Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

It seems like every summer, the big two superhero comics publishers arrange some kind of mega-all-comics-spanning event that brings together the heroes, and even villains, of their respective universes. We saw this successfully done for the first time in cinema in 2012's The Avengers and since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone off to replicate what Marvel has been doing in the comics in their films. Over the last couple years, we saw the heroes from The Avengers handle respective troubles in Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And now, in 2015, we are treated to another world threatening event that brings the team back together in Age of Ultron. It's kind of more of the same, with all the attendant strengths and weaknesses.

This threat in particular is Ultron (James Spader), an artificial life form created by Tony "Iron Man" Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Bruce "The Hulk" Banner (Mark Ruffalo) from the artificial intelligence contained in Loki's staff to be such a powerful force of defense against world-spanning threats. Of course, this artificial life form turns out to determine the Avengers and humanity in general as the greatest threat to themselves, and with the help of the embittered Hydra-enhanced twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), he sets off to take down the Avengers, who are themselves threatened by an internal rift in ideology.

This is a huge movie. The size of the principal cast alone dwarfs other movies, including the last Avengers film as several of the supporting characters from individual characters' films show up in Age of Ultron. Accordingly, the film's story gets very bogged down trying to service all of the characters and even at almost two an a half hours, it doesn't entirely succeed.

Tony Stark in particular seems to be ignoring the events of Iron Man 3, where he kind of gave up being Iron Man and gets back in the suit, seemingly still having failed to recover from the alien invasion of earth in Avengers. It really doesn't quite feel like enough of a reason for Stark to blindly create Ultron out of an alien intelligence, but I suppose villains are needed. Ultron itself is not an especially interesting villain either, and not only because he's predictable, but because his motivation is a touch lacking, but I give credit to Whedon and Spader for at least giving him more memorable a character than anticipated. What's more, his grand scheme was ultimately pretty lacking--it just wasn't very creative and it felt by-the-numbers.

Age of Ultron does at least give each character a few more moments than the first Avengers film, but it still seems little more than gloss or setup for the following films. But at least some of the smaller players, like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), get some humanizing moments. It's a bit short of making the stakes in Age of Ultron feel meaningful, but at least the guys and gal without movies get to be more than just random agents.

I think the weakest part of Age of Ultron is shared with its predecessor: excessive and relatively boring action sequences. Writer-director Joss Whedon, perhaps at the behest of Marvel and Disney puts in several major battle sequences, which are all relatively long. Like the last one, there are lots of predictably placed, but kind of hard to believe feats of teamwork as the Avengers lay the beatdown on their hordes of foes, but until the final battle, there are never any felt stakes to the battles, which results in the actual action being kind of boring. Even most of the extras survive the city-leveling fights and they aren't shot in a particularly interesting way, just a flurry of images of baddies being disposed of. Yes, the earth's fate hangs in the balance, but since we know the Avengers are going to win and hardly lose anything in the process, it can be kind of like watching paint dry.

However, regardless of how on-rails the story and the action is, Whedon fortunately spices it up with his casual and irreverent sense of humor, ranging from the silliness of Monty Python-esque objections to casual home-owner banter in the middle of world-destroying combat. The levity added is welcome in the face of typical on-so-serious cataclysmic blockbuster plot that its presence actually helps keep the would-be boring sequences from falling into outright boredom.

In the end, Age of Ultron ends up kind of being exactly what you'd expect from an Avengers sequel and not a drop more. There's nothing surprising here and the film, like those major summer comics crossover events, acts more like a bridge to the individual movies. What Age of Ultron had to do is pretty much an impossible task to do excellently. It simply has way too many masters to serve, from roadmapping the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, to giving attention to its enormous cast of characters, to trying to actually stuff all that into some semblance of an engaging story. I think Age of Ultron might have been able to pull it off if it were split into two films, but as it is, what Age was able to accomplish given what it was trying to do is still kind of impressive.

So, Age of Ultron is truly a sequel to the first Avengers film. And if you liked that previous film, you will most likely enjoy Age of Ultron. Despite all my misgivings, even I still managed to enjoy myself. 7/10

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 2회

Whereas the first episode of Sandglass was all about our main protagonist Taesu and his backstory in flashback, for the second episode we change perspective and end up following his childhood buddy Useok through a series of flashbacks too. In particular we get to learn about a particular episode in Useok's childhood, his father (Gim Inmun), as well as learning about Useok and Hyerin's relationship. Again, due to the fact that the episode is primarily retrospective, there's not a great deal of drama, but these flashbacks aren't quite as melodramatic as Taesu's, so that's nice.

Basically, the episode bounces around the timeline, but we see how Useok and Hyerin meet and how Useok's kind-hearted semi-paternalism both attracts and frustrates Hyerin. We also see that he's quite serious about school and then learn his childhood backstory leading him to become who he is. Specifically, we watch him grow up under his pro-democracy idealist landowner father, who, under pressure from developers who bribe the police to lean on him, ends up selling his land despite Useok finding a witness to clear his father's name. His father tells him to become a judge or a prosecutor and that explains why he opts to continue his studies where all the other students strike and engage in pro-democracy demonstrations, of which Hyerin is a part of. We see that Hyerin is a little short on cash and Useok hands over his job to her and this endears him to her, but they conflict over his paternalism and his decision to study instead of join the demonstrators.

And that's it. Like with the last episode, Sandglass really takes advantage of the time period and isn't really afraid, at least for a broadcast television show, to show the time period for what it was, where democracy advocates rallied against an oppressive dictatorship and the rampant corruption of government tied to industry. This is all interesting background for the film, although I wonder just how much it will play into the greater story at hand, which I foresee involving a love triangle with the three leads as well as the kind of conflict between friends going on opposite paths that we see in many gangster dramas.

The contrast between Taesu's and Useok's stories is nice though and each character gets a pretty well filled out backstory, even if it's a bit tedious to watch it all in flashback and a little confusing with all the jumps in time. Everything is clearly foreshadowed here, so we know about both the love triangle and the upcoming conflict, but I think the show does a good job of not tipping its hand too much so far.

As such, I think this is an acceptable episode, especially at the top of the series as it gets a lot of setup out of the way. With both of these characters' stories out of way, I wonder whether we're going to spend the next episode flashing back for Hyerin or we'll finally start moving forward. The episode is still nothing I would call special since even in 1995, these kinds of melodramas and crime stories were common in film and--I'm guessing--television too. However, the show is doing something that's a bit unprecedented for broadcast television both with content and scale, so it remains interesting enough to want to see what happens next. 7/10

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Monday, April 27, 2015

킬러들의 수다 (2001)

Writer-director-actor Jang Jin has a lengthy and fairly successful history as a creator of original works for television, stage, and screen, frequently blending genres and infusing his works with a goofy sense of comedy that plays on audience expectations. The very first of his films that I had ever seen was 2001's Guns & Talks, a crime comedy about four assassins for hire whose perfect record becomes imperiled. When I first saw it, I really enjoyed its comedic take, but in my most recent viewing, the story itself turned out to have some rather distracting plot holes and logic flaws which detracted a bit from the experience.

The quartet of assassins is led by the serious Sangyeon (Sin Hyeonjun) and includes the quiet sniper Jaeyeong (정재영), hot-tempered Jeong-u (Sin Hagyun), and naive daydreaming narrator Hayeon (Won Bin). The four have a perfect record of hits and have avoided detection so far, but their latest hit on some businessmen draw the attention of sharp-eyed Prosecutor Jo (Jeong Jinyeong) and with Jeong-u developing a crush on pregnant mark Hwai (O Seunghyeon) and the four being dogged by schoolgirl Yeoil (Gong Hyojin) seeking their help alongside their most challenging job yet, their perfect record, their freedom, and perhaps even their lives might be at risk.

Where the film is strongest is in its comedy. Guns & Talks has numerous laugh-inducing scenes and most of the gags are character-based, so they draw from the story, rather than being impressed into it. Whether it's Jeong-u's poorly thought excuses as to why he failed to kill his mark or one jerk client getting a beatdown from the assassins and then Prosecutor Jo in succession, the comedy largely works, although some moments don't quite land as well. There's also a little bit of clever plotting, especially towards the end. Unfortunately, that same clever plot twisting isn't terribly well drawn, the story simply not containing enough indicators that it was going to happen or even, after the twist, that it was intentional--leaving the surmising of the twist up to the viewer to decide.

And this is the largest problem with Guns & Talks: it simply has too many logic flaws and plot holes that its credibility is severely stretched. For example, despite the team having a huge wall of photographs noting their successful kills, they don't really have a hideout, but just work out of their home. Perhaps if they weren't hard to track down, this might not be so bad, but if schoolgirl Yeoil can find them, why wouldn't the police? And why isn't there a huge search going on for the foursome if they committed so many murderers, with guns and bombs nonetheless? Furthermore, despite the murders of four businessmen at the top of the film, one by office building destroying bomb, the prosecutor's office seems to be much more interested in capturing a gang boss than the killers that did the job.

What's more, there are several plot threads that never really deliver either a punchline or impact the story, including the storylines with both Hwai and Yeoil--both getting dropped about halfway through the film and then boomeranging around at the end for a cameo. What's more, even the main characters never get much made of their backstories, nothing coming of Jaeyeong's Catholicism except for the introductory gag, nor anything meaningful coming from Sangyeon and Hayeon's lengthy talk about their father. All this results in the story feeling like it's meandering without much direction and, while I really liked the tone of Guns & Talks, it really could have used some tightening of the story's screws for a more consistently enjoyable experience.

This is true of Jang Jin's direction as well. There are some pretty cool choices Jang makes in regards to action, like following Jaeyeong's bullet in the opening hit as well as some interesting stylistic decisions like to douse the film is a blue filter for the opening scene. But the film's production and direction also have errors, like the aforementioned bullet flying through the air complete with case or both Sangyeon and another character supposedly being left-handed but both of them constantly using their right hand throughout their appearances in the film. What's more, some stylistic options, like the choice to split the screen into thirds during an investigation by Prosecutor Jo, that are simply visually distracting. The most interesting point of direction actually comes across in the production of Hamlet in the movie, which is a little overwrought, but surprisingly captivating.

At least the production values are pretty solid for a Korean film from 2001 and director Jang manages tone well, even if the detail-mindedness of his writing and direction is a bit sloppy. And I think that goofy, yet dark comedic tone is actually strong enough to make Guns & Talks an enjoyable watch, even with all of its numerous flaws. This film made me interested in finding more of Jang's work and while I've continued to find his films flawed, they also usually had something interesting going on in them that made them at least worth the first watch, much like Guns & Talks. 7/10

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

모래시계 (1995): 1회

While Sandglass was originally aired with two episodes back to back, I'm opting to watch one episode at a time, mostly to keep the viewing and reviewing manageable. The opening episode of the acclaimed and renowned series is principally just setup for the rest of the series, the majority of it being engulfed by an extended flashback. That flashback itself also has a tendency towards melodrama itself, but fortunately has just enough meaningful drama to sustain the episode.

We are introduced to our primary protagonist Bak Taesu (Choe Minsu), a gang member with excellent fighting skills whose gang is working for the dictator-led government. The episode opens with Taesu and gang being hired by the government to break up a meeting of dictatorship's opposition politicians. Afterwards, Taesu meets with his old friend Gang Useok (Bak Sangwon), sparking a his memories of his childhood. This flashback covers both Taesu and Useok's initial meeting and friendship as well as Taesu's own tragic backstory as the son of a communist and an alcoholic room salon hostess, leading him to his current position. Back in the present, we are finally introduced to Yun Hyerin (Go Hyeonjeong).

The actual dramatic tension in the present of the episode is actually kind of limited and much of the flashback is pretty much the same trite tough-youth-pushed-into-life-of-crime-by-circumstance-except-he-has-a-pure-relationship-with-a-good-person that you've seen before in dozens of Korean dramas and films before. As such, the episode would feel both dry and cliche if it weren't for certain period details that actually have a notable commentary on the Korea of the times: in particular a criticism of the dictatorship whose political party had only finally been removed from the office of the president two years prior. The very showing of the previous dictatorship's corrupt dealings in order to break political opposition on national television in a potentially popular drama series is indicative of a liberalization of the media--no surprise that Sandglass comes from SBS, the only major television network that isn't directly or indirectly controlled by the government.

More so than that, the episode also uses the creative freedoms found in its more liberalized environment to direct some criticism towards the oppression against those who were related to Communists during the war. These themes weren't entirely uncommon in film at that point, but to have them show up on broadcast television is still a bit of a novel thing at this point and the setting of the series during the Bak Cheonghui dictatorship gives the series and, subsequently, this episode, a degree of immediacy and relevance to the Korea in which it aired.

The episode and series gains a lot from having comparatively high production values for when it was produced, the Korean television and cinema production scene not quite having achieved the internationally success aesthetic skill of today. It's not a subtle series, but there was clearly enough money poured into this initial episode for piles of extras and a great number of locations, although it does seem to carry the visual limitations of being shot on what looks like video. It doesn't quite end with a cliffhanger, but does sets up the primary love triangle pretty effortlessly, which does a great job of creating a curiosity for what comes next.

I don't think the contemporary context of Sandglass fully overcomes the cliche backstory that it presents, but it helps. It also doesn't fully overcome the somewhat heavy melodrama relating to tragic Taesu's tragic mother (Gim Yeong-ae), whose eventual fate is more than a little contrived. If the story hadn't opted for maximum melodrama there, I think it would have been both more interesting and stronger, considering their dynamic, for any future flashbacks involving her, but I suppose the allure of those easy and well used tragedy tropes is strong and even the supposedly venerable Sandglass falls to them.

But aside from that moment and the mild tedium of a predictable backstory, I like the leads, their history, and their chemistry and the setup and incorporation of recent historical politics into the story. I have concerns that Sandglass will tread that annoying melodramatic love triangle path, but I also have hope that the series will expand upon the tensions present in its setting and its relevant politics--some of which might even manage to be relevant to Korea today. 7/10

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Monday, April 20, 2015

모래시계 (1995)

Episode Reviews: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24

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시월애 (2000)

2000 turned out to be quite the year of time quasi-time travel films. Alongside the American Frequency, Korea produced not just one, but two time travel films, the first one being Ditto and, later, Il Mare. All three of these films play on the idea that the characters can communicate across time and while Frequency takes this to a thriller story, the Korean films both end up being somewhat meditative romance melodramas. Il Mare is easily the more memorable film between the two, thanks to a decent story and some highly impressive production values and visuals, but its story meanders a little and suffers from some significant logic holes.

The story starts in 1999, as voice actor I Eunju (Jeon Jihyeon) moves out of the titular house, Il Mare. She leaves a letter for the next tenant of the house, which turns out to be would-be architect and construction worker Han Seonghyeon (I Jeongjae), except that he receives the letter as he's moving into the house in 1997. Once they realize that the mailbox of Il Mare lets them communicate over two years, they start up a friendship, comforting each other as Eunju struggles with the lack of communication from her boyfriend in the United States while Seonghyeon tries to deal with his non-relationship with his architect father and his own possible future career as an architect.

I think the choice to give the story only a two year gap is pretty novel, giving the two characters a real opportunity at an actual relationship while still limiting the ways that they can communicate and introducing some interesting possible time travel hijinks. What I especially appreciate is that, despite the high potential for hijinks, Il Mare opts instead to follow the characters as they struggle with their problems internally, rather than abuse their time travel connection at first. Then, by the time that they can take advantage of their respective situations in past and future, they are driven to a set of believable actions, thanks to our grounding with the characters and their priorities at the time.

What doesn't work as much are the many plot holes in the story. It's questionable that a voice actor would be able to live in such a fancy house like the titular house from the start, but the biggest problems all revolve around time travel and an coda to the film that kind of breaks all the time travel logic that had actually worked up until that point. Of course, there are also some minor problems with obvious failings on the part of the characters to share pictures of each other as well as how in the world they actually communicate. The film opts to elide the time between their letters, especially as Eunju needs to travel from Seoul to an island on the Yellow Sea, but it's still strange to see the camera spins around a split screen of the two reacting beside the mailbox as though they were waiting seconds for the magic replies to appear in the mailbox.

There is, as a result of all the letter exchange, a great deal of voiceover work done in the film which kind of works, but at the same time it also results in a lot of shots of watching the two leads react to the letters while the voiceover goes on. Fortunately, once the more introductory voiceover dialogues are complete, the voiceover happens as the characters are actually doing things, helping relieve the visual monotony. Those moments, however, are really the only ones you could say were visually monotonous as Il Mare is packed to the brim of some truly gorgeous scenic photography, wonderful framing choices, and little details like watching a pair of mittens get swept up by waves lapping at the beach, representing a loss of hope or opportunity.

That is where director shines the best, working with the aesthetic elements of the film further aided by some truly high production values for the time. Il Mare simply looks fantastic for a movie from 2000, with a great deal more polish than many of its contemporaries. I also like the meditative tone that I Hyeongseung fosters for Il Mare. There are some missteps in the production though, like some of the overblown lighting by cinematographer Hong Gyeongpyo) during cooking sequences and the main theme song is a heavy handed pop ballad that's almost laugh inducing, contrasted against the warmer, but more restrained score.

The leads do a decent job, with pre-My Sassy Girl Jeon Jihyeon managing her mopey Eunju surprisingly well for one of her earliest films. I Jeongjae manages his character acceptably too, but isn't quite as convincing with his inner conflict regarding Seonghyeon's father, carrying it more on the surface. The rest of the limited performers are fine, but the real star of the show is the photography and the tempo and tone of the film.

And fortunately those elements, as well as the gorgeous architecture of the titular house, make for a film that manages to rise above the limitations of its logically-flawed story and fairly bland characters into something that is still memorable. So those seeking a melodrama with a little fantasy element and some beautiful aesthetics might want to check Il Mare out--as long as you can tolerate the few somewhat maddening plot holes. 7/10

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Serenity (2005)

When Firefly was abruptly cancelled mid-season, it was to the despair of its loyal fanbase. A fanbase, calling themselves the Browncoasts, that would not let the show's demise go quietly, organizing efforts to save the show. While they couldn't save the show, their organizing led to a speedy release of the DVD set and strong sales of that eventually convinced Universal to back a feature film to conclude the series.

Named after the titular Firefly-class ship, Serenity follows the events of the series after some ambiguous amount of time. The movie closes with a focus on the original identically named pilot's instigating character, River Tam (Summer Glau). Specifically, after another dangerous hiccup in a heist that River accompanies on, her brother Simon (Sean Maher) decides that being a part of the Serenity's crew is too dangerous, comes to blows with the ship's captain, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), who originally took them in, and decides to leave the ship. This decision is short lived as an Alliance operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers River's whereabouts and Mal finds himself instinctually giving her shelter again. But with the Alliance hot on their heels, the crew up Serenity will have to come up with a plan to survive and maybe solve the mystery of why they want River so badly.

As a standalone movie, Serenity is packed full of exposition due to the fact that the story appears to be incredibly abbreviated and needs to set up an immense amount of lore, which kind of results in long pockets of character defining dialog. It kind of makes the movie a little bloated, but because the film has to serve an audience that is new to the universe without having seen the series, I understand why it needs to be done. That said, Serenity does successfully manage to play independent of the series as a result of all that brute force exposition, but at the cost of natural storytelling. Those watching Serenity after having seen the series will find the dialog-based exposition particularly clunky as it rehashes information they already know and know that the characters also know.

That said, the investment from fans of the series gets paid off in many ways in Serenity, including some shocking moments as well as an actual conclusion to the narrative arc of the series, which fortunately does resolve around River Tam as well as the greater conflict with the Alliance. Not everything in the series gets fully addressed, like the men with the blue gloves, the backstory of Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), and the unrequited romance between Mal and Inara (Morena Baccarin), but Serenity feels pretty full at around two hours and adding anything else would probably add to the film's mild bloat.

The series' signature combination of humor, action, and drama are present here as well and just as successful in the moments it gets. The successes and failures of the Western-meets-science-fiction setting are present here as well, including the continued problematic absence of Asians in a world where the Chinese are one of the dominant societies.

One of the ways that Serenity best exceeds Firefly is in the production. With a vastly greater feature film budget, the movie can pay for good special effects and animation, resulting in the space scenes looking better than anything the show had to offer and offering creator-writer-director Joss Whedon to stretch some hitherto untested directorial muscle in the way he frames and shoots his film. Whedon doesn't quite take as much advantage of the latter as he does the former with many of the planes and shot choices being closer to television than cinema, but I suppose that keeps it well within the aesthetic of the series at the same time. The cast doesn't seem to have lost a beat in the three years between Firefly's cancellation and the debut of Serenity, so they all perform quite well, especially considering that they only had half a season together before the show got canceled. Summer Glau, in particular, gets to finally show off one big reason she was picked for the role of River with a pair of graceful martial arts action sequences utilizing her background in dance.

I think the biggest stumble that Serenity makes is the abbreviation of a huge story into two hours and trying to serve both new and old audiences, resulting in a lot of exposition to cover the gaps, which comes across as forced. And while the production values take advantage of the money in the feature film format, it seems as though Joss Whedon is still stretching his wings as a director, making Serenity look like a very expensive television movie more than a one playing in the theaters.

Still, those weaknesses are admittedly minor considering the fact that Serenity manages to cover both huge themes like the conflict between order and chaos as well as drawing out a number of personal stories, balancing all the backstory from the series with telling a very specific story about River and the Alliance. The film has action, it has drama, thrills and even chills, and is a fitting end to a series that, though deserving, was denied one. But thanks to the Browncoats, the saga has its close and it's an enjoyable one, every bit as enjoyable as its television predecessor. 7/10

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