Archive | January, 2014

Insomnia – Review

30 Jan

I’ve reviewed some of Christopher Nolan’s work before, and as I’m sure I’ve said, he is one of the current most powerful forces in Hollywood. After dazzling critics and less mainstream audiences with Following and Memento, he was granted his first studio film. Insomnia, based off of a Norwegian film by the same name, is an interesting twist on the noir genre that also plays heavily with flawed human psychology and morality. The result is a crazy story with beautiful cinematography that is very well made and interesting, yet not Nolan’s best work by far.

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Will Dormer (Al Pacino) and his partner Hap Eckhart (Martin Donovan) are to LAPD detectives assigned a job in Nightmute, Alaska to help solve a mystery concerning the murder of a seventeen year old girl. Upon arrival they meet Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank) a young police officer who has studied Dormer’s work in the past and informs them that at this time of year, the sun doesn’t set in Nightmute. Eckhart soon tells Dormer that he will be cooperating in an internal affairs investigation that may end up ruining Dormer’s career and after an accidental tragedy strikes, it appears the hammer may be falling on Dormer sooner and swifter. As he begins losing sleep for days at a time, he is contacted by Walter Finch (Robin Williams), a writer and the person responsible for the girl’s death, but he is also the person that may get Dormer out of trouble.

In my opinion, the real star of this movie is the cinematographer, Wally Pfister, who’s went on to work with Nolan on every one of his movies since Insomnia. Being a neo-noir film, you would think that there would be a lot of shadows and darkness, but the interesting twist of taking place in an area where the sun doesn’t set gives Pfister a lot of room to play around with light and shadow in a way unconventional to the genre. The Alaskan setting is also filmed beautifully with mountains, lakes, and forests contrasted with small towns give the film a unique look. The best looking part of the movie is a chase through fog which gives the viewers the same sense of uncertainty as the characters.

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I need to give credit to Al Pacino and Robin Williams here too. They both knock it out of the park with their roles. Now, this may sound kind of naïve, but I was expecting that with Al Pacino. I always look at Robin Williams as more of a funny man, although I’m aware of his professional training in acting and his work in dramas before, but never a murder mystery. I was really into his performance here and he actually did a great job at making me feel uncomfortable.

Insomnia is a movie with a multi-layered story. There is a whole lot happening in the movie that you really need to wrap your head around all of it, and that isn’t always easy. That being said, I really like the story in this and it is perfect for Christopher Nolan’s direction, who’s always had a talent with dealing with strange situations. Still, compared to Nolan’s other pieces like The Dark Knight Trilogy and The PrestigeInsomnia doesn’t quite hold up to them. It just doesn’t have the power that his other films have, nor does it have a very satisfying conclusion.

Christopher Nolan’s remake of Insomnia is a cool movie with a lot of cool ideas and a plot that takes it just a step further with all of its devices and twists. Something just doesn’t let it sit in the upper echelons of modern film with Nolan’s other movies. This is a more than adequate neo-noir psychological thriller, but it just didn’t really go as far as I wanted it to. Maybe that has to do with the conclusion which just sort of happens, leaving the movie to just drop off. Still, if you’re interested in Nolan’s work then Insomnia is a movie you should check out, even if it’s just to see it once.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Review

22 Jan

The slasher subgenre of horror isn’t something that you sorta like or have no opinion on. You either love it or you hate it. Personally, I love it. There’s something about the classic slasher films that I used to watch when I was younger that fills me with both nostalgia and just simple reminder of why I love horror movies. It can be said that Alfred Hitchcock kickstarted the slasher genre with Psycho in 1960, although Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, also from 1960, can be said to be the start. But that’s not what we’re talking about. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of the proto-slasher films that came out before they were even really a thing, and it still holds up as one of the best horror movies ever to be made.

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In a rural part of Texas, Sally (Marilyn Burns), her paraplegic brother Franklin (Paul A. Partain), and their three friends are on a trip to find Sally’s grandfather’s grave to see if it has been vandalized. Things begin to get strange when they pick up a hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) who cuts his hand open, injures Franklin, and nearly lights the inside of the van on fire. After kicking him out they find Sally’s grandfather’s old house, and begin to explore the area around it. This area just so happens to be inhabited by a family of murderous cannibals who begin picking off the friends one by one. Sally soon comes face to face with the violent, chainsaw wielding Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) who brings her back to the family home to have dinner, and be dinner for Leatherface and rest of the family.

Tobe Hooper, the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, has gone on to become a prolific horror director. His other crowning achievement was the 1982 horror classic, Poltergeist, but this is where he really found his stride. One of the most amazing things about this movie is its almost complete lack of budget and experienced cast and crew. The cast were just friends and acting students from the University of Texas, and the budget was so limited that Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel had to keep selling their shares of the movie. Even with these limited resources, they were able to create one of the most iconic horror films of all time.

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One of the first things you may notice on your first run through of this movie is the image quality. It looks very cheap and almost like a documentary, which actually helps the film because it solidifies the fact that all of this could really happen. That’s what really makes the film so terrifying. There aren’t any superhuman killers or ghosts or vampires. The family of cannibals make my skin crawl so much because they are completely human and can exist in the real world. In fact, I’m sure there are people just like this family that exist in America today. I can guarantee it. That’s infinitely scarier than any spooky creature you can throw at me.

Something that actually separates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from the slasher films that came after it is that it is almost completely bloodless. It’s weird to say that a movie is so unflinchingly brutal without a lot of gore, but this one is. There are a few gory scenes, but overall, it’s pretty bloodless. The aesthetic tension that this film creates more than makes up for it. The editing can sometimes become completely chaotic which has a bigger effects on my comfort level than you might think and the set design by Robert A. Burns is excellent. Robert Burns would go on to be a big name in horror art direction, working on films like The Hills Have Eyes and Re-Animator.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t just a horror classic. In terms of film as a whole, it is a classic. In a time when drive in theaters and exploitation films flooded the film world, a lot of what was seen was trash. Fun trash, maybe, but nothing too memorable. But there were a few gems, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being one of them. It helped redefine horror as a genre and was a testament of Tobe Hooper’s and the rest of the cast and crew’s talents. It’s an awesome horror film that has a spot in film history, which may seem odd considering the subject matter, but it is rightfully earned.

Dallas Buyers Club – Review

20 Jan

I feel like everyone in the world would agree with me that the mere thought of AIDS is enough to make your heart race a little faster. It’s a terrifying disease with horrible bodily effects which is really just slowly hammering nails into your coffin. In Dallas Buyers Club, I had the opportunity to see a character face this head on and instead of backing down and accepting his own death, he opts to survive. I have seen other films with AIDS as a plot point, but none were as powerful and moving than Dallas Buyers Club.

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Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is an electrician and cowboy, who is known amongst his friends as being outwardly homophobic and intolerant. His life is spent drinking, indulging in cocaine, and have lots and lots of sex. This fun and easy life style is shattered when he gets blood work done revealing that he has AIDS. Woodroof is automatically outcasted by his friends and coworkers, with only a sympathetic transgender Rayon (Jared Leto) to give him any support. Rayon is also suffering from AIDS and an addiction to drugs, so he begins working with Woodroof to smuggle medicine and vitamins unapproved by the FDA from Mexico and other countries to open a buyers club for AIDS victims. The FDA and local hospitals get wind of this and do what they can to stop Woodroof and promote their own drug, AZT, which despite saving a lot of lives, can have devastating side effects.

This movie is heavy. Like, really heavy. By the time the credits began to roll, I had a hell of a lot to think about. First of all, Dallas Buyers Club is one of those movies that makes you reflect on your own life and how it is you’re living it. In the beginning of the movie, the doctors only give Woodroof 30 days to live. Just getting that laid on you out of the blue would, to me, be too much to handle. I had a lot of “What would I do?” thoughts while I was watching this movie. I feel like that’s the backbone of this movie. The performances are great and the story itself is moving, but the real weight of the movie comes from putting the real life situations of these characters, and relating them to your own life and a very scary possibility that everyone has to be very mindful of.

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The themes in this movie stretch across more than just the AIDS epidemic, and I was really surprised about that. I haven’t seen any trailers for Dallas Buyers Club, so I really had no idea what this movie was even about other than a story about AIDS. The whole plot of the FDA and hospitals making it next to impossible for the people who are slowly dying to get the medical treatment that they want is despicable. Now, some of this movie did take dramatic license, so I’m not sure how biased it was in real life. The story of Woodroof and Rayon is also really great. Woodroof’s character arc through the entirety of the movie is huge and we actually see different points in his life where he takes another step forward towards change. It’s a slow evolution that you see over the period of time that this movie takes. He’s a very well written character.

Even though a character is well written doesn’t necessarily mean that the character is going to be any good, and that’s where Matthew McConaughey comes in. It’s rare to see a career change so drastically in the course of a few years. McConaughey went from films like Sahara and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past to films like Killer JoeMud, and now his best role yet in Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey lost a total of 47 pounds for this movie and he handles the change of his character so fluidly and believably. He’s one of the best actors alive right now. Oh yeah… Jared Leto. Wow. I never really had much to say, and only really saw what he was capable of in Requiem for a Dream, but this role is unbelievable. He is unrecognizable as Rayon and you can see the commitment that he put into this character. It’s seriously unreal. Both actors deserve Oscars for their performances. This is going to be an interesting year for the awards.

All in all, Dallas Buyers Club is one of the best movies of the year. McConaughey and Leto show major acting chops here and further establish themselves as forces to be reckoned with. The directing and writing are just fine, but the real interesting scenes go to the actors. Thematically, this is a really heavy movie and may be upsetting to some people, but it is a very worthwhile movie that’s almost medicinal. It’ll help you think about your own life and how you view the lives of other. Now that’s some powerful stuff.

The Wolf of Wall Street – Review

18 Jan

Martin Scorsese has a way of creating these epic stories of crime that may stretch on for a very long time, but somehow he can keep people’s undivided attention the whole time. That’s exactly how it was for me with The Wolf of Wall Street. I had no doubts that Scorsese’s latest crime epic was going to be anything less than entertaining, but what I saw was not only one of the best films of the past year, but may very well be one of my new favorite movies. It’s funny, dramatic, and not afraid to go places other films dare not tread.

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Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) has dreams of making a name for himself, and also of making as much money as he possibly can. After the business he is working for as a stock broker, run by his mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), is shut down after the events of Black Monday, Belfort finds himself working for a boiler room that deals in penny stocks. Belfort sees potential in these penny stocks, and how the commission that he makes is far more than he can make with a legit business on Wall Street. Jordan starts up his own business, Stratton Oakmont, and along with his right hand man, Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), starts making millions in these illegal stocks. His life of debauchery, prostitutes, money, and drugs seems to be going fine, until FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) begins investigating the dealings at Stratton Oakmont and sees potential to crumble Belfort’s empire.

What makes this movie all the more appealing to me is that it is all based off of a true story of a man who actually did this. Jordan Belfort’s memoirs is the source material for The Wolf of Wall Street, and the unapologetic amount of excess that Belfort engaged in could never be boring to witness. Martin Scorsese obviously does not approve of Belfort’s actions and means of income, but the way he is presented in this movie might be deceptive at first. Rise and fall stories are very interesting to me, like Scarface and the entire arc of all three Godfather movies, and this one is no different. At first, we almost seem to want to be a part of Belfort’s life, but towards the end we can’t even stand looking at him. He’s amoral, but so much fun.

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This movie is so full of energy, it actually made me all hyped up after it was over. Leonardo DiCaprio is at the top of his game here, and I’d go so far to say that he deserves the Academy Award for his performance. It carries the entire movie and he seemed willing to really make a goof out of himself. Of course he has Jonah Hill by his side to keep the energy alive, and it’s really interesting to watch Hill’s career grow as an actor. He’s no longer just a funny guy. He’s quite a serious actor. Not to mention McConaughey’s brief screen time is some of the best the movie has to offer.

The stars behind the camera are just as effective. Everyone and their mothers know that Martin Scorsese is one of the best film makers of all time. There’s just no disputing that. His sweeping camera work has just as much fluidity and energy as the rest of the cast, and the different choices of lenses for certain scenes as another fun layer of creativity to the entire experience. Terrance Winter, the creative mind behind HBO’s hit series Boardwalk Empire (one of my favorite shows), brings his A-game to the table for The Wolf of Wall Street. His dialogue is sharp as a tack and extremely quick. An exceptional instance of his writing is the first time Belfort and Agent Denham first meet on Belfort’s yacht. It’s an amazing word duel that I will never forget. Finally, I need to mention Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing. The intercuts and crazy editing keeps the film feeling kinetic. It’s perfect.

The Wolf of Wall Street was an excellent film that was one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a movie in a long time. It’s kinetic film making at its finest, and Martin Scorsese once again proves why he is cinematic titan. DiCaprio’s and Hill’s performances solidify their Hollywood talent, and I really want to see this get some recognition at the Oscars in terms of acting, writing, and editing.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance – Review

18 Jan

Finally, we have come to the third and final film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy. Taking a cue from the name of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance comes Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. In order for me to start talking about this movie, I want to look back at the other two. I said that Oldboy is a modern masterpiece that will go down as one of the greatest films ever made, and after seeing Lady VengeanceSympathy for Mr. Vengeance is so much better. I appreciate how I wasn’t confused for most of the movie and that the story was cool. It’s a really good movie. Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a muddled, pretentious soap opera that went on for too long and made me wish I was watching one of the predecessors.

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Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is faced with a prison sentence of thirteen years after she confesses to the abduction and murder of a five year old boy. After she serves her time and uses her polite demeanor to her advantage, making a lot of friends in prison, she starts her quest to get revenge on Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik), the man who kidnapped and threatened her infant daughter if she didn’t take the blame for the abduction and murder of the boy. First, Geum-ja has to reunite with her daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), but soon turns back to her original mission, and she makes sure she isn’t the only one who is getting revenge.

This movie really is a soap opera, and can also be seen as further proof that a great director can get a little bit too full of himself. The biggest problem here is the motivation of the story. In Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy, the motivation of vengeance and redemption were strong and pushed the characters towards a climax. In Lady Vengeance, I never really felt like the plot was going anywhere fast. All of the flashbacks, subplots, and characters were more of a distraction than they were interesting. In fact, the subplot involving Geum-ja’s daughter isn’t interesting at all, and Kwon Yea-young was just annoying.

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I may sound like a broken record here, but Sympathy for Lady Vengeance looks fantastic. Park Chan-wook pulls out all of the stops here in terms of style, and creates some of the nicest shots and transitions in the entire trilogy. It can be haunting and it can be beautiful. The costume design for Geum-ja is also really nice and adds a lot to her character and speaks for the transformation she made from innocent young girl, to a violent woman bent on revenge. Style is what this movie really has going for it. The soundtrack is also an excellent companion to the visuals, but style isn’t everything in a movie.

I want to like the story. I really do, but I just can’t. This would have been a good start to the trilogy because compared to the other two, the story in this one is underwhelming as hell. It isn’t even the fault of the way the story is composed. It just doesn’t have the gusto and the energy that the other two movies have. I found myself constantly checking to see how much time was left in the movie, and there were some parts where my mind would drift to some other thing because the story and the energy of this movie just wasn’t enough to keep my mind occupied.

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Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is the weakest entry in the Vengeance trilogy, and is just an all around weak movie. There is a lot of potential with the style and the characters, which are played just fine, but there isn’t enough in this movie that really makes it all that suspenseful or exciting. One may argue that this is more of a drama than a thriller, but the drama is a little too hokey at parts and felt kind of like a soap opera. Just because there are a few cool or intense scenes in this movie doesn’t help pull Sympathy for Lady Vengeance from the muck.

Oldboy – Review

17 Jan

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first film in Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, left me wanting more. It was definitely a good movie, but I can’t say that it was a great movie. In 2003, however, audiences were treated to and shocked by Oldboy. Every film student in the world has heard of this movie and I can almost guarantee that any film fanatic has seen this at least once. The first time I saw this movie, I really enjoyed it, but felt like I was missing a lot of the hype. After this second viewing, I understand completely. Oldboy is more than just a thriller. It’s also a mystery, dark comedy, and action film with strong roots in Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies.

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Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik) is an average Seoul businessman with a wife and daughter, who has believed to have lived a normal life. One night, Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and placed in a room for fifteen years. While in the room, Oh Dae-su changes and becomes psychologically twisted and thirsty for revenge. When he is let out after fifteen years, Oh Dae-su starts his quest for revenge and meets Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung), a chef who is willing to help him out, despite her not even knowing anything about him. As the kidnapper is revealed as millionaire Woo-jin Lee (Yoo Ji-tae), the mystery becomes even more intriguing. Instead of who locked Oh Dae-su in a room, he has to figure out why, and the answers may push him to the edge of his sanity.

If you were to take all of the good things from Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, like the excellent blocking, cinematography, and story, and then take away how awful the plotting of that movie is, you still wouldn’t have Oldboy. In order to describe how great Oldboy is you would have to add in a mixture of excellent suspense combined with spot on pacing, and only then would you see how excellent Oldboy is. This is one of those essential pieces of film that everyone should see if they are interested in film. It’s more than just a bloody thriller. It’s a look into the darkest parts of human psychology where revenge and murder are just part of a person’s life.

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This has a very similar artistic style to Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance. In terms of set design, this is a dirty looking movie, but once again Park Chan-wook has shown how he has a talent for creating beauty amongst the grime. His lensing in this movie is fantastic, but his interesting use of the camera doesn’t stop there. One scene in particular that stands out is a huge fight scene shot from the side of a corridor that was filmed in one continuous take. It isn’t rare for editors to hide cuts into takes as long as these, but this shot was 100% done in one take. Every shot is composed wonderfully, which once again shows that Park has one of the best eyes in the international film industry.

As great as Oldboy looks, it wouldn’t have worked without Choi Min-sik’s excellent performance. Oh Dae-su is a very complicated character with a lot of ups and downs, and Choi plays it with spot on perfection. There are scenes where he is smiling, but we sense all of the inner pain that is boiling beneath the surface, and other times where his acting shows all of the anger and hate. The climax of the movie, which really shows comparisons between Shakespearean and Grecian tragedies, really highlights Choi’s abilities and is one of the best onscreen performances I have ever seen.

Oldboy is one of the best films ever made, and deserves to be on the same lists as classic films. In its own right, it is a contemporary classic that will go down in film history. It’s a poetic story of violence, love, and revenge that shows a side of humanity that people don’t normally like to see. Choi Min-sik gives an excellent performance, and Park Chan-wook shows his talent as a film maker and story teller. If you haven’t seen this Oldboy, it is your responsibility to see it as quickly as possible.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance – Review

13 Jan

This is going to be the start of a review for a trilogy. Chan-Wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy to be more specific. Park has established himself as one of the most creative and innovative film makers to come out of Asia, and has even inspired American film makers and film makers from around the globe in terms of style and story. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance started off this thematic trilogy in 2003, and while it is a good start to the three movies that share common themes, it is a relatively weak entry in his filmography.

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Ryu (Ha-kyun Shin) is a deaf-mute who is working in a factory so his sister (Ji-eun Lim) can get a kidney transplant. After getting fired and hearing no good news from the hospital, Ryu takes his life savings and turns to the black market to get a kidney. The sellers don’t make good on their deal and end up stealing his kidney without selling him one for his sister. In order to get the money Ryu’s girlfriend, Yeong-mi (Doona Bae) suggest kidnapping his ex-boss’ daughter (Bo-bae Han) and collecting the ransom money. After tragedy strikes, his ex-boss Dong-jin (Kang-ho Song) wants revenge and will stop at nothing to kill the people responsible for ruining his life.

To start off with, I feel let down by this movie. There are a lot of good things about it that I will get to, but as a whole it is clearly inferior to Park’s other work. First of all, there are a lot of things in the beginning of the movie that are glazed over so fast I wasn’t even aware that I was getting any plot information. Because of that, I would get confused further down the line at what was going on and who was who. It wasn’t until about a third of the way into the movie that I was aware of who everyone was and what exactly their motivations were. This is not exactly a fun way to watch a movie.

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The story, itself, of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is pretty awesome. The whole deal with organs, the black market, abductions, and revenge just blend together really well, despite the shortcomings in how the story is told. It’s a grim, dark, and almost depressing story, even though it still shows signs of dark humor that Park is so good at doing. Amidst the violence and suspense, I found myself laughing at certain parts just out of how strange things were. In some cases, right after laughing, I’d find myself cringing or in a state of bewilderment. The violence in this movie can be extreme, but it’s never so graphic or insane that it becomes gratuitous. Still, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not for the feint of heart.

This  is also a beautiful movie to look at. Chan-wook Park has an unbelievable eye when it comes to creating beauty amongst ugliness. The surroundings in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance are very gray and dreary, completely lacking any set or location that is beautiful. What is beautiful is how Park shows these sets and locations. His blocking and camera techniques are spot on and make every scene interesting. I found myself thinking about how he thought to angle some of the more interesting shots and if I would ever be able to think of something like that.

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Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is not Chan-wook Park’s best film. The plot, which is excellent, is not told in the most sensible way and a lot of important points may be missed your first time through. Park said he was going more for theme and style over plot, which shows, but it doesn’t help the movie that much. That being said, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance looks great and fits well in this thematic trilogy. It has memorable scenes, but I still say that it could have been a lot better considering how cool the story is.