Category Archives: 2017

The Prison (2017, Na Hyeon)

The Prison takes place in 1995. Is it because smartphones would ruin the execution of the premise? Or maybe something has changed in the South Korean prison system to no longer make the premise plausable? I don’t know. It’s a pointless and somewhat distracting detail.

The premise pretends to be high concept. Han Suk-kyu is the boss of The Prison. Not just the inmates, but the guards and the warden. He’s a crime boss, he orchestrates hits, he puts together heists, he just does it all from inside The Prison.

Disgraced ex-cop Kim Rae-won has just arrived. He immediately gets into a fight with Sin Seong-rok’s fourth tier thug. Kim arrested Sin. There’s a number of well choreographed fight scenes between the two of them throughout the film. But it puts Kim in Han’s orbit and pretty soon Kim is slowly becoming more and more important in the prison crime empire.

Sin stays present throughout, occasionally as comic relief, and there are subplots involving the corrupt warden (Jeong Woong-in) and some of Han’s gang. Something is always happening in The Prison. Keeping it busy means writer-director Na doesn’t have to worry about character development. The Prison’s real simple, it’s an action thriller set in a prison, it’s not supposed to be taken too seriously. Han hints at some depth in his performance, but there’s nothing supporting it in the script. Kim has a bigger backstory, but it eventually just makes a mess of the present action. Simply, Na’s storytelling instincts aren’t good. He thinks The Prison needs a gimmick to be engaging. It doesn’t, of course, it has Han and Kim.

Despite a thin character, Han gives a great performance. If the writing were better, Han would be better. Instead of excelling thanks to The Prison, Han just holds it together. Kim’s a lot broader. He doesn’t encourage stability or investment–his writing is bad too. Na’s problem is he doesn’t have any idea what to do with Han or Kim after establishing their both great at their jobs. Han is a great crime boss, Na just doesn’t give the character enough backstory for the narrative to be plausible. Ditto Kim. He was a great detective, idealistic in his corruption, who ends up in jail and finds himself applying his existing skills to help criminals. There’s even dialogue about it in the script; Na can’t figure out how to show it.

The third act feels way too rushed, way too contrived. There’s a lot of varied action; Na and editor Kim Chang-joo do fine with the individual action scenes, just not with stringing them together. Bang Joon-seok’s score doesn’t help matters, especially not in the third act.

Fine cinematography from Hong Jae-sik. Na’s a more than competent director, he just didn’t write well enough to end up with anything at the end of the film. Kim’s likability matters a lot more than it should. Na leverages the whole movie off that likability; otherwise, Kim’d be so thin he’d get stuck on the wall.

Most of The Prison’s solid though. It doesn’t even start to feel long until the epilogue.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Na Hyeon; director of photography, Hong Jae-sik; edited by Kim Chang-joo; music by Bang Joon-seok; produced by Lee Sung-hun and Choi Ji-yoon; released by Showbox.

Starring Han Suk-kyu (Jung Ik-ho), Kim Rae-won (Song Yoo-gun), Jeong Woong-in (Manager Kang), Jo Jae-yoon (Hong-pyo), Sin Seong-rok (Chang-gil), Kim Seong-gyoon (Dr. Kim), and Lee Kyeong-yeong (General manager Bae).


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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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Vesper (2017, Keyvan Sheikhalishahi)

Vesper has something like six “gotcha” reveals, which is a lot for a killer. Especially since Vesper runs twenty-three minutes. And the first gotcha is in the first five minutes. The experience of watching the film quickly becomes waiting for director Sheikhalishahi to spring another one.

The story has (maybe) agoraphobic Agnès Godey being stalked by ex-husband Götz Otto (or is she?). Her nephew, played by Sheikhalishahi, comes to visit her. He suffers from photophobia (or does he?) and gets involved. Godey is also being haunted by a spectre of Otto (or is… you get the idea), which she fails to reveal to Sheikhalishahi (or… you already got it, sorry).

Sheikhalishahi’s direction is pretty good. He’s a little too obvious in his thriller moods–especially with Gréco Casadesus’s overbearing score–and Jean-Claude Aumont’s photography, while gorgeous, is all wrong for what Sheikhalishahi’s trying to do. Aumont gives luscious reality while the characters exist in Gothic nightmare.

Sheikhalishahi’s script is a mess, though at least consistent, I suppose.

Godey’s okay when the script’s okay, which tends to be when she’s opposite Sheikhalishahi. He’s not good in those scenes, but whatever. It’s just nice to see Godey doing well by then. Otto’s in a similar boat. He’s better when the script’s better; he gets a great villain showdown beach scene with would-be hero Sheikhalishahi. Unfortunately, it doesn’t signal a change in the narrative, which just goes back to being gotcha-happy.

With the strong production values, the technical excellences, and the competent performances, Vesper ought to be a lot better. It’s a shame about the script.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Written, directed, and produced by Keyvan Sheikhalishahi; director of photography, Jean-Claude Aumont; edited by Marie-Jo Nenert; music by Gréco Casadesus; production designer, Sheikhalishahi.

Starring Götz Otto (Walter), Agnès Godey (Marge), and Keyvan Sheikhalishahi (Christian).


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Alien: Covenant (2017, Ridley Scott)

Alien: Covenant is at its best when its pedestrian as opposed to anything else. Director Scott botches all of the big action set pieces; the more CGI vehicles involved, the worse it gets. The first false ending action sequence has “protagonist” Katherine Waterston suspended in mid-air from a careening CGI space ship while she fights a CGI alien in front of a CGI backdrop. Scott brings zero energy to it, which is appropriate as Waterston brings zero energy to her performance.

Waterston gets second-billing, even though technically Billy Crudup’s deeply religious captain gets more to do. He actually gets to do something with his character arc. Waterston’s is all in the first act and the film rushes through it. In space, no one has time for character development, especially not when Scott is setting up the film’s premise.

A colony ship experiences a freak accident then discovers a mysterious signal from far away. So they go and investigate. Aliens and another Michael Fassbender (he’s already in the movie on the ship) show up to make things difficult. The Fassbender they find is the one from the previous movie in the franchise–Prometheus, not Alien: Resurrection, though John Logan and Dante Harper’s script is loaded with desperate callbacks to the original series. Even more desperate is when Scott tries to do them. All it does is remind not just of better films but better acted ones.

Fassbender is fine, though a little too restrained for the absurd roles he’s got. Playing opposite himself, his ability results in some good scenes–made pedestrian by Chris Seagers’s worst production design on the film–but everyone else is mediocre at best. Crudup occasionally seems like he might try, but there’s nothing to do with the part it turns out so he gives up. Carmen Ejogo is so wasted as his wife, it’s never clear if she’s religious too (religion is frowned upon in the future, something the disasterous outcomes of the plot confirm as a good). Danny McBride has a big part as one of the ship’s pilots. He’s atrocious and not even comically so, because Scott has absolutely no sense of humor. Not even when he’s desperately trying to remind the viewer they probably liked at least the first two Alien movies.

Besides Fassbender, who’s uneven in one of his roles–he kind of flops with the blandly American accent–Demián Bichir is probably best. He’s got nothing to do, but at least he never embarrasses himself.

The score is either Jed Kurzel’s generic action music or Jerry Goldsmith’s themes from the original Alien; in space, the nostalgia is strong.

The sad part is even when he’s not contending with too much CGI, Scott just doesn’t have the pacing. Not to make it scary, not to make it exciting. Though he’s not the problem. Not even the script is the problem (well, not until the tacked on, way too long third act); it’s Waterston, Crudup, McBride, and the assorted supporting cast members who have no presence and only occasional competence. Scott doesn’t seem to think directing his actors is important. It’s not clear what he thinks is important to direct in Alien: Covenant. He’s not even energetic enough to be desperate.

Dariusz Wolski’s photography is mostly good. Not so much when he’s in Seagers’s dreary catacombs or any of the night scenes. But he’s much better at lighting Covenant than, say, Pietro Scalia is at editing it. Everything, even when it’s genially pedestrian, goes on too long.

Kind of like this franchise, at least with Scott steering it.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Ridley Scott; screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, and characters created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Pietro Scalia; music by Jed Kurzel; production designer, Chris Seagers; produced by David Giler, Walter Hill, Scott, Mark Huffam, and Michael Schaefer; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Michael Fassbender (David / Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), Demián Bichir (Lope), Carmen Ejogo (Karine), and Amy Seimetz (Faris).


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