…ing (2003, Lee Eon-hie)

While the Koreans do make the best ‘dying girl with mysterious illness falls in love’ better than anyone else, I’m not sure it’s an honor one would want. The amazing thing about how well they make these films is I don’t have any complaints with the writing of …ing. It’s fine. It’s effective, engaging, occasionally too much, but only once or twice. As far as a melodrama goes, it’s got a great base. There’s a really unique element–the dying girl doesn’t know she’s dying for the majority of the film, another surprise I actually can’t give away, and then there’s a nice coda on the film. The problem is the director. I could use a baking metaphor here, but basically, the director dropped the ball over and over and over again. The film’s got two great endings it doesn’t use, it’s got some easily correctable mediocre scenes–all from a directorial and editing standpoint, so… yeah. Lee just dropped the ball.

See, the girl’s a great artist and it never comes up. Beginning and end, those times are it. It’s not just a missed opportunity, it’s a logic problem. She doesn’t have time to be an artist because we spend the whole movie with her. The handling of the mystery illness and the deformed hand are questionable too. They come up in some really good scenes, but it’s real clear the filmmakers are skirting the issue.

The acting’s excellent. Lee Mi-suk is great, not much of a surprise there, as the girl’s mother. It gives Lee a lot of different angles to play–sad, funny, whatnot–which lets her give the character some resonance, because once the romance takes off, she becomes a device more than anything else. The lead, Lim Su-jeong, is good too, but since the film never firmly establishes she doesn’t understand her condition… it’s a bit of a guessing game. The guy, played by Kim Rae-won, gets to have the most fun and he shows a lot more range than initially visible.

It’s a stalely directed tear-jerker with bad music choices, but if you’re going to watch one, it’s one of the better ones.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Lee Eon-hie; written by Kim Jin; edited by Lee Hyeon-mi; music by Bang Jun-seok; production designer, Lee Jong-pil; released by Tube Entertainment.

Starring Lim Su-jeong (Min-a), Kim Rae-won (Yeong-jae), Lee Mi-suk (Mi-suk), Yun Chang (Kyung-soo) and Kim In-mum (the crossing guard).


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The Queen (2006, Stephen Frears)

Glibly, I can say the most amazing thing The Queen does is humanize Tony Blair, seeing as he’s been decency’s biggest quisling in recent memory. But seeing a sympathetic portrayal of politician–one still in power when a film is released–is uncommon. Michael Sheen really creates a Tony Blair, certainly a Tony Blair one wishes the real person measured up to. And royalty is often sympathetically portrayed, just not modern royalty, which is where The Queen becomes rare. I had assumed the screenwriter adapted a book, something with some non-reporter-like confirmation (apparently, the screenwriter got independent confirmations of specific facts)… because The Queen then becomes a fictionalization of a real person, but a fiction striving for truth… is a truly exceptional attempt for a work.

I watched this film with tears in my eyes for much of it, because it made me privy to something private. An autobiography isn’t private, it’s published. I don’t like considering the impetus behind a film’s creation–it’s money, almost always, unless the film’s really cheap (and then it’s usually the desire for future money)–but this film mustn’t have easy to make in that regard and–I’m losing my train of thought. My film review vocabulary isn’t geared for admiring people’s intentions. Anyway.

Superficially glibly… James Cromwell. Cromwell’s been a ham for a good ten years or so. The Queen really rescues him from it. The role lends itself to ham and he doesn’t do it. Alex Jennings is also excellent as Charles. Some of The Queen‘s easy effectiveness comes from the majority of the characters being privately conflicted, unable to release it. Sheen acts as a bit of a release valve, getting to vocalize frustration, which the other main characters cannot do.

As for Mirren–being disinterested in the history of the Windsors, my fiancée proved invaluable in explaining certain details to me (the film would work just fine without the knowledge, of course)–but I did find it odd, back when I heard about the film, the quintessential British female actor (from the American perspective anyway) playing the quintessential British female. I assumed it would be an easy fit, but Mirren–a little differently from Sheen’s Blair, since Blair isn’t a world figure in the same way–creates the Queen. Through her interactions with her staff, from assistant to groundskeeper, Mirren gradually establishes more than a visible humanity, but really makes the audience understand more her feelings than the response to her actions.

In terms of handling–storytelling handling–if The Queen were an absolutely fictional piece, it’d be good but not revolutionary. It’s a somewhat standard structure, two main threads, one secondary one, but, again, the subject matter and the handling of it–I love the scenes Frears cuts a little short, in the middle of dialogue, when the Queen ceases listening and then so too must the audience–makes the film a particular achievement. Oddly, the only other thing I can think of to even compare this film to is… Bubba Ho-Tep, but whereas that film brought deep feeling to the fictionalized life of a real person, The Queen brings it to the real life of a real person. It’s really something.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Frears; written by Peter Morgan; director of photography, Affonso Beato; edited by Lucia Zucchetti; music by Alexandre Desplat; production designer, Alan Macdonald; produced by Christine Langan, Tracey Seaward and Andy Harries; released by Miramax Films.

Starring Helen Mirren (The Queen), Michael Sheen (Tony Blair), James Cromwell (Prince Philip), Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother), Alex Jennings (Prince Charles), Helen McCrory (Cherie Blair), Roger Allam (Sir Robin Janvrin) and Tim McMullan (Stephen Lamport).


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Magicians (2000, James Merendino)

Supposedly, Magicians came out on DVD (pan and scanned), then disappeared as the releasing company went under. Merendino shot it Panavision, so there was some painful cropping. It’s still possible to see some of what Merendino was doing, but sometimes I just had to imagine how much more effective it would be. Merendino’s a filmmaker who does more with his money than John Carpenter did back in the late 1970s, which is an incredible feat. Merendino knows how to make things work and if I weren’t aware of that ability, I wouldn’t have been looking for the signs and I wouldn’t have found them.

Much of Magicians is an absurd comedy about a great pick-pocket, played by Fabrizio Bentivoglio, and a lousy magician, played by Til Schweiger. They go on the road to Vegas, learning their act on the way, assisted by trainer Alan Arkin and Claire Forlani. Maybe what won me over (not really, it happened to far in) was the scene where all of them are laughing. It’s obvious the actors are laughing, mostly at Arkin, who’s hilarious. Bentivoglio has the leading man role and he does a great job with it. Merendino loves conversation and Bentivoglio has some great scenes because of that emphasis. As for Claire Forlani… her work in Magicians made me reevaluate my opinion of her. I kept stopping myself, realizing it was really Claire Forlani (she has short hair instead of the regular long–and her acting is good). Only Schweiger is bad. He’s funny at the beginning, but he gets old fast. Even though Magicians is absurd, his handle on the character is just too loose. And his uncanny resemblance to Leonardo DiCaprio only makes things worse. The character does have a great scene at the beginning–before it’s revealed he’s a bit of a twit, which Schweiger can’t handle–and one towards the end, when he has to stop acting like a twit.

Merendino’s script is deceptively simple. It’s inventive and intelligent, giving perfect little moments to characters–Arkin in particular. When it gets to the end, after some really funny scenes and some great low budget filmmaking, Magicians has developed into a touching story about friendship. Then, for the close–which is great–it finally becomes about magic. And wonderment. It’s a great close. It’s appalling this film doesn’t have an acceptable DVD release.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by James Merendino; director of photography, Thomas L. Callaway; edited by Esther P. Russell; music by Elmo Weber; produced by Sam Maydew and Peter Ward; released by Pop Art Films.

Starring Til Schweiger (Max), Claire Forlani (Lydia), Fabrizio Bentivoglio (Hugo), Alan Arkin (Milo), Chi McBride (Tom) and Christopher McDonald (Jake).


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Fantastic Four (2005, Tim Story), the extended cut

I watched Fantastic Four for a number of reasons (really). First, because I liked one of the previews to the second one. Second, there is a recently released on DVD extended cut. Third, I wanted to compare and contrast it to the unreleased 1994 version. Fourth, to give movielens a run for its money (it’s currently predicted at 11⁄2, which is whopping in my opinion). Fifth, as the film’s so hated by comic book fans, I figured–as usual–my response would be somewhat opposite. Finally, because a friend of mine was recommending The Stop Button as a perceptive and effective online film review site and navigated to it and found a review of Ghost Rider, mortifying him. I figured Fantastic Four would be even worse… but, really, it’s quite the reverse.

I’ve had the extended cut for a few days and have been dreading watching it, as I assumed I’d just turn it off after fifteen or twenty minutes (on the outside). I even started it and the first scene–not the rather nice opening credits–did nothing to change that prediction. Ioan Gruffudd seemed ineffectual and Michael Chiklis seemed like he was mugging it a bit heavy. But I stuck through that first awkward scene and when Julian McMahon and Jessica Alba showed up, it got engaging. McMahon is great throughout–except when he’s got on the Doctor Doom mask for the final fight scene. He’s phoning in a voice over performance in that part. Alba’s interesting. I’ve only seen her in Sin City–let me quote that review–and in it, she “was nowhere near as bad (just mediocre really) as I was lead to believe.” She starts out in Four mediocre, then she gets good. The age difference between her and Gruffudd disappears. Their romance, which is ludicrous by any reasonable standard, becomes a touching part of the film. Gruffudd’s okay, nothing more. He gives the film’s most unremarkable performance–he’s effective as the romantic lead, as the friend to Chiklis (particularly in the beginning), but as the super-smart scientist, he falls flat. He’s not a believable genius. The script doesn’t really present him as one either, but Gruffudd more plays the role like an eighties teen romantic lead (and not even the kid from Real Genius). Chris Evans has a freaking ball with his role (though he and Alba come across as siblings on paper, not in reality). Still, taking her age at the time (twenty-four) into account, she gives a rather good performance. And I already said McMahon is great.

So what’s wrong with Fantastic Four. First, the easy part. Tim Story can’t compose a Panavision shot. The action scenes are pretty damn neat (though the special effects are terrible), but the other scenes… medium shots, close-ups… Story’s out of his compositional depth. The long shots he tends to be all right with, maybe a C (at best). It depends on the characters interaction in the scene, which might be where Four is so surprisingly effective… because the script, in terms of plot, is terrible. The dialogue’s fine (as it should be, Mark Frost has a lot of experience on fine projects). It makes absolutely no sense with any consideration of reality. I can’t imagine watching this film and thinking about the comic book, because Story spends so much time referencing other films–Superman II, Raiders of the Lost Ark–the film, with those stylized opening credits, establishes itself on its terms. Ones where common sense and a level of believability don’t exist. And it’s with those terms. It never breaks them, which might be another factor in its (moderate) success. Though it’s really the cast. McMahon, Evans and Alba.

However, I do need to mention one more thing about Tim Story. There’s a scene where the blind sculptor, played with earnest zeal by Kerry Washington–who frequently substitutes vigor for acting talent, to an acceptable degree here–washes rock-encrusted Thing Chiklis. It is the finest, most romantic sex scene I have seen in a long time. There’s a lot of bad editing in Fantastic Four, particularly in the first act (not to mention the extended cut including two versions of the same scene), but that scene is perfect. It’s masterful… something I never thought I’d be saying about this film.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Tim Story; written by Mark Frost, Simon Kinberg and Michael France, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Oliver Wood; edited by William Hoy; music by John Ottman; production designer, Bill Boes; produced by Bernd Eichinger, Avi Arad and Ralph Winter; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Ioan Gruffudd (Reed Richards), Jessica Alba (Sue Storm), Chris Evans (Johnny Storm), Michael Chiklis (Ben Grimm), Julian McMahon (Victor Von Doom), Hamish Linklater (Leonard) and Kerry Washington (Alicia Masters).


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