Category Archives: 2016

Love & Friendship (2016, Whit Stillman)

Love & Friendship opens with some non-traditional portrait cards for its cast of characters. The actors all appear in the opening titles, but then director Stillman breaks out introductions to the characters. Along with some narration. There’s some narration early on, which goes away almost immediately. Because narration might show a little too much of the film’s hand and Stillman wants to play it real close.

Everyone’s character gets an introduction card–done with portrait effect nodding to silent film techniques–except Kate Beckinsale. She’s not just the lead, she’s the object of everyone’s attention, which almost seems like the same thing as the film’s subject. But not so. With another twenty minutes or so, maybe Stillman could’ve made Beckinsale the film’s subject, but Love & Friendship runs a quick ninety-four minutes. There’s only so much he can do and wants to do. Beckinsale’s character might be deserving of a character study, but Stillman’s making a comedy and a light one. So object of attention she remains.

Though Stillman does obfuscate just enough to keep Beckinsale unknowable. Though no one in Love & Friendship is exactly knowable. Most character development comes out in characters discussing other ones, revealing bits and pieces of gossip and backstory, which informs how discussed characters play out, but there’s always a wink. Chloë Sevigny’s role in the film is mostly just to be knowing. She’s the wink at the audience.

Stillman takes his time introducing characters and storylines. When the film opens, Beckinsale and sidekick Kelly Campbell are just arriving to mooch off some of Beckinsale’s dead husband’s relations. It’s set in eighteenth century English society, but a lot of the film’s humor relates to just how brazen Beckinsale can be. She’s got a title and no money. She’s got a daughter and no husband. She also provokes a lot of rumor and gossip, which the audience gets in on before Beckinsale even shows up in the film. Stillman lays the groundwork for introducing her–as sensationally as possible given the realities of the setting–but also for what’s going to come in the second and third acts. He doesn’t foreshadow. He goes out of his way to avoid it, instead relying on Richard Van Oosterhout’s precise photography, Benjamin Esdraffo’s score, and Sophie Corra’s awesome editing to package each scene in the film as a separate moment. The actors give the film a continuous tempo, not Stillman’s script. Stillman’s script is about the smiles, the laughs, the intrigue, but he relies on the actors to keep the characters going.

It’s important because he’s introducing new, important ones throughout. Even if they got a portrait card in the first act, a lot goes on in Love & Friendship and Stillman uses the device for charm and humor more than establishing the ground situation. The ground situation comes out in the dialogue, the actors deliver the dialogue. Stillman directs to emphasize each exchange. Occasionally with some eclectic composition choices, always with perfectly timed ones. Again, Corra’s editing is essential to the film’s success.

The acting is all great. Beckinsale holds it all together. With everyone talking about nothing except her character, she’s always the focus, even if she’s not in the scene. So when she does come back onscreen, she doesn’t just have to do the scene, she’s also got to bridge her absence and the discussed character or plot development. Beckinsale, Stillman, and Corra get it right every time.

Xavier Samuel is good as Beckinsale’s too young suitor, Emma Greenwell is great as his disapproving sister. Morfydd Clark is good as Beckinsale’s daughter, who should be looking for a suitor of her own. The relationship with Beckinsale and Clark ought to forecast where Love & Friendship is going to end up, but it doesn’t. Stillman doesn’t want any peeking.

Tom Bennett is hilarious as Clark’s suitor, a rich buffoon. Justin Edwards is quietly excellent as Greenwell’s husband.

Sevigny’s perfect in her bemusement.

Love & Friendship is a delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, beauteous, little, grandiose picture.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Whit Stillman; screenplay by Stillman, based on a novella by Jane Austen; director of photography, Richard Van Oosterhout; edited by Sophie Corra; music by Benjamin Esdraffo; produced by Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly, and Stillman; released by Amazon Studios.

Starring Kate Beckinsale (Lady Susan Vernon), Chloë Sevigny (Alicia Johnson), Xavier Samuel (Reginald DeCourcy), Emma Greenwell (Catherine Vernon), Morfydd Clark (Frederica Vernon), Tom Bennett (Sir James Martin), Kelly Campbell (Mrs Cross), Justin Edwards (Charles Vernon), James Fleet (Sir Reginald DeCourcy), Jemma Redgrave (Lady DeCourcy), Jenn Murray (Lady Lucy Manwaring), and Stephen Fry (Mr. Johnson).


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Tunnel (2016, Kim Seong-hun)

Tunnel is a small scale disaster movie. It’s also not. It’s about a small scale response to a big disaster. Writer and director Kim takes some time introduce threads about craven reporters, craven government officials, craven capitalists, but most of the movie is lead Ha Jung-woo stuck in a tunnel. The first ninety minutes of the movie move real, real fast. Ha’s stuck in his car in a collapsed vehicular tunnel; it’s 2016 so he’s got a cellphone with some reception and he’s got some water so it’s mostly an unpleasant camping experience for the first act.

Then Kim starts introducing more drama, more tension. There’s the initial terrifying experience–a tunnel collapsing as Ha drives through–but the film quickly finds a rhythm. The cellphone helps; it lets Ha talk to wife Bae Doo-na and rescue chief Oh Dal-su. Because Tunnel’s not an actor’s film. Ha’s role is good, but he doesn’t have any amazing “man stranded under 200 kilometers of mountain” scenes. Kim’s more interested in keeping Tunnel moving, keeping it surprising in its relatively limited narrative space. Kim has some texture scenes in the second act, but the action never goes too far from the tunnel.

Bae does eventually get some great scenes. She never gets to take over the movie though. Kim’s direction, with a handful of character moments, is all about the drama, all about the gimmick. Man trapped in tunnel. And he does an excellent job with it. There’s enough tension inherent in the narrative itself, going down a rabbit hole with Ha or Bae is just going to distract. Instead, there are those great character moments and there’s also a lot gentle symbolism. Kim’s got to engage the audience’s sympathy quickly but he doesn’t want to be cheap about it. Tunnel’s deliberate pace, which gets positively exhausting in the third act, is one of Kim’s best contributions to the narrative. His direction of his script is spot-on.

But all of his direction is spot-on. Tunnel’s not sensational enough to push the limits of disaster movie (it’s anti-sensational) and it’s not introspective enough to be a character study. It’s an effects-filled, restrained disaster thriller.

Great photography from Kim Tae-Sung, especially fantastic editing from Kim Chang-ju. Director Kim makes a conscious choice to abandon Ha in the tunnel occasionally, even when his narrative might apparently be more compelling then the subplots; the pacing of everything has to be just right. And Kim Chang-ju’s editing makes it happen. There’s not just audience expectation, there’s the characters’ expectations too. The tension is insoluble, but still reasonably gentle.

Oh has a great time as the rescue chief. He doesn’t exactly get to be comic relief, but he gets closer than anyone else. But he’s also got to be the audience’s objective viewpoint. He’s got to be reliable. For both audience and characters. It’s kind of serious, kind of not. Oh excels at it.

And Bae is phenomenal towards the end of the picture. She sort of takes the protagonist role–as much as Tunnel has one–from Ha.

Good support from Nam Ji-hyun.

Maybe Tunnel could’ve gone further, but Kim’s ambitions are confidently realized where it goes. It’s just a thriller after all. We can’t always be worried about tunnels coming down….

Can we?

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Seong-hun; director of photography, Kim Tae-Sung; edited by Kim Kim Chang-ju; music by Mok Young-Jin; production designer, Lee Hwo-Kyoung; produced by Billy Acumen and Lee Taek-dong; released by Showbox.

Starring Ha Jung-woo (Lee Jung-soo), Bae Doo-na (Se-hyun), Oh Dal-su (Dae-kyung), and Nam Ji-hyun (Mi-na).


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Shin Godzilla (2016, Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki)

Shin Godzilla is the story of hard-working bureaucrats responding successfully to a national crisis. When the giant monsters invade, you can’t do better than the able public servants of Shin Godzilla.

And for most of the film, directors Higuchi and Anno pull it off. The first act of the film, with the introduction of the unlikely new Godzilla, races–Anno edits with Sato Atsuki and they don’t slow down until it’s time for a full stop. There’s a lot of humor to Shin Godzilla, but it’s entirely for the viewer. The characters don’t get a break or a laugh or even regular smiling. They stoically battle the apocalypse, whether it’s a giant monster or the U.S. government externally unwanted pressure on Japan.

Shin Godzilla avoids politics. Way too much. But it does have this steady mistrust of the United States. It’s too bad too, because the U.S. shows up in the second act with all sorts of Godzilla info and those information dumps are a mess. On one hand, Anno doesn’t want to take the kaiju thing too seriously. He knows he’s got disbelief suspended by this time, so why not rush through some really silly origin stuff. There’s a portents to Shin Godzilla, which the directors pull off (thanks to the actors, thanks to the editing), but Anno doesn’t have a sense of humor about it. After the almost goofy first act–which transitions masterfully into the second act through montage–it seems like Shin is going to be something special.

Except it never gets there. For two hours, the movie keeps promising something more in a few minutes, delivering an almost perfect moment here and there, but always dragging it out. The second act is lead Hasegawa Hiroki dragging the cast of hundreds through the clumsy introduction of new ideas, new mutations, new characters.

Shin Godzilla has a hundred speaking parts. Maybe. It has a lot. It’s this rapid fire political thriller thing, only instead of a nuclear war, they’re fighting this giant monster. Every once in a while, there’s a “Godzilla moment” with the giant monster and the film seems to be moving more towards something to do with Godzilla symbolically. Even self-referentially. Anno and Higuchi use some classic Godzilla music, but they don’t do much else referential. The locations, sure, but it’s supposed to be scary. Godzilla’s supposed to be dangerous.

And Godzilla does do some serious damage, which the film completely ignores in terms of human casualties. There’s maybe one tragic scene, early on, when it seems like Shin Godzilla still might go somewhere else–into the cellphone footage, into the lives of the displaced–but then it doesn’t.

Instead, the film introduces Ishihara Satomi. Ishihara is the half-Japanese, half-white American daughter of a U.S. senator who’s on her way up the ladder in Washington. She’s also a bit of a party girl, because she’s rich. Ishihara does okay with some of the part. She’s bad at the English deliveries, which immediately kills the cinema verite the directors try to keep going. She’s got too much character for the movie and nothing to do with it. If Ishihara were better, the character not be such a drag. But Ishihara’s just fine, not phenomenal. Again, she gets no help from the directors. Maybe one of them told her to play flirty with Hasegawa and the other said not to play flirty with him.

As for Hasegawa, he’s a great lead. His character is a young, bright, impetuous staffer who just wants to do good. He wants to be Justin Trudeau. Ishihara wants to be Hillary. Except to change political analogies, Ishihara’s character is more the Mandy Hampton part.

Everyone else is great because they aren’t in it too much. If the performance is broad, the actor is gone pretty soon. By the time they’re back, they’re now a familiar face and they’re welcome. It perpetuates. It’s a very well made film. Until the third act, at least. The sludge second act seems like it’s building, through monotony maybe, but definitely intensifying. Because it’s so well-made. Then it collapses and Shin Godzilla just gets heavier and heavier.

Anno, in the script, tries to keep it light. He tries to play up the characters as familiar to the audience, but the film’s lost its teeth. If you’re going to deus ex machina, put it in the right spot and don’t try to drag it out two weeks in the present action. Because the directors break Shin Godzilla. For a better part of its runtime, it could’ve gone somewhere. But Anno and Higuchi don’t want to take it anywhere.

Except as a politician positivity message.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Higuchi Shinji and Anno Hideaki; written by Anno; director of photography, Yamada Kosuke; edited by Anno and Sato Atsuki; music by Sagisu Shiro; produced by Satô Yoshihiro, Shibusawa Masaya, Ueda Taichi, and Wadakura Kazutoshi; released by Toho Company Ltd.

Starring Hasegawa Hiroki (Yaguchi), Takenouchi Yutaka (Akasaka), Ishihara Satomi (Kayoko Ann Patterson), Ôsugi Ren (Prime Minister Okochi), Emoto Akira (Azuma), Kôra Kengo (Shimura, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary), Ichikawa Mikako (Ogashira, Deputy Director of Nature Conservation Bureau), Kunimura Jun (Zaizen, Integrated Chief of Staff), Pierre Taki (Saigo, Combat Leader), Shimada Kyûsaku (Katayama, Minister of Foreign Affairs), and Mitsuishi Ken (Kozuka, Governor of Tokyo).


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13th (2016, Ava DuVernay)

The first half of 13th is didactic–well, except when the film makes fun of interviewee Grover Norquist. There are three or four capital C Conservatives interviewees; Norquist and Gingrich are present because they’re such trolls they think they’re convincing. Gingrich is during his Black Lives Matter phase (the documentary is pre–2016 election, but still very 2016, which I need to talk about), but Norquist is just a chump. Everyone knows it and the film embraces it, maybe the only time 13th lets you have the hint of a smile.

Getting it out of the way, the other Conservative interviewees are just unknown chumps. Or worms. The sad part of reality is director DuVernay isn’t hunting down worms or chumps for these interviews (except Norquist and Gingrich, though, again, Gingrich seems to be present with a different, pre-Trump agenda); they’re just the right guys to be interviewed. Evil organizations out to ruin the United States are actually staffed with the Conservative geek out of a late nineties teen movie.

Norquist being more in line with what happens with a John Hughes bro grows up.

Anyway. I think I have that fervor out.

The first half of 13th is extremely didactic. DuVernay is guiding the film through a certain number of interviewees, through a certain bit of history. She’s also making an argument–the 13th amendment to the Constitution has been used through white supremacy to fuck up the lives of people of color, specifically Black people. And, you know, she’s right. She wins that argument the second Angela Davis comes back as an interviewee after being shown in historical footage. DuVernay doesn’t introduce Davis as a former firebrand, she’s a professor. Even if you know Angela Davis, she goes from being this beauteously interviewed academic to someone who outsmarted some significant bad guys of history in this raw historical footage.

DuVernay does a lot with historical footage, whether it’s from the teens, fifties, sixties, eighties, nineties. It’s one of 13th’s few sticking points. The footage isn’t up-converted correctly. Or it is and DuVernay is obscuring history and making memory this permeable thing, but I think it’s just not up-converted well enough.

So that first half is didactic. It’s a history lesson. It’s a thesis statement, it’s a persuasive essay. DuVernay covers 149 years of history, with more and more focus on the last fifty years as the film progresses. It has a natural narrative flow and then it stops in 2012. And DuVernay tells the audience to now apply that history to what’s going on right now. Starting with Trayvon Martin, continuing into Black Lives Matter, finishing with Trump.

Now, 13th is pre-election, another of its sticking points. Certain aspects of it feel a tad ephemeral. That first half is a lot of historical fact. Learning history, even critically thinking about that history as it affects modernity, it’s ephemeral. Film viewing is an ephemeral act. But since DuVernay’s already proved the thesis, before getting to the present day, what’s 13th doing now? It’s no longer a persuasive documentary or a didactic one. It doesn’t have a narrative. Or, is DuVernay’s narrative distance such the narrative is the viewer’s.

13th is an excellent documentary for the first ninety percent. I even enjoyed the camera manipulation in the interview after a certain point. 13th’s very accessible; DuVernay is looking at the impossibly grim, but she keeps it accessible. With profile interview shots for emphasis. It’s fine.

But then in the last ten minutes or so, DuVernay brings 13th into reality. Immediate, clear, HD reality. Everything comes together. Not just all the subjects, but the visual style of the infographics. DuVernay’s the first person I’ve ever seen the use infographics so starkly. It’s almost a rejection of the effect.

Fine photography from Hans Charles and Kira Kelly. Editor, co-producer, and co-writer Spencer Averick is best at the writing and producing. Even if the cuts to profile weren’t his idea, they’re inappropriately jarring. There’s no nuance to the cuts–good guys and bad get the same cutting. It’s off-putting. Editing is very important.

Nicely, DuVernay doesn’t use that device much in the second half so it’s win-win. She does quite a bit with the documentary medium to get the film right. 13th is outstanding.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Ava DuVernay; written by DuVernay and Spencer Averick; directors of photography, Hans Charles and Kira Kelly; edited by Averick; music by Jason Moran; produced by DuVernay, Averick, and Howard Barish; released by Netflix.


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