Tag: movie

Right Now, Wrong Then

Right Now, Wrong Then (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers unaccustomed to careful observation and extracting meaning between the lines will certainly walk away from “Right Now, Wrong Then,” written and directed by Hong Sang-soo, feeling confused, perhaps frustrated, because, on the outside, nothing profound happens in the chance meeting of an art-house film director (Jae-yeong Jeong) and a painter (Min-hee Kim). Cheon-soo and Hee-jeong meet, drink coffee, eat sushi, attend a gathering at a cafe, and part ways. One might wonder, “What’s the point in telling this story?” The answer is in the structure.

With a running time of two hours, the picture is divided into two. At sixty minutes, we have seen all there is to see in the meeting of strangers. At minute sixty-one, we are thrusted back into the story, title card included, where Cheon-soo is looking around an unfamiliar place—but now familiar to us—just as he did when we first laid eyes on his unconfident demeanor. And therein lies the magic of the film: It is a second chance to look at something… but this time more closely, more intensely. We note of similarities and differences, obvious and subtle: the placement of the camera, when it decides to go in for a closeup, how characters react to one another and what they choose to reveal or keep hidden depending on the flow of conversation. We have all been in a situation where we wondered what might have happened if we have done or said something differently, had been more honest, more daring or straightforward.

Seemingly a romance picture, certainly the plot is designed to evoke such a feeling, I believe the material is smarter than its initial premise. So many movies, even romantic comedies, particularly those that stick to tried-and-true formulas, direct their attention on action, what happens next, whether the main players will live happily ever after before the end credits roll. Here is a picture that asks us to live in the moment, to engage, to be aware of the thoughts and feelings behind and between what people decide to share with one another. Sometimes they even surprise themselves with how much they’ve admitted to, an occurrence that happens in real life when we are with someone we genuinely connect with at the time.

Jeong and Kim are so natural in their roles that it does not feel as though they are putting on a performance. Their body language—such as how they look down a lot, how they smile when they feel uncomfortable, their go-to physical pleasantries just to be polite—look like something that we can observe at a nearest coffee shop. The picture conjures up a warm feeling of familiarity but we are compelled to continue watching because the details are specific enough to these characters who are so different from one another. The two of them being at least ten years apart in age is only the tip of the iceberg. We wonder how it is going to work.

“Right Now, Wrong Then” are for those with patience and deep imagination. It makes one wonder how, had a third chance meeting been presented, might have the director and the painter related to one another on a deeper level. It also makes us look into our relationships with others and perhaps some of us may be inspired to make them better somehow. And if the power of film is measured by how much it can push its audience into taking action, then by such measurement the picture is a glorious success.

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam

Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam (1987)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Bill Couturié’s documentary consists of real footages taken during the United States’ complete involvement during the Vietnam War. What makes it even more special is that on top of the unforgettable images, real letters of those who participated in the war are read, from soldiers to nurses, thereby creating a most unique experience. The correspondences are read by actors which allows for a small layer of interpretation.

When I read the words “Vietnam” and “War” next to each other, I admit that I do not know what to think sometimes. Maybe it is due to the fact that I was neither born in America nor did I grow up during that era. My imaginings of that time in history rely on films like Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter,” the way sadness and tragedy permeate through people’s lives, Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” the manner in which rage is communicated through the duality of man, and Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” due to the war’s unpredictable and unimaginable horrors. And then there is Tim O’Brien’s novel “The Things They Carried,” a novel that I did not expect to love given that it was an assigned reading in Honors English. (Assigned readings in high school were a notorious bore to me.) Though the names of its characters are a blur to me now, what remains vivid are the feelings of poetry and lyricism of the words.

“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam” are about the words. Details like the soldiers having to wash their only piece of clothing in streams make as big a mark as a soldier admitting to his loved ones that sometimes he feels like he will never get a chance to come home alive. By summoning details that are mundane and personal—at times right next to each other, other times utilized as recurring themes—the film constructs a reality as if the viewer were actually there.

The style of reading that works best is when the voices almost downplay or muffle the letters’ sorrow, confusion, and fury. A mood is established and it communicates the helplessness of those who believed that they could make a difference in the war. Most memorable is a soldier telling his parents of a dead body he was asked to identify. He was so shaken, he could not even recognize the face of his closest friend. The way it is read not only communicates anguish but also the shame of not being able to identify his friend’s face immediately. However, when a voice plays it up by, for example, being in tears, I was reminded that I was hearing a performance. Although it may not be the intention, it feels like shoving the viewers toward an emotional catharsis.

Although the words are the centerpiece, the images provide great support. The early recordings of soldiers smelling their letters from home made me smile while wounded bodies or corpses being carried away from the crossfire made me hold my breath. B-52s dropping so many bombs all at once is equally shocking as images of the land being turned inside out. It works as a symbol of Americans entering a foreign soil and not knowing or fully understanding the enemy. It is a more feral experience knowing that what we are seeing is something that really happened. Unlike scenes shot in a studio or with the help of computers, real soldiers entering a potentially dangerous area have only one chance to get everything right in order to prevent more casualties.

The film is about honoring and remembering Americans who were involved in the Vietnam War but it is far from a propaganda. When dead bodies of both Americans and Vietnamese are shown, the attention turns to (or should be on) what we can do—or not do—to prevent history from repeating.

The Shallows

The Shallows (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Shark flick “The Shallows,” written by Anthony Jaswinski and directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is saddled with an eye-rolling backstory involving a medical student named Nancy (Blake Lively) who is considering to drop out of medical school due to her mother having recently died from cancer. Despite this limitation, it remains a solid creature feature because the filmmakers understand how to build tension and release it at the right moments.

The audience is provided a clear mental map of the situation. The shore is about two hundred yards from the rock that Nancy uses as refuge after an initial heart-pounding shark attack. There is a floating whale carcass about thirty yards away from the rock. There is also a nearby buoy. We learn when high and low tides begin and end. Nancy has the acuity to take note how fast the hunter swims from one location to the next. The more information given to us, the stronger our engagement with the picture. Along with Nancy, we try to figure out the best possible solution, like trying to solve a complex math problem.

The film starts out like a summer music video: energetic, colorful, our heroine’s sun-kissed beach-ready body front and center. Slow motion is employed just in case we do not already get the point. We appreciate the beauty of the warm sand, the alluring embrace of the ocean, and how tropical trees sway just so along the breeze. It is appropriate, even fitting, given the sudden shift in tone waiting about twenty minutes in. As real in life, terror strikes when least expected. It adds horror to the entire experience.

Lively is a surprise to me because in just about every scene she proves she is a true performer. Prior to this film, I thought she was pretty but certainly more of a television actress than someone who belongs in feature films. I was very happy to have been proven wrong. Even happier to learn that she can spearhead a movie—a horror movie, no less, which requires a specific skill set to hold together.

Take note of the moments when her character’s body is harmed in some way. Lively has a way of limiting her character’s movements in the forthcoming scenes to the point where it becomes almost claustrophobic to watch Nancy. Every sudden movement looks painful, each ounce of energy sacrificed in order to outsmart a fearsome predator. Lesser actors might have simply relied on their physical attributes to get by. Here, Lively makes the choice to actively and consistently engage with the character and so we relate with the protagonist every step of the way. She even finds a convincing way to relate with a co-star… that just so happens to be a bird.

Horror films usually have a difficult time delivering an ending that feels exactly right for the story being told. The reason is because the writers feel the need to console the viewers more than once that the character will be all right. “The Shallows” is no exception. It should have had one less scene because the penultimate scene’s final line communicated everything that needed to be expressed.

Albert Nobbs

Albert Nobbs (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Albert Nobbs (Glenn Close) was the apotheosis of fastidiousness. As a a butler in one of the most prestigious hotels in Dublin, Morrison’s Hotel, it was almost a requirement more than a desired quality in order to impress the wealthiest upper-class considering each had their own special need. On another level, Albert’s keen attention to detail was dependent on survival. Albert was a woman and for many years she kept the fact hidden from everyone. When a charming painter, Hubert (Janet McTeer), was hired by Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins), the hotel’s mistress, and was assigned to room with Albert, the butler’s secret was exposed. Still, the two found a commonality because, as it turned out, Hubert was also a woman posing as a man. Based on a short story by George Moore and directed by Rodrigo García, there is no doubt in my mind that the filmmakers of “Albert Nobbs” wanted us to experience the story of Albert, seek understanding from the restrictive circumstances of the ninetieth century, relate it to our time, and recognize that people still do hide their sexualities and lead a life of unhappiness out of shame, fear of judgment, and rejection of friends and families. In a way, it wanted to inspire the viewers to be a little more sensitive and understanding. While its intentions and messages were venerable, I felt that, as a film, there was something missing in the way the plot unfolded. Some scenes felt rather awkward. For instance, Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), one of the posh guests in the hotel, woke up with a naked man in his room as if to suggest that they had a romantic or sexual relationship. And yet it was never expanded upon in order to highlight certain trends, in this case male-male companionship, in terms of having to hide one’s sexuality from society. It was a lost opportunity because of their sex and socioeconomic status, very different and an excellent complement to Albert’s situation. That scene that seemed to suggest more could have been taken out completely and it would not have had any sort of impact on the work, except perhaps that the audience wouldn’t expect a different perspective from the screenplay by Glenn Close, John Banville, and Gabriella Prekop. As a whole, Close delivered a good performance but I was not always completely captivated by her as a man. There were times when I thought the actress was trying to deliver a performance and trying to emote subtleties required to make us believe that Albert really was a man. The inconsistent greatness in Close’s acting, which caused distraction, almost worked against itself. However, her high notes were memorable. For example, I admired the part when Mrs. Baker and Albert were speaking and the conversation was suddenly interrupted by one of the staff. In a split second, I thought there was a mistake in the editing because Albert seemed to have disappeared from screen. As I looked closer, it turned out that Albert just moved a couple of steps back, out of respect, and seemed to blend into the wallpaper. Although understated because it happened so quickly, there was something in me that couldn’t help but respond to it. It made me consider that Close perfectly embodied her character’s ability to hide and blend in from fear of suspicion that there was something different about her. It highlighted the sadness of Albert’s life: while most of us strive to stand out from the pandemonium of life, people like her strive to camouflage into the most nondescript corner.


Rubber (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★

A tire suddenly came to life in the desert. Like a toddler’s uncertainty in taking its first steps, we observed Robert the tire rolling around and falling over. It learned that it liked to put its weight on things like plastic water bottles and small animals. When Robert couldn’t physically destroy something, it used its psychic powers in order to force its target to explode. Written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, I had fun with “Rubber” because it took a ridiculous idea and kept its head high like it wasn’t anybody’s business. The bad acting, thin dialogue, and lack of sensical narrative worked because our expectations were turned inside out before we even had time to form them. I was consistently interested in the murderous tire and what it was going to do next. There was a subplot involving Lieutenant Chad (Stephen Spinella) and an accountant (Jack Plotnick) wanting to kill the audiences, literally the people with binoculars watching the tire murder people from a distance. Sometimes it worked. I saw the subplot as the director’s frustration of Hollywood unabashedly rehashing the same old formula in terms of which movies would receive the green light and the audiences’ willingness in swallowing it all up. I saw the turkey, poisoned food given to the onlookers, as a symbol of most of the garbage in the film business. The garbage is killing our culture. I share that frustration. In every ten movies I watch, only one (or two if I’m lucky) is truly original and refreshing. Another scene I enjoyed was when the lieutenant tried to convince his men that they should stop doing their jobs (they were at a crime scene) because it was all a movie. Just so his colleagues would believe him, he ordered one of them to shoot him. If he didn’t die, it was proof that everything was fake. Lastly, I was amused when Lieutenant Chad, whose goal was to destroy Robert, looked into the camera during the opening scene and explained to us the lack of reason for the things we were about to see. It prepared us for what was coming. However, there were times when the picture didn’t quite work. We were not made aware of Lieutenant Chad and the accountant’s endgame. Were they aware of the tire’s true potential? We they fully invested in supposedly saving mankind from tired ideas? Was the universe that the characters inhabited a part of some sick joke? We never found out. I had some questions for Robert as well. The tire was interested in a woman (Roxane Mesquida) but was it aware of its own lack of body structures like limbs, torso, and a head? There was one shot in which the tire saw its own reflection and, despite being an inanimate object, it seemed a bit sad. I imagined it thinking, “Why do I look like this?” That moment made me realize that, despite its wild premise, I was enjoying the picture for what it was. “Rubber” was absurd, some would say unnecessary, but the director used such qualities to make a statement and create something quite original. If anything, it had to be given credit for its sheer audacity.


Pariah (2011)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Alike (Adepero Oduye), a Brooklyn-based high school student with ambition and drive, occasionally snuck out with Laura (Pernell Walker), her best friend, to spend time in lesbian-themed clubs to make hooking up with other girls much easier. However, Alike’s devoutly religious parents (Kim Wayans, Charles Parnell) weren’t aware of their daughter’s attraction toward other women, so Alike had to lie and change clothes before going to the club and stepping inside the house. Word travelled fast and soon enough, the parents began to suspect that perhaps there was a pinch of truth in hearsay. Written and directed by Dee Rees, “Pariah” was painfully honest in its approach of what it was like to lead a second life outside of the home without relying on easy emotions, like pity, to make Alike’s situation more digestible for the audience. The picture was proactive in showing us that while Alike was capable of making mistakes like any other person, gay or straight, who was growing up, her strength was dependent upon the fact that she knew who she was and that there was nothing wrong with her being attracted to women. Because Alike had such a strong sense of self, the material had a chance to hone in on those who wrestled with gnawing suspicions and Alike’s eventual admission. But this wasn’t to suggest that the picture utilized the coming out scene as its center. I liked the way the parents were not showcased as ignoramuses when it came to their child’s life. By avoiding that tired cliché, it was already one step ahead of its peers. Audrey was the kind of parent who took the word of the Bible as an absolute. We may not agree with her position and some of us may detest her for it, but people like her do exist. I’ve had gay and lesbian friends in high school who were kicked out of their homes because their parents wouldn’t accept them from the way they interpreted certain passages in that book. Some of my friends were even forced to attend certain institutions to “cure” their homosexuality to no avail. Arthur, on the other hand, was a parent so in denial, he’d rather dance around the issue than just ask if his daughter was gay. He was a part of the police force and for someone who valued pithiness and truth, it was ironic that something as trivial as sexuality was the kind of thing that he couldn’t face head-on. The film astutely showed that such a type of an approach could potentially be as damaging as directly saying that one’s sexual identity was not unacceptable in a particular household. Under Rees’ direction, the theme of disconnect involving the relationship among mother, father, and daughter was highlighted in subtle but powerful ways. I guess having been able to identify with Alike’s experiences, there were times when a parent’s look communicated a thousand words. I hate to admit it but those small yet precious moments could potentially go undetected under the observation of those outside the LGBT community. For me, those moments were what made the film felt so real and why I had such a gut reaction to it. It’s difficult to make LGBT movies because most of them tend to use melodrama as an excuse to avoid more complex emotional and psychological explorations. “Pariah” is a shining exception. While it had lessons to impart about self-esteem and self-acceptance, telling a story through a specific perspective was its most remarkable achievement.

Gosford Park

Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★

A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.