Friday, February 5, 2016

Brooklyn (2015)

The immigrant's tale is an especially common story and there is no dearth of tales of immigrants to the United States, especially since the country is founded by immigrants and has had large waves of immigrants arrive at its sometimes welcoming shores. Stories of Irish immigrants to the United States have gotten frequent treatment in cinema throughout the years and include movies from a variety of time periods, but especially during the late 19th century. Brooklyn follows that tradition, except that it's set in the less common time period of the 1950's. Yet, it's not the period piece nature of the film that convinces, but the portrayal of being torn between the past world and the present that makes Brooklyn a particularly affecting tale.

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn is the city that Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to as there isn't much opportunity for her left in her hometown. Leaving her beloved sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) and mother (Jane Brennan) behind, she struggles with homesickness in Brooklyn until she meets Anthony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), an Italian American man with whom she begins a romance. However, tragedy strikes at home and Eilis is left with her heart divided between her twin homes and loves.

What works quite well with Brooklyn is that Eilis' struggles are realistic and believable and honestly do speak to the major struggles that many immigrants go through as most always leave a part of themselves in the land that they come from. The homesickness and, should opportunity arise, the possibility of returning are always conflicts, especially once you start to put down roots in your new home. It is a little predictable that romance is, more than anything else, representative of Eilis's newfound attachment to Brooklyn and the possibility of romance with Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson) a call back to Ireland, but I suppose it's what you get with a romance story. I just wish the relational aspect of the romance were a little more focused on as during the final act, because both romances were rather simply hewn together, Eilis's internal distress at having to choose both home and lover isn't quite as compelling. But if Brooklyn had further tied Eilis down in Brooklyn to her housemates, her work, or her community, or even just given hers and Tony's tale more depth, I think her conflict would have been even more compelling.

But that slight underdevelopment is really the only major weakness. Sure there are some other predictable elements, but the single character perspective really helps keep Brooklyn focused and it feels pretty tight as a result. And Saoirse Ronan's nuanced performance as the naive-but-growing Eilis is critical in selling the story, which could otherwise be overly sentimental or blunt. Director John Crowley smartly keeps the visual construction of Brooklyn simple and mostly focused on Ronan, although there is something about the way the scenes set in Brooklyn were shot that gives the film a distinctly European vision of the United States, rather than a native energy, which I guess is appropriate given that it is is an Irish-British-Canadian co-production.

I won't say Brooklyn is really doing anything new; the immigrant story and the Irish immigrant story in particular have been well and not-so-well told many times over the decades. However, Brooklyn does manage to win over by keeping the perspective focused on its main character and her particular journey and conflict as her heart is left halfway between her old world and her new and Ronan's performance sells it well. As such, I think Brooklyn is a fine entry into this particular sub-genre of immigrant films and their crossing with romance dramas. 8/10


Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Steve Jobs (2015)

I was for a long time a purely Windows user, but after OSX came around and particularly with the switch from PowerPC to Intel chips, I found the MacBook line appealing enough that I came aboard the Mac platform, at least for my notebook and have since decided that I preferred Apple portable products. But even though I am an Apple user, I have never really understood the fervor with which some Apple users feel about their brand choice, especially given how relatively expensive it is compared to similarly powered Windows machines. And there was also quite the cult of personality around one of Apple's founders, Steve Jobs, who received not only one, but two biopics made about him in the past two years.

The preceding Jobs and the later Steve Jobs cover different periods of Jobs's life, but also appear to be dramatically different films altogether, at least from glancing at the trailers. The later 2015 film, directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, turns out to be an aesthetically interesting and driving examination of the difficult and ambitious man that points to both how troubling a personality he was as much as he was also a visionary.

The film begins with the introduction of the original Macintosh computer as Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) and his team struggle to get the computer ready for its first demonstration in the wake of a highly successful, if abstract commercial about it. At the same time, Jobs continues to disown his daughter Lisa (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine at different ages) and her financially struggling mother Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston). From there, the film follows Jobs as his relationship with Apple deteriorates and onto his failed project NeXT and finally back to Apple, where he helped to revitalize the company.

But while the story follows this particular narrative of Jobs's fall and return to prominence, it's actually really focused on Jobs's relationships with his daughter Lisa, his longstanding executive Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), his quasi-father figure and Apple CEO John Scully (Jeff Daniels), and his various colleagues including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) and Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg). The movie does point at some of the machinations that Jobs takes in attempt to control Apple or get back into its graces, but much of these moments are presented from the perspective of those relationships, which actually helps make the film surprisingly affecting, as personal conflicts that Jobs has with people in his life push and pull on these moments of the story.

Sorkin's energetic dialogue writing style is quite apparent on Steve Jobs and I think it actually matches well with Boyle's more pushed directorial style, which occasionally visually breaks from realism for the audience while retaining the moment for the diegetic characters. There's also an admirable observation and incorporation of Apple stylistic flourishes into the production and direction of the film, taking cues from Apple commercials in the pacing and editing of certain scenes, the cinematography, and especially noticeably, the graphic elements like the fonts used in the film.

Sometimes the lack of narrative conflict threatens to make the overall story feel watered down, but the aforementioned character relationship conflict drives the film well enough to inspire curiosity about how Jobs's relationships with his family and friends changes in the various periods of his life covered. And while Steve Jobs isn't by any extent a complete film as it omits major elements of his life like his relationship with his biological sister, his adoptive parents, and other elements covered by the other biopic, the choices to focus on major moments in Jobs's career in relationship to Apple helps give a centralized focus to a story that could otherwise try to cover too much ground.

Fassbender does an excellent job of getting into Jobs' skin and carrying the film and while Winslet's Hoffman is likable, her accent slips around enough that it's a little distracting. Rogen simply seems like himself rather than Wozniak, but that doesn't detract too much from the film and the rest of the cast performs adequately.

And it's fortunate that Fassbender performs as well as he does, capturing both the idealism of Jobs as well as his demanding and obsessive natures, showing how he can both be magnetic and repulsive at the same time, his performance synchronizing with the push and pull of the story and direction as well. As such, I find Steve Jobs to be a successful biopic thanks to its energizing and focused direction, script, and central performance; it will be of particular interest to Apple fans as well as fans of the many talents involved. 8/10


Friday, January 29, 2016

45 Years (2015)

The main reason that I went to see 45 Years is because its lead actress, Charlotte Rampling, received a nomination for best actress the 88th Oscar Awards. Having a free screening available to me, I went to the theater to check out the film. What I saw was a rather low-key small-moments drama about a challenge being faced by a forty-five year old marriage and I appreciated its subtlety, both as a picture and with Rampling's performance; it's obvious why she received as much attention as she did.

In the film, Rampling plays Kate Mercer, a sixty-something year old woman who lives in the countryside and for whom her forty-fifth wedding anniversary to Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) is approaching. However, one day, Jeff receives a letter that informs him that his past flame, Katya, who perished during their mountain climbing incident fifty years prior, was found preserved in ice. Geoff's attention begins to drift to Katya, whom Kate had never known about previously and Geoff's distraction puts a strain on their marriage leading up to their wedding anniversary party.

45 Years is an exceptionally quiet film, with all the conflict and tension built into small moments, such as Geoff's sudden redevelopment of his smoking habit or Kate's simultaneous curiosity and abhorrence of learning more about Katya. As the film goes on, Geoff's continued lingering on Katya and mood swings drive Kate to jealousy and also worry that, despite having been intimate with Geoff for forty-five years, that there is a great deal she still doesn't know about him. Added to the pressure is the large party the pair are planning to throw for their forty-fifth anniversary (as a medical complication prevented them from celebrating their fortieth). But while the tension keeps growing, the characters rarely have large outbursts as the wounds fester between them and that quietness and subtlety of conflict is impressively weighty all the same.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh approaches the film with a very naturalistic approach, using a great deal of ambient lighting, letting shadows fall on faces and generally keeping the film feeling down to earth, which enhances the feeling of reality. Similarly, he doesn't employ any non-diegetic sound or music, which further ties the film down into a closer simulacrum of our reality. Sometimes he does employ some very long shots, but largely sticks with Kate through it all, helping to keep us in her perspective and aware of Ramplings own subtleties in performance. And Rampling delivers well, which is good because the film would either sink or swim with her and Courtenay's performance as it spends the majority of the time with them.

Of course, 45 Years isn't necessarily for everyone because it is so quiet and slow moving that audiences that need more exciting or immediately dramatic stories might actually find themselves bored. And the film is subtle enough that it does ask the viewer to interpret Kate and Geoff's positions as the film goes along, instead of drawing it out for them, which helps us also empathize with Kate as she tries to get a read on Geoff, while she deals with her own uncertainties.

As such, I think it's a very fine film; a refined one that rewards patient viewers and one that will definitely appeal to lovers of dramas and those that could use a break from high concepts or blockbuster tall tales. I certainly appreciated it. 8/10


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Big Short (2015)

I didn't know anything about the big short aside from what I saw on its poster before I went in to watch it, but I admit that I did a bit of a double take when I saw that it was an adaptation of a book by the same name by Michael Lewis adapted and directed by Adam McKay of all people. The idea of the writer-director behind "Saturday Night Live" and Anchorman adapting the book of a financial and economic journalist was baffling to me, but I decided to keep an open mind and give it a shot. The Big Short does overextend itself at times, but I was surprised how McKay was able to take the serious subject of the 2007 to 2008 financial crisis and build an actually engaging picture out of it.

Specifically, The Big Short is a kind of biographical film about a handful of Wall Street guys that discovered what the big banks were doing with sub-prime lending, which directly led to the market crash, and how they exploited the exploiters for their own profit. There's the eccentric hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) who looks into the data first and discovers the weakness of the housing market and in pursuit of betting against the housing market, he indirectly alerts Wall Street trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and the boys of Brownfield Capital, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Whittrock), who decide that he's onto something and join in on betting against the housing market after some initial research. And we all know what happens to the housing market.

Because we all know what happens to the market, the story is more in seeing who, if any or all of these Wall Street types will stay with the plan to bet against the housing market and on investigating exactly how all of this happened. And what happened is a bit complicated, so The Big Short actually spends a bit of time explaining the mechanics of what Wall Street investment banks did, but while it's not necessarily a reflection of the actual events, with characters breaking the fourth wall to tell us exactly this, the film approaches the explanations with understandable metaphors and occasionally, but cutting away entirely from the diegesis of the movie to some real life people explaining different financial concepts.

While the in-world analogies and explanations worked for me, even if they risked being pure exposition, I found the cutaways to be a touch distracting, although the audience in the theater with me found them to be hilarious. That's one thing that did work: the balance between drama and comedy; the former being primarily procedural as the characters investigate the different elements of the shenanigans that precipitated the market crash, and the comedy coming from the characters and how they interact with each other. The drama itself isn't groundbreaking, but it is illuminating and angry; it's really the comedy, or the mix of conventional character comedy and jarring out-of-the-box breaks of the fourth wall that make The Big Short something else.

And I think the biggest credit does end up going to Adam McKay for figuring out a way to make a story about something as complex and seemingly boring as Wall Street investment shenanigans interesting and amusing. McKay clearly has an agenda with The Big Short, but it's one that hard not to be sympathetic towards, although when he gets preachy on the level of Michael Moore, especially towards the end where he breaks from the narrative to make his point, he does push too hard. But McKay captures the full cooperation of his cast, in order to deliver his message and the relevant information, and they all manage to sell the comedy accordingly.

I do think that The Big Short might be a bit too unconventional or perhaps too didactic for some, especially with the handful of narrative or fourth wall breaking moments as well as when McKay directly addresses the audience and points to just how bad the big banks are and how they got away clean (and with a pile of money from the public bailout). A subtler hand might have been a little more effective, but that's probably also not the kind of story that McKay wants to tell. As for me, I found the film to be quite effective at shuffling the expositional learning of what made the financial crisis happen into comedy and having well enough constructed characters and procedural drama to keep engaged throughout. The mix of different approaches was particularly refreshing. 8/10


Friday, January 22, 2016

Spotlight (2015)

I was in New England as an undergraduate when news broke of the coverup by the Catholic Church of the sexual abuse of children by a significant number of its priests. I was shocked at the magnitude and duration for which the problem had been going, but I never once gave a thought to how The Boston Globe uncovered the story and got it published. Spotlight, named after the department of The Globe responsible for deep investigative reporting, is the story of the story. A procedural drama that follows the making of the story, it's much more about the process of putting together the story than it is about the story itself and although it feels a bit like it's on autopilot because of the weakness of its conflict, it's still a good reminder of the necessity of good news reporting.

It all begins with the arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a new chief editor to the Boston Globe, who assigns the Spotlight team the story of the abuse of children by Catholic priests after a column by Eileen McNamara (Maureen Keiller) on the John Geoghan sexual abuse case. As the Spotlight team begins to dig into the case, they are surprised to find that the problem is deeper and more widespread than just a couple bad priests and that the Catholic Church is working to cover up the case, making it a challenge to gather enough evidence to be a compelling story.

And that's basically the movie. There is actually only limited adversity the Spotlight team faces, particularly the Church's active sealing of documents relating to the case, making settlement deals that include gag orders, and the non-cooperativeness of people working for the church or with ties to the church. Because the Spotlight team doesn't face any considerable resistance and there don't appeal to be any strong personal stakes nor does the film build any immediate stakes for secondary or tertiary characters, the actual drama of the film is limited and so it's not quite gripping.

However, Spotlight is appreciable in that it puts an eye on the power of good reporting and how it gets done, not unlike All the President's Men or Good Night, and Good Luck and that journalists often do battle against cultural, organized, and systemic powers in order to bring news to the public. And building an appreciation for the work of journalists like the Spotlight team is commendable. I just wish they blended the actual story of abuses or put more attention on the coverup to highlight just how necessary such reporting is.

Director Tom McCarthy, who actually was an actor on Good Night, and Good Luck, visualizes the film in a straightforward manner, sticking to the characters and keeping the style in the grand old Hollywood tradition. This puts a lot more emphasis on performances and the ensemble cast does well, especially given how limited their characters were written. The bits of internal conflict that the characters have work well thanks to the steady performances, particularly as a batch of non-practicing or ex-Catholics but McCarthy doesn't seem to have a specific agenda against the Church itself, instead keeping the focus on his reporters to the help of the procedural aspect of the film.

I get the feeling that Spotlight is intended to be closer to "the real story" which is why it mostly sticks to the reporters on the job, with only a few small moments drifting to the characters' personal lives in feature procedural tradition. This gives it an air of genuineness, if even only an air, but the weakened stakes and urgency also makes the film a little less involving. I think it's still a good film all the same, one that should interest lovers of procedurals and journalism in particular. 7/10


Saturday, January 9, 2016

온더로드, 투 (2006)

In 2005, popular Korean rock band YB embarked on their first European tour. Not only was the band touring Europe, but they also brought along film director Kim Tae-yong who was probably at the time best known for his co-direction of the second Whispering Corridors film, Memento Mori, to make a documentary about the experience called On the Road, Two. Interestingly, YB would actually produce a second documentary three years later about an American tour called Flying Butterfly and both documentaries ultimately have a similar effect. Like its successor, On the Road, Two is mostly a travelogue; perhaps a little meandering and because of it probably best suited for fans of the band.

This particular European tour has YB starting in London and joining up with their opening act, Steranko, with whom they've already performed previously, before seeing some sights, buying some instruments, and then playing gigs, taking a tour bus around Europe, and playing some more gigs. As the group bonds with Steranko and even writes a song together, they sometimes struggle with low turnout to their shows and the wear of life on the road.

And that's about it. There isn't actually a great deal of drama found in the movie, which results in it feeling a bit slow and I'm not sure if some of the behind-the-scenes troubles were edited out in favor of a good look at the band, or if YB and Steranko just really got along well on the trip, but I'm inclined to believe it's the latter. The few struggles that are shown include weakened morale due to low audience turnout at shows, getting hungry because they've eaten through their food, and in just one moment, some questions the band asks itself about its name and bandleader Yoon Do-hyun's solo career.

But that's it. Otherwise we're treated to a few sets, which are decently photographed by director Kim, some limited exploration by the band of their environs, and much time just spent with the bands playing or talking about music. Now some of these moments are pretty good, in particular as the two bands work together to create a new song--seeing that process is fascinating--but the film is a bit slow. And perhaps that just captures life on the road, but I found myself distracted during the large amounts of travel footage and even during some of the performances, and I'm actually someone that has paid money to go to a YB show.

On the Road, Two only really approaches floating head interviews a couple times, mostly content to be observational and catching the candid moments of the bands, but the chronological structure doesn't really serve its storytelling, especially since we aren't really introduced to much actual drama, either beforehand or throughout the film, and perhaps interviews and cuts to footage or moments from outside of the tour could have better set the stage to understand the stakes of the tour and also how touring or performing impact the band.

But ultimately, as flies on the wall without much context, On the Road, Two gets a little tedious. Serious fans of YB probably won't mind this to get some of the juicy nuggets that help determine where some songs on their seventh album, Why Be? come from, or to learn about their name and a tiny hint of the internal drama in the band, as well as getting a number of performances in, but I think that might be the only category of audience for this otherwise bland music tour travelogue. 6/10


Thursday, January 7, 2016

내 여자친구는 구미호 (2010)

This review will be written upon completion of the series.

Episodes: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16