Friday, February 27, 2015

The Theory of Everything (2014)

The Theory of Everything is one of two British biopics about British scientists struggling with issues while trying to solve complex problems that have been predictably nominated for the Oscars this year, the other being The Imitation Game. But while the Imitation Game's Alan Turing and World War II setting are interesting, The Theory of Everything's subject, Stephen Hawking, is much more personally interesting to me because as a young man, I loved his book, A Brief History of Time, and got really into learning about cosmology as a result, even building a website and some animations explaining some of its concepts that became surprisingly well traveled back in the late 1990's.

But The Theory of Everything isn't really about Hawking's scientific research--rather it's more about his personal life, specifically his relationship with his first wife and the strain put upon their relationship by Hawking's atypical variation of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("ALS" or "Lou Gerhig's Disease"). And the result is a decent drama, but not quite as personally interesting to me as a film that went deeper into his research would have been.

Based on the autobiography by the actual Jane Wilde, the film begins when Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was still a healthy physics student. He encounters Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) and the two begin a relationship when Hawking's ALS surfaces. Despite the diagnosis that Hawking likely only has two years left, Jane opts to stay with him and they marry. As Hawking continues to make strides in his research, his body continues to deteriorate and between helping the surprisingly resilient Hawking and taking care of their children, Jane begins to feel unable to handle it all.

While some of the details do seem to be out of order, based on what I remember from watching the previous documentary biography, A Brief History of Time, The Theory of Everything still manages to tell a decent rendition of Hawking's story, but more from Jane's perspective, once the film gets going. It's still never entirely certain whose perspective the film is primarily going with, leaving it a little ambiguous. We spend a bit too much time in Stephen's head when it comes to the science and with Stephen in terms of time, but he doesn't seem to have much conflict to deal with in the story, the weight of that resting on Jane, who we actually don't get quite enough access to. In the end, this leaves the film feeling just a little shallow.

The end of the film also feels a touch pat and kind of reveals that there wasn't quite a complete narrative to the film. Perhaps if the film focused a little more on the separation and reconcile in the latter part of the film, it might have worked better, but as it was and perhaps due to the limitations of the source material, The Theory of Everything just feels a tiny bit short.

The film's direction has that typical prestige picture control with a nice little bit of effects to demonstrate Hawking's brain in action. It's a nice touch to help visually explain Hawking's scientific breakthroughs, but I think it distracts from the subjective viewpoint of the film being Jane's to some extent. Eddie Redmayne actually does an impressive rendition of Stephen Hawking and captures not only the slow deterioration of his body, but also that positive, goofy attitude that Hawking was known for, down to the bemused grin you often see in pictures of him. Felicity Jones doesn't fare quite as well, being stronger in the first half of the movie as she plays a woman her own age. However, as Jane gets older, Felicity doesn't seem to age up with her and I wasn't entirely sold on her weariness either--by the film's end, the contrast between hers and Redmayne's performances become quite noticeable and threaten to break the suspension of disbelief.

Still, the portrait that The Theory of Everything paints still gives a little insight into some of the internal struggles that some able-bodied people face when their partners become disabled as well as presenting a real life love story and a rather atypical one at that. That it's the relatively true to life story about a celebrity physicist and his family gives it the authenticity to help balance some of the storytelling deficits and Redmayne in particular does a great job convincing as Hawkings. But in the end, The Theory of Everything isn't all that different from your standard prestige biopic--meaning that it will be a predictably refined watch. Whether it stands out or not will be dependent on how much you're interested in the subject, Hawkings and Wilde, because it's not the filmcraft or the storytelling that set it apart. Still, it's a decent viewing. 7/10

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Whiplash (2014)

While Whiplash is ostensibly a story about a would-be jazz drummer, it's actually more a story of ambition. It's not a movie about music, though it's set in a conservatory and in the world of competitive jazz performances, but the primary driving element of the film is the ambition of the lead character clashing with the brutal perfectionism of his mentor-antagonist. And in that aspect, the film works quite well, even if it shows little regard for the context of that conflict.

The would-be jazz drummer is Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a freshman at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, a prestigious music school. He spends his time listening to Buddy Rich, working on his craft, and watching movies with his high school teacher father, Jim (Paul Reiser). At the conservatory is its elite award winning Studio Ensemble under the conductorship and instruction of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and being a part of the ensemble is an honor for any student. This is what Andrew aspires to and he gets the opportunity of a lifetime when Fletcher stumbles across him working his doubletime in a practicing room and invites him into the Studio Ensemble as the alternate drummer.

However, he quickly finds out that not only is Fletcher abusively ruthless in the perfection he demands from his ensemble, but the competition for his approval and the core spots in the band is fierce, resulting in a trickle down of ruthlessness as the players pick up bits of Fletcher's abuse. Andrew is put into a tough spot as he has to put his relationships on ice in order to pursue what he believes to be greatness.

It's interesting to watch the growth of ambition in Andrew, spurred by getting the chance to perform in the ensemble, developing inside him like a monster, mirroring the brutality of Fletcher in both how he treats and regards himself. And to watch it turn this soft, shy boy into an entitled practice beast is at once horrifying and also enthralling. The final scene carries quite the dagger and twist and captures an immense intensity and the non-physical violence between Andrew and Fletcher is palpable.

However, as tight as it is, Whiplash is a little dogged by the fact that the jazz band scenario is really incidental to the story. It could be about any kind of competition, whether sports, chess, or competitive debate. Neither Andrew, nor any of the other students or even Fletcher himself really comes across as a real lover of music, with the exception of a single scene where Andrew takes his date Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Otherwise, Whiplash doesn't really display any real appreciation of music or any real peek into the musician's lifestyle. Instead, it's all about the ruthless competition for chairs in an ensemble that's all about winning at competitions.

It's a minor complaint, but the lack of genuine love of music really hurts Andrew's story, especially considering that he's not coming from a musical family and so something needs to be motivating him to pursue what he's pursuing and to watch Andrew turn from a music enthusiast to an ambitious competitor would have been much more interesting to watch than the still interesting turn from naive to greedy. Whiplash is a lean, focused story, which works wonders for its sense of stress and desire, but it's perhaps just a touch too lean to feel real.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle rebuilt Whiplash from a short film version based on his own personal experiences and he handles it well, putting the whole film within the perspective of Andrew, helping us to identify with him. Now, because of this intimate perspective that we're given, it makes the film a little more prone to revealing how little there is to Andrew's character. He's not a cypher, thank goodness, but if it weren't for the decent performance put up by Teller, he might've been quite flat. Terence Fletcher similarly threatens to be a bit one note--high intensity, but without a much else to his character--but J.K. Simmons does manage to push in at least one more believable dimension to his character.

And the tension between Andrew and Fletcher as well as the impact of his spiraling ambition is all strong enough to drive the film well. And while the film struggles a little to make the characters feel real, being so lean a story about competition and ambition, the Spartan nature of the story and the placement of the audience in Andrew's perspective does help keep the focus directly on the film's main conflicts well. And all that makes for a decent moviegoing experience. 8/10

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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

There are several degrees of parallels running throughout Birdman, whether we're talking about the parallels between theater and cinema as we look at the show within the show or about the main character's inspired and daring attempt to reignite his career and possibly also his self-meaning by writing and directing an adaptation of Raymond Carver's "What We Are Talking About When We Talk About Love", which parallels director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's own film, a first attempt at a comedy using not only the single radical gimmick of being shot as though it were done in a single take but also embracing flights of fancy and fourth wall breaking meta commentary. This latter meta-level parallel is the reason why Birdman succeeds: it aims so high that its missteps still can't ground the film.

Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a former Hollywood actor whose career died out after quitting a series of popular superhero films, is writing, directing, and starring in the aforementioned show. It's right before preview night and the show is a disaster with one actor, Ralph (Jeremy Shamos), being so bad that Riggan has a stage light dropped on his head just to get rid of him. Hope comes knocking in the form of Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a respected New York circuit method actor who is more than a little narcissistic but also dedicated to his craft. But of course this brings tension to the stage as Riggan and Mike's egos dual and Mike struggles with maintaining a relationship with his straight-out-of-rehab daughter and assistant, Sam (Emma Stone). During all this, Riggan has to deal with his doubts, manifested by the voice of Birdman himself in his head.

The core story is surprisingly simple: it's the story of a man both hanging by and trying to move past the shadow of his past career, not past his own ego and need to fuel it, while missing and messing up his own personal life as a result. What makes Birdman's take on it interesting is the way by which this is made more complex by dealing with themes of authenticity--Is Riggan authentic in his attempt to stage a play and become a meaningful actor? Acting itself is the illusion of authenticity as embodied by a pretender to the authentic, so as we watch all these actors perform, we see layers of artifice pile on. The actors of Birdman are playing actors who have particular "real life" faces that they mask their insecurities with and then another layer of artifice for when they're on stage in the movie, but the "real" character they are playing is artifice too.

The nature of artifice is actually put in front of the audience in several moments from the very start of the film as Riggan exhibits a capacity for telekinesis that appears to be a delusion that we can see, but gets more obvious when the jazzy drum soundtrack materializes as a real drummer in a couple scenes, and Birdman himself appears and both Riggan and Birdman directly look at the audience. Even winking references to Michael Keaton's similar role to Riggan's as Batman as well as mentions to superhero movies and their actors break beyond what's in front of the screen and into our reality, reminding us tha the actors on the screen are real people in our world and not merely the characters they are portraying.

In some sense, this traversal across layers of artifice and story--the breaking of the artifice of cinema and of the stage by thinking going wrong during the show--work as means to expose the real. Both literally, but also metaphorically as the constructed realities of the characters in Birdman are crashing into reality--and Riggan in particular ends up confronting the reality of his situation in a biting monologue by his daughter and then in a confrontations with the prejudiced-against-Hollywood influential theater critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan). It is then, stripped of the artifice of pretense that he has no choice but to embrace the Birdman that he was as well as the terrible father and husband he was too.

But as impressive as that is, Birdman doesn't manage this without some flaws. First of all is the inconsistent application of Riggan's flights of fancy as the film hints that they aren't real and then contradicts that later. Were the whole film shot from his perspective, it might have worked because then the delusions are his alone, but because we follow a few other characters as well, we can't really interpret what's going on with Riggan's telekinesis as entirely from his perspective. Also, I spent a few days trying to figure out why Riggan has telekinetic powers and what it represents and I could only come up with a weak notion that it sort of might represent Riggan's artifice in life--as he is an actor and works through a layer of artifice, perhaps it makes sense that in his delusions, it's not actually him flinging thing around in his room with his hand, but rather with his thoughts--a barrier between the real of tossing around things and the effect of tossing them about. But seems awfully limited as a reason and much of Birdman is already iterating and reiterating layers of artifice over reality that it seems unnecessary given the story at hand. If it were instead Riggan manifesting the powers of Birdman, then we could see it as a representation that he is still haunted by that past role. At least the aforementioned drummer (and the soundtrack he provides) seems to show up at major transitional points for the film.

Iñárritu's choice to shoot the film in an illusion of a single take also adds to the blending of the layers of artifice, bringing a kind of hybridity to Birdman. That we watch a continuous unbroken picture results in the kind of immediacy that you get from watching live theater--all the performances being, at least on appearance, continuous, but like everything else in Birdman, this too is artifice as the film utilizes a few clever moments where it can edit, perhaps also a metacommentary of the authenticity and the realness of what we are seeing, the single-take appearance contradicting with some of the more fantastic elements of Riggan's fantasies.

Inside all that, Iñárritu manages a black dramedy tone that works well for the film, the jazzy soundtrack and the use of text at Birdman's start signaling the kind of improvisational nature of what we're about to see. Of course, it's only as spontaneous as the theater, given the nature of its being written and rehearsed, but because of the one-take nature of many of the scenes, there's no doubt that there is some level of spontaneity going on in the performances, though probably less the blocking because of the complex nature of the moving camera and the need to capture everything in long takes.

And those performances are overall quite impressive, with the actors playing actors getting layers in their double roles, revealing both the artifice and authenticity of acting as they perform for us in character before breaking back to their real characters, resulting in an echoing awareness of them acting as they are acting. The choice of casting further echoes this as many of the actors are playing characters that either resemble themselves in some way (Keaton, Norton) or resemble characters they have played in the past (Watts), again adding another layer of reflexivity used by the film to point at the separating lines between the authentic, the real, and the artificial.

But there are some profoundly impressive moments of acting going on, as well as some impressive moments of "acting" as well, like in the initial meeting between Riggan and Mike as the two actors go through a wide range of emotion both in their characters as well as their character's characters while at the same time jostling for power between the lines between the lines. And then there's the pointed rant by Stone's Sam to Riggan which might just be "big" acting except at the end where she pulls back realizing what she blurted out and, unable to take it back, is left to retreat. Most of the film lies on Keaton's shoulders and he manages pretty well, able to edge towards the mania that defined some of his earlier performances but never breaking beyond the reality of the scene or scene within the scene at hand and, by the films end, manages to gather the pathos required for the dark penultimate moment.

It's how all these layers work to tell this otherwise simple tale--enhancing and echoing itself--that made Birdman quite the enthralling watch as it was unfolding on screen with particular momentum gained by the illusion of being done in one take. Like with Song Ilgon's The Magicians, the one-take approach gives Birdman the immediacy of theater, which is great considering the film's relationship and comment on the theater as an artform--a comment that is neither negative nor positive, the sentiment which is shared with its comment on film. What is positive is the result: there's not a whole lot of cinema out there like Birdman, especially in the layers that it wraps itself under. But at its core is still a simple, but compelling story about what we are talking about when we talk about love. And I think that makes it all work, even if sometimes some of the story's elements, like the use of fantasy, doesn't always pay off that well.

This is a film that the adventurous should try. Birdman is daring, bold, unexpected, challenging, and captivating. It's also not for everyone, especially those that might be drawn to the fictional superhero film with which it shares its title. 9/10

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Thursday, February 12, 2015

Wild (2014)

Wild, an adaptation of the book by Cheryl Strayed, is basically a travelogue and is about as interesting as you might expect. It's dual physical and emotional journey is fairly effective, but gets heavily undercut at times due to overuse of voiceover monologue, especially at the end.

We start the film with Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) at the start of the journey, organizing her belongings and starting the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts near the border of California and Mexico and runs all the way up to Washington state, although Cheryl doesn't hike the whole length of the trail. As she undergoes the struggles of the multi-month hike up the Pacific coast, she also faces the recent past that led her to seek the wild.

The dual storytelling, tying Cheryl's present hardships and joys with those she's experienced in the past, the former being used to overcome the latter, is probably the strongest element of the film, which is otherwise handled in a straightforward manner. The flashbacks to Cheryl's past aren't done too obviously--there aren't any perfect match cuts, but as Cheryl encounters adversity or as she overcomes it, we are treated to a scene from her past, from being raised by her loving mother, Barbara "Bobbi" Grey (Laura Dern) to the self-destructive life of drugs and anonymous sex that ruined her marriage and that she decided to leave by taking the hike.

That said, the movie is punctuated by voiceover narration as Cheryl writes in her journal--a process that probably led to her writing the aforementioned book about her experience--something that unnecessarily spells out everything we're already seeing. Given that the voiceover narration doesn't really have a life of its own, it often feels redundant and this is no worse than at the end of the film, where Cheryl completes her journey. Her reflection on the journey and explanation of where she is now feels utterly trite and actually dismantles the experience we've followed her through and is actually kind of demeaning, like we didn't just experience it with her so we need it spelled out for us.

It kind of sinks the film, which is otherwise handled well by Jean-Marc Vallée, responsible for the previous year's biopic nominee, Dallas Buyers Club. Like the aforementioned film, Wild is delivered pretty straightforward, using similar cinematography techniques to distinguish the different time frames for flashbacks. The direction and production might not have much character, but that helps keep the focus on Cheryl and her journey, which is critical for this kind of travelogue.

Witherspoon and Dern both do well in their respective parts. Although Witherspoon isn't quite as convincing as a college student during her flashbacks as she carries her maturity in her body, she does manage to cover the wide range of emotions that Cheryl experiences on her journey fairly well. Dern, who is only onscreen in snippets, has a much flatter character to work with, but manages to capture the effusive charm of Cheryl's mother well enough that we understand the roots of the emotional desperation that led to her self-destructive behavior.

I don't think all that quite makes up for how badly the overly expository voiceover torpedoes the experience--this film, much more than others needs to rely on showing and not telling--but even if the film didn't use the voiceover narration, there is a bit of a slightness to Wild overall that limits it. Cheryl's process over her journey is cathartic and imparts change, but we only see the impact of her emotional journey, rather than follow the moments that really help her overcome her past.

Granted, being a travelogue of a true experience, perhaps it's not something that could translate to the screen correctly without a more creative adaptation, but perhaps that is what would have made what is a decent picture into a good one. As it is, I still think that many, especially those that are carrying baggage and are looking for a journey to relieve themselves of it, will find Wild attractive, but I can't but feel it never fulfills its own promise. 7/10

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Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Foxcatcher (2014)

Recapturing a moment as bizarre as the real life slaying of Olympic wrestler Dave Schulz by du Pont family heir, John Eleuthère du Pont, in 1996, is a difficult task. What Foxcatcher does is take the story from the perspective of both Mark Schulz, Dave's younger brother, as well as John du Pont to explore and conjecture at what might have happened to drive du Pont to murder Dave. While the film does actually manage to convey the kind of off-kilter tone through its direction and some cringe comedy, the two lead characters end up being just a little impenetrable and distant in order to get beyond vague statements about nationalism and masculinity in America.

The film picks up as Mark Schulz (Channing Tatum) finds himself a bit lost in the wake of his victory at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, scrounging around for money by accepting speaking gigs while he continues to train for the 1988 Olympics with his supportive brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Then John du Pont (Steve Carell), a seemingly eccentric millionaire, offers him the deal of a lifetime: start with him a wrestling team, paid well and with a facility at the du Pont estate, to prepare for the 1988 Olympics. Of course he takes the offer and finds himself bonding with du Pont in the process, with both Mark and John discovering resentments that they might have against their respective parents figures of Dave and du Pont's mother, Jean Lister Autin (Vanessa Redgrave) and John having a peculiar influence on Mark.

Unfortunately, with the film seemingly most interested in the murder, being Foxcatcher's climax, it unfortunately fails to really capture du Pont's perspective. And while du Pont is positioned as a protagonist almost as much as the initial protagonist of Mark, John is never as fully explored as Mark. And unfortunately, the film really ends up dropping Mark and his story in the final act, never really finding any kind of closure for Mark after it fully switches its perspective to John du Pont, whose reasons remain utterly elusive by the film's end. It's unfortunately because Foxcatcher does really manage to build up some interesting conflict between the three male leads, but while the tension between Mark and his two father figures is well constructed, the final leg of that tension, between Dave and John, is never as well drawn and unfortunately, it's all we are left with in the final act.

I mean, Foxcatcher does try to hint at the underlying reasons for John du Pont's behavior--pointing at an obsession with the central tenants of America as a domineering glorious force of masculinity, made through du Pont's collecting of military hardware, fascination of wrestling including a desire to compete himself in a seniors league. And it certainly points to his extreme narcissism and willingness to use money to serve his narcissism, going so far as to claim the success of Team Foxcatcher as being a result of his coaching. This leads to several cringe-inducing scenes that demonstrate this tension. However, Foxcatcher never does anything more than express these tensions through these vague moments and really fails to incorporate Dave into them to conflict with John. So we never really get an understanding of what happens or why, leaving the end to feel rather random.

But at least the direction by Bennett Miller really captures that awkwardness and tension well, playing the whole film with the straightest face, the painful comedy being made that much more real by the coldly observant camera. Steve Carell breaks from his existing mold quite a bit, but ends up a bit of a caricature and the use of the prosthetic nose isn't quite as convincing either--his performance does team up well with the film's more cringe comedy moments but I don't think he quite exposes du Pont's humanity quite well enough to support the lead focus he gets.

Similarly, while Channing Tatum does a sufficient job at capturing Mark Schulz's initial despondency, at times his stonelike expressionless face seemed to be an endless reaction shot rather than built of the genuine moment. On the other hand, Mark Ruffalo does an immense job in a supporting character role, managing to convey so much of his character with so little, using physical acting, like his posture, the curl of his lip, squinting, and nodding to get across a great deal of communication and gives Dave the deepest and well constructed character of the three, which is sad considering that he's a secondary character.

It's primarily because Foxcatcher fails to choose to stick to either Mark Schulz or John du Pont to make its protagonist all the way through that it really feels a bit empty and vague in the end. And perhaps that's the point--that the murder of Dave Schulz was seemingly pointless, but by never developing du Pont well enough as a character--as a human character--both in the writing and in Carell's distant performance, we're left looking to Mark. And Mark has the most screen time focus, but his character never really completes an arc either, vanishing towards the film's climax. And with Ruffalo's Dave being the best developed and most filled out character--it's hard to really be left with much at the film's conclusion.

Miller does capture some strong moments, especially in the darkening relationship between Mark and John, as well as the cringe comedy moments with John, as well as a surprisingly excellent overall atmosphere to the film, it's not the kind of substance--real character substance--that Foxcather needs to be anything more than a well constructed curiosity. And that's all it amounts to, perhaps much like the public memory of this bizarre murder case. 7/10

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014)

One of the most enduring archetypes for Oscar nominated films is the period biographic film. There is at least one such picture nominated every year, with a matching nomination in the Best Actor or Best Actress category. And it seems like every other time, this film is set in the United Kingdom. So perhaps it's no surprise that The Imitation Game made its way into the Best Picture category, being a biographical film about the brilliant and troubled British cryptologist and mathematician Alan Turing, set partially during the height of the Great War. And in a funny way, The Imitation Game lives up to its name, following the predictable patterns of these many Oscar nominated biopics.

The film follows two separate timelines in Alan Turing's life, opening in the 1950's with a mystery of why Cambridge Professor Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was seemingly robbed but with nothing stolen. As detective Nock (Rory Kinnear) adamantly refuses to back down from his investigation, we are then treated to Alan's recounting to Nock of his work at Bletchley during World War II, a site for British intelligence's cryptographic unit, working to break German codes.

The socially inept Turing arrives at Bletchley with a mission to work on breaking the German communications encryption called Enigma, although initially dismissed by Commander Alastair Dennison (Charles Dance), he eventually makes his way onto the cryptographic team and, at odds with his teammates, begins work on a machine that would play a part in decrypting all of the messages generated with Enigma and turn the tide of the war. During this time, personal hangups, squabbles with his teammates and Dennison, and the specter of war all threaten Turing's work.

Of course, the film takes a lot of dramatic license with the actual historical story, condensing the huge cryptographic war that was going on at the time into a small crack team at Bletchley against a single ingenious German device when the truth was that there were many communications encryptions going on and many different groups among the Allies were working to break Axis encryptions with the Poles taking the lead with building the machines that would eventually initiate the breaking of Axis encryptions.

Furthermore, although Turing was noted to be eccentric, the script and Cumberbatch portray him as having a disorder on the autism spectrum when he was known for being socially capable. However, the script does manage to bring light to the injustice he faced as a gay man, including the forced chemical castration he suffered near the end of his life as well as the threat he faced because of his sexuality.

And while the overall simplification of the story aggrandizes Turing, it does also aid in crafting the standard, brilliant-but-awkward-person overcomes problems relating to others to accomplish great things narrative that's especially winning when it comes to awards season. I don't think The Imitation Game ever really does anything innovative or interesting, not like 2013's powerful biopic, 12 Years a Slave, near even anything as directorially interesting as the curious, detached awards competitor Foxcatcher, nor does it manage to paint as interesting of a larger picture as another biopic awards competitor, Selma. Instead, it's rather refined to the point of being dry and formulaic.

What's more, The Imitation Game sort of conflates Turing's cryptographic work with his work building early computers and then takes this detour into exploring the titular game, exploring the computer mind, at one point during Turing's interview with Nock, but never really goes anywhere with it. That is to say that The Imitation Game tells a story to no particular end, but rather vaguely presents a series of issues like the oppression of LBGTs and World War II without really pointing the film at any of them. As such, it feels both highly watered down and "safe". Perhaps that feeling of safety, of not being controversial is one reason why the film succeeded with the nominating board and with general audiences, but it kind of makes the film rather plain.

I mean, the film does have all those qualities going for it that cause biopics like this to get nominated for best picture at the Oscars every year, the refinement, the larger than life characters, the period settings, British actors, but at the same time, it's simply too much like many of those films as well--it never distinguishes itself beyond the template. It doesn't give its actors much beyond the template and they never bring their characters beyond their molds. The Imitation Game is just that, another variation on the tried and true Oscar-bait biopic that's just different enough in subject matter to charm an audience. And that's not to say it's lacking in charm--smart boys in tweed solving problems and winning wars will probably always be charming--but there just isn't much beyond that with this film. 7/10

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Friday, January 30, 2015

국제시장 (2014)

Originally published at Dramabeans on January 16, 2015

Ode to My Father really lives up to its English title, being a kind of summary of chunks of Korean history from the Korean War into the 1980's, representing some of the biggest events in the lives of many Korean seniors. The film has been received pretty well by Korean audiences, with large attendances during its opening weekend in Korea and having surpassed over ten million admissions so far. That said, the film never really forges a real overarching story, instead relying on a series of tragic or heartwarming events to propel the whole thing forward.

The opening tragedy begins at a turning point in the Korean War when the Chinese joined the fight. Young Yun Deoksu (Eom Jiseong, later Hwang Jeongmin) is tasked with holding the hand of younger sister Maksun (Sin Rina) as his family flees for Heungnam Port in what is now North Korea.

In the chaos to escape via boat before the combined North Korean and Chinese military arrives, Deoksu loses Maksun and his father, Jin-gyu (Jeong Jinyeong), goes to find Maksun, leaving Deoksu the head of the household if they should become separated. Well, they become separated and we watch how Deoksu's promise to be the head of the household impacts his life as he takes a dangerous mining in Germany, an engineering job in the Vietnam War, and into the his present prosperity.

In many ways, Ode to My Father resembles Forrest Gump, taking a relatively simple protagonist through a series of major historical events. Like Forrest Gump, the film is peppered with references to major cultural touchstones and no small amount of run-ins with future famous people. This can get lost on non-Korean viewers but drew audible recognition from the predominantly older Korean audience in my theater.

More significantly like Forrest Gump, adult Deoksu is a relatively simple-minded character without much internal conflict. He simply does what he believes is best for his family and the conflicts he encounters are predominantly external, like war and hard labor. And as such a static character, he's never quite compelling, especially since, unlike Forrest Gump, the characters around him are not especially dynamic either--they don't change over the course of the film because of Deoksu's presence in their lives.

Instead, Ode to My Father wrings most of its tears from predictably sentimental melodrama, from the moment of Maksun's loss to the penultimate scene that had the entire audience in tears. Except for me, because I never once saw Deoksu struggle with any of the decisions that he made. At the beginning of the film, Deoksu reveals his dream of being a boat captain to his wife O Yeongja (Gim Yunjin), but aside from a couple small references, we never really see that dream as a temptation for Deoksu. As such, half of the events of the film seem to be happening to Deoksu and not because of him.

The strongest moments of the film are actually those moments that he personally asserts himself, both in his initial romance with Yeongja in Germany as well as when he begins searching in earnest for Maksun during the early 1980's when KBS was running a telethon to reunite families divided by the war. However, despite running on autopilot for a lot of a film, the ride is full of enormous spectacle, from war, to mining accidents, to huge gatherings of people in Seoul searching for their lost relatives and soaking those moments in almost makes up for the unchallenging narrative.

This is perhaps a result of director Yun Jegyun's history of working with spectacle, both with his own tidal wave disaster film Haeundae as well as producing some of the visually splashier Korean blockbusters of Quick and Sector 7. His experience with large scale scenes shows up well, although the CGI crowds occasionally are a little too obvious. Director Yun also approaches the drama in a similar manner, using broad slow motion and close ups to emphasize both tragedy and triumph. Inclusion of actual footage from the KBS telethons was especially potent as it tied the film's world to our real world.

Also helpful to driving Ode to My Father is Hwang Jeongmin, who is surprisingly convincing as both a young man in his twenties as well as an elderly man. I don't know if they used CGI to paste his head onto a ripped 20-something's body, but he passed as a young man believably. Similarly, Gim Yunjin manages to capture age in her acting where the makeup isn't quite as convincing. O Dalsu is predictably cast as supporting comic relief and operates best when in that mode although Hwang Jeongmin himself manages more than a few chuckles due to Deoksu's relative simple-mindedness. Finally, production values are appropriately grand for a film of this budget and the design fits the attempt at the film's epic scale.

Ode to My Father is not at all subtle, but without story and character driving the film's emotions, forceful direction and production is key to entertain. And to that extent, I think it succeeds, particularly for Koreans that would get all the references. The film is packed with huge scenes, foreign locales, period details, and many memorable moments in Korean history all tied together in the tale of a man who sacrifices blood, sweat, and tears to keep his promise to his father and serve his family. I think many will get swept up in the huge moments and spectacle that Ode to My Father has to offer. It keeps those blockbuster promises, but some discerning audiences that demand more than blockbuster highs might also be disappointed by the relatively shallow story and characters.

Best for those looking for blockbuster spectacle and melodrama, not for those that need a well written story and nuance. 6/10

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