Category Archives: Foreign

Bluebeard (2017, Lee Soo-youn)

Bluebeard runs just under two hours. The last forty-five minutes of it basically undo–or seem to undo–everything in the first seventy-five minutes. Writer and director Lee doesn’t want to answer the questions the film’s mysteries raise, but reveal entirely new mysteries with entirely new answers. With some exception.

It’s a shame, because until that point–and there’s a very definite point when Bluebeard jumps off the track–it’s a rather outstanding thriller.

Down on his luck, recently divorced doctor Jo Jin-woong moves into a crummy little apartment and discovers his landlords might be infamous serial killers. He’s not entirely sure about it, but more and more evidence comes to light, whether he pokes around or not.

Lee composes these wide shots, with fantastic photography by Uhm Hye-jung, where Jo finds himself reluctantly finding out more and more. Especially when one of the landlords, Kim Dae-myung, starts buddying up with him. There’s this palable danger, which Kim Sun-min’s editing helps with immensely.

It’s just a shame Lee’s script is, after that seventy-five minute mark, nothing but a combination of trite, predictable, and manipulative. Not even Kim Sun-min’s editing withstands the film’s plummet in quality. Uhm’s photography weathers it, though Lee’s composition quickly fails. There’s the first directing approach, the second directing approach, then an even more narratively ill-advised third approach. Stylistically, the second approach is bad. The composition, even Lee’s direction of the actors, which had previously been fine, everything goes. All of the newly introduced script elements, which simultaneously try to surprise and reveal, are a mess. Had Lee paced out reveals better, it might have helped. Probably not, just because all the reveals are inane, but at least Bluebeard wouldn’t immediately lose it’s momentum.

The script failures even drag down Jo, who’s excellent when Bluebeard is actually suspenseful and not a trite thriller. Similarly, the narrative eventually trashes everyone else’s performance, though Kim Dae-myung’s okay enough throughout. Lee Chung-ah suffers the most (besides Jo, of course).

It’s a shame Bluebeard doesn’t deliver on any of its many promises, though it could be a lot worse. Lee has many worse instincts and impulses, she forecasts them throughout the picture. After almost forty minutes of the film hemorrhaging goodwill and good ideas, Lee throws on an epilogue sequence in way of a bandage. It does slow the bleeding, but it can’t stop it, much less seal any of Lee’s later incisions.

Bluebeard shouldn’t just be better, it should be good. For more than half its runtime, it’s good; then Lee decides to flush it all for some manipulative, ostentatious reveals. She can’t direct them or write them, the actors can’t act her script, and Kim Sun-min can’t cut them into good scenes.

The film ends up a race to end before completely imploding.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Lee Soo-yeon; director of photography, Uhm Hye-jung; edited by Kim Sun-min; music by Jeong Yong-jin; production designer, Lee Soon-sung; produced by Cho Jeong-jun; released by Lotte Entertainment.

Starring Jo Jin-woong (Seung-hoon), Kim Dae-Myung (Sung-geun), Lee Chung-ah (Mi-yeon), Yoon Se-ah (Soo-jung), Shin Goo (Sung-geun’s Father), and Song Young-chang (Jo Kyung-hwan).


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Even the Rain (2010, Icíar Bollaín)

Even the Rain has a particular narrative distance as it starts, then changes to another one a little later on. Director Bollaín doesn’t transition gradually between these two vantage points; she keeps the pacing of scenes and how they flow into each other, just from the new distance. The film has an ambitious narrative juxtapositioning to convey, one based somewhat on surface comparisons, but the film succeeds through how Bollaín, writer Paul Laverty, and the cast navigate through that comparison.

The film starts with an introduction to filmmakers Luis Tosar and Gael García Bernal. Tosar is the efficient, callous, cheap producer, García Bernal is the moody, but dedicated director. During the first half of the film, there’s also quite a bit with Cassandra Ciangherotti, who’s along to film a documentary about the movie they’re making. It’s a Christopher Columbus picture, only focusing on the people who realized maybe it was wrong to enslave the native population.

Initially, there’s enough through Ciangherotti’s camera to help Bollaín with that initial narrative distance. It’s a movie about making a movie. There’s the drunken star (Karra Elejalde), who has some trouble learning his lines, but he’s still an astoundingly good actor. Bollaín’s first of many jawdroppingly masterful scenes involves Elejalde immediately going into character during a table read and mesmerizing everyone around him. Including his younger, full of it, costars, played by Raúl Arévalo and Carlos Santos.

The character relationships drive the film through the first act. Tosar and García Bernal, with Ciangherotti a frequent third, have a definite bond, even though the two have completely different ideas about how they should be making the film. Especially given they’re going to be using local native populations as extras.

García Bernal’s casting of one of those natives, Juan Carlos Aduviri, in an important supporting role changes the film in the film’s production, as well as everything else. It turns out Aduviri isn’t just any local, he’s leading the protests against the government’s water privatization.

And instead of his involvement materially affecting García Bernal’s experience, it’s Tosar’s. The first act plays pretty loose with defining one character as a protagonist. It’s like Rain keeps pushing off having to decide and when it finally reveals Tosar in that position, the film ramps up its ambition. Bollaín, Laverty, and Tosar keep aiming higher, making their targets, keep aiming higher. Throughout the second act, the film just impresses more and more….

Then the third act takes it even further. The characters become accutely aware of the juxtaposition of exploited peoples in the sixteenth century and the twenty-first they find themselves in, with most of the cast essaying glamorless shifts in Laverty’s script. Meanwhile, Tosar and Aduviri find themselves reluctantly bound together.

Rain is a phenomenal collaboration between Bollaín, Laverty, and the actors. Bollaín directs the actors through rough introspective, then immediately switches over to gorgeous, epical filmmaking. Alex Catalán’s photography is wondrous, Ángel Hernández Zoido’s editing keeps perfect timing with Bollaín’s pace. Bollaín perfectly combines the overtly cinematic, movie in the movie, movie about making a movie, with the intense character drama.

Tosar’s performance is subtle and overwhelming. Once he gets his first scene to himself, away from Ciangherotti’s video camera, it becomes clear he’s going to be the protagonist sooner or later. With the depth of his performance, he just has to be the lead.

García Bernal’s good, in a very different kind of part from anyone else in the film. He’s sort of a cipher, but for different reasons than Tosar. Tosar reveals himself through his character development, García Bernal reveals himself through the plot progression and his reactions to events. The two are fantastic together, though nothing compared to Tosar and Aduviri.

The only reason Aduviri doesn’t walk off with the film is because it’s not this expansive look at these (real life) water riots. He too remains something of a mystery, but only to Tosar and García Bernal. Aduviri does have the hardest part in the film, just because in his first scene, everyone discusses what he’s going to do in the movie in the movie but due to his nature demeanor, not acting. It sets up the character–and Aduviri’s responsibilities–quite differently from anyone else.

Elejalde is awesome as the drunken, old actor, bringing much needed comic relief. He’s able to defuse tension, both through the part in the script and just how well Elejalde acts it. Because Bollaín knows just how to direct him.

Even the Rain is a spellbinding film. Bollaín and Tosar (and everyone else) do something spectacular.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Icíar Bollaín; written by Paul Laverty; director of photography, Alex Catalán; edited by Ángel Hernández Zoido; music by Alberto Iglesias; produced by Juan Gordon; released by Haut et Court.

Starring Luis Tosar (Costa), Juan Carlos Aduviri (Daniel), Gael García Bernal (Sebastián), Karra Elejalde (Antón), Cassandra Ciangherotti (María), Milena Soliz (Belén), Raúl Arévalo (Juan), Carlos Santos (Alberto), and Leónidas Chiri (Teresa).


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Wild Strawberries (1957, Ingmar Bergman)

Wild Strawberries is about a septuagenarian doctor (Victor Sjöström) being awarded an honorary degree. Sjöström’s narration sets it up in the first scene, before the opening titles. Director Bergman’s script, through the narration, lays out the entire ground situation before the titles, in fact. Sjöström is a widower, he has an adult son, he has ninety-five year-old mother, he has a housekeeper (Jullan Kindahl) who takes good care of him.

Then the titles roll and Bergman starts the film proper, though he immediately goes into a foreboding dream sequence. Mortality has come knocking for Sjöström and he can’t shake it. Sjöström’s performance and his narration are two different things. Whereas his performance has some moments of levity–along with the despondency–his narration is from somewhere else entirely. Bergman doesn’t draw attention to it, just lets Sjöström’s voice inhabit the frame.

Following the dream sequence, Sjöström–who’s already been narrating–annouces to Kindahl he wants to drive to the award ceremony, not fly. Before Bergman even gets to the flashbacks–set forty and fifty years earlier–Wild Strawberries already feels detached from present reality. The roads Sjöström drives are usually empty, the trip itself a further detachment from modernity. Only Sjöström isn’t on the trip alone, he’s got daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin) along for the ride.

Thulin comes into the film after Sjöström’s done his domestic banter Kindahl and without any warning. Bergman continuously wakes the audience throughout the film, beating two rhythms, one for Sjöström, one for the film itself. Because even though he’s on trip journey through his memories, everyone else is moving forward. Thulin’s got this entirely different, almost joyous story arc–though nothing’s too joyous in Wild Strawberries, as too much warmth would shatter Sjöström. The film’s about Sjöström’s confrontation with that past, spurred in some ways by Thulin’s presence and disinterested hostility, sure, but… once Thulin sets Sjöström spinning, the road trip bringing things up is inevitable.

Most of the straight flashbacks–the ones untinged with dream–are about events Sjöström didn’t witness firsthand. He’s being haunted by the reality of the past, which he’s spent his life avoiding. Bergman doesn’t even try to be subtle about it–if Wild Strawberries has a eureka moment, it’s when memory forces Sjöström to acknowledge his emotional detachment. Bergman’s been showing it throughout the film, particularly with the first flashback. The star of the first flashback is also Bibi Andersson, playing Sjöström’s childhood sweetheart.

Then Andersson reappears in the present, like she’s stepping out of the dream, but she’s really just in need of a ride. She brings along Folke Sundquist and Björn Bjelfvenstam; they’re “kids” (the guys are in their thirties, Andersson is twenty-two, but lets say late teens). Sjöström and Thulin have some great bonding over the kids’ frivolity, since neither get any of their own. Sjöström’s too much of a curmudgeon to want any, Thulin is actively avoiding it.

Andersson acts as the film’s anchor, but Thulin is what perturbs it. She’s present for Sjöström’s journey. She’s also got one of her own, but it only gets room when it figures into Sjöström’s character development. So much of Wild Strawberries is Thulin taking in all, helping the viewer find the punctuation marks Sjöström is skipping across. At the same time, Thulin’s building her own character alongside–but (mostly) detached from–that main action. It’s a great performance, probably the film’s best.

Though it’s hard to really assign that particular accolade. Sjöström’s performance, and Bergman’s direction of it, is Wild Strawberries. The opening narration says it’s going to all be about Sjöström and then it’s all about Sjöström. It’s Sjöström listening, remembering, watching, dreaming, waking, walking, talking. It’s Sjöström.

So while Thulin’s performance is more impressive in what she gets done without the focus Sjöström’s performance gets, Sjöström does excel with the difference.

All of the performances are good. Andersson’s successfully enigmatic–dream, memory, and nymph, all ostensibly alternating. Kindahl’s a fine foil for Sjöström. Bergman directs the actors quite well.

Excellent music from Erik Nordgren and photography from Gunnar Fischer. Oscar Rosander’s editing is magnificent. Technically, it’s all great, but that Rosander editing is otherworldly. Bergman and Rosander control the narrative distance with the editing. It’s awesome.

Wild Strawberries is phenomenal.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Ingmar Bergman; director of photography, Gunnar Fischer; edited by Oscar Rosander; music by Erik Nordgren; production designer, Gittan Gustafsson; produced by Allan Ekelund; released by Svensk Filmindustri.

Starring Victor Sjöström (Isak), Bibi Andersson (Sara), Ingrid Thulin (Marianne), Gunnar Björnstrand (Evald), Jullan Kindahl (Agda), Folke Sundquist (Anders), Björn Bjelfvenstam (Viktor), and Naima Wifstrand (Mrs. Borg).


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King Kong Escapes (1967, Honda Ishirô)

Despite lacking special effects and a phoned in score from Ifukube Akira (reusing his previous Godzilla themes to various effect), King Kong Escapes has quite a bit of charm to it. The film opens with Kong enthusiasts–really, they’re sitting around drawing pictures of him–Rhodes Reason and Takarada Akira. They’re U.N. submarine guys; U.N. submarines, patrolling the globe, is a thing in Escapes’s reality. Along with a female ship’s doctor, played by Linda Miller, who later in the film screams at the sight of blood. It’s like they forgot she was supposed to be a doctor.

Anyway, the film opens with them and isn’t particularly great. Those lacking effects are imaginative–they have a hovercraft–but there’s just something off about the trio. All the chemistry is between Takarada and Miller, which is great, only for some reason Miller’s always hugging Reason. It’s even established later on Takarada and Miller are a couple. So clearly Toho (and co-producers Rankin/Bass) didn’t think the world was ready for a Japanese guy and a white girl. Sorry, getting ahead once again.

Once the U.N. submarine is established, the action goes to the bad guys and the bad guys are awesome. One of the bad guys is evil scientist, Dr. Who (Amamoto Hideyo), who wears a cape and all of his henchmen have, if not capes, something approximately capes. It’s very, very weird and Amamoto plays it for all its worth. He’s working for beautiful foreign agent, Hama Mie–she’s not Japanese, not Chinese, but from some unidentified Asian nation with enough money to fund Amamoto building a giant King Kong robot. Mechani-Kong. They need a giant robot Kong for mining radioactive materials. The movie spends like fifteen minutes on it, the need for Kong (or Kong facsimiles) to mine. Hama plays it all straight, Amamoto chews through every bit of scenery he can. Somehow, it’s a magic combination. They’re both fantastic throughout the film.

When the action gets back to the U.N. submarine, it’s when they just happen to have to stop at Kong’s island. Escapes’s Kong suit conveys this sad and lonely giant ape. He’s got big, soulful, sad eyes and dejected body language. Some of that dejected body language is because the suit’s terrible, disproportionate and haphazardly detailed enough editor Fujii Ryôhei spends most of his time just trying to cover for the suit looking bad. Lots of questionable cuts, just because the head on the suit often doesn’t match the suit.

Once they’re on the island, director Honda does a bunch of homage to the 1933 King Kong, which is pretty cool. The effects are bad, seeing an adorable King Kong violently defend Miller against the Tyrannosaurus Rex stand-in is jarring, but the location shooting is excellent (and too short) and Honda’s homage is neat.

After the island, there’s a significant lull as Reason makes an address to the U.N. only to be sent right back to the island. Before they get there, Amamoto and his goons go to capture Kong in an amazing action sequence with helicopters and gas bombs and so on. The miniatures are okay, the suit is weak, Honda’s direction is phenomenal.

Eventually the bad guys capture the good guys–and Hama starts having a change of heart because Reason is so hot, but he doesn’t make the goo-goo eyes at her. While it is a bit of a plot hole, Kimura Takeshi’s script has a lot of nonsense going on. It does ruin the one chance to humanize Reason, who’s otherwise a stiff. Amamoto can’t even give his scenes with Reason much of a pulse.

Of course there’s a fight between the two Kongs–in Tokyo, on the Tokyo Tower, amid another Kong ’33 homage from Honda with Takarada as Bruce Cabot and Miller as Fay Wray. It’s all rather well-executed, regardless of the suits. The city and military miniatures are fine. In fact, the big fight scene could’ve easily gone on a bit longer. Escapes just needed a better budget. Honda was ready to do this one.

And Reason needs to go. Or at least be less of a stiff.

Takarada and Miller are both more appealing than good. Outside their chaste romance, they’re just around to make Reason seem important.

King Kong Escapes is goofy, the suits are silly, and Ifukube’s score disappoints (though the revised Godzilla 1954 music for Kong and Miller’s love theme is great). It’s still all right, thanks to Honda taking it so seriously. And Hama and Amamoto. Especially Hama and Amamoto.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Honda Ishirô; written by Kimura Takeshi; director of photography, Koizumi Hajime; edited by Fujii Ryôhei; music by Ifukube Akira; production designer, Kita Takeo; produced by Tanaka Tomoyuki; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Rhodes Reason (Commander Carl Nelson), Linda Miller (Lieutenant Susan Watson), Takarada Akira (Lt. Commander Jiro Nomura), Hama Mie (Madame Piranha), and Amamoto Hideyo (Dr. Who).


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