Friday, September 5, 2014
The Notebook (A nagy füzet)
There are numerous films that tell compelling stories about
civilians' horrific suffering and the war's brutality during
World War II. But the director János
Szász's apathetic "The
Notebook" (A nagy füzet | Hungary 2013 | in
Hungarian | 110 min.) is not one of them. The film makes you
feel like a voyeur who peeks into two emotionless twin
brothers' exotic but hush rural life after the war forced
them to leave their comfortable city home. However, the film
always keeps you at arm's length from the twins and people
around them so that in the end, you still don't know who
these people are and why these one-dimensional characters
behave in their own (often bizarre) ways. You only get to
see what they have done, which is hardly anything good.
The film begins by telling us that the two preppy unnamed teenage twin boys (László Gyémánt and András Gyémánt) are inseparable. To make this point, in one scene, their father clips the nail for one boy in bed (how touching that is for a thirteen-year-old boy, but really?), the other boy lies in the same bed inches away in order to be in the same picture. (Why?) When the city becomes increasingly dangerous toward the end of World War II, their parents send the boys to the safer countryside to live with their grandmother (Piroska Molnár), who has never met the boys before because the twin's mother (Gyöngyvér Bognár) has not spoken a word to her for twenty years. (Why?)
Before the boys are dumped to their abusive and alcoholic grandmother who is called a witch by the villagers, their father (Ulrich Matthes) gives the boys a blank notebook and asks them to document everything about their experience in the countryside.
Surviving on limited resources and without supervision, the two straight-faced boys become more apathetic, violent, cruel, and even sadistic. They believe that's the only way they can endure the hardship and stay together. (Why?) They faithfully record the process of removing any sentiment from themselves in that carefully crafted notebook.
Based on Hungarian writer Ágota Kristóf's French-language novel "Le Grand Cahier," perhaps the director János Szász wants to assemble a collage of images to illustrate how difficult life can be during the war. But like the fractured notebook the two boys clumsily put together, the film only takes snapshots of the boys' lives and never gets any deeper than being a passing onlooker. We see each incident in the film as if we witness a traffic accident on a highway when we drive by—we can't help but to look at the aftermath, we may speculate about the cause of the accident, but we never seem to know the truth, then we move on and forget about it after we pass it.
How lucky are the boys for not being Jew! All they have to deal with are their cruel grandmother and inconveniences such as sexual advances from a slutty church girl and from a friendly German officer (Ulrich Thomsen), when they are not playing the torturer to each other. If this is how bad World War II could get, the film is an insult to the millions of people who suffered and died during the war.
After the film was submitted as the Hungry's entry for the Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category, it's perplexing how it made to the final short list of nine films to be nominated. It's probably because the screeners didn't have time to watch films from other countries and couldn't resist the twin brothers' blank stares, just like the German officer in the film.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Love Is Strange
marriage became legal in many parts of the world
including many states in the US, it has been a long bumpy
yet unfinished journey for the gay right movement
There have been handful gay and lesbian characters in films
and on televisions, although they rarely appear to be
older. The director Ira Sachs
changes that status quo with his latest tender drama
Strange" (USA 2014 | 93 min.). The film
affectionately tells a story about an older gay couple whose
love not only continues to change their own lives, but also
profoundly impact people around them.
The first big change in the story is that 71-year-old painter Ben (John Lithgow) and musician George (Alfred Molina) finally get married after being together for 39 years. However, an immediate consequence of their marriage is for George to lose his teaching job at his church. Unable to afford their mortgage payment for their New York City apartment, they decide to sell it and seek for temporary housing arrangement.
Ben's supportive nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burroughs) and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) open their home and let Ben sleep under their son Joey's (Charlie Tahan) bunk bed. Meanwhile, George crashes on the couch of his party-loving gay cop neighbor Roberto (Manny Perez) and Ted (Cheyenne Jackson).
Not only Ben and George must cope with the separation anxiety, but also they have to seek delicate balance while interacting with their hosts and to figure out a way to survive in the city together.
In the film, the director Ira Sachs tells his story without underlining the word "gay" when portraying his protagonists and he treats them as simply who they are, an old married couple like any married straight couple. That's a remarkable progress for portraying gays in cinema. He gives the audience plenty time to observe the subtle exchanges among his characters and never bother to elaborate more details than the viewers can witness. Together with the excellent performance by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, he beautifully crafts a heartfelt drama that focusing on a gay couple who lost their six pack abs long time ago.
However, that doesn't excuse the implausible plot setup. It's hard to believe that George and Ben must sell the apartment after George lost his teaching job at a church. George must have been paid very well for teaching children singing. It's even harder to comprehend that they go ahead with that selling decision which makes no economic sense and results their separation. But without that setup, the entire film has to go back to the drawing board. A few supporting characters, such as Ben's nephew Elliot and Joey's friend Vlad (Eric Tabach), are also clearly underdeveloped.
The cinematography by Christos Voudouris (the director of photography for "Before Midnight") is terrific in the film. One of the marvelous long take of Joey at a stairwell is absolutely mesmerizing and deeply moving, and the fantastic closing shot of the film ends the film's poignant undertone with a welcoming uplifting note.
Friday, July 25, 2014
I'm sure you can imagine what your brain on drugs looks
like after the long running public
service announcement (PSA) with eggs in a frying
pan. Now, that image may have a new outlook according
to French writer/director Luc
Besson's preposterous yet electrifying sci-fi
(France/USA 2014 | 89 min.). If you takes the drug
which the film's heroine takes, then although the drug
will enhance your brain power and will make you a
superman (or superwoman), but you will also die quickly
when your body cells multiply in a lightning speed like
cancer cells. Therefore, it's still not a good idea to
However, that's not possible for the film's heroine Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) to decide. When the film opens in Taiwan (Why in Taiwan? To show off the tower Taipei 101?), Lucy is reluctantly dragged into a drug smuggling operation led by a Korean mafia boss Jang (Choi Min-sik).
The drug is called CPH4, which is able to unleash human's brain power that is currently functioning at only 10%. That scientifically false 10% assessment is according to a hypothetic theory from Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), who delivers his lecture in Paris as if he is in a recording session of narrating an episode of PBS's program Nature (his mesmerizing voice is probably why Morgan Freeman is casted to this role). CPH4 is claimed to bring brain's power to its fullest, to trigger brain's cells in making super connections, and to exponentially empower human's ability.
When Lucy accidentally gets CPH4 into her blood, she is able to gain control over heavy armed Korean gangsters, to learn knowledge and analyze information in a lightning speed, to block off physical pain, and to regain her memory about how her mom's breast milk tastes like (please don't laugh).
But she knows her time is numbered when her cells multiply like cancer. She desperately needs to get in touch with Professor Norman so she can give him the information about her brain on drugs. Maybe Professor Norman then can update that PSA about brain on drugs with his amazing voiceover.
Despite the utterly unconvincing performance by Scarlet Johansson in the opening scene as a terrified young woman, she gains her momentum and confidence in her performance when she gets her superpower later in the film. Speaking of brain on drugs, does that CPH4 have an effect on her acting as well? No matter what the reason might be, she leads the film's many exhilarating action sequences which make the film watchable.
But after all, it might be the write/director Luc Besson who needs the brain enhancement drug the most. He certainly needs a boost in order to make his ludicrous story more credible and to make his imagination beyond the scope of other sci-fi films. Many laughable dialogues reflect the director's limit knowledge in mathematics and science. Taking the example when Lucy uses a laptop computer, even though Lucy's brain becomes so powerful and can alter the electronic communication, that doesn't mean that the laptop she is using suddenly can become a super computer as well. If so, what drug did the laptop take? In the film, when Lucy's fingers tap on the laptop, it instantly runs so fast that we can hardly see the scrolling screen, except Lucy. If her brain can process so fast, why does she need the computer for at the first place?
The last scene of the film especially speaks volume about the filmmaker's limited knowledge in technology. After an unpleasant visual of Lucy's cell explosion, she hands over Professor Norman an USB thumb drive which presumably contains important information about her brain function. Despite the setup that Lucy possesses the power to alter ratio waves and electronic transmissions, somehow she cannot transfer the data without a physical media such as a thumb drive. At least the filmmaker didn't let her hand over the professor a floppy disk. Whew!
A Most Wanted Man
After the catastrophic 9/11
attack, the world has never be the same. While the Islamic
extremists become more aggressive than ever, the paranoia
mentality in the Western world also becomes
overwhelming. The war against terror uncontrollably
escalates day by day but the world is not any safer. In his
third feature "A Most Wanted
Man" (UK/USA/Germany 2014 | 121 min.), the Dutch
director Anton Corbijn
skillfully depicts that somber psyche and intelligently
tells a gripping espionage story about a German national
security agency's operation. The film is based
on John le Carré's
and it's the last completed film by the
exceptional Philip Seymour
Hoffman before his tragic sudden death.
The film's protagonist is the chain-smoking and non-stop drinking Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is also a brilliant national security agent based in Hamburg. Still haunted by the fact that Hamburg is the place where the terrorists orchestrated the 9/11 attack, Günther and his colleague Erna Frey (Nina Hoss) lead a team to keep Hamburg's Islamic community under closed watch. Their goal is to fish out the terrorist organizations through the connections with a philanthropic academic Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi).
After a 26-year-old Chechen Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) sneaked in Hamburg illegally, he immediately becomes the focal point on Günther's radar. When a sympathetic immigration lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) tries to help Issa to stay, Günther tighten his net on Annabel, as well as a banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) who is the person Issa is looking for in Hamburg.
Under the pressure from other government agencies, including the Americans represented by a CIA officer Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), Günther is given 72 hours to close the case.
Despite that we are living in a time that NSA constantly mines gigantic amount of metadata they collect in the name of national security, the espionage techniques in this film are surprisingly old-school as if it were a story in the soviet cold-war era. Obviously, showing off the newest gadgets or high speed car chase (like in many other spy movies) does not interest the director Anton Corbijn. He is more interested in developing his absorbing characters and miraculously arranging the clues for his story. In fact, the film makes you feel that it is overloading suspense moments and intriguing puzzles in the beginning of the film. Luckily, most of the setup falls into places later in the film, and the bet on a character driven approach pays off handsomely.
Once again, Philip Seymour Hoffman exhibited what a great artist he was and his performance reminds us what a tremendous loss his death was. As almost every role he played, he was outstanding in the film and subtly conveyed the complex personality of Günther who is human and smart, but also can be cold and ruthless.
It's a challenge for these characters to be convincing when they hardly speak German in the film. However, the captivating story and engrossing characters leave us little room to fault those details. The mind game takes the center stage of the story from the beginning to the end.
Besides telling an extraordinary spy story, the film also makes a point about war on terrorism. The paranoia, hostility, and distrust toward Muslim community will further harbor hatred and escalate the terrorism activities, but will not diffuse them. While being asked the goal of his operation, with a smirk on his face, Günther quoted a line from CIA officer Martha: "To make the world a safer place." Now take a look at around the world, is it a safer place?