Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

Monogamish


Sexuality should be playful.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Dr. Christopher Ryan, Dan Savage, Tao Ruspoli, Roberta Haze, Claudia Ruspoli, Debra Berger, Dr. Loree Johnson, John Perry Barlow, Mark Wrathall, Stephanie Coontz, Frank Ryan, Julie Ryan, Sforza Ruspoli, Wendell Berger, Eric Berkowitz, Dossie Easton, Annette Burger, Eric Anderson, Judith Stacy, Stephanie Johnstone. Directed by Tao Ruspoli

 

As a culture, we have been taught to revere monogamy. When someone cheats in a marriage our sympathies automatically go to the cheated upon. While there are psychologists and philosophers who have written that monogamy is not the natural state for humankind, nonetheless western society has come to embrace it to a point.

After undergoing a bitter divorce, director/actor Tao Ruspoli decided he needed to explore the subject. He enlisted the help of a variety of experts on the subject from marriage counselors to academics to sex columnists to his own family. Ruspoli, as it turns out, is the son of an Italian prince. A child of the freewheeling 70s, his mother was his father’s 18-year-old girlfriend (his dad was in his 50s at the time) and grew up in a life of privilege but also in an environment where he was exposed to non-traditional relationships from an early age.

One thing we don’t get is why the interest in monogamy. The obvious answer is that either Ruspoli cheated on his ex-wife (actress Olivia Wilde) or she cheated on him, although neither scenario is spelled out in the film. Other ramifications from serial cheating are not explored, like the increased likelihood of sexually transmitted diseases.

There are some very good cases made for polyamory, particularly from Savage, an outspoken proponent for the subject and Dr. Christopher Ryan who has written books on it. Not everyone is wired to be monogamous; some people are unhappy in exclusive relationships. Also the point of marriage de-emphasizing sex is brought up but if sex is so unimportant, why would having sex with another partner be grounds to end it? It’s an interesting question that there are no easy answers to.

Not everyone is going to receive the message here well and I will admit that I personally felt that some of the arguments for polyamory felt more like excuses to be unfaithful. Any good relationship takes a lot of work and commitment; it is much harder to commit to someone else if there’s an easy out through infidelity. Roberta Haze, a neighbor of Ruspoli’s and a costume designer for the film industry, blithely admits that she left three husbands because she got bored with them. Perhaps for some people the need for excitement outweighs the need for stability.

I do think Ruspoli tries to present both sides of the equation, but it’s clear that his sympathies lie on one specific side as the “big reveal” at the end at the end of the movie implies. The subject is presented in a fairly clinical way and with a lot of personal anecdotes but at the end of the day this is a highly charged, emotional subject which the message for which might not be able to penetrate the emotional barriers set up by some who adhere to a certain mindset. Nonetheless, this is an excellent starting point for people interested in learning about our monogamous culture, the “marriage-industrial complex” (as Savage deems it) and a society which praises monogamy but in which infidelity is rampant.

REASONS TO GO: A thoughtful and insightful look at human sexuality.
REASONS TO STAY: At times the film seems to be looking for excuses to cheat.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sexual content as well as some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Savage is best known for his column “Savage Love” printed weekly in the Seattle-based alternative paper The Stranger.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Human Sexes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
TBD

Anna Karenina (2012)


Alone in a crowd,

Alone in a crowd,

(2012) Drama (Focus) Keira Knightley, Jude Law, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kelly Macdonald, Matthew Macfadyen, Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Alicia Vikander, Olivia Williams, Emily Watson, David Wilmot, Shirley Henderson, Holiday Grainger, Pip Torrens, Susanne Lothar, Alexandra Roach, Luke Newberry, Aruthan Galieva, Tannishtha Chatterjee. Directed by Joe Wright

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Everyone knows the old saw that love is blind. We mostly come to think that it means that looks and faults don’t matter when you’re in love, but I don’t think that’s really the case. What I think that the statement means is that we are blind to the consequences of falling in love, so emotionally inundated we are by love.

The Leo Tolstoy classic has been made into big screen extravaganzas several times, most notably with the legendary Greta Garbo in the title role (twice). Here we get Keira Knightley who has shown that she has plenty of talent although perhaps not quite a match to her luminous beauty which is considerable; the girl might just be the prettiest face in all the world.

A brief plot synopsis for those not familiar with the Tolstoy work; Anna is the wife of Karenin (Law), a well-respected Russian government official in Tsarist Russia but one can scarcely characterize the marriage as a happy one. Karenin is emotionally distant, occasionally affectionate but generally not present. Many women over the years have identified with Anna, alone in a marriage to a man who barely realizes she’s there at all.

When she takes the train to Moscow on behalf of her brother, Count Oblonsky (Macfadyen) who has cheated on his wife and who has sent him to plead with said wife Dolly (Macdonald) to take him back, she meets Vronsky (Taylor-Johnson), a dashing young soldier who is the object of unrequited love for Kitty (Vikander) who is anxious to marry the young man. Kitty, in the meantime, is the object of affection for Levin (Gleeson) who is thinking of freeing his serfs and is being urged by Oblonsky to take one of them for his wife. However, everything is thrown in disarray by Anna who falls in love with Vronsky. Hard.

The two begin seeing each other and are none too discreet about their feelings. This is a big no-no in St. Petersburg society at the time which tolerated affairs but only as long as they were kept in the shadows where they belong. It was a kind of hypocrisy that in a large way still informs our somewhat hypocritical  views towards the sexes. Even if you’re not a Russian literature enthusiast or familiar with the novel, it doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out that this all leads to tragedy – and it does.

Wright has taken the conceit of staging the movie as if it were a play in a dilapidated theater (and in fact, they filmed in one just outside of London which was essentially the main filming location). There are backdrops that are very theatrical and occasionally we see audience members in box seats observing the drama. Players in the play sometimes step onto the front of the stage and address the audience directly. It’s certainly a bold move, the kind of thing someone like Baz Luhrmann might do.

But I have to admit it all feels kind of gimmicky and there’s no doubt that the stage-centric production design sometimes gets distracting. The costumes are lush enough (costume designer Jacqueline Durran won an Oscar for it) and the movie looks amazing, thanks in large part to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

The acting though is kind of spotty, surprisingly. Law fares the best, making Karenin who often comes off as uncaring and downright mean in other filmed versions of the novel almost sympathetic here. Macfadyen, as the lusty Oblonsky, also performs well as a character that is a bit of a cad. Knightley, however, is oddly subdued here. There are almost no sparks between her and Taylor-Johnson which is critical – you have to be able to see why Anna would risk so much and get the depth of the emotion she feels for Vronsky. It is not helped by Taylor-Johnson who makes Vronsky something of a caricature. The miscasting for the role is obvious – and crucial.

The British film industry has always been reliable about producing costume epics as well as anyone, particularly those based on classics and Wright, with Sense and Sensibility and Atonement both to his credit, is as adept as anyone working now at the genre. However, the overwrought concept soon overwhelms the story and becomes more the focus than Tolstoy’s classic tale does. My recommendation is either read the novel or if you prefer seeing it onscreen is to find the 1935 version with Garbo which really is a classic. This is more of a noble failure.

WHY RENT THIS: Sumptuous production design and costumes. Decent performances by Law and Macfadyen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overwrought. Conceit of giving the film the look of a theatrical performance becomes distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some sexuality and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had to leave the film during pre-production due to painful sciatica which eventually required back surgery. He was replaced by Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a nifty time lapse photograph of the main set’s construction as well as interviews with the cast members.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.9M on a $51.6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: In Secret

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman

Another Year


Another Year

An idyllic summer moment in Geri and Tom's backyard but Mary has forgotten the latin saying "in vino veritas" - in wine there is truth

(2010) Drama (Sony Classics) Jim Broadbent, Leslie Manville, Ruth Sheen, Peter Wright, Oliver Maltman, David Bradley, Karina Fernandez, Martin Savage, Michele Austin, Phil Davis, Stuart McQuarrie, Imelda Staunton. Directed by Mike Leigh

 

Why is it that some people seem to have all the happiness they want while others can’t get even a small portion no matter how hard they try? It’s a question people struggle with to answer, and one which rarely gets addressed in the movies.

Geri (Sheen) is a therapist who is working with a very depressed married woman (Staunton) whose life has crumbled into dust. Geri is quite the opposite, happily married to Tom (Broadbent), a geologist who consults with local governments all over the world for public works projects. The two live in a quiet suburban neighborhood in London, happily potter around in a public garden, invite friends over for dinner and dote in their son Joe (Maltman) who at 30 is still looking for Ms. Right but still adores his parents. Very convivial if you ask me.

Mary (Manville) works in the office with Geri and the two seem to get on well, but deep down Mary is a mess. She is 50 and single, her looks – once spectacular – fading away rapidly. She smokes too much, drinks too much, talks too loudly and makes people uncomfortable around her too much. She envies Geri and Tom their happiness and wants some of it of her own, either by osmosis or perhaps by establishing a romantic relationship with Joe. That leads to some genuinely awkward moments and when Joe brings home a new girlfriend Katie (Fernandez) Mary winds up making a spectacle of herself.

Ken (Wright), Tom’s friend is kind of like Mary in that he smokes too much, drinks too much and is a little bit desperate. He takes a shine to Mary but she’s having none of it, she’s all for Joe. As the year winds to a close, Mary’s single-minded pursuit of Joe may alienate her completely from Geri and Tom.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? And yet it is a rich and full tapestry of lives that feel real and lived-in. Tom and Geri (yuk yuk yuk) are people you’d want to hang out with, people who you could see yourself being friends with (particularly if you are, like myself, middle aged or older). Their happiness is genuinely won and seems to be a byproduct of their contentment. In fact, Leigh’s message seems to be that the road to happiness leads through being content with who and where you are. The ones who are unhappiest in the movie are those who are the least sanguine over who they are and Mary, who has the least contentment of anyone, is by far the unhappiest.

The conceit of the movie is that it is told over the course of a single year, with the movie being divided by season and in each season, a gathering at the home of Tom and Geri is the focal point with one exception. One segment takes place in Hull, where Tom is from, and revolves around the funeral of his sister-in-law. Tom is there to support his taciturn brother whom he eventually brings home. Mary doesn’t really figure in this scene although she and the brother Ronnie (Bradley) do interact later in the film. The funeral scenes are awkward and almost seem like they’re from another movie until later on you realize that it’s just something that happens; as in life there are moments that take us out of phase with our natural rhythms.

Manville gets the meatiest role here and she makes the most of it. Her character is never shrill but seems to be just on the edge of it most of the time. As she imbibes more alcohol, her cadences change and her demeanor alters; most actors merely slur their speech when playing drunk but Manville gets it dead on.

Broadbent and Sheen are both veteran character actors with Broadbent being the better known and both deliver congenial performances. They both have to walk a fine line by making Tom and Geri likable without making them stereotypical; these need to be real people who aren’t perfect but are genuinely nice. They are both successful in walking that line.

There are those who are going to have a hard time with this movie because it doesn’t move at a terribly fast pace. Instead, it captures the rhythms of a life well-lived, with the occasional discordant note being sounded albeit mostly by those outside the family. That might be literal torture for those of younger generations used to quick cuts, faster pacing and non-stop action. If there is a complaint to be made, this is a movie almost entirely of exposition rather than action. That can be dull, but instead I found it fascinating getting to spend time with these people, even Mary who can be a pill. Everyone here is likable at the core and although only a few find real happiness, it’s a movie that might inspire you to appreciate the joys in your own life more.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific slice of life film that is inhabited by real people. Manville, Broadbent and Sheen all give masterful performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is unhurried and there are those who might find this boring, particularly the young who may have trouble relating to the mostly-middle aged cast.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of foul language, but not much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mike Leigh received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay at the 2011 Academy Awards but didn’t win.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a nice feature on director Mike Leigh, his creative process and the challenges of bringing Another Year to the screen.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $18.5M on an $8M production budget; was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Young Adult

Beginners


Beginners

Oh look..."The Sound of Music." Lovely, just lovely.

(2011) Drama (Focus) Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer, Melanie Laurent, Goran Visnjic, Kai Lennox, Mary Page Keller, Keegan Boos, China Shavers, Melissa Tang, Amanda Payton, Luke Diliberto, Lou Taylor Pucci. Directed by Mike Mills

Relationships are more complicated than nuclear physics. There are no hard and fast rules that govern them and just when you think you have them figured out, the rules change. In love, as in life, we all muddle through as best we can and come to the realization that there are no experts – we are all, in reality, just beginners.

Oliver (McGregor) is very sad. It’s 2003 and his father Hal (Plummer) has passed away from cancer recently. Oliver’s relationship with dear old Dad is extremely complicated. Six months after his mom Georgia (Keller) died, Hal came out of the closet. It turns out that Hal had realized he was gay for the length of the marriage, more than 30 years.

As we flash back to young Oliver (Boos), we see with startling clarity that Georgia was in a marriage that was without passion, a lonely institution that left her sad and bitter, a non-conformist in all other respects but apparently unable to divorce her husband when she was clearly unhappy.

Oliver himself has been unable to commit to a relationship, ostensibly because he didn’t want to end up like his parents, lonely in their relationship. He meets Anna (Laurent), a French actress living in New York shooting a film in L.A. Like Oliver, she’s damaged goods but she might well be the love of his life.

As he tries to navigate his way through this relationship and find a way at last to commit rather than creating a reason not to, he flashes back to the last years of his father’s life, when he embraced the gay community – indeed, embraced life – and found happiness at long last with Andy (a nearly unrecognizable Visnjic). When his dad got ill and Oliver became his caretaker, the two men finally connected in ways they never had been able to when Oliver was growing up. His father had found joy late in life; would Oliver find it too, or would he turn it away as he always had?

Mills based much of this on his own experiences with his dad, reportedly. For that reason, the relationships ring true. They are very imperfect and fraught with land mines and machine gun nests. Nobody in this movie gets out unscathed, which is as it should be because that’s how life and relationships are.

Mills cast the movie brilliantly. McGregor is an immensely likable actor who here has to play an emotionally closed off man who desperately wants more than it looks like he’s going to get. He has a constantly befuddled expression on his face, with an occasional detour to sad. Oliver is never so alive as when he’s with Anna, and McGregor lights up around her as a man in love must do. He also gets the single most powerful moment in the film when one of his father’s friends gently wakes him to tell him his father is gone. The grief is so raw, so close to the surface that I wept, relating as a son who lost his father too young.

Plummer as that father has a touch of pixie in him, a kind of rakish twinkle in his eye that is immensely appealing. Hal discovers life and revels in everything about it. He awakens his son to ask him about a style of music he heard in a night club that he’s unfamiliar with. When his son tells him that it’s called House Music, Hal writes it down dutifully as an old man who can’t trust his memory would. Little touches like that make characters live and breathe.

Anna is lustrous and free-spirited and Laurent captures both the quirky qualities that make her endearing as well as the self-doubts and demons that make her fragile. It is a nuanced performance that those who remember her from Inglourious Basterds won’t be surprised by. Visnjic, once the hunk in “E.R.” is less brooding and hunky, but still crazy handsome as Andy, a man plagued with the suspicion that everyone hates him because he’s gay.

Some may shy away from the movie because of Hal’s sexuality; they do themselves a disservice. This is not a story about gay people; it’s a story about people. People who are imperfect, who make terrible choices and also wonderful choices – people who leave adorable Jack Russell terriers behind that communicate in subtitles. These are flawed people but flawed in the way real people are flawed. Now, I will grant you that at times I had problems figuring out the storyline because they aren’t all told sequentially which can make you scratch your head trying to figure out where you are in the scheme of things, movie-wise. Still, I found myself liking this movie and being deeply affected by it long after I left the theater. For someone who sees as many movies as I do, that’s a precious gift indeed.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic depiction of a man coming to terms not only with the loss of his father but with his own inadequacies. Great performances from McGregor, Laurent and Plummer.

REASONS TO STAY: Disjointed storytelling leaps back and forth from Dad’s story to young Oliver to modern Oliver.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of bad language and some sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Plummer and McGregor have both played Iago in separate stage productions of Othello.

HOME OR THEATER: This is an intimate drama befitting an intimate setting.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: An Inconvenient Truth