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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Stoker Review

Fox Searchlight
Stoker Review
2013, 98 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content

Stoker marks the American film debut of acclaimed South Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for his violent, stylized films, many of which are centered around revenge (Oldboy is his most famous).  Stoker was written by Wentworth Miller, of the TV show Prison Break and follows India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a young woman whose creepy uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode), comes to live with her and her mother, Evie (Nicole Kidman), after her father dies in an accident.

This film's greatest strengths are in the acting and technical departments.  Matthew Goode gives a wonderfully eerie performance as Charlie.  His chemistry with Wasikowska is spot-on.  Wasikowska, at 23, is already one of the most versatile actresses working now with leading parts in Tim Burton's 2010 film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and Cary Fukunaga's brilliant 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre.  In Stoker, she plays a reserved teen who is awakened in many ways by Charlie.  With very little dialogue to work with, Wasikowska internalizes her feelings and shows them on her face, creating a supreme intensity.  Nicole Kidman is solid, as usual, as Evie.

Park Chan-wook directs this movie with serious style working perfectly in sync with frequent-cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung and master composer Clint Mansell.  Park has complete control over the film and Chung's cinematography and Mansell's beautiful score move together.  Chung's cinematography is dreamy and lyrical, emphasizing the sinister undertones of the film and creating a frightening atmosphere.  Production designer Thérèse DePrez's magnificent production design adds to the atmosphere.  The Southern Gothic feel of the film makes it feel as if Stoker was set in the 1950s, but modern touches make the film's time period harder to determine, an intentional choice by the filmmakers.

The screenplay of Stoker is what brings it down substantially.  The basic story is like a kinkier, more demented, but far less effective version of the brilliant 1943 Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt.  It also has a very weird flow, is utterly predictable, and almost devoid of surprises.  In addition, the dialogue isn't great either.  Mr. Miller was very lucky to have such an amazing cast and crew working on this film because without them, Stoker would have become just another genre exercise that would have been made as an average thriller.

Overall, while relying on its style over its substance, Stoker is nonetheless a very entertaining, disturbing exercise in gothic horror by one of the greatest filmmakers working today.  Many filmmakers fail upon their English-language film debut, but Park succeeds in making a good film that will be accessible to American audiences, while putting his own distinctive mark on the film.  

-Joshua Handler

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Architecture 101 Review: New York Korean Film Festival

Lotte Entertainment
Architecture 101 Review
2012, 116 minutes 
Not Rated

Architecture 101 is showing tomorrow at the New York Korean Film Festival at 4:30 PM at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Peter Jay Sharp Building.  It is a romance film that tells the story of an architect, Lee Seung-min (Um Tae-woong), who is asked by a woman, Yang Seo-Yeon (Han Ga-in), to build her a house.  The woman was his first love back in college and the film flashes back and forward to show their relationship in the past and the present.

Architecture 101 is a fairly standard romance film with very good acting.  However, good acting is not enough to save a movie.  The story uses every cliché in the book, but oddly doesn't resort much to cheesy romantic music, which greatly helps the subtlety of the ending (though the ending isn't satisfying).  Architecture 101 has an over-reliance on friend-to-friend comic advice-on-romance scenes which not only add to the cliched nature of the film, but also make it more tedious.  The story of the two people in love simply isn't compelling or original enough.  In the modern age, if someone is to make a romance film, it has to feel fresh for it to work.  Look at Silver Linings Playbook.  It follows many cliches, but they work due to fresh dialogue, memorable characters, and excellent performances.  Architecture 101 has the good acting, but not the former two.  I never cared about the characters and there were no plot turns that I didn't see coming far before they came.

The acting by Um and Han is solid, however.  They have very good chemistry, as do their younger counterparts.  One thing that I have noticed about the group of Korean films I have reviewed recently is that no matter the quality of the film, the acting is always very good.  Um, Han, and cast all give heartfelt performances.  While they don't do anything special with their parts (the material doesn't allow them to), they nonetheless seem to give this movie their all and that greatly helps the watchability.  They are very likable actors.

The camerawork in this movie is fine, nothing special, save for one or two shots that are magnificent.  The score isn't anything special.  The direction is good, as director Lee Yong-joo smartly underplayed the emotions in the film.

Overall, Architecture 101 is an ordinary film that I wouldn't recommend.  It isn't by any means bad, it just isn't anything special.  

-Joshua Handler

Friday, February 22, 2013

Masquerade: New York Korean Film Festival Review

CJ Entertainment
Masquerade Review
2012, 132 minutes
Not Rated

Showing on February 23 at the New York Korean Film Festival, Masquerade is one of the biggest surprises I've viewed in ages.  Set in 1616, Masquerade is an adaptation of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper that follows a man, Ha-seon (Byung-hun Lee), chosen to be the king's (Lee again) body double after the king falls ill.  Upon assuming the position of king, Ha-seon settles in and sees the corruption of the court, and because of this, he tries to treat people better and change policies.

The acting is highlight of this film.  The supporting cast is great, but it is Byung-hun Lee's astounding dual performance as Ha-seon and the king, two characters who could not be more different, that really wowed me.  Lee is Ha-seon for the majority of the film and creates a deeply sympathetic, kind character.  Every moment he was onscreen, I was mystified with the amount of sincerity, charm, and humanity he put into his role.  This role reminded me of Dominic Cooper's powerhouse performance in 2011's The Devil's Double in which he played Sadaam Hussain's son, Uday, and his body double.  However, the two performances are very different in good ways.  Cooper's is flamboyant and showy, whereas Lee's is more subtle and human.

The screenplay, written by director Chang-min Choo and Jo-yun Hwang, is really brilliant.  It takes a well-worn story and turns it into something fresh, new, and exciting by creating interesting, three-dimensional characters and a twisting plot.  A genius move by them was to add quite a bit of humor into the film.  Humor is something that rarely is in period pieces for good reason, but in Masqeurade, it works well balancing out the very dramatic plot.

Chang-min Choo's direction is tight.  At 132 minutes, Masquerade is longer than many movies out now, but never is one of those minutes wasted.  Choo keeps the film moving at a brisk pace; I was never bored.  This is one of the most entertaining period pieces I've seen.  It somehow manages to be powerful, emotionally compelling, and entertaining at the same time.  Going into this film, I expected a lavish period drama (which it was).  What I didn't expect was to be so compelled, inspired, and happy when it was over.

Overall, Masquerade is a must-see.  It is currently one of Korea's highest-grossing films of all-time and for good reason.  This is a film for everyone that should be enjoyed by everyone.  I really loved this movie and would happily revisit it in the future.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Deranged: New York Korean Film Festival Review

CJ Entertainment
Deranged Review
2012, 109 minutes
Not Rated

Showing on Sunday at the New York Korean Film Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Deranged is a thriller about a deadly parasite that infects a good portion of South Korea and the man, Jae-hyeok (Kim Myung-min), who tries to save his family after they are infected.  The film was written and directed by Jeong-woo Park.  

Deranged offers a mixed bag.  To start, though, the acting is fantastic.  Kim is really good as Jae-hyeok.  He brings humanity to his character which drew me into the film more.  The supporting cast is also quite good, but the stand out is Jung-Hee Moon who plays Jae-hyeok's wife, Gyeong-sun.  She gives a powerful performance as a woman who tries to keep her kids safe from the danger around them.  Her performance, like Kim's is one of the emotional anchors of the film.  Even when the film gets melodramatic, she keeps her performance understated and real which I really connected to.

The story, written by director Park, does some things very well, but for every thing that it does well, it miscalculates another.  Up until the final third of the film, I was invested in the plot.  The final third of the film has some "revelations" that are borderline ridiculous and some serious logic lapses.  The ending also resorts to melodrama, the final scene is simply cheesy, and the parasite and its nasty effects are not given enough of the spotlight (we see movies like this to "see the monster" eventually in gory detail, right?), which is a shame because this movie had some serious potential.  While very similar to the far superior Contagion, Deranged gets something big right that Contagion didn't (and something that I believe held Contagion back from greatness): Deranged adds a serious emotional and human connection to the horror which Contagion never did.  Making Jae-hyeok's wife and kids an integral part of the film really benefitted it.  It made me care about the movie.  In addition, there is a scene in which Jae-hyeok obtains a cure for the parasite, but sees a woman holding an infected crying baby.  Morally conflicted whether he should give the baby a pill to cure it, Jae-hyeok goes with his gut and gives the woman the pill for the baby, risking showing people that he has the unobtainable cure which is supposed to be for his family.  A scene of moral conflict such as this added humanity to the story, something Contagion had a distinct lack of.

One other very positive aspect of the film is its pace.  While I did have problems with Deranged, I was certainly never bored.  Director Park does a great job at keeping the pace up and throwing obstacles left and right at Jae-hyeok to keep the audience entertained.

Overall, I am very conflicted on Deranged.  On one hand, I was very entertained, but on the other, the storytelling had some major issues.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend this film, but I would have a hard time discouraging you from seeing this if you want a fun, mindless night at the movies.

-Joshua Handler

Thursday, February 14, 2013

No Review (Re-Post)

Gael García Bernal in No
Sony Pictures Classics
No Review
2012, 110 minutes
Rated for language

This is a re-post of my original New York Film Festival Review from October.

Pablo Larraín's No is one of the best films about modern history that you will ever see.  Everything in it works so well that it is an experience that is simultaneously moving, funny, suspenseful, and fascinating.  

No is based off a stage play and the screenplay was written by Pedro Peirano.  It follows an ad executive, René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal in yet another impressive performance), who takes up the opposition to dictator Augustín Pinochet during the 1988 Chilean elections.

Pablo Larraín should, but won't, get a Best Director Oscar nomination for this film.  He made the daring directorial choice to shoot the film on U-matic tape to make the historical footage and film blend seamlessly.  This is a bold choice as the film is low-resolution and literally looks as if it was an '80s TV show.  But, this is a brilliant movie.  The historical footage and the film footage do blend perfectly creating a film that looks so authentic that it is literally impossible to distinguish between 2012 footage and 1988 footage.  After screening this film, I viewed one of the commercials actually made by the campaign and I actually believed that that footage, when used in the movie, was shot for the movie, not historical footage.  That is a testament to how well Larraín's U-matic shooting worked.

No's screenplay is excellent.  The dialogue is sharp and the story arc is very good.  The film is never boring and even though I knew the result of the election, it was still suspenseful to watch.  A distinguishing mark of this film is its humor.  Though the film's subject is anything but funny, Peirano adds humor and wit into the screenplay to make it even more enjoyable to watch.  He also wrote great characters whom I cared for.

The performances in the film are all top-notch.  The supporting cast is all great, particularly Antonia Zegers as Saavedra's politically active, ex-wife (or estranged wife).  But, Gael García Bernal (The Motorcycle DiariesBad EducationAmores Perros), one of the most versatile and talented actors working today, takes the cake as Saavedra.  His performance here is so nuanced and quietly powerful as he plays a man trying to save his country.  A man who tries to keep his cool in a heated political situation.  Bernal has great comedic timing and proves once again that he can carry a film.

No, above all, is an inspirational film about a country coming out of an era of darkness that never resorts to cheap sentimentalism.  It is well-acted, scripted, and shot and should be a contender for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination come January (it is Chile's submission to the Oscars).  This is a film that everyone should see.  It is a little-known part of a horrifying chapter of history that deserves to be seen.

-Joshua Handler

On a side note, the R-rating for this film is solely for a little language.  This is a film that parents should take their teens to see as it is harmless and enlightening.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Barbara Review

Nina Hoss in Barbara
Adopt Films 
Barbara Review
2012, 105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for some sexual material, thematic elements, and smoking

Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Director (Christian Petzold) at the 2012 Berlinale Barbara is a masterful work featuring a world-class performance by Nina Hoss.  Barbara follows a nurse, Barbara, (Hoss) who is sent from East Berlin to the countryside of East Germany to work in a clinic after trying to apply for an exit visa.  There is far more to the story than this, but I will let you see that for yourself.

In 2012, there were many films that worked very well due to a/some mesmerizing central performance(s) such as The Sessions, Amour, and Flight, and this is one of them.  This film, while well-scripted and directed, is elevated to a new level because of Hoss' powerhouse performance.  As Barbara, Nina Hoss creates a character so likable, so beautifully good that it is impossible not to feel for her and love her.  She is a woman oppressed by her government, but unafraid to do whats right and rebel.  I know this sounds like a multitude of other films, but it isn't.  Hoss' onscreen presence is something otherworldly.  Hoss' performance is understated, but it is always evident what is going on inside of her.  Her face shows everything.  It is a shame that she was not nominated for an Academy Award.  She was better than all of the already amazing Best Actress nominees, save for Emmanuelle Riva.

Christian Petzold's direction is also strong.  While there is no impressive camerawork or technical aspects to the film (save for the beautiful colored lighting), Petzold keeps tight control over the film and uses an extremely slow pace to let the drama unfold.  The pace does get too slow in some points, but overall it works well.  Petzold really made me feel the paranoia and tension felt in East Germany.

Barbara's story is quite powerful, but it is truly brought home by the conclusion.  It made me love the character of Barbara even more and brought the film to an emotional apex.  However, that apex is achieved through understatement, mainly in the form of Hoss' performance and the lack of dramatic music.

Overall, Barbara is a criminally underseen film due to a lack of an advertising campaign and an extremely limited release.  This film was the German submission to the Academy Awards and for the life of me I cannot figure out why it wasn't nominated.  It is for sure better than A Royal Affair (which, for the record, I enjoyed quite a bit) and may have been better than the outstanding No (it barely missed my top films of the year list.  It also opens on Friday).  Barbara will not be for everyone due to its slow pace, but those who do go see it, will be heavily rewarded.

-Joshua Handler

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Movie 43 "Review"

Oh yes, that is THE Kate Winslet in Movie 43
Relativity Media
Movie 43 Review
2013, 94 minutes
Rated R for strong pervasive crude and sexual content including dialogue, graphic nudity, language, and some violence

This will not be a traditional review, hence why the word "review" is in quotation marks.  This movie doesn't deserve a review and is very hard to review.  But, I will try.  Movie 43 is unmatched.  It goes below the barrel.  With a cast consisting of A-listers such as Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Richard Gere, Halle Berry, Emma Stone, Terrence Howard, Seth MacFarlane, Naomi Watts, Elizabeth Banks, and countless others, Movie 43 is just indescribable.  

Each segment of this vile anthology reaches a low lower than the previous segment.  I will say, I laughed maybe once or twice during Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber's segment (they, unlike much of the rest of the cast, look like they're having fun), but the rest of the movie is just unreal.

I will also say that I only saw this movie because I had heard that it was one of the worst movies some fellow critics had ever seen.  I knew that this movie would be bad, but their reviews ended up being understatements.  I have seen Showgirls, The Room, Bellflower (which I know people liked, but I regarded it as the worst movie of all time, until now), and Plan 9 From Outer Space.  I have seen many other films that are absolutely horrid.  However, they are all masterworks compared to Movie 43.  With the aforementioned films, it seems as if the filmmakers actually tried.  There is some redeeming feature , however small, in all of them.  Movie 43 has none.

I know that with an offensive gross-out movie like this some may criticize me for not being able to laugh at it, but there is a massive difference between a funny film that intends to shock and offend like Borat (that movie is hilarious and has genius social commentary) with good intentions versus a film like this that is mean, nasty, and lazily made.  This movie is so terribly put together and thoughtless that a young child could have come up with something funnier.  The filmmakers obviously wanted us to suffer.  While I did suffer, I was more amazed and mad that some people are so out-of-touch that they would make this movie.

Supposedly for this project the great actors were guilt-tripped into acting in it.  I would love to know how someone accomplished that.  I felt horrible for the actors, particularly those that looked as if they were not game for it, such as Richard Gere and Halle Berry.  Berry is relegated to making guacamole with her right breast in one scene.  Some do seem to be enjoying themselves, but most just look bored and mad.

The construction of this film is terrible and every single short is an abomination.  I don't know who decided to end the movie (the first ending, at least) the way it did, but whoever did simply seemed to run out of ideas.  The final short film, which appears after a first round of credits that are accompanied by outtakes, takes the cake for stupidity and nastiness.  It is horrible, cheap-looking, and degrading.  WHO GREENLIT THIS MOVIE?  It's stupefying to think that anyone would think that this would be a good idea.

However, there is something good that could come out of this movie.  Actually, a couple of things.  First, I don't think I will ever see something this bad again, or at least for a VERY long time.  It's only up from here.  Also, if Hollywood has any brains, they will learn from the critical and financial failings of this film and just stop making massive ensemble pieces like it.

Overall, this movie sucks.  If I could give it a negative rating, I would.

-Joshua Handler

Friday, February 1, 2013

Side Effects Review

Open Road Films
Side Effects Review
2013, 105 minutes
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence, and language

The fourth film in about a year and a half by prolific Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike, Contagion, Haywire), Side Effects is the best (followed closely by Magic Mike).  Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum, Side Effects tells the story of a woman (Mara) who is prescribed a new antidepressant by her doctor (Law) after her husband (Tatum) is let out of jail.  However, the drug contains side effects.  And that is all I will tell you of the plot, as there are twists and turns that turn things upside down and inside out.

Side Effects is Soderbergh's best film since Traffic because not only is it well-shot, directed, and scripted, it is made with an energy (best on display previously in 2012's excellent Magic Mike) that kept me on the edge of my seat and completely compelled.  In addition, Side Effects is morally complex film that questions the morals of our doctors and pharmaceutical companies.  Viewing this movie will more than likely make you think twice about taking another pill or trusting your doctor.

As much as I would love to analyze this film, I repeat, I do NOT want to give any of its twists away.  If you are able to guess the ending, please tell me how you did it.  So, with that, let me tell you about each aspect of the film.

The screenplay, obviously, is brilliant.  Scott Z. Burns (Contagion and The Informant!) penned this one and it is the best of his three collaborations with Soderbergh.  Some twists would have come across as campy in the hands of a lesser director and screenwriter, but Burns and Soderbergh know what they're doing and keep some of the more outrageous aspects of this film in check.

The acting is a mixed bag.  Rooney Mara and Jude Law give impressive lead performances, while Catherine Zeta-Jones and Ann Dowd give questionable supporting performances.  Overall, the acting is good enough.

The music by the great 11-time Oscar-nominee Thomas Newman (Skyfall, WALL·E, The Shawshank Redemption) is electric.  It gives the film a similar sound to other Soderbergh films like Contagion, but is original and just a really good score.  The cinematography by Peter Andrews (aka Steven Soderbergh) is masterful.  Each shot is carefully and immaculately framed with Soderbergh's usual odd color scheme.  

Overall, Side Effects is by far one of the best early year releases, if not the best, of all time.  It is compelling, suspenseful, smart, and disturbing.  This is Steven Soderbergh's last film to be released theatrically.  Having grown up with Soderbergh's films, it is sad for me to be writing this.  Soderbergh's career is one of the most diverse and prolific careers of any director.  I always look forward to his new films (recently, one has come out every couple of months), whether they be good or bad, and it is sad that I won't be able to do that anymore.  When Soderbergh's name is on a film, I know that I will get a film unlike any other.  His films consistently manage to be smart, economical, and very entertaining, while still breaking taboos or traditions of cinema.  With his career coming to an end, cinema is losing a master; a director that changed cinema in a multitude of ways.  However, I must say that with Side Effects, Soderbergh is going out with a bang.  What a way to end a prolific, groundbreaking, and admirable career.  

(A very high) 3.5/4
-Joshua Handler