Category Archives: 2016

Three (2016, Johnnie To)

Three is about a dirty cop (Louis Koo), a determined doctor (Zhao Wei), and an injured criminal (Wallace Chung). It’s not real time, but its present action is probably seven hours–in an under ninety minute runtime–so it’s close. Zhao is supposed to be getting more and more tired because she refuses to go home from work. Koo’s getting fed up, Chung should be suffering effects from the bullet lodged in his skull. There should be a lot of tension.

And there isn’t. Even when the script goes out of its way to foreshadow tense sequences, it’s never tense. Director To puts so little time into the performances, it’s impossible to emphasize even superficially with any of the cast. And it’s set in a hospital. There are sick people who should be likable. But To never puts anything into the characters. He’s all about this artificial sense of place. Three’s hospital isn’t nitty gritty or pragmatic and functional. It’s often CG. The ultra wide-angle shots, where the actors all stand around and pretend to be intense, hint at some possibility, but To’s either checked out or just doing a bad job.

The script isn’t good. It goes on and on to get to the big events, whether it’s a shootout or Chung revealing himself to be a genius against Koo’s less and less competent cop. Making Koo corrupt–and his entire character motivation built around it–is one of the lamer aspects of the script. It turns Koo’s character into something of a dope and gives Koo, as an actor, almost nothing to do. Chung’s better because the part–manic, superviolent, supersmart criminal–is better. Chung’s character is the trope too, which is just another problem with the script. Writers Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu are terrible with the character stuff. They’re not much better planning out the reveals, but they’re worse with the character stuff.

Yet, To’s good enough at keeping it moving he’s able to move Three over the more glaring problems. Zhao’s unlikable evil doctor–she’s not just an uncaring woman doctor, she’s also an overambitious country girl–is reduced to this absurd, derisive point. The script gives her bad material and then makes it worse. She functions in the film as the scapegoat. And because she’s an ambitious woman it’s even worse.

Watching Three, especially in the third act, really felt like watching something from the early nineties. The slow motion action sequences–which all have something flipping over in the air–and the weak music choices (and score). It wastes a compelling hook–they’re all trapped in a hospital after all–but keeps promising it eventually won’t waste it. Then it does. Watching the movie, you see it run out of steam. Everything catches up and drags it down.

Cheng Siu-Keung’s photography is occasionally great, occasionally not. It’s usually competent and able to keep up with To when it seems like he’s building to some kind of visual pace. He never gets to one. David Richardson’s editing is mundane but competent.

It’s a rather depressing seventy-five minutes; fifteen in is about where it’s clear Three isn’t going to work out. But it’s not clear until the very end just how disappointing it’s going to turn out. And To still does do some interesting things–those wide shots, for example–but it doesn’t matter. The rest of his work is either disinterested or just bad. Three’s a stinker.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Nai-hoi, Lau Ho-leung, and Mak Tin-shu; director of photography, Cheng Siu-keung; edited by David Richardson; music by Xavier Jamaux; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; produced by To and Yau; released by Media Asia Film.

Starring Zhao Wei (Dr. Tong), Louis Koo (Chief Inspector Ken), Wallace Chung (Shun), Lo Hoi-pang (Chung), Cheung Siu-fai (Dr. Fok), and Lam Suet (Fatty).


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Hidden Figures (2016, Theodore Melfi)

In the first scene of Hidden Figures, the film makes it immediately clear there’s going to be quite a bit of self-awareness. The film is based on the true story of three black women who were instrumental to NASA’s–and the space program’s–success. They’re working at NASA in the early sixties, during segregation, doing harder jobs better than the white guys working at NASA. And there’s an awareness. Janelle Monáe, in the flashiest lead role, gets the least to do, but she does get tasked with offering commentary on the situations at hand.

Director Melfi, who co-wrote the screenplay with Allison Schroeder, depends a lot on his cast. Nothing in his direction gets any of the scenes done. For example, Melfi underplays it with Taraji P. Henson, who’s the closest thing the film’s got to a protagonist (but the film doesn’t want to have one, which gets to be a problem in the third act). While Monáe, albeit outside work, gets to have a developed relationship with Aldis Hodge (as her less than supportive husband) and second-billed Octavia Spencer gets to have this workplace unpleasantness with Kirsten Dunst, Henson’s got supportive boss Kevin Costner, who she never gets to have a moment with. She’s got wormy supervisor Jim Parsons, who she never gets to have a moment with. There are fill-in moments, but none suggesting Parsons and Costner are people and not caricatures.

It’d be fine if they were caricatures, maybe even appropriate (though Costner’s not–he gets a movie star scene in the film), but if they are caricatures, giving them their little unspoken courtesies to Henson is even more problematic.

Hidden Figures weathers those problems with some very reliable materials–the history is on the film’s side and all three lead performances are great. While Monáe gets to be showy for most of the film, only having to move aside towards the end, when it tries to become a special effects extravaganza thriller just to find a finish, and Spencer’s part is underwritten but convinces the viewer it isn’t, Henson gets the big stuff. And the script, even though she’s got a romance going on outside her saving Costner and Parsons’s butts with math, doesn’t like letting Henson do anything. Monáe does things, Spencer does things, Henson quietly does the math. And she’s exceptional doing the math. Melfi’s best direction is with Henson, simply because he’s just letting the camera watch her performance too.

Technically, the film’s solid without being exceptional. Mandy Walker’s photography is fine, but Melfi’s not ambitious. Maybe the score gets a little much at the end, when Melfi’s tackling the special effects extravaganza with absolutely no personality. Despite some gorgeous production design (courtesy Wynn Thomas), Hidden Figures is oddly absent mise-en-scène.

The ambition is instead with the film itself, presenting these three women completely aware of their exploitation, completely aware of their constraints, and excelling regardless. The sad part of Henson not getting resolution is how well Spencer and Monáe make out with it. Spencer and Dunst’s arc is an uncomfortable, angering one. But it’s a mature way of handling it. The script’s got a narrative arc for that subplot. For Henson? Well, it’s got the Friendship 7.

Not to rag on Melfi too much more, but there’s a difference between acknowledging other films’ handling of the same material without just giving up and pretending to be Apollo 13 for fifteen minutes. It’s his lack of personality. Even Costner’s got some personality, even if it’s nonsensically only for Parsons’s benefit, as they have a moment together.

Hidden Figures is a movie fully aware white guys don’t have to be the leads but it’s the white guys who get that learning moment together. And let’s not even touch on the problematic nature of superhero John Glenn (Glen Powell is fine, it’s just a bland part).

But once you get through the problems and appreciate the film’s accomplishments–and those lead performances–it’s clear Hidden Figures’s success isn’t contingent on a flawless narrative structure. It’s historical, after all, and a positive “real life” moment is hard to resist, but it does distract from its characters. Because even if what was happening in reality was important, in Hidden Figures, it’s Henson, Spencer, and Monáe who are important and deserve the time.

Melfi just doesn’t know how to build tension. Thank goodness he’s got actors who know how to essay it however.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Theodore Melfi; screenplay by Allison Schroeder and Melfi, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly; director of photography, Mandy Walker; edited by Peter Teschner; music by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams, and Benjamin Wallfisch; production designer, Wynn Thomas; produced by Peter Chernin, Donna Gigliotti, Melfi, Jenno Topping, and Williams; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Taraji P. Henson (Katherine Goble), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy Vaughan), Janelle Monáe (Mary Jackson), Kevin Costner (Al Harrison), Kirsten Dunst (Mrs. Mitchell), Jim Parsons (Paul Stafford), Mahershala Ali (Colonel Jim Johnson), Aldis Hodge (Levi Jackson), and Glen Powell (John Glenn).


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Operation Chromite (2016, John H. Lee)

There’s no indication there’s a better movie anywhere in Operation Chromite. Director Lee just doesn’t have a handle on it. The script’s an uncomfortable mix of predictable and manipulative–director Lee and co-writer Lee Man-hee lay on the war movie jingoism so thick, it actually takes a while to realize Lee Beom-su’s giving a legitimately great performance as the North Korean bad guy. There’s too much crap going on with really questionable guest star Liam Neeson.

While the decent parts of Operation Chromite are a South Korean film with actors speaking Korean, there are these horrendous moments with Liam Neeson as General Douglas MacArthur. It’s a terrible performance, the kind you’d think Neeson would only give if he didn’t think the film would get a release in the United States. Sean Dulake did the dialogue for the English language scenes (he also appears as Neeson’s sidekick); it’s awful dialogue. You don’t have any respect for Neeson, but I did feel bad for Jon Gries, who shows up to have an awful expository dialogue argument. I hope Neeson bought something nice with his paycheck.

Worse–sort of–is the digital composites intended to convince the audience Neeson is filming with the rest of the cast. He’s clearly not, as the terrible composites betray. Chromite’s cinematography is weak to begin with, especially since they attempt to match the overblown lighting of the composite shots. As if Lee Dong-joon’s soulful but adventurous, rousing but melancholy music doesn’t slather on the vapid anti-Communism message enough–more on it in a second–with that overblown lighting and Neeson’s porky performance….

Neeson and Lee’s handling of his scenes, not to mention the crappy, manipulative resolution, sink Operation Chromite. Because even though it was a dumb, jingoistic action war thriller, it was a relatively fun one. Sure, whenever the movie tries to juxtapose Communist Lee Beom-su and ex-Communist Lee Jung-jae and their ideologies and whatever, it’s crap. But it’s crap whenever Neeson is around too so it’s a familiar experience. You just wait them out, because otherwise it’s sort of fun. None of the characters get enough attention but they’re at least likable performances, some of them good. Director Lee doesn’t know how to get a good performance–not in English, not in Korean–but he does recognize when he’s shooting one and gives his actors occasional space. The leads anyway.

If Operation Chromite were a completely different dumb, jingoistic action war thriller, with a different script, a different director, no Liam Neeson, but the same Korean cast and the same concept, it’d be better. With an excellent director–someone who knew how to make a war movie (since Chromite goes through various types of war movie sequences, haphazardly stuck together with CG), someone who knew how to balance a big cast–and a better script, the project might deserve the performances Lee Beom-su and Lee Jung-jae put into it.

Lee Beom-su’s evil little North Korean commander is a dangerous person. Even in the exaggerated scenes, Lee Beom-su brings something real to it. Everyone in Operation Chromite is a caricature (at best), but Lee Beom-su makes it feel like his character is pretending to be a caricature. Shame the script can’t keep up.

And Lee Jung-jae’s great as the soulful ex-Communist turned action hero. It’s not a deep role, but it’s got some details and Lee Jung-jae’s able to make it work. He’s got some excellent scenes in the film, even if his character’s way too thin.

The most disappointing thing is, after a rocky start, Operation Chromite gets better. The less Neeson, the better. Then he comes back. And down it all goes. But it’s not just him–it’s got a weak third act. Chromite is a mess with occasional smooth patches.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by John H. Lee; written by Sean Dulake, Lee Man-hee, and John H. Lee; edited by Steve M. Choe; music by Lee Dong-joon; produced by Chung Taewon; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Jung-jae (Jang Hak-soo), Lee Beom-su (Lim Gye-jin), Jin Se-yeon (Han Jae-seon), Park Cheol-min (Nam Ki-seong), Kim Hee-jin (Ryu Jang-choon), and Liam Neeson (Douglas MacArthur).


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Arrival (2016, Denis Villeneuve)

Stylist for hire. Stylist for hire. Denis Villeneuve is a stylist for hire on Arrival. He assembles a wonderful crew and they all do great work. Joe Walker’s editing is always assured, never flashy. Bradford Young’s photography is phenomenal. Arrival’s got a great color palette. Bored with its beauty or some such aesthetic. Excellent music from Jóhann Jóhannsson, even if it sounds a lot like Michael Nyman’s Wonderland score at times. And great production design from Patrice Vermette.

It’s a shame all this great technical work is on a cheap, manipulative narrative. Eric Heisserer’s got no understanding of narrative pacing, so he needs someone like Villeneuve who can assign tonal shifts to the narrative to move things along. I mean, there’s expository narration in Arrival because it’s got a somewhat lengthy present action for an alien encounter movie and a lot of science the film doesn’t want to make up in detail for the viewer. So, even with expository narration, Heisserer can’t make this thing move. It’s a boulder Villeneuve’s got to get going, then keep going. The style gets it through. The technical skill gets it through.

Until there’s a big reveal and the script gets worse. Arrival isn’t cheap and manipulative in terms of its plotting–actually, if the script worked, the plot would be fine–Heisserer’s cheap and manipulative in the detail, in the contrived events, in the lack of ambition or thoughtfulness. There are big logic wholes and not just because the film’s structured to hide the reveal. And that hide is an exceptionally manipulative–or potentially exceptionally manipulative–device on its own.

Arrival should offer Amy Adams an amazing role. It doesn’t. Worse, Villeneuve doesn’t seem to care. He’s concentrating on the filmmaking, not his actors’ performances. You can’t blame him–the actors have that script dragging them down, all Villeneuve has to do is expertly render it. Adams is fine. She’s good. She’s not great. It’s not a great role. It should be a great role and it isn’t.

Jeremy Renner practically deserves an “and” credit. He’s present but not active. Heisserer and Villeneuve ignore him. The second half’s pacing is wonky and, even though Renner gets the stop narration updating the ground situation, he doesn’t have much of a place in it. He needs a very big place in it given the twist and the hide. Villeneuve needed to deliver here with his two lead and he doesn’t.

Forest Whitaker’s awesome as the army guy who recruits Renner and Adams to talk to aliens. Oh, right; Arrival is about aliens coming to Earth. Whitaker can chew some scenery. It’s kind of a crap part given he doesn’t get any character development, even though its sort of promised. I can’t even get into how cheap Heisserer gets with the end of the second act events. If it weren’t for Villeneuve, they’d be big enough to jar you out.

Arrival is a big disappointment. Not just because of the talented people working on it, but because it’s a fine plot with a bad script and Villeneuve tries to mundanely stylize away that badness.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Eric Heisserer, based on a story by Ted Chiang; director of photography, Bradford Young; edited by Joe Walker; music by Jóhann Jóhannsson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; produced by Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, David Linde, and Aaron Ryder; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Amy Adams (Louise), Jeremy Renner (Ian), Michael Stuhlbarg (Halpern), Tzi Ma (Shang), and Forest Whitaker (Weber).


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