what i watched last week

Snowpiercer (Joon-ho Bong, 2013). Has a little of everything, but surprises along the way. It’s a near-future dystopia, it’s an action adventure set on a train, it’s a caustic screed against the 1%, it has black humor and violence, and it’s the first American film from Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The violence will scare some people away, and others might be scared away by the trailers, which emphasize the grimy look of much of the film. It owes much to Brazil, a movie I didn’t much like. It also reminded me of Michael Radford’s film of 1984, although it’s been awhile since I’ve seen that one (as I recall, I liked it). The various compartments on the train each had its own décor, which was nicely done, and if the condemnation of the 1% was a bit simplistic, well, so what, I was glad it was there. If you are looking for an introduction to the wonders of modern Korean cinema, this isn’t the place to start ... it’s more American than Korean. But it is also more successful than the movies of many other Asian directors in the U.S. ... John Woo had his hand in more than half-a-dozen U.S. films, and only one (Face/Off) came close to the level of Snowpiercer. (Of course, Woo also made many HK and Chinese movies that are better than Face/Off or Snowpiercer.) #510 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10. Check out 2009’s Mother for a different side of Bong.

Since there is only one film on the list for this week, I’ll take this space to expand a bit on one aspect of Snowpiercer that it shares with some other movies. I write these short, one-paragraph reviews, knowing that in most cases, the movies in question deserve a lot more space. I try to address things that caught my attention, while also avoiding spoilers when possible, which in itself is a limiting move. [What follows includes spoilers.] In the case of movies like Snowpiercer, I don’t think it would be useful to extend what I’ve written above. It’s worthy and complicated and there are a lot of talking points. But I fear I’d just resort to a check list. The construction of Snowpiercer is ingenious ... it’s also perfect for a good six-page essay in an honors class for college undergraduates. The class structure presented in the film is clearly delineated, and while you could watch Snowpiercer simply as an entertaining action movie, it is almost impossible to miss the underlying themes about class. That’s why it would make a good topic for an undergraduate essay: there is something to talk about, but it isn’t hard to find. It would also make a good topic for an extended essay that closely broke down the presentation of class, critically analyzing what Bong has done. But I’m not going to write either of these on this blog, not a six-page essay, not a chapter for a book. I’m going to write a paragraph, or two or three. And in the case of Snowpiercer, once I’ve mentioned the basics, I don’t see the point in adding a paragraph to state the obvious: that the cars on the train represent various social classes, that even if the nominal hero manages to take the train away from the nominal villain, nothing concerning classes will have been truly answered, that the two young people who escape the train are the future because they don’t conquer the train, they escape it. I could say all that, but if you watch the movie, you’ll figure it out for yourself. And unless I’m prepared to write 2500 words on the subject, I’m better off just sticking to a paragraph.

what i watched last week

Voices (Ki-hwan Oh, 2007). I decided I should pass some time by watching a Korean horror movie, and ended up here. The plot was pretty goofy, but it snuck up on me, which is to say, it didn’t seem so goofy at first, and by the time I realized it was silly, it was too late. I was already hooked. It’s the kind of horror movie that tosses in something scary and/or gory every dozen minutes to keep your attention, and it worked, since I spent most of the movie oohing and aahing. It’s possible there was supposed to be some larger message here, but if so, I missed it. Voices demonstrates a pretty depressing vision of humankind, but this, too, sneaks up on you; for most of the movie, you think you have someone to root for. By the end, such people were long gone. Not as good as Oldboy or Mother, but still an easy 7/10.

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010). This sci-fi movie couldn’t be more different from Voices. Made for $800k, or $500k, or a lot less than $500k, depending on who you asked, Monsters features two professional actors along with amateurs who may have thought they were in a documentary. It’s about aliens who land in Mexico and turn into giant octopus-looking creatures. It’s the first feature for director Gareth Edwards, who did the special effects in his bedroom using off-the-shelf computer software. And the male lead’s name is Scoot. I assumed it would be akin to a made-for-SyFy Channel movie, only without a big star like Eric Roberts. Boy, was I wrong. Roger Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars out of 4. Andrew O’Hehir in Salon called it “a dynamite little film, loaded with atmosphere, intelligence, beauty and courage.” It won three British Independent Film Awards. And Edwards was handed the reins for the Godzilla reboot to be released in 2014, which will likely have a slightly larger budget than Monsters. Monsters isn’t quite as good as the above suggests, but it’s certainly better than a SyFy Channel movie. And the final scene with two aliens is unexpectedly moving. I’m giving it the same rating I gave to Voices, but it sure comes at its 7/10 in a different manner from the Korean film.

what i watched last week

These actually cover more than a week … for some reason last week’s got posted too soon, leaving me with a couple of leftovers.

Slacker. It’s interesting to watch this movie after seeing 20 years of Linklater’s work. All of these voices jabbering away about whatever is on their minds … we get similar people doing similar things in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Something that seemed new and unique in 1991 now seems like What Richard Linklater Does. I’ve liked every one of his movies I’ve seen (with the exception of Tape, which I hated), and if Slacker isn’t the best of them (I’m partial to Dazed and Confused), it’s innovative and worth a return visit every couple of decades. 7/10.

Green Zone. This movie works, but I’m not sure why. Matt Damon makes a good soldier with a brain, the feeling of dread would seem to match life in Iraq at the time the film takes place, and Paul Greengrass doesn’t overdo his usual frenetic camera work until the final action sequence, which is exciting but confusing. And the movie calls the U.S. on the lies we told ourselves to get the war started. Good movie, but far from great. 7/10.

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed. Remarkably, it doesn’t suck. It’s not Evil Dead II good, but it’s good enough to watch if you were a fan of the first one. Still, the first one is a classic, while the second doesn’t suck. 6/10.

Chungking Express. Watching this the same week I watched Slacker made for interesting comparisons … not that they are similar films, but because both directors offer unique, uncompromising visions. Wong Kar-Wai may be his generation’s Godard, but as is appropriate, that is both a positive and a negative. When I first saw this movie, I wasn’t impressed, but once In the Mood for Love made me a Wong fan forever, I’ve been willing to reassess his movies, and I’ve enjoyed Chungking Express every time I’ve seen it since. This time, I realized how much I prefer the second part. I also notice how young Tony Leung is (I guess I need to watch Hard-Boiled again, since he’s even younger in that one, or Bullet in the Head, which is before all of them). Faye Wong makes you wish she made more movies … Brigitte Lin is one of the most beautiful actresses ever, and there are hints of this if you look closely past the blonde wig and large sunglasses. #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

City Hunter. A very stupid movie, redeemed a bit by a great fight at the finale between Jackie Chan and Richard Norton. There are a lot of very weird things here, which, if you are fan of the original anime, might seem appropriate. I don’t know the original, and most of what’s on the screen flops. A fight scene where the two combatants become characters from Street Fighter II is better than the fight scene in a movie theatre playing Game of Death, with Jackie fighting two tall black guys while Bruce Lee takes on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the screen. There are a lot of beautiful babes running around … the unstoppable Chingmy Yau comes off the best, but really, they’re as much eye candy as anything else … this ain’t exactly The Heroic Trio. 5/10.

Mother. A genre film, I suppose, although it encompasses multiple genres and defies our expectations along the way. It isn’t a slapdash approach by any means … it isn’t there just to show us how many movies director Joon-Ho Bong has seen. Bong is quite precise. The Host took the monster movie to a different place, and was more loony than Mother. Mother may be the better film, though. It probably says more about me than about the relative merits of the two films that I gave The Host 7/10, while I’ll give Mother 8/10.

what i watched last week

Oldboy. It took me three years, but I finally got to the second film in Park Chan-wook’s “revenge trilogy” (I saw Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance in 2006). I thought the earlier film was the work of a stylish director with little to say. Oldboy is much better. The violence, implied and actual, remains excruciating, but where I said about the first movie that the violence was “cool and pretty,” this time it’s not cool at all … I’d call it gruesome and funny, which I understand is an odd combination. And while Mr. Vengeance had a plot that was at times incoherent and at times shallow, Oldboy’s narrative grabs the viewer from the start and never lets up. And the themes, of love and taboos, and the allusions, to Kafka and Memento, make Oldboy into a full experience. Don’t get me wrong … if screen violence bothers you, stay away from this one. #75 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top films of the 21st century. 9/10, which appears to be the highest rating I’ve ever given to a movie in Korean (I haven’t seen many).

what i watched last week

I stole this idea from some web site that I can't remember. I think they do this once a month. I'm going to try for once a week, on Mondays, although I may give up after one try. I'll list the movies I watched during the previous week, with one or two lines on each.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Wouldn't have worked without Russell Crowe in the lead role. He makes this stuff believable. 8/10.

Recount. "Only" a TV movie from HBO. Nominated for 9 Emmys. Written by Danny Strong (who got an Emmy nod himself), previously known to fans of the Buffyverse as Jonathan. 8/10.

The Good Earth. Late-30s Hollywood movie about China, based on Pearl Buck's novel, a former choice of the Oprah Book Club. Paul Muni, an American via Ukraine, and Luise Rainer, a German actress, played the two leads, both Chinese characters. Rainer won the Best Actress Oscar, her second in a row. Seeing it now, it's hard to understand why. 6/10.

The Host. Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it. 7/10.

Jason and the Argonauts. Yes, the set pieces are cool, and it's nice to see Pussy Galore as Hera. But in the end, it's no different from most special-effects extravaganzas ... you wait, bored, until the next cool Harryhausen scene arrives. Would be just as good with all the non-Harryhausen stuff removed. 6/10.

sympathy for mr. vengeance

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance shows clear evidence of an artist at work. It’s a beautiful movie to look at, even when it features cringe-inducing gore. It is full of artistic deconstructions of traditional narrative processes. In Breathless, Godard used jump cuts in part to excise everything except what really mattered; in Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, director Park Chan-wook excises entire portions of the narrative, leaving the audience scratching its head, trying to figure out what is going on. Park’s excisions have the opposite effect of Godard’s … the French film leaves the viewer “out of breath,” but Park uses the time he’s gathered through his excisions to slow us down and give us pretty pictures, resulting in a film that even its champions (and there are many) admit is, if not boring, then at least slow.

Wesley Morris, who likes the movie, claims that “Park prizes craftsmanship over bargain-bin schlock,” suggesting that while Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance works within a schlocky genre, Park rises above those roots because he is up to something bigger. As a fan of genre works that are true to the genre yet also transcend, I would have to agree that ambition is often a good thing when a smart director takes on genre work.

The question becomes, does Park actually accomplish what his champions claim for him? Morris says the film has “a deftly handled sociopolitical bent,” and he may be right … the characters certainly come from various levels of Korean class society. But this is where Park’s disdain for traditional narrative gets in the way. The movie is often wildly incoherent … one of the most interesting things about the film is that the same thing that pisses off its detractors is what its fans enjoy most … throwing stuff on a wall and waiting to see what sticks is not deft handling of sociopolitics. The movie is an excuse for Park to show what a fine director he is. Everything serves that purpose. Thus, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is no better than Friday the 13th, Part III … in both cases, filler exists solely to get to the “good stuff,” which in Park’s hands is a lot more exquisite than in a cheapie horror sequel … but so what? One of my favorite movies, Run Lola Run, is a showy delight, but analysis of the film begins, and to some extent ends, with an examination of that delight … no one says Run Lola Run is about sociopolitics, it’s about running, and red hair, and cool music, and video-game narrative. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is a joy to look at, and far less boring than you might think from the above. But it isn’t “about” sociopolitics.

What does the film tell us about violence? That it’s cool and pretty. A fine message, doesn’t bother me, I’m not one who needs a positive message out of every movie. But there isn’t any depth to the movie’s examination of violence … it just is. Same thing with class … one of the Mr. Vengeances is rich, one is poor, and the plot kicks off because of the poverty of the poorer Mr. And that’s it … the film isn’t constructed to help us understand class difference, it’s constructed to get to the part in the movie where both men are set on vengeance, and we come to realize they are really the same guy, when you come right down to it. Again, a fine plot, if not unique. But the meaning? It ain’t about class, it’s about the two Misters getting vengeance in gory fashion, using the most hoary of plot devices, the “they’re really the same, when you come right down it” thingie.

It would be not only unfair, but incorrect, to say that Park Chan-wook is a talentless hack. But no matter how many flourishes he adds, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance is just another incoherent gorefest.

(For a fascinating and more positive look at Park, focusing on a later film in his “vengeance trilogy,” check out “KDD on Lady Vengeance.”)