk about the nature of reality as they fight and as her friend lets her in on a dark secret. But the ending creates serious doubts in the believability of the confrontation within. Again, interesting art, but the story has large enough issues that it was hard to enjoy. 5/10.
"World Record" was actually kind of interesting. It deals with a world class runner who, in breaking records, begins to see cracks in his reality. It's quite simple and fortunately it's short, so it doesn't overstay its welcome. 7/10.
"Beyond" is by far my favorite piece of the bunch. A teenage girl starts looking for her cat, Yuki, and meets some boys who she follows to a local "haunted house", where she discovers both Yuki and an apparent glitch in the Matrix. The glitch makes some rather strange things happen, like gravity working weird and reality fading in and out. It works as an exploration of finding the strange and wonderful things in life and how reality/society/etc tries to "erase" these mistakes. Fantastic, even if it has the least to do with the Matrix mythology. 8/10.
"A Detective Story" deals with a detective named Ash who gets hired to find the hacker Trinity. His explorations lead him to some rather strange discoveries about reality. Working as an homage to hard-boiled detective films, I found it pretty interesting and it very strongly reminded me of Cowboy Bebop, including it's protagonist, who sort of reminded me of Spike. 7/10.
"Matriculation" left me with mixed feelings. Reminding me strongly of Aeon Flux in its art style (I'm guessing it's the same director), the film ultimately deals with the attempts of Zion to create machine "rebels". The Zion folk capture a runner-robot and plug it into their own Matrix and interact with it in a somewhat strange world. Unfortunately, for me, not much happens narratively within this machine- Matrix except for a series of somewhat interesting visuals and this segment goes on for quite a while. I got bored. But then it gets interesting and darker at the end and I found the ending to be rather interesting itself. So a mixed bag. 6/10.
All in all, the Animatrix is mostly watchable, but doesn't have as many highs as it just sits in the middle. The art is mostly gorgeous, but many of the stories overstay their welcome or reveal gaps in logic, whether inside the story itself or in the mythology of the Matrix. As a companion piece to The Matrix, it works all right, even if it might show off huge cracks in the Matrix mythology. As such, I have to say it's really more of a work for fans, although I think "Beyond" is solid enough in itself to watch on its own. It's okay.
Great film, but some of the more mature themes might fly over kids heads (in a balloon house nonetheless)
One day, Pixar might make a film that will just fail to be decent. Fortunately, Up is not that picture. While the story is a little fragmented, this still remains a marvel of animated storytelling that continues the Pixar legacy of releasing solid 3D animated films.
The story begins with Carl as a child and we quickly watch his relationship with Ellie, through its various phases, through its untimely end. And then we pick up again as Carl decides to make his late wife's dreams come true. He launches his house into the sky via a ton of balloons, but manages to pick up a young Wilderness Explorer named Russell and then his goal gets derailed from there. Along the way, we meet a few other kooky characters, hilarity ensues and we end on a nice note. First of all, I think Up contains some of the most mature themes and story elements of all of their films so far, especially as we watch Carl and Ellie's life together in fast forward. I don't know how much children will fully comprehend what was going on, but despite the brevity, I still found some of the moments to be borderline tearjerkers. One downside to the story is that it's essentially fragmented and requires that "life with Ellie" at the beginning, but overall, the "quest averted" concept works very well to help bring out Carl's character. Russell does cross into the land of affably annoying and at times it's difficult to retain sympathy for him due to all the trouble he causes, despite his innocence.
The art is pretty classic Pixar, clean with lots of attention to detail and the animators definitely display their considerable skill in getting the characters to display various degrees of emotions. Voice actors do a great job with their characters, even the rather simple characters. Music is used well, even if it's not hyper-memorable.
Ultimately, Up falls into line as a good Pixar film, just under the tier of great Pixar film. Of course, a good Pixar film tends to mean a great film otherwise and I won't hesitate to recommend it to anyone. 8/10.
A sort of spiritual successor to Evil Dead II; it's funny, it's scary and it's highly entertaining!
Drag Me To Hell is a return, for writer/director Sam Raimi to a legendary film from his past, Evil Dead II. While it's in now way connected to Evil Dead II in terms of story, Raimi stamps DMTH with everything that made his Evil Dead trilogy such a cult classic. And while it's a far cry from an art-cinema masterpiece, what we have in DMTH is an unabashedly fun horror comedy thrill ride.
The story, like the referenced film, is rather simple. Our heroine, Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), pisses off an old gypsy woman (yeah-- not entirely fond of the stereotypical Romani stuff going on in this film) and gets cursed. Now she has three days to escape it before she gets dragged to hell. The fun isn't so much in the rather simple story, but in how Christine struggles to escape the curse and Raimi does a surprising job of throwing around a lot of zany Three Stooges/Looney Tunes inspired comedy and still somehow maintaining all the tension and suspense required in the horror movie.
Honestly, there were some points in the film that I laughed out loud at, which doesn't happen much. Some of the setups for physical comedy are rather hilarious, including an early one where a lack of dentures leads to grossness. Speaking of gross, the film does not hesitate to indulge in gross-out effects, almost all of which was done comically (think the "wall of blood geyser" from Evil Dead II). Despite the rather comic nature of the film, Raimi still reaches deep into the bag of horror tricks and manages to make the audience jump out of its seat with scares and chills.
The only issue I have with the film can be leveled at much of the genre it occupies and that's one of the consequence. When the curtains go down and the jitters of excitement have worn off, you're left wondering, "so what"? But then again, I don't think that DMTH or many other horror films are all that concerned with that as well.
The cast does their job respectably, Lohman capably carrying the internally conflicted Christine well and managing the silly physical comedy well. Lorna Raver throws herself into the vengeful Sylvia Ganush well, also somehow managing to make the old woman rather frightful and comic at the same time. All the other players do decent jobs with their simple roles and keep us engaged. And technically, while the film might be a throwback to the Raimi of old, we're dealing with the budgets that the new Raimi can command and so all the special effects are very glossy and very likely done with a lot of CGI. Nothing looks low budget. Cinematography is subtle, but does a great job of creating lots of dark spaces for scares to happen and keeping things unsettling even when we're in the "safe" spaces in the film.
Ultimately, DMTH is a rather simple film, but one that takes its simple premise and takes it to the best degree it can, much like Evil Dead II. It's both laugh-out-loud funny and jump-out-of-your-seat frightening and the suspense is high enough to keep you at the edge of your seat. And while, Raimi might have left the small budgets of the Evil Dead trilogy behind, he seems to have ripped out its still beating heart and stuffed it into Drag Me To Hell, making a terribly fun popcorn movie that keeps its ambitions simple and meets every single of its entertainment goals. An often unbelievably entertaining film. Thank you, Sam Raimi. 8/10.
Enjoyable reboot of a classic with a few problems in the story logic
Star Trek is a "reboot" of the classic franchise started by Gene Roddenberry as a little television show on NBC a few decades ago. In particular, this film revisits the original incarnation of Star Trek and the subsequent movies and creates a bit of a new origin story. With a very long history of lore and legions of fans, director J.J. Abrams and company had to both respect the story of Star Trek as it was and also tread new territory. They found an out that both respected the history of the overall franchise and let them rewrite it at the same time: the alternate universe. Using the long-standing tradition in Star Trek history, the reboot boldly takes us where no fan has gone before...
The trouble all starts when revenge-bent Romulans from the future show up in the past, blowing up the ship that happens to be carrying the father of James ("Jim") Tiberius Kirk, thus altering time forever. However, Kirk, with some prodding from Captain Christopher Pike (who Star Trek fans might remember from the pilot episode "The Cage"), Kirk ends up repeating much of history anyhow. Meeting the various members of the crew that would form the Enterprise anyway, they respond to a distress call from Spock's home planet, Vulcan. Then a series of troubles occur involving the future-Romulans, amidst other things.
The story itself is convoluted at times, requires a lot of faith from the audience and takes some rather contrived leaps of logic to propel it forward. Consequently, the actual mechanics of the story often are alarmingly strange. Why is the entire Federation Fleet on the other side of the galaxy? Why would they leave their various homeworlds completely unprotected? Furthermore, a number of plot holes show up throughout the film. This is very distracting from the emotional core of the story, which is actually quite good, focusing on the friendship between Kirk, Spock and Bones as well as keeping the rest of the classic Enterprise crew well involved. If you're willing to overlook the various leaps of logic in the story, then in terms of crafting tension and twists of fate, it serves its purpose well.
One of the highlights of the film is the acting from the various players. Chris Pine does an acceptable job as Kirk, being a bit more brash and bad boy as well as generally avoiding the specific vocal inflections that William Shatner wrote into the character's legacy. Zachary Quinto's Spock was perhaps the farthest from the original portrayal, played with a lot more simmering emotion than Leonard Nimoy's original incarnation. Given the greater emphasis on Spock's human side in this incarnation, it makes sense. I also still had some trouble getting Quinto's Sylar character out of my head while watching him perform, which might have muddied my appreciation of the role. In some ways, it's the lesser members of the cast that seem to have benefited the most from this incarnation, each getting a chance to shine. Eric Bana on the other hand, gets a rather poorly drawn character to portray in Nero, having to rage and stomp around in a fit most of the time.
There are a lot of cute Star Trek references thrown in throughout the film, which Star Trek fans might appreciate. The designs for the film do a surprising amount of respect to the original designs (although I still don't understand why the female crew members get stuck in the mini- dresses reflecting the original series) while "modernizing" the appearance to appeal to our circa 2009 sense of aesthetics. Special effects are expectedly good for a tentpole pic and the overall technical production is solid.
Purists probably won't appreciate this film that much, due to its rather large deviance from canon. And anyone who bothers to think about the various story points will probably find it somewhat lacking. On the other hand, the film still does well in terms of its focus on the story of the Star Trek trio and keeps the story moving along. Personally, I find the story logic problematic enough that I was frequently distracted from the point. However, this is still a rather engaging and entertaining movie, despite those problems. It'll still be a solid distraction for those looking for a fun movie, but losing the sci-fi for adventure and its hand-waving conceits keep it from the greatness that I've heard it reflected. Which, I guess, puts it in the range of the rest of the more enjoyable Star Trek films. 7/10.
Decent comedy, some romance and a middling story means it's decent mindless summer entertainment
A sort-of romantic comedy, 200 Pounds Beauty, is a likable, although limited shot at romantic comedy popularity, sustained by a charismatic lead performance by Kim Ajoong and a high concept.
The story revolves around an obese woman who happens to be "the voice" of a popular singer in Corea. Of course, she doesn't look the part, so she just sings in the background. And he happens to be head over heels for her producer, who also happens to be friendly with her. Due to lack of confidence, she undergoes a radical total body plastic surgery procedure and is reborn at the pretty girl she thinks she needs to be to catch her crush. I think the story overall is a little mixed up and doesn't always do a great job of keeping conflicts clear. Sometimes I wasn't sure what the real conflict was with the main character and I find its wishy washy attitude towards societal standards of beauty, as well as plastic surgery, to be too anemic to appreciate. But the film does get many moments of comedy right. Special attention should be given to Kim Ajoong's portrayal of Kim Hana. Although at first I was a little annoyed by her "clumsy fat girl" antics, in the unbelievable fat suit, because I thought it was a negative stereotype of large bodied people, I came to appreciate her performance as she continued the same character after she becomes "beautiful". I loved how awkward her body language as the skinny girl she becomes is and there are some amusing bits of comedy that come from both her and others reacting to her new appearance.
I guess the big criticism I have is the lightweightedness of the story. Despite its romantic comedy billing, I still didn't feel like that much was at stake for Kim Hana, because I don't think the story effectively sold what it was that she cared about, in addition to splitting her interest in more than three directions. Furthermore, the producer character's position never becomes really clear. Many of the actors, being given limited characters, do an adequate job, but outside of the lead role, there's not much depth given to work with. Production value is high, as should be expected for a high-concept tentpole comedy and direction does a decent enough job of capturing a proper romantic comedy atmosphere.
In no way is anyone going to mistake 200 Pounds Beauty for high art, but its limited charms make for decent entertainment. I don't feel like the story is strong enough for the concept, but the execution is adequate enough and there's enough comedy present in the film to keep it floating through its running time. It also helps that Kim Ajoong turns out to be a good listen as well when she opens up her pipes to sing in the film. Thanks to her charming performance, I can give this one passing grade. It's not a special film, but basic romantic comedy entertainment that goes down easy and doesn't leave too big of an imprint in your mind. Decent. 6/10.
Formulaic, but fairly successful martial arts biopic
Fighter in the Wind is a Corea-produced martial arts biopic about Masutatsu Oyama (born Choi Baedal), the ethnically Corean founder of Kyokushin karate. I actually went into this film bracing for the worst kind of nationalism that I often expect from Corean film when dealing with Japan, but was pleasantly surprised at how subdued it was. In addition to some limited, but kinetic fight sequences, Fighter in the Wind ends up being a mostly satisfying, if limited, portrait of a prominent figure of the martial arts world.
The fictionalized story covers the early portion of Oyama's life in Japan. While history shows that Oyama had actually trained in two schools of karate before developing his own technique, I imagine that much of the actual of events of his life were elided for both running time as well as nationalistic purposes, in re-centering Oyama as a Corean (perhaps to appeal to the Corean movie-going populace). In addition to watching Baedal/Oyama get beat up, beat people up and become a total badass, we also watch him make friends with another ethnic Corean (the vice-ridden best friend), develop a relationship with a Japanese woman, get schooled by a Zainichi karate instructor/circus troupe guard, and spend a chunk of time brutally training in solitude in the mountains.
The film follows a rather unsurprising approach that you can find in many martial arts films, following the hero's journey as he starts from a scrapping fighter, who gets beaten, learns and trains with a master and learned to use his skills for good and not selfish ambition, is forced to fight to protect someone, beats the big bad in the end. Yeah, totally formulaic since this film mostly fits the basic formula, but like many films before it, it works. You see the growth of Baedal/Oyama's character, you see his victory from rather rough beginnings and how he changes the lives of those around him. Basic biopic/hero-film stuff. But it's pretty well executed, so although it's nothing that's going to amaze you, at the same time, the character remains interesting enough to keep your attention, like any biopic. Unfortunately, most of the Japanese villains are painted with a rather broad near-mustache-twirling brush, so if you're looking for complexity in your story-telling, you won't find it here.
The fight scenes, while not plentiful, are kinetic and hard hitting, especially the montage as Oyama takes on school after school of Japan's elite fighters. It's fun to watch the different martial arts interact and it's hard not to root for Oyama's practical underdog style. Photography is pretty good, adapting to the different dramatic material well, while still seeming cohesive and the film doesn't tank in terms of sonic presentation. The acting was overall good, although sometimes I felt like Yang Donggun, who played Oyama, had a rather limited character to work with, but he still seemed to embody that rather simple determination with his posture, even if I had a hard time believing that his body was one of a brutally effective fighter.
I still have some issues with the probably nationalistically motivated fictionalizations to Oyama's life and the rather obvious bad-guy characterizations of the antagonists, but in terms of an engaging biopic, Fighter in the Wind actually manages to make it out okay--if you like martial arts. It's no visionary work of art, but a rather modestly put together biopic that tells the story of a man whose determination and courage led to greatness. These things work for a reason and Fighter didn't screw it up, even if it did nothing astounding. Good for martial arts fans and probably passable for everyone else. 7/10.
A charming visual aesthetic and fine performances unfortunately tied to a super lightweight story
I was drawn to watch Radio Dayz because of the leading actor, Ryu Seungbeom, whose performances I'd enjoyed in previous films. Combined with a bit of a recent surge in popularity of Corean films using the rather captivating era of Japanese occupation, I thought I'd give it a shot.
Radio Dayz is essentially a comedy. It follows the story of a fictional "first Corean radio station" run during the occupation as it starts up. Not that radio stations weren't existent in Corea at the time, but more that this was the first Corean one. The film starts off with the Japanese owner and Corean staff working to try to make their station successful and eventually, they decide to put on a radio drama "The Flames of Love", a terribly melodramatic piece. Meanwhile, a group of misfit Corean independence fighters conspire to use the radio station for their own ends. Hilarity ensues.
Or I wish it did. Not to say that the film doesn't have any funny moments, but I feel like the comedy was a bit stiff or perhaps it wasn't all played the same because while some of the jokes were amusing (for example: the competition between the two glory-hogging divas), other jokes were just mildly amusing. Similarly, while there's an interesting story about how the popular play "The Flames of Love" was used as a anti-colonialist response to the occupiers, the film doesn't successfully place stakes that we're at all concerned. It's as though the film is pulling all of its punches, in both the comedy and drama departments and so the story becomes so slight as to become negligible.
Not to say that the film is entirely a failure. For one, the art direction, the costuming, the photography and all the cute references to the era are solid. I like the use of filters (or perhaps it's post- digital processing) to color the film in sepia. There's the occasional use of irises and other techniques that recall the early film era, which is well studied. I can appreciate that. In fact, the acting, including chemistry, is there. In addition to the talented Ryu as Lloyd, the two divas, jazz singer Marie (Kim Sarang) and traditional actor Myungwol (Hwang Bora) do a great job of playing up the comedy in their own roles. The music doesn't ever become overbearing and often lovingly pulls from jazz era inspiration really helping to set the scene as well as contributing a rather strong number for Marie.
Unfortunately, even with all that's right with the film, the film falls flat on story. There's just not enough present in terms of conflict or stakes, coupled with the fact that the film is directly so lightly (perhaps trying to ladle on a golden kind of nostalgia) that it just becomes hard to care. It never really becomes apparent why the characters care nor what they have to lose. In fact, a lot of the running time is spend getting the station up and going, we don't really see anything substantive happen until more than halfway through. And that's just too bad. As the end credits roll, there's also a completely detached and somewhat out-there song-and-dance number to some jazz- influenced rockabilly that almost brings to mind the crazy ending of The 40 Year Old Virgin. Perhaps with a better focus on characters and story, this film would be commendable, but as it stands, it's merely a pretty nostalgic shell tied together with a silly string of a story. If the aesthetic is all you're looking for, you might just enjoy this as it's not horrible, but for everyone else, I'd say pass. 5/10.
Rough and hard to connect to, but still decent story about urban malaise
Asako in Ruby Shoes is a film by Lee Jeyong prior to his more popular period Chosen retooling of Les liaisons dangereuses. While I find this film to be uneven and it certainly starts off quite rough, there are some charms to it's stories about urban loneliness that just barely won me over in the end.
This film features two separate stories that are interrelated by themes and connections, but the characters hardly really cross. The film starts with Uin, a government clerk in Seoul, who lives a rather lonely and bored life. He's also seemingly socially awkward and seeks (sexual) solace by viewing near-naughty pics on the internet. He also becomes attracted to a flippant and dismissive scarlet-dye-haired worker in his building. The second story follows Aya, a student in Tokyo, who is so lost that she develops an obsession with committing suicide by holding her breath. She also develops a fixation on the titular ruby shoes and picks up a couple extra jobs, including as an "actress" for a rather tame internet site catering to lonely men.
Direction-wise, the film starts fairly rough. Some of the editing and framing choices are jagged, however, as the film progresses, these problems become less noticeable and a considerably appreciable art-house type style, somewhat reminiscent of French New Wave films emerges. The story itself is also fairly interesting, although I had a hard time sympathizing with Uin, due to his often creepy obsessive tendencies. Sometimes the "crossings" between the two characters become a little contrived, especially as the film goes on, but the emotional stories of the two characters (especially Aya) becomes so much more enthralling that, while still thrown by it, I found myself appreciating the film all the same. The film also has several moments of humor, ranging from a few gags to the kind of awkward humor that makes me want to hide behind my couch, but I wouldn't really call this a comedy.
Technically, the film is still a bit rough, but some of my critique might reflect the fact that the DVD transfer I have was quite wretched. Color is off and oversaturated and at times undersaturated and it looks like the DVD transfer was taken off of a video master, giving it some rather ugly noise and interlacing issues. To add injury to insult, the film's original ratio was dropped for a 4:3 pan and scan for this Hong Kong edition that I received. Consequently, I found it hard to judge the film's production values. In terms of craft, the actors do a remarkable job and while some of the supporting characters definitely ventured into caricatures, the leads held their roles well, considering that the themes they had to embody were rather subtle.
I have to say that while it was tough going at first, I found myself actually enjoying Asako in Ruby Shoes. Unfortunately, being unable to connect with Uin on top of the contrivances, combined with a rather dismal DVD transfer, blunted my enjoyment quite a bit. Still, I think that there's enough going on in this film to merit a viewing, for interested parties. It's rough, but I like it okay. 6/10.
Going By the Book is a comedy written (in part) by the talented Jang Jin and you can see his flourishes all over it, and while it's directed by another man, it has a lot of Jang's hallmarks in it. Unfortunately, like many of Jang's films, this one is pretty even and the story logic falls apart. What's more is that the premise and setups have great comic potential but I feel that it doesn't deliver on its potential.
The premise is awesome and made me buy the movie blind: A "by the book" straight-laced traffic cop pulls over and tickets the incoming chief of police on his inauguration day. Meanwhile, the small town that they live in is plagued by a string of bank robberies that the police are clueless on in how to respond and stop. Losing face, the new chief of police decides to save the force's face by doing a publicized "training" robbery, which will be simulated, but otherwise treated as real. And possibly as an act of vengeance, the police chief picks the traffic cop, Doman, to be the robber. Of course, what he didn't bargain for is that Doman is extremely dutiful and begins preparing the perfect robbery.
See? Can't you see the potential oozing out of that idea? I sure can.
But there's a big problem in its execution as well as the second half's story issues. First of all, the director (and possibly editor) doesn't seem to have a good grasp on comic timing and drawing out the comedy from Jang's very wry type of humor. Consequently, the delivery of some rather good jokes is unfortunately underplayed and failed to get even a laugh out of me. Worse, the logical glue of this simulation sometimes falls apart. While the story is partially pitted as two arrogant individuals, Doman and the chief of police, battle out this simulation, it's implied that Doman was a solid detective who lost his position for chasing after the governor and is assumed to be bright. Unfortunately, half of his successes seem to be out of pure luck, which undermines the tenseness of the battle. In the second half, the script tries to pull an Inside Man/Ocean's Eleven type switcharoo, but it's completely unbelievable due to the fact that the hostages have no reason to cooperate when they reach that point. Even if they were doing it out of sympathy for Doman, Doman never really earns this. A national media subplot also exists and it goes nowhere.
The film also engages in some flights of fancy, but I don't feel that they were well incorporated into the film and, as a result, often feel jarring to the otherwise realistic tone of the film. I feel like these parts needed to be introduced earlier to work, rather than a third into the film. Also, I often fail to understand what the point of the film is. It would have been far more interesting if Doman were more clever, especially to use the situation to get his old job back, but he's drawn too straightlaced for that. If he were more of a fool, perhaps it would've been interesting too, as everyone gets frustrated by the fool. Also, the ending seems too much of a cop out, trying to provide a sort of payoff that wasn't really earned and also circumstantial. Finally, the last scene is pretty ridiculous. I think if the "real robbers" were more incorporated in the script it would've helped add more dynamism to an often static situation.
In terms of lensing, framing, etc., the directing was fine and even features some good shots. The acting ranges from good (the protagonist/antagonist do fairly well) to wooden. Some of the supporting characters had a lot of opportunity to add more to the film, but really didn't pull off the comedy well. Perhaps they were directed to play everything more deadpan, but I think it would've worked better if the players played their parts a little more realistically. It also robs the last scene of any comedy as well. I don't remember the score, but I don't think it was intrusive or particularly notable.
What we end up with here is a film with a boatload of potential, most of which is wasted by a script that fails to get anywhere meaningful, probably due to a lack of focus, characteristic of Jang, and a rather underwhelming execution. I still love the premise, but I really can't recommend this film because it just doesn't work as well as it should. It's a bit of a disappointment. 5/10.
Thrilling action and ho-hum storytelling; a bit of a disappointment
At this time of writing, I don't know what the critics are saying about Terminator Salvation, so I'm just going to relay my thoughts about the fourth installment of the Terminator series.
In a departure from previous films, Terminator Salvation is set in the future, after Skynet, an artificial intelligence, wipes out much of humanity. The remaining humans (represented in a very brief montage partway through the movie) are mostly stuck as resistance fighters. John Conner ends up being a bit of a prophet figure (having all his experience with terminators and passed down knowledge about the future from his mother). Along the way, a (and this should be no spoiler) man who was possibly turned into a machine shows up and has to kick some ass as well.
The story really feels by the numbers. It still has a little of that man-machine consideration in the character of Marcus Wright (the inmate turned cyborg), but its very little indeed. Everything moves along just as you'd expect it would. There are no surprises here (unless you're quite oblivious). In some ways, Terminator Salvation is a huge letdown, because there is so much potential in exploring the tensions of being a prophet (instead we get Christian Bale brooding) as well as another look at what makes humanity human (but that conflict seems entirely absent in Marcus and largely absent in anyone but briefly in John Conner). The story also works hard to make sure people don't notice its contrivances, by ratcheting up tension, especially around the characters of Kyle Reese and John Conner (from Terminator), both of whom Skynet had plenty of opportunities to wipe out, but somehow failed to do so. As such, believability was lost in the film for me about halfway through.
There are some cute references in the script to past Terminators, which almost overstay their welcome, and the action and effects were nice, for what they were. But all of it felt a little ho-hum in the end to me. When it was all done, I felt like I'd watched a high-budget but less than average episode of a serialized television series. In some ways, Terminator has taken the opposite approach of the Aliens franchise. Aliens started out a simple and effective space-horror/action (primarily in the first two) and progressively added larger themes and ideas, becoming a big mess along the way. Terminator, on the other hand, had a lot of interesting science fiction ruminations (time-travel, destiny, the nature of humanity) under its gaunt and effective story (primarily in the first two) and then progressively loses all that for increasing action/special effects bluster. Technically, the movie is fine, but I feel that it's lacking the scope that embedded in its potential.
It just doesn't seem to live up to what it could be and fumbles more than a few times to observant viewers. However, in terms of muscular action sequences and special effects, the film delivers and so it does stand as an effective summer blockbuster, great for audiences looking to escape the heat and get a couple thrills. But it's still a notable let down in terms of the legacy and cinematic storytelling. You can pass on this, but it does make for a decent distraction, if that's what you're looking for. 6/10.
Funny, stylish and kinetic spoof of spy/action genre
Dachimawa Lee is a feature-length expansion of a short by director Ryu Seungwan. Largely, it's a spoof film of primarily Corean action/spy films from the late 70's and into the 80's. In some ways you can liken it to a Mel Brooks spoof, back when there were still more focused. Almost all the jokes are rooted in some genre cliché taken to a ridiculous degree and the result is a somewhat uneven, but still terribly entertaining comedy that still manages to have several great action sequences.
The story is about as haphazard as the source material is, dealing with Dachimawa Lee's mission to recover a Golden Buddha that contains the list of all of Corea's secret agents, which has fallen into the hands of the Japanese. A note is that all the Japanese and Chinese characters in the film are ridiculous caricatures, made more ridiculous from the eeeevil caricatures from the genre movies that Dachimawa references. In addition, they all speak their "languages" by throwing together a poorly pronounced small phrase from the original language and then terribly exaggerated Corean (as was often done in the spoofed films as well). This can come across as terribly racist if you don't recognize that it's making fun of the caricaturization of these characters in the source material, as it struck me at first until I realized what the joke actually was. Unfortunately, in this case, there is still no striking contrast to show just how ridiculous these caricatures are, so it's an iffy joke that won't necessarily make fun of Corean action films from the 70's and 80's for everyone.
Along the way, the story takes a bit of a slowdown as Dachimawa gets caught in some part of China (Manchuria?) via another genre cliché. Unfortunately, taking the story as a huge joke on stories from these genre films does prevent it from being a great story on its own and so it ends up being a B-grade story with B-grade characters and development. Fortunately, the comedy and action are top notch (after all, Ryu Seungwan is an action specialist with a comic streak). The way that genre conventions are exploited for comic effect range from over the top acting (as with the titular character), to on-the-money use of day-as-night, costumes and so forth. Occasionally the comedy does range into broader territory, but even then the jokes aren't usually throwaway, which is very welcome as many modern spoofs tend to feature quite disposable jokes. As for the fight scenes, the set-ups are usually quite comedic, but the actual action itself is so well done that it's still quite exciting to watch.
Also have to give props to the cast for being able to play their characters so well, exaggerations and all. Rather than coming across as insincere, the gusto by which the characters are all played really help add to the coherence of the whole. Additional tech details are quite spectacular. I should also note the awesome and often comic score that draws so much from the source genre. Lastly, technical production values are up to date and modern and yet still manage to impart the look of a film from that era as well, which is a great feat.
Dachimawa Lee is a great spoof, although a lot of its effect might be lost on those who don't have a strong grasp of films from this decade and there are probably even more specific jokes that I didn't get since I haven't seen many Corean films from that era myself. But even so, there's a lot of enjoy here in terms of comedy and action, although those seeking anything more than a serviceable story as in some of Ryu's previous works might want to look elsewhere. I was surprisingly amused and would easily recommend this to persons who are well versed in their dated spy and action films. 8/10.
A well made melodrama that doesn't sit well with me at all
Bungee Jumping of their Own is the debut directorial effort by Kim Daeseung and after watching his other works, I have to say that certain things run through his films. The most prominent is that he has a strong fondness for flashback revelation. Now I could pin this on the writers, but his other two films also have a lot of flashback revelations and two-story elements that it's hard to ignore the connection between the films. The other notable thing is that all of his films boast great photography. Now, Bungee Jumping has a lot going for it, but it doesn't sit well with me because of its themes.
The story is divided in two parts, the first in 1983 as we witness the development of a relationship between two college students. The second part is set in 2000 and, for whatever reason, the male protagonist is now a teacher, no longer with his then-girlfriend. The strange thing is that he finds himself noticing similarities between a young male student of his and his previous girlfriend. Unfortunately, to keep writing about this film, I will have to go into spoilers, so skip to the last paragraph for the recap if you don't want to see them.
The story isn't actually a mystery, because the conflict has little to do with the fact that the young male student is so similar to his previous girlfriend, but rather how he can accept his feelings for a young male student. The conflict is internal angst within himself as he struggles with his identity as well as the greater struggle with both the student as well as the lines he cannot cross as a teacher (and husband/father as well). The structure of the storytelling is simple. It elides information at times but you can sort of fill in the blanks and so I felt that many of the flashbacks were a little redundant, but I guess in retrospect, they help fill a thematic space via repetition between present and past. Ultimately, the buildup works as it should in a film, leading to a climax and payoff.
But, while I went through the expected emotions when watching a decent film, something really ate at me while watching the film and it wasn't the homosexual tensions, but that the underlying ideology, or perhaps lack thereof, of the film's theme really rubbed me the wrong way. Essentially, the film is a self-pitying tragic ode to "The One" theory of love with reincarnation and gender swaps thrown into the mix. Both main characters "know" that they are to be together and are torn apart by the circumstantial death of the woman. The conflict that happens later when she is reborn as a male is mostly internal and dealing with identity issues. This might be fine for those who believe is the "love the soul" concept that floats among some LGBT folk, but it doesn't even serve that audience because the two commit suicide in the end in order to reincarnate in more favorable heterosexual relationship. It's a "woe is me" tale of destined love separated by... destiny! Now, I have a problem with "The One" theory, in that there's just one person out there for everyone, but at the same time, I can watch a good movie with that as an underpinning ideology and be okay with it. The problem here is that Bungee Jumping is so wishy-washy about it all, disservicing the queer community that it, on surface, seems to be trying to relate, but also is inherently selfish in its ideology. The protagonist causes massive amounts of pain to his students, his wife (and presumably his daughter) and then runs away with the boy to commit suicide with no regard for the consequence on those around them. In a story about love, seeing such a thing isn't so much tragic, as the circumstances weren't something they could overcome or failed trying to overcome, but rather, they just escape with no consideration of who it might affect. And with such a terribly hypocritical undercurrent, it's hard to find myself liking this movie on that level.
That's not to say it's a bad film. It's actually very well crafted as far as a melodrama is concerned. It doesn't wallow in sentimentality, does a great job at presenting the romance and the resulting conflicts and is really great to look at. It builds up your emotions and lets you go just as a melodrama should. I certainly found myself drawn in and affected at the end. Technically, the film is more than proficient with solid performances by the leads (and a couple supporting characters lend a lot to the film as well), wonderful design and costuming. Beautiful photography. But, still, the problem at the thematic core really prohibits me from loving this film. I don't think everyone will see it as a flaw and the rest of the film is so well put together that I can't call it a failure. But, I can't say I loved this otherwise proficient and even risk-taking example of mainstream Corean melodrama. 7/10.
Blood Rain is director Kim Daeseung's second feature, a serial killer/murder mystery set on an island in 1808 Corea. Keeping some of the director's trademarks (flashbacks and strong photography), the film tells a tale about collective guilt and vengeance while drawing you in with its sometimes gruesome flash and well told mystery.
The story starts on an island in early 19th century Corea, where an arson is suspected, drawing a group of mainland government investigators to solve the mystery. But then a murder happens and the investigator gets drawn into the mystery of what happened on that island in the living past all while trying to catch the criminal and keep the populace alive and at peace.
The story is well spun and the reveal at the end (it's a mystery after all) comes as a surprise, although I suppose if I were far more attentive, I would have caught it before the reveal, which is a great hallmark of mysteries. The nice thing is that the flashbacks are used more towards filling in character and thematic elements rather than as a "gotcha!" for the most part, so it doesn't feel too gratuitous. As a suspense/mystery, the story is engaging and entertaining. The only issue I take is with a supernatural element in the film--while it's woven much better into this film than into Shadows in the Palace--the supernatural element still feels extraneous: it's not at all necessary for the tale to work well, especially as a device to tie some other strands of the story together.
The picture is well composed and I have to say that I was quite struck by the costumes and art surrounding the period element of the film. While the film does show some rather brutal deaths, I can still say that the photography was, on the whole, still something for the eyes to see. The performances were all well rendered, the sound and music contribute and the production values are very solid. I remember watching this in the theater in Corea and while I had some problems understanding what was going on (some of the more formal dialect of Corean, I haven't yet mastered), I could say that I wasn't bored at all.
One thing that I really liked about this film is that it was really easy to understand the antagonist, while still knowing that what he was doing (murder) was wrong and how the film doesn't at all make this seem contrived. Blood Rain is a fairly solid murder mystery/suspense piece and the period setting really adds a lot to the film. If you can ingest or ignore the supernatural element of the film, you'll find a rather entertaining ride of a film here. 8/10.
I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay is the fifth major feature by Park Chanwook, who is most known for his "vengeance" trilogy. Certainly an auteur when it comes to visuals, Park's fifth feature takes a change of pace from the intensity of his previous works and is billed as a romantic comedy. That said, if you're looking for the genre formula to be present with Park's film, you're going to be disappointed. On the other hand, what you have here is a visually memorable if somewhat slight mind trip of a film, not without its problems from a storytelling angle.
The story deals with a young woman, believing herself to be a cyborg, gets checked into a mental institution. Because she thinks she's a cyborg, she refuses to eat human food. Also somewhat recent to the institution is a mask-wearing young man, who is under the impression he can intangibles like "Thursday" and character traits of other patients. The strange thing is that the man has some sway over the other patients and they all seem to agree that he can indeed steal such things, leading to some strangeness. And then these two crazy birds meet and well, nothing really goes how you might think it goes. Calling the story a romantic comedy is a little off, despite being a romance at heart and a comedy as well.
Unfortunately, while the concepts presented are interesting and presented well, the storytelling doesn't provide much more conflict than the woman not eating. This is complicated by the compounded mental illnesses of all present, but the conflict appears to be easily overcome and so there doesn't seem to be any weight to the story. And then there's the depiction of madness, which we will have to assume is far from realistic. If you have any actual experience, whether directly or indirectly with mental illness, you will have to throw your real world knowledge out the window with this film.
As expected, the visuals are highly impressive, while maintaining the sense of claustrophobia that seems present in most of Park's compositions. Use of color, lens filters, lighting as well as aspects like mis-en-scene, framing, dynamic action is all clearly taken advantage of, with production values of a high budget film, leading to a rather strange, but appreciable hybrid of blockbuster and art film, threatening to fall into avante garde without actually falling in. Thesps perform surprisingly well (with an unexpectedly loose performance by pop star, Rain).
Ultimately, because of the simplicity of the story, the film fails to carry any emotional weight, leaving the aesthetics and blending and blurring of reality to carry the piece. Fortunately, it is enough to leave the movie an interesting and watchable affair, but I can't help but feel that were more attention paid to the underlying story, the film would've strongly benefited from it. Recommended only for the adventurous or those that like visual/mental trips. 7/10.
Lightweight, but fun with lots of treats for the eyes; while overall story can plod, central relationship maintains interest
Palace, also known as "Princess Hours", is a Corean television drama, based on a concurrent comic book. Upon its airing, it became one of the most popular dramas to air during its time period. Set in an alternate reality where upon Corea's independence from Japan, its people reinstate its royal family in the form of a constitutional monarchy. What unfolds over the course of the series is an emotionally charged, slowly paced, relationship drama featuring a quartet of principles, combined with courtly intrigue and remarkable production and art design.
This is my second experience with a Corean television drama and I came into it with a lot of skepticism after being disappointed by my previous attempt with Winter Sonata. However, I found Palace a lot more accessible and enjoyable and less contrived. One of its strongest aspects is it's production values and art design. The whole affair glows from the money that's pumped into it, from huge set pieces (the royal wedding parade scene was tremendous) and gorgeous costumes, to high quality video and sets. There's a lot of eye candy in the picture and it's easily one of the prettiest dramas I've seen in a while.
The story essentially follows a spirited high school girl, who by a long-forgotten betrothal, becomes the bride of the Crown Prince of Corea. It follows her entry into the monarchy and the ensuing turmoil as she and the palace itself adapts to their new situation. Throw in some complications with the Crown Prince's original love (who spurns him at first, leading to this marriage) as well as the return of the conniving exiled former Crown Princess and Royal Prince and you have courtly battles for power as well as the development of a tangled web of relationships. Granted, it doesn't take much effort to see how the story's going to play out as it's actually relatively straightforward. Instead of high degrees of "action", we instead follow, very slowly, the development of the characters as their collisions cause them all to react and grow. That said, while I found the characters fairly interesting, the show suffers a little from developing the characters too slowly, often threatening the characters becoming flat. This is especially true of the returned Royal Prince, who becomes fairly stale.
The newlyweds however, retain a lot of chemistry and their bickering on-off relationship helps propel the story forward and fortunately, the crux of Palace rests on that story. The other parts of the story don't lend themselves to much surprise and fail to provide the same dynamism, as such, I often found that many scenes could be trimmed or entire episodes rewritten and cut down to keep the pace of the story afloat. The underlying themes and "substance" to the story are a little weak and as such Palace becomes a little bit more of a confection, often veering into and from soap territory, but it wears its heart on its sleeve and its pleasures are in sharing those up front emotions with its viewers.
Props to the actors, the young unknowns that take the main roles. Although they are sometimes a little stiff, you can tell that they're not just rattling off the performances and the veterans do their jobs as well as you can expect from veterans of the screen. The direction gets a little quirky at times, perhaps thanks to its comic book heritage, with a handful of manic or ridiculous fantasy/daydream sequences, but ultimately, this is a straightforward work and it doesn't really falter where it counts.
I can recommend Palace quite simply because it's easy to get into, has a lot to look at, and has a emotionally hooking central love story. While it does plod at times, I found myself enough enchanted by the principal protagonist and her Cinderella story that it was still easy to watch the whole thing through to the end. I don't think Palace rewrites the book at all when it comes to its medium, genre or format, but I think it's a fun ride. It doesn't hurt that I love its alterna-history imagination as well. It's fun, lightweight (even though it gets heavy for the characters) entertainment and a decent entering place into the world of Corean dramas. 8/10.
The Quiet Family is Kim Jiwoon's debut feature. Having had much appreciation for his later works, I thought I'd track down his earliest one to see if he had it from the start. Crafting a somewhat black comedy about a family that runs a struggling lodge in the woods, I have to say that he largely succeeded.
The story is about the titular family, who have yet to have a guest. Of course, as it turns out, their first few guests happen to have a habit of perishing. A series of increasingly trouble cover-ups and escalations occur until all hell breaks loose. And sure, that sounds pretty vague, but while the film isn't terribly laugh out loud, I do have to admit I was well engaged and amused during the majority of it. I think the strength of the films lies in its suspense: we empathize with the family and despite their bad decisions leading to some of their troubles, their mostly hard luck cases and so we struggle with them as they try to keep their inn running amidst the increasing body count.
I think there is a weakness and it's that the epilogue, although amusing, is a bit logically distorted. It's like a twist that was aborted, leading to a rather nonsensical sense. Sort of takes the air out of the film.
Actor's all do an impressive job, really, and their chemistry with each other is great. Their ability to deliver the rather straight-faced brand of humor necessary for this kind of comedy helps keep the edge in the blackness of the comedy and lend to the believability of the story. Production values are a little weak, being a film shot before the industry burst open in Corea, however, the direction and art of the film is unmistakably strong and helps give the film an air of aesthetic strength that it might not have had otherwise.
Kim's film is rather entertaining and while it won't please those who don't like black comedies, it's otherwise a sometimes suspenseful, mostly amusing and surprisingly engaging piece. Like Kim's other films, it doesn't aim at art cinema, but rather appears to be a strong distillation and synthesis of the dark/horror-comedy genre. And for that, I can recommend it. 8/10.
Wonderfully artistic with a strong story; but loses a little steam in the second half
Coraline, an animated adaptation of the Neil Gaiman book, appropriately directed by Henry Selick, who you might know as the director of similarly scary children's films such as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach. Coraline follows suit with incredible visuals and an interesting story, but there are still a couple story issues that keep it from fully matching the wonder of the visuals. Oh, and I watched it in 3-D and will have a couple things to say about that too.
First and foremost, the movie is a visual treat. All the imagery looks fantastic and imaginatively different from mainstream children's fare, clearly more in line with Selick and Burton's work. The combination of stop-animation and computer graphics is impressive, but more impressive is the art design, everything having such a cohesive look. I do have to put a note of caution in that the film does have a touch of minor grotesque/comical near-nudity in it and although I don't find it problematic myself, someone else might prefer that their children are not exposed to it. All the same, the visuals are spectacular.
Also, the stereoscopic 3D effect is pretty cool, I have to admit, even if the glasses are uncomfortable and make me feel funny in my head. It certainly adds a depth to the movie and while it isn't a necessity, I liked the effect. It didn't seem to be used in a gimmicky way in Coraline, so that was nice.
As for the story, it's basically about a girl who moves into a house with a mysterious door that leads to an "other" world where everything's super fun and nice, only that everyone has buttons for eyes. The first half is this wonderful cautionary tale about fantasy and then the story ends and a whole new story begins. This second story is where I find some fault with Coraline as Coraline has essentially overcome the major conflict of the story and so everything we watch is no longer all that thematically important. Also, the structure of the narrative hems very close to the flat nature of a fable and often had me thinking of a Mario video game, only less fun.
This lack of gravity to the second half (essentially a much extended ending) pulls a lot of the magic out of the film, but I still admit that the first half was so strong that it doesn't pull all the magic out of the film.
So, I have to say that Coraline is a decent flick, especially early on and I can say it's a decent film to catch on the strength of its visuals and the strong story in the first half. It does lose its way in the second half and whether that's an artifact from the novel or a matter of its interpretation, I don't know, but I don't think the let down is so great as to prevent a viewer from otherwise enjoying it. So, recommended, including for children. 7/10.
One note is that there is a little bit of exposition in the middle of the film and younger children will likely get restless. They certainly did in my theater.
An engrossing core mystery with unnecessary embellishments
The Big Scene is another film by genre-twisting writer-director Jang Jin. This one is a procedural crime film where we follow a bunch of homicide detectives as they attempt to find out the whos' and whats' of the apparent murder of a young woman. Of course, with Jang on the pen, we have some curves thrown in. First of all, a television show has sponsored the investigation leading to the constant presence of cameras everywhere and television reporters all over the place.
I found the whole "on TV" elements ineffectual and unnecessary as the core mystery was plenty interesting enough to hold its own and the televised elements didn't seem wound well enough into the story that they really made any impact. Fortunately, the core story was interesting enough for the most part, although the end "twist" is rather anti-climactic, despite its Usual Suspects approach. There are lots of interesting characters thrown into the mix and nothing really looks like what it seems. Although it might seem contrived upon thought, I was engrossed enough that I was able to ignore those thoughts to enjoy the twists and turns.
Also seemingly grafted on is a supernatural motif. It also doesn't seem that necessary for the story and it hooks in with the anti-climactic ending, which doesn't help it. If the whole element were better infused into the story that might have been better. Jang's trademark humor comes into play several times, usually to good effect and reduces its presence more and more towards the end of the film as the drama takes heavier weight. Fortunately, he was also to curb his reality-breaking tendencies and keep his more fantastical whimsies to imagined scenes.
As usual, Jang directs with lots of style and control and yet, like most of his works, there also seems to be a thin layer of artifice about it all. I can't entirely pinpoint what it is, but sometimes it seems that I'm peeking behind the wizard's curtain. But really, the man's got a way with framing, camera movements and general visual direction. One thing I did have to complain about the production though was that the music was a little overbearing at times.
The actors play their roles well, but the mix of characterizations, whether actor or writer/director's influence sometimes seems a little off. I did appreciate how effective the cast is at presenting Jang's dry/ridiculous sense of humor though. Production values are impressive as with most Corean films.
Ultimately, I have to say that this is a film that just has too much going on it in. At its core is a engrossing mystery/crime procedural, but the wrapping around it both with the supernatural element and the television broadcast of the investigation just doesn't seem necessary or effectual. Still, the core is strong enough to keep the whole thing interesting to the end. Nothing that's a must see, but it still proves that Jang is a talented writer-director, just one that frequently adds more embellishments than necessary. Flawed, but interesting. 7/10.
I picked up Righteous Ties because I liked the writer-director Jang Jin's previous works as a genre-tweaking talent with a great sense of humor. However, in this gangster comedy/drama/farce/etc., I think the good director drops the ball.
All the things the director is good at: great sense of humor, ability to warp around genre conventions, transitioning between comedy and drama, they're all present. At times, you're watching a pretty ridiculous straight faced comedy, which turns into a sweet action sequence, and then a slapstick piece and then a dramatic exploration of friendship. And none of it feels too far out of place. The problem lies in the story and in the weak drama segments.
It's a story about a pair of gangsters, one who ends up having to go to jail and is betrayed by his mafia boss and his childhood buddy, who remains loyal to the gang, despite discovering this. Most of the film occurs without significant interaction between the two sides, as the jailbird adapts to life in prison (meeting up with another betrayed gangster/childhood friend in the process) and planning a jailbreak. The other gangster works with the gang to set up a new drug operation.
Here's the problem: the drama hinges on the relationship between these two characters, but we never see that relationship develop or even explore their relationship except for a couple very brief melodramatic flashbacks to their childhood times. This is somehow supposed to engender sympathy and show the strength of relationship, but none of this is followed through over the course of the film, so the conflict between the two feels manufactured and hollow. Not to say that there isn't anything entertaining about this, but the entertaining comedy and action feels strung together by an underbaked story and consequently, it doesn't feel like a coherent story. This is complicated by adding in a lot of sub-characters and plots that aren't necessary nor contribute to the main story, even thematically.
But the action with the near invincible gangsters is fun and kinetic. The comedy drew laughs. Production values are solid and the actors are convincing in their roles. The director has a good eye, it's just that his storytelling didn't hold up to his directing this time. As such, I will have to call this one a good try, but a pass. 5/10.
Wedding Campaign was a fairly popular Corean film from 2005; a story about two bachelor late 30's country bumpkins. The nice one of the two, very awkward with women, gets pressure from his mother and grandfather to get married and ends up getting set up to go to a matchmaking service in Uzbekistan, mirroring a real life issue in Corea, where young women tend to flee the country for the city, leaving the remaining (mostly male) farmer population without prospective spouses. Consequently, out-of-country matchmaking services have started popping up, setting up these farmers with women from struggling countries.
In this story, the more wily of the two convinces the nicer of the two to go to Uzbekistan to court women from the Koryo-people population there (ethnically Corean, having migrated out of Corea hundreds of years ago), from a sketchy matchmaking service there. However, our nice farmer becomes smitten by his translator, who has problems of her own. The movie from there on progresses fairly predictably, but not joylessly, so it's a watchable, even if it's not a particularly impressive affair. Not all of the character development is particularly believable and sometimes seems a little rushed, but the film is too good natured to hate either. Unfortunately, the structure of the film includes a long intro where precious little happens, but we get to learn about our characters in depth--this may turn off more Hollywood acclimated viewers as it doesn't move too quickly.
One of the things that I really liked about Wedding Campaign is its photography of Uzbekistan, having been shot on location for most of it. The actors are congenial and none of them try to be "the star", but rather play their parts well with the supporting comic characters doing well in their parts. Technically, the film works very well, as typical of Corean productions.
Overall, I wasn't impressed with Wedding Campaign, but I wasn't offended either. It's small charms are enjoyable enough for those who'd witness it, but it's not a compelling case for a "must watch." I doubt that you'd regret watching it, however, so if you're in the mood for a fairly light-hearted Uzbekistan set Corean romantic comedy, this is pretty much the only game in time. And it won't leave a bad taste in your mouth either. 7/10.
A definitive work in television animation; a legacy that might remain unmatched
"Batman", later dubbed "The Adventures of Batman and Robin" and then rebooted to "The New Adventures of Batman" after a couple years of absence, is probably the most significant animated incarnation of the Caped Crusader there ever was. To some, it is the definition of who the Batman is, stripped of the extremely complex and often retconned story lines in the comic. And while some comic book purists may scoff at the PG nature of the show, I think that most viewers, both child and adult, found a lot to appreciate in its surprisingly mature storytelling, gorgeous animation and its lasting impact on both animation and well as the overall legacy of the Dark Knight.
"Batman" was the birthplace of the DC Comics animated universe, which would later spawn additional shows featuring the Man of Steel as well as the Justice League. A far cry from the more lighthearted version of Batman found in the campy old television show, this Batman had a lot more in common with the 1989 film, including its early scoring. However, it wasn't a cartoon take on the movie, rather, it was a synthesized take on Batman, bringing in characters from all over Batman's history and sometimes rewriting their history as well as creating all new characters, some of which proved to be so popular they ended up entering the comic book's universe.
The stories are primarily anthology, with a few two-parters here and there. However, this format works pretty well for the show and somehow, it avoids becoming a "villain of the week" premise by creating some very unique stories even while presenting a villain each week. Even early on, Batman provided a Rashomon-style tale in "P.O.V." with three cops providing their take on what happened when the Batman showed up at a crime scene. Later stories include extended nightmares, fantasies, epics, romances as well as stories that introduce Batman's allies, such as Robin. And although the show is titled Batman, it often is willing to make the Bat a supporting character in exploring the other characters in its universe, to great result.
"Batman" also can't be mentioned without talking about the amazing art. Here is a take on Batman, setting it in a gorgeous strongly art-deco inspired world, which is immediately eye-catching and sets a remarkably consistent tone for the series. Furthermore, one thing you'll quickly notice is that the show is dark. Perhaps in themes sometimes, but especially in color. In the DVD commentary, you learn that the show is actually painted on black instead of white, which leads it to have an incredibly dark overall look, which further helps paint the grim world that the Batman inhabits.
And then there's the acting. Kevin Conroy essentially created what would become what we know as the Batman's voice, alternating between the lighter playboy Bruce Wayne and the gruff growl of Batman. Mark Hamill (yes, Luke Skywalker) also helped create one of the definitive versions of the Joker with a laugh that can't be forgotten. Almost all the acting over the show's long run is remarkable, making it hard to replace these versions of the characters with others, even from the movies.
Halfway through its first run, the show's title was changed and reflected the stronger incorporation of Robin and other supporting characters, but outside of a less interesting title sequence, the show pretty much stayed the same. Then the show ended and the team went on to work on the "Superman" series, but revived "Batman" again in the "New Adventures". This incarnation revamped the art style to be more angular, simpler and sometimes much darker--the Scarecrow especially became rather creepy. The show also changed even more to incorporate extended allies into the story, including a young Tim Drake as Robin, the persistent presence of Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and even the older Dick Grayson makes several appearances as Nightwing. Although I was hesitant to embrace the new incarnation at first, it become clear to me that the storytelling as well as the presentation remained strong, with some great episodes that would stand with the best of its previous incarnation.
Because of its impact on animation and the titular character, its willingness not to dumb down for children, its wise storytelling, its amazing art and the inescapable legacy of entertainment in my life, "Batman" remains one of the greatest animated series that I have ever witnessed. Even today, though its been well over a decade since the show debuted and almost a decade since the "New Adventures" ended, the show remains incredibly engaging. This is definitely a series that endures and perhaps one that I would continue to watch over the years, as an adult to appreciate the depth of the stories and the gorgeous art, and a series that I would not hesitate to share with appropriately aged children. Recommended without reservation. 10/10.
La Plus Belle Semaine de Ma Vie (The Loveliest Week of my Life, aka: My Lovely Week or All for Love) is not the first Corean film I've seen that takes the central conceit behind British romantic comedy Love Actually and runs with it. The latter must have been a rather prominent success, either with Corean audiences or filmmakers, because every couple years, it seems like another film about multiple relationships with somewhat interconnected stories appears on the Corean film scene. Fortunately, this one doesn't do too bad a job with the conceit.
Each of the stories presented focuses on different aspects of relationships: a rather strict divorced executive's relationship (or lack thereof) with his friends and family including his young son, an old landlord's relationship with his widowed friend/tenant, financially burdened newlyweds, a divorced headstrong neurologist and a stubborn somewhat curmudgeon cop's antagonism, a somewhat crazy nun-in-training struggling between her calling and her pop-star crush, and a former professional basketball player with a young "make-a-wish"-type cancer patient. That said, although the film does shift a lot between the parties, the dramatic weight of the film does seem to fall into the romantic comedy of the neurosurgeon/cop and the melodrama of the has-been and the kid.
The hardest part about the film is that it really does go for breadth rather than depth, making its strength, the exploration of the contexts of love in different circumstances, also its weakness. Some of the stories seem almost inconsequential and sometimes characters seem to undergo changes without believable causes. Also, the connections at times seem a little contrived (the pop star, in particular), but not so much as to take you out of the picture. Just harder to swallow in retrospect. At the same time, several of the stories are certainly entertaining, including the developing love hate relationship between doctor/cop and the same love-hate between has-been/kid. Still, you can't help but feel that the film is a little slight as a result of twisting all these stories together.
Still, the production is pretty good, the acting is generally solid and the overall direction is good. It's only that the stories are fairly uneven in quality and suffer occasionally from a lack of focus. All in all, I'd have to say that The Loveliest Week of My Life was pretty decent for its entertainment value. You can't go into it looking for depth, but it does consistently hit more than miss when it comes to the genre elements of romance, comedy, drama and melodrama. It does get a little crazy and even unbelievable at times and sometimes it's hard to understand just why people are doing what they're doing, but its charms outweigh its flaws for the most part. If you loved Love Actually and want more of its approach to storytelling, you'll probably find something to like in this film. 7/10.
Good concepts and production, sometimes wobbly storytelling, but ambitious serial killer story
Our Town (no relation to the play) is a suspense thriller revolving around the well tread ground of the serial killer. While the film contains several spoiler worthy revelations that really help it to find it's own place in this well worn sub-genre of crime thrillers, this film has a particular merit in being less of a mystery and more of a character study of a killer.
The setup is typical--a series of murders occur bearing the mark of a serial killer. As a detective investigates, his down-on-his-luck crime novelist friend is drawn into the case as well, suffering from a case of writer's block in his serial killer novel. As the investigation continues and the bodies pile up, not all appears to be as it seems for our protagonists as well as the serial killer.
One nice thing about this film is that there isn't a whole lot of surprise. The film is fine with giving away what would be secrets in other films and just uses the information to ratchet up suspense. The question quickly changes from "who done it?" to "what will happen next?". Also, the film actually takes a bit of time to delve into the stories and backstories of the three principle characters. Unfortunately, while this part is interesting at first, I think it ends up tying up everything too neatly at the end. Furthermore, if viewed cynically, you might even conclude that the film in contrived, although the way that it's written, it appears to actually be fairly well thought out.
Part of the problem with this film lies in the structure. Like many films of its nature, it does try to get you with a series of twists and turns, but it does so relying on flashbacks, which cheapens the whole matter--it would be more interesting were there a mystery element and we were trying to figure out the connections between the characters as well. Also, sometimes the characters do seem to behave unreasonably for their predicaments, which makes you feel as though the writer is trying to shoehorn the characters into the plot. Towards the ending, the editing gets a little chaotic with running through time and seems to lose its ability to focus evenly on the characters, leaving you feeling like at least the crime novelist, who we think of as our principle protagonist, isn't that important after all.
But the pic looks good, sounds good, and is well performed, so that helps. Our Town, in the end, is a better than average serial killer pic with a decent amount of suspense and interesting explorations into a killer's psyche. Unfortunately, the intelligent story is plagued by wobbly story-telling and the occasional contrivance. Still, I enjoyed it enough for what it was and can say that those that like these kind of crime thrillers might find something to like in Our Town as well. Just don't expect to be hanging on the edge of your seat. 7/10.