The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)


In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook

 

What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

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Finding Dory


Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

Hank and Dory are informed there is a sushi chef nearby.

(2016) Animated Feature (Disney*Pixar) Starring the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Sloane Murray, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Bob Peterson, Kate McKinnon, Bill Hader, Sigourney Weaver, Alexander Gould, John Ratzenberger, Torbin Xan Bullock, Andrew Stanton, Bennett Dammann, Katherine Ringgold. Directed by Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane

 

People with mental and emotional issues are all around us; sometimes within our own families. We see people who have these issues and sometimes they are the butt of jokes, sometimes objects of pity but only rarely do we see them as fellow human beings even if they’re fish.

A year after Dory (DeGeneres) helped reunited Nemo (Rolence) with his father Marlin (Brooks), they are all living in the Great Barrier Reef seemingly as happy as…well, clams, but Dory feels there is something missing. She has vague memories of a mother and a father in…California! Yes, that’s it! California!

If you saw the first film Finding Nemo you’d know what a big deal that is. Dory has a short-term memory issue that prevents her from remembering things that happened even five minutes earlier. In fact, she can barely remember anything at all. But this is the first time that she’s had a very real memory and she feels the need to go to California and find her mom and dad. Though the journey is long, Marlin and Nemo feel that it’s the least that they can do to help her be reunited with her mom and dad the same way she helped Marlin and Nemo reunite.

So off they go with the help of the Pacific current and Crush (Peterson) and Squirt (Dammann) get them to the Marine Life Institute – think the Monterey Bay Aquarium if it were a theme park (initially the movie was to be set at Sea World but that was before Blackfish was screened for the animators). Dory gets separated from Marlin and Nemo, and manages to get caught and brought into the Institute’s rehabilitation wing. There she meets the octopus Hank (O’Neill) who points out he’s actually a septapus – he lost a limb in an accident.

The Marine Life Institute, as narrated by Sigourney Weaver often throughout the film, has a three-pronged mission; rescue, rehabilitate, release. Hank wants nothing to do with release; he doesn’t think he could make it in the open ocean. Dory has been earmarked to be sent to an aquarium in Cleveland and Hank wants the tag she’s been given that’s her ticket to Cleveland, which may be the first time in history anyone actually wanted to go to Cleveland. Clevelanders, I kid…I kid because I love.

Anywho, Hank agrees to help Dory find her parents but they are elsewhere in the complex so it will not be an easy journey, particularly since Dory can’t, y’know, breathe air. But she and Hank are nothing if not inventive and they find ways to travel around the Institute, but can they find Dory’s parents? Are they even still there? And will Marlin and Nemo manage to find Dory?

The sequel to the second (now third) largest grossing film in Pixar history is dominating the summer box office this year. It has already pulled in a billion dollars in global box office, one of only 24 movies in history to achieve that feat (and ten of those are Disney films). This is the year of Dory and you can bet it will be a lot sooner than 13 years before the next sequel is released (which is how long it took for this to get made).

In the interest of transparency, I’m not a big fan of the original movie. I recognize the technical proficiency (which is of course even more apparent here) but I never connected with it the way most others did. I also found the character of Marlin extremely irritating. Fortunately for me, he takes a backseat in the film to Dory and Hank, both of whom are far more interesting and far less neurotic. Dory has been described as a one-joke sidekick, but she is really front and center here and is a lot more than that. DeGeneres is one of the most empathetic people in show business and that empathy is very much apparent in Dory.

One of the biggest drawbacks to the movie is that the plot is essentially the same. There are some major differences, but I personally would have appreciated a little more inventiveness when it came to the storyline. I suppose for small children who have had the first movie around their entire lives, the familiar is somewhat comforting.

Certainly the movie should get some props because it gives kids, parents and teachers a discussion point to talk about people with mental and emotional problems, and how to deal with people who are different than they are. Kids are used to being cruel to anyone they perceive as different; perhaps having characters like Dory around will give them pause the next time they want to say something mean to the kid with a stammer.

As I said, I am not a fan of the first movie, although I found this one slightly better in many ways, both from an animation standpoint and from the standpoint that I find Dory far more likable a character than Marlin or even Nemo. That the characters and the environment appeal to mass audiences is abundantly clear and I’m sure that most people would give the movie a higher rating than I am. Take it therefore with a grain of salt and know that you’ll probably find Dory a lot more interesting than you found Nemo.

REASONS TO GO: Less Marlin, more Dory.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems to be very much a rehash of the first.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for everybody. There is a tiny bit of peril but even the very young will be enchanted.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Elba appears in three different Disney movies this year, all as animals.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Nemo
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Now You See Me 2

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)


"Ursula? Where?"

“Ursula? Where?”

(2016) Fantasy-Comedy (Sony International) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang, Pierre Bourdaud, Ivan Kotik, Tsui Hark, Kris Wu, Kai Man Tin, Ke Bai, Yang Neng, Bo Xiaolong, Mei’e Zhang, Lianshun Kong, Zhang Wen. Directed by Stephen Chow

As we continue to wreak havoc on our environment, it only stands to reason that eventually our environment will wreak back. One can only take so much crap before fighting back.

Self-made entrepreneur Liu Xuan (Deng) has purchased the land surrounding the Green Gulf to create his own sanctuary there. However, that darn marine life insists on staying so Liu gets his top scientist (Kotik) to create a device that will send the local marine life fleeing for its life – a kind of a super-sonar that causes fish to explode, their faces to become badly burned and all sorts of other nasty consequences.

There is a colony of mer-folk who live in the Gulf who are none too happy about this turn of events. After legal means of preventing Liu’s deprivations fails spectacularly, their leader – a mer-octopus named Eight (Luo) who also happens to be something of a pop star – decides to kill Liu to save his family. He enlists comely Shan (Lin) to seduce Liu, a notorious lady’s man, and lure him to the mermaid lair in a wrecked ship on the shore of the gulf where the angry octopus will seal the deal.

At first things go badly; the mermaids and mermen have absolutely no concept of human beauty, so Shen comes off looking more deranged than desirable. However, when approached by predatory Ruolan (Zhang), a partner in the Green Gulf project who wants to seal the deal with a physical liaison with Liu, who decides to use Shen as leverage. However, despite the deadly plot, he doesn’t count on falling in love with Shen. Nor does she count on falling in love with him.

So things are now FUBAR in both camps and of course, this being a Stephen Chow movie, the fur is going to fly – or in this case, the scales – and there’s going to be plenty of sushi and human carnage before it’s all over.

This is the highest grossing film in Chinese history, although it was only released a few months ago and was competing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens so it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment assuming its legitimate (there has been some controversy over China’s fast and loose box office numbers). The movie pushes a little bit the boundaries of what is acceptable in Chinese culture, being a little critical of the role that business plays in the despoiling of our planet, something that is seldom talked about openly in China.

Chow, who lately hasn’t been appearing in his own films the way he used to a decade ago, has a very broad style which syncs well with the Chinese sense of humor. Think silent movies; a lot of the humor comes from exaggerated facial expressions and from almost slapstick situations. Some Westerners tend to find this humor unpalatable and do be warned that while there are many genuinely hysterical scenes in the film, not all of them are going to appeal to our cultural humor.

The CGI is a little on the cheesy side as bodies go flying through the air. Be warned that this isn’t up to the standards most Hollywood films adhere to in terms of effects, but nonetheless the movie is still good looking and above all, fun. I was tickled by the irreverence and the broad strokes – there’s a teppanyaki scene that is one of the funniest single scenes I’ve seen in any movie anywhere this year.

This won’t be for everyone and even fans of Asian cinema in general might raise an eyebrow or two at some of the madness that transpires here, but I must have been in the right frame of mind for this because I enjoyed it immensely. Go in and just let the silliness wash over you like a velvet wave. It’s not meant to have too much brain power applied to it, even though there are some serious undertones to the movie’s message, which came to me mostly after the final credits and to be honest never really disturbed me during the course of the movie’s silliness. And what better way to get a point across than through a sneak attack?

REASONS TO GO: Fun is the rule of the day. Some really hilarious moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Moments of cheesiness. Some of the humor may be a little too broad for Western tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and over-the-top gore, although not terribly realistic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interiors were shot in a former glass factory in Shenzen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bunny the Killer Thing

Penguins of Madagascar


Skipper and company, sneakin' around.

Skipper and company, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Animated Feature (DreamWorks Animation) Starring the voices of Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, John Malkovich, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter, Danny Jacobs, Sean Charmatz, Werner Herzog, Stephen Kearin, Nicholas Guest, Angie Wu, Ava Acres. Directed by Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith

There seems to be a trend in animated features these days to put in a group of support characters that are almost more popular than the main characters. You’ve got Skrat in the Ice Age series, the Minions in Despicable Me and the slugs in Flushed Away. In the Madagascar series, there are the Penguins.

The four feathered friends have been popular enough to spin off a successful animated TV series of their own. It has allowed further development of the characters who while funny were always a bit lacking in the personality department. Now we have a good idea of who they are. Thanks to this movie, we’ll have a better idea of where they came from.

Out in the Antarctic, the penguins are marching. A documentary film crew led by an unscrupulous director (Herzog) is filming. However, three penguins aren’t like the others. They march to their own tune. One is loquacious, one is voracious and one is sagacious. Skipper (McGrath) is their leader, who believes in a military-like precision. Kowalski (Miller) is the brains of the outfit, Rico (Vernon) the demolition expert who uses his stomach as a storage locker. The three of them chase after an egg that has gotten loose and is rolling away. The other penguins refuse to go after it because, after all, they’re marching. Skipper and cohorts chase after it and in doing so are put in a situation where they are separated from the others permanently on a floating iceberg. The egg hatches, revealing the terminally cute Private (Knights).

Years go by. The Penguins become mainstays at zoos around the world but they’re more about escaping and going on missions. However, those missions can be dangerous. As it turns out, there’s a megalomaniac out there trying to kill them – Dr. Octavius Brine (Malkovich) who has a personal axe to grind with them. The Penguins fall under the protection of the North Wind, an elite fighting force dedicated to saving defenseless animals. They are led by Classified (Cumberbatch), a wolf. The rest of his team includes Corporal (Stormare), a bear; Eva (Mahendru), an owl and Short Fuse (Jeong), a puffin.

However, Dr. Brine has some very nefarious plans for the Penguins. Skipper doesn’t tend to work well with authority figures and the North Wind in turn disdain the Penguins as rank amateurs, although to be honest Kowalski thinks the gadgets the North Wind employs are pretty cool and let’s face it, he has a bit of a crush on Eva while Corporal thinks Private is the cutest thing ever. Can the two work together to stop the maniacal Dr. Brine?

I think it’s fair to say that the Madagascar series hasn’t really impressed me much to date. However, the penguins were always a highlight of their movies. I confess I haven’t seen the TV show but then again, I’m not a big fan of modern animated kids shows. Based on the trailers and my enjoyment of the Penguins in the Madagascar movies I was hopeful that this would be that rare spin-off that improves on the original.

To a degree, it is. Spy spoofs when done right can be way fun. Kids seem to appreciate that genre given the Spy Kids movies and the Bond elements in Pixar’s The Incredibles. Kids, apparently, love spies and why not? They can be tons of fun when they’re done right.

Most animated features are intended for the entertainment of children and most critics, myself included, have a hard time getting into the right mindset. Children, after all, have a different set of standards than most adults. Therefore I tend to write my reviews for the parents who will inevitably accompany the kids to the multiplex. Kids will generally have a good time as long as the movie isn’t boring and keeps on moving at an appropriate pace because kids, as those of us who have them or have been around them for any length of time, have virtually no attention span whatsoever.

Adults require a little bit more than that and for the most part, Penguins of Madagascar delivers. There are some genuinely funny moments and a few that will fly over the heads of the wee ones in the audience. There are also a few groaners which aren’t in and of themselves a bad thing. The movie does drag a little bit in a few places but for the most part maintains a pretty good pace.

Other than Malkovich and Cumberbatch (which sounds like a European law firm) there isn’t a lot of star power here which is unusual for studio animated features these days which seem to rely on celebrity voice work more and more. That can sometimes be distracting when you hear a distinctive voice coming out of a cartoon character’s mouth.

Still in all, this is solid entertainment for all ages and in a year that has been a box office disappointment for family films – and this one hasn’t been pulling particularly high numbers – it stands out somewhat amid a fairly unspectacular bunch.

REASONS TO GO: Really funny in places. A decent enough spy spoof.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit lackluster in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of rude humor and some mild action scenes; acceptable essentially for all ages.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In both the previous Madagascar films and in the television series John DiMaggio voiced Rico. This movie, with Conrad Vernon voicing the role, is the first appearance of Rico with a different actor voicing him.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cars 2
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Theory of Everything