Saturday, November 22, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Jaynestown"

The hits keep coming with "Jaynestown", episode that focuses on the Serenity's favorite mercenary, Jayne Cobb. An episode focused more on comedy than anything else, it's still driven well by a few character development moments for Jayne in particular. While the episode does push a couple more relationship threads, its focus on Jayne helps keep it entertaining even if the secondary stories are a touch weaker.

A smuggling pick up job has the Firefly crew landing on Canton, a backwater moon that's particularly known for its mud farm. Jayne is particularly reluctant for this job as didn't last leave the moon under the best of circumstances and fears that someone might want to take revenge on him. The crew of the Serenity is shocked to discover that Jayne has unintentionally become a local folk hero. Meanwhile, Inara tends to a client, Simon and Kaylee flirt, and Book is left to watch over River.

While much of it is rightly played for laughs, I really appreciate how Jaynestown actually put the usually comic relief and occasional source of tension Jayne into a position of personal reflection the episode's end as the inevitable truth about his selfishness came out while also touching upon the purpose of heroes in our society as well as their humanity. It was simple and it was silly, but I appreciated that it was more than just a one-joke plot. Likewise, the Simon and Kaylee flirtation is affected by matters of class and culture as each come from very different places resulting in some degree of conflict. The only storyline that was disappointing was the truly simple one-note joke between Book and River which has something resembling a genuine build-up but deflates it on a joke that isn't even that funny and possibly mildly racist.

As with the rest of the series, Jaynestown amplifies the camp level a little due to the hoard of "mudders" and the celebration of Jayne. Some of the choices, like the director's cuts to the mudder I will call Jayne's biggest fan (Daniel Bess) are so obvious and deliberate and the performance so over-the-top that it threatens to break the episode's credibility. The show is also still pretty rough--perhaps intentionally so given the amount of handheld camera work done--but it holds itself together just enough to sell the comedy and the underlying character drama.

As such, "Jaynestown" proves to be a pretty solid comedy-centered episode for this series. It really doesn't advance the overall story of the series much, but the concept of Jayne-the-Hero and its execution makes it an appreciable standalone entry into the series back-to-back with "Our Mrs. Reynolds". 8/10.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

1724 기방난동사건 (2008)

The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan is a Korean comedic period action film with a dosage of anachronism. It's not quite as utterly goofy as genre compatriots Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield or its follow up, Battlefield Heroes, trading that for a dose of action adrenaline, but unlike those two films, The Accidental Gangster never quite figures out just how serious or how silly it wants to be nor is it able to settle on an overall directorial perspective.

The film is allegedly inspired by a real brawl that happened in a brothel in 1724. The brawler to be, Thunder (I Jeongjae), is a lowly gangster that extorts protection money from his locals and runs errands for his family's lowly tavern, when he's not busy gambling on his fighting skills. Then one day, a long awaited courtesan (Gim Okbin) finally arrives at his tavern and he is immediately smitten, giving her the nickname Dishy based on the fact that she does more washing of dishes than anything else. Of course, it turns out that his family's tavern shares its name with another more luxurious brothel in another district and she was misdelivered, so she is claimed by their thugs.

Then, his inability to say no to a fight lands Thunder in one with the local gang boss, Paired Ear (Yeo Gyundong), and to his surprise, he wins while knocking Paired Ear out cold. With a major underworld meeting coming up and Thunder promised control of the gang, second-in-command Chilgap (I Wonjong) and his crew plead with Thunder to sit in for Paired Ear at the meeting, but Thunder, with more modest goals in life, resists... until he discovers that the meeting is taking place at the very brothel that Dishy was spirited off to.

There is some kind of story about Thunder learning to care about his community, but its conflict with his pursuit of Dishy is pretty poorly drawn, especially considering that the film's perspective makes both seem like a very good thing. Rather than have his lust for the courtesan he knows nothing about be part of his downfall, the film basically praises it and while it deepens the trouble between his adopted gang and the other ganglords, Thunder's behavior, even without Dishy's involvement would have led to that anyway. So the film basically pushes a false conflict. And then there's Thunder's growth to benevolent gang boss status, which isn't really warranted. From the start of the film, he's positioned as a relatively nice guy and without ambition, which is why we like him. He seems to suddenly gain an ambition for the gang and he claims its because of Dishy, but none of this is spurred on by anything in particular. Instead it just seems to happen.

As such, Thunder's journey, while positioned as something we should care about, is ultimately fluff for the comedy and action to be built on. The comedy is hit and miss. The film, directed by Yeo Gyundong, is broken into three segments. The earliest part is the goofiest by far, jumping between a variety of styles including some use of animation and hyper-CGI-infused fight sequences that result in extreme amounts of saliva being unleashed as hits are delivered to faces. It's a bit crazy, but it would have worked except that the comedic tone keeps bouncing around to comic book level kookiness one moment and straight-faced wry humor the next and this is often done in rapid fire bursts, but most of the jokes fall flat.

In the middle segment, the film settles down just a little bit to deliver the main portion of the story. There's a lot of chaos that follows Thunder's manic attempts to see Dishy as well as the film's strongest moment, which is the rumble between the various gangs, where the irreverent comedy finally hits well. This is followed by the film's end where things suddenly get serious and kind of dark, except for the fact that the final fight between Thunder and the obvious over-the-top villain Mandeuk (Gim Seokhun) again goes for CGI-enhanced fighting, but this time more bloody and serious, seeming almost like a comic-book-meets-video-game. It's not terribly convincing here and is actually tonally jarring because the film was so goofy up until this point.

In addition to the anachronistic dialog, spoken in slang filled modern Korean, the soundtrack is also pumped full of modern Korean pop and hip hop further adding to the tonal jumble. At least the performances were decent. And the costumes were gorgeous.

But this lack of consistency in overall style and tone makes The Accidental Gangster seem unfocused and incoherent, both of which is certainly as true of the story as it is with the direction. If the film's sense of humor, storytelling focus, and aesthetic were in keeping with the multi-gang throwdown, then I think it would have been overall a much stronger film. As it stands, while it has some decent moments and a couple decent jokes, The Accidental Gangster just doesn't come together to be compelling in neither its action, its comedy, nor its tiny bit of romance and hero's journey. It's probably just barely engaging enough to stand a watch for those desperate for more Korean period action comedies, but most will be better off skipping this one. 5/10.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

말하는 건축 시티:홀 (2013)

Because I thought Jeong Jaeeun's Talking Architect was both fascinating and impressionable, when I discovered that she had released another documentary in its wake, City:Hall, I went out, bought it and put it on top of my watch and review pile. From the title alone, it's clear that this film is about a city hall and not a particular person and so it actually has a bit of a broader reach than its predecessor, as it follows the building of the new Seoul City Hall. And while director Jeong does manage to shine a light on the conflicts and the personalities involved in the building's design and construction, I feel like her neutrality, both behind the camera and editorially, results in a comparatively weaker perspective and thus a somewhat less engaging, but still interesting documentary.

After a little bit of history about the City Hall's status as a turnkey project handed over to Samsung C&T, the film has us join the project in its final year moving towards the hard completion date of the first of September, 2012. From there we learn of how architectural firm, iArc, headed by Yu Geol, was brought onto the project after a design contest. The film follows the building's progress, bouncing back to history here and there, as Samsung C&T and iArc conflict with each other of matters of practicality, efficiency, aesthetics, and design as the project looms closer and closer to its end date as well as revealing some of the behind-the-scenes government and corporate machinations behind its building.

I think the most compelling aspect to the documentary is precisely the conflicts between iArc and Samsung C&T that arise as each company has a different value that it wants to pursue in the building of the City Hall. The documentary wisely spends a bit of time with several of the same personalities throughout its runtime, helping us get an understanding of their perspectives and observe their interactions with each other. However, like with Talking Architect, sometimes the film does end up spreading its focus a little too broadly, like perhaps spending too much time looking at other design concepts that were competing with iArc's without necessarily contextualizing how they relate to the current city hall. When City:Hall looks at the public's reaction to the project as it's being built, it either feels too short or unnecessary, either not taking the time to explore how the turning public sentiment impacts both iArc and Samsung in context and without that, I wonder if it would have helped to clip it to keep the focus on the tensions leading to getting the project completed by the deadline.

I do appreciate the breaks the film gives us, observing the many events that take place around the construction as well as how Seoul's citizens more casually use the field in front of it, which is a welcome relief from the info-dumps that it trades in. Interestingly enough, director Jeong only goes in to speak with ordinary citizens about the city hall once or twice despite capturing a lot of footage of them, which is why I felt like we were mainly supposed to look at the film from the dueling perspectives of Samsung and iArc.

As with Talking Architect, Jeong Jaeeun also brings her clean and stylish aesthetic to City:Hall, including her usage of lines and text that stand out from the film's opening as it cuts around the various landmarks in Seoul. In addition to her own captured footage, Jeong uses a bit of archival footage, particularly newsreels, as well as some amount of presentation footage from other city hall design contestants to help provide history without resorting exclusively to talking heads. I also appreciate that she uses takes where people hesitate and make mistakes on camera to help reveal some character and let those moments also speak as well. The score is also pretty well composed.

City:Hall does at times cover too much ground and loses focus on its main story in trying to fill in all sorts of additional details about the hall, but its core story of the conflict between the two teams working together to finish the project is pretty captivating material. It does feel long and there were a few times that I found my attention drifting as a result of the documentary's reaching to provide perspectives that didn't obviously relate to its main story. At the same time, the film does seem like a fairly comprehensive look at the building of the spaceship like new city hall and those with an interest in Korean in the building and possibly modern Korean architecture will probably find this film quite worthwhile. 7/10

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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

The opening credits of Gone Girl immediately tell you by the rhythm of its slightly abrupt editing that something is going to be off with the movie you're going to watch. From there, the combination of David Fincher's cold vision, a disconcerting score, and at least an immediately absorbing mystery work pretty well to make Gone Girl relatively enthralling, even if the story doesn't hold together quite as tightly in the end.

Adapted by Gillian Flynn from her novel, Gone Girl opens up with Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) dropping by the bar he runs with his sister, Margo (Carrie Coon). It's his fifth wedding anniversary to Amy Elliott-Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a privileged upper crust writer with whom his marriage had been falling apart. When he returns home, Amy is missing and a table is the living room is overturned and damaged, leading the surprised Nick to call the police. As a search gets organized by Nick, Amy's parents, and the police, clues left by Amy as well as Nick's sometimes erratic behavior leads to the suspicion that Nick might have had something to do with Amy's disappearing, but not everything adds up perfectly.

The mystery is well presented at first, with just enough teasing from the inclusion of Amy and Nick's annual anniversary treasure hunt to fuel additional suspicions of foul play and hoax and for the first half of the movie, it constantly moves the needle in one direction or the other. The story against Nick is amplified as we get Amy's story of Nick and Amy's relationship from her journal, from their first meeting through their marriage troubles, lending a greater narrative of a marriage in dissolution to follow. While the film wisely trades mystery for thriller once the audience is clued into what actually happened, the actual story there becomes a bit less believable particularly because Amy's character isn't particularly well motivated nor is does she make particularly sense and several logic holes permeate some of the film's flashy scenes.

It's not so bad as it sinks the film, but it does bring into relief just how shallow Amy's character is drawn in the end while Nick is given a much more believable character, which helps as he is the film's protagonist. Also, the mystery itself is relatively obvious for seasoned mystery-thriller readers and viewers. Finally, the film is long. While it takes two-thirds of the movie to resolve the mystery, converting the film into a thriller for the last third really drags it out, leaving me wondering when the film was going to end and that's never a good thing for a film to incite.

But one of the big reasons the film is able to carry on from start to finish is the stylish and cold direction from David Fincher, who infuses every moment with a degree of unease with clinical direction that at times recalls both Stanley Kubrick and Alfred Hitchcock in its vision and precision. The comparison to Kubrick is especially apt thanks to how Gone Girl uses its sound design and score effectively to further enhance the sense of unease, putting the sound right up front with intentionally jarring sound editing. And the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross further drives this with the juxtaposition of seemingly cool synths and low volume jagged sound effects.

Finally, giving the film its last piece of credence are the performances, with Rosamund Pike doing an especially good job at giving Amy a sense of mysteriousness in her delivery that just barely undermines the narrative that we are seeing to suggest that what we see might not be what is real. It's not enough to save the character from not really making in the end, but makes Amy quite intriguing at least until the mystery is officially revealed. Ben Affleck performs adequately, and although his performance is a little wobbly in the final act, he is helped by a strong supporting cast.

I suppose that means that Gone Girl is essentially a film where the style and the delivery of the story partially makes up for that same story's deficiencies. There is a bit of an unsettling element of the story that presupposes the worst fears of men through Amy, almost making the film aligned to misogyny if it weren't for the fact that the element of class and privilege kind of smooths that out. Of course, I don't think the film is trying to make that particular point, but perhaps in echoing patriarchal paranoia and driving them with a shallow, incomprehensible female character, it's effectively, even if unintentionally, misogynistic.

And that leaves me with a bit of unease about the film. Which is perhaps what Gone Girl is trying to do from the start as, aside from final act character and story issues, it's as solid a mystery-thriller as I've seen as of late. 7/10

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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Feast (2014)

Paperman proved to be a nice little treat in front of Wreck-It-Ralph a couple years ago and this year, perhaps to balance out the action-fest that is Big Hero 6, another little romance-comedy called Feast accompanies it. But, unlike the more direct romance of Paperman, Feast cleverly views the romance from a different perspective, making it feel fresh.

The short centers on Winston, a dog that is adopted off the street by a man. Winston goes from hungry to feasting as the man feeds Winston all manner of delicious human food until one day, Winston's companion meets a lady. And not just any lady, a lady who eats healthy and changes the diet of Winston's companion, leading to the end of Winston's feasting. But the relationship struggles and tanks and Winston's companion, depressed, gives Winston all the food he desires, but perhaps Winston's desires are about more than food after all.

The story is entirely told from Winston's perspective, so we hardly get to see the couple, except at the edges of the frame as the camera stays fixed on Winston down to the ground and we pretty much only see Winston in his relationship to eating food. However, Feast manages to use the changing nature of the food to tell the story and while poor Winston is stuck getting parsley and Brussels sprouts after being allowed to chow down on pizza, we get to see the impact of his companion's relationship by that food. This forced perspective is fresh because we've already seen all the standard tropes of romances before, so changing what we're looking at never stops us from understanding what's happening, but instead gives us a new way of looking at the same thing.

The short is also edited rapidly, cutting from eating scene to eating scene, to keep the narrative focused on Winston's eating perspective, but I think because of the stability provided by keeping the whole in context of Winston's eating, it never feels too clipped or short. The animation is quite wonderful, taking cues from Paperman's hybrid of computer generated and hand-drawn style, with the motion and design feeling like the storyboard crashed through character sheets and exploded into life. Winston himself is especially lively and is a wonderfully rendered character and Feast features some of the most appetizing looking animated food I've seen since Ratatouille.

Although I easily predicted just how this short would progress the moment Winston's companion met his ladyfriend, I still ended up a little moved by the climactic moment, perhaps thanks to the stabilizing effect of the forced perspective. And combined with the lovely art and animation, I have to say that Feast is the kind of short that I would be happy to see more of accompanying Disney features. 9/10

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Saturday, November 8, 2014

내 생애 봄날 (2014)

I had a lot of hope when My Spring Day first started. It had an actor that I liked (Gam Useong), wonderfully warm and positive relationships between most of the various characters, and the show kept surprising me at every turn by not dragging out plot points for maximum angst. Like any show, it had some rougher points, particular where the characters were struggling or dealing with melodrama, but the first twelve episodes were pretty good. And then everything fell apart, utterly sinking the show beyond redemption.

My Spring Day revolves around the intertwining lives of Gang Dongha (Gam Useong) and I Bomi (Choe Suyeong). Bomi has, for five years, had a new lease on life after being a recipient of a donor heart. Out of gratitude to her donor, she decides to make a visit to Udo Island where she got her new heart and there, she runs into Dongha, whose late wife was that very donor. A supernatural quasi-encounter with the late Yun Sujeong (Min Jia) has Bomi drawn to Dongha and his children, despite Bomi being engaged to Gang Dong-uk (I Junhyeok), who happens to be Dongha's estranged brother--and estranged because Dong-uk long held an unspoken crush on Sujeong before Dongha and Sujeong got married.

Despite the complex web of relationships that involve this setup, the show is actually pretty well grounded in that the inciting event, Bomi's heart transplant, would eventually result in everybody's lives colliding. In fact, one of the things that this show wonderfully avoids for most of the early episodes is logic holes and overly convenient contrivances. Yes, the ghost of Sujeong does push Bomi towards Dongha, but that's part of the show's gimmick as her reaction once before Dongha largely makes sense. That's not to say that the show doesn't fall victim to contrivance as when it does fall, three quarters through the show, it falls incredibly hard with a bout of foreshadowed-since-the-first-episode effectively terminal illness.

And this horrible writing crutch pretty much creates an escape hatch for writer Bak Jisuk to resolve every problem in the show in one go without having to have the characters deal with the actually interesting conflicts that they are dealing with. It also happens to completely tank the story the moment it shows up, leaving nothing to do for the final four episodes except to draw out Bomi's inevitable demise. And this demise, especially when you consider that Sujeong pushed Bomi towards Dongha and then let her own heart die, has the rather unintended implication that ghostly Sujeong actually used Bomi for her own ends in repairing everyone else's relationships and providing her children with additional parent figures.

It's also a terrible shame that My Spring Day starts Bomi being an interesting character with her own drive and interests as a dietician with a thirst for living life fully and then slowly converts her away from her dream to be with Dongha and then further saps from her the very will to live, sort of hollowing out the character until she is a shell of her former self. Meanwhile, Dongha is a rather static character who only ever tries to do right and is ultimately left to the conflict of protecting the order of those around him and following his heart. However, that conflict, like all the other conflicts in this show are ultimately relieved by Bomi's failing health and we never get to see a proper resolution.

The utter self-implosion of the story on a cliche dramatic trope is quite a tragic shame because the writing on My Spring Day actually benefits from two other strengths: efficient storytelling and tonal warmth in relationships. Of course, the efficiency of the storytelling has a couple slumps, especially when the show gets particularly melodramatic, but one of the highlights of the show is that, with few exceptions, it hardly ever hangs up on characters not communicating or not making their desires known. This means that almost every episode through episode twelve has forward momentum on almost every plot thread and viewers are never left with the feeling that a problem could have been resolved if characters just said or did something simple. Unfortunately, this aspect of the show falls terminally ill with Bomi.

The warmth in relationships shows up between almost all parties as the show does a great job of positive relationships between characters even when they are strained, the best example being the relationships between the Gang brothers where it's obvious that both characters want to reconcile and are frustrated by the hurt and betrayal that Dong-uk feels. Similarly, Dongha's relationship with his daughter, Pureun (Hyeon Seungmin), is also a highlight of the show.

Part of the reason why these relationships all work so well is because many of the actors are quite capable and Gam Useong in particular seems to improve the performances of those he shares scenes with. Hyeon Seungmin also turns out to be an adorable little scene stealer, doing a great job of playing precocious without cloying and handling emotional moments in a surprisingly affecting way. Even Sim Hyejin, saddled with playing the role of the pushy and disapproving mother Jo Myeonghui, still manages to find a few moments with Gwon Haehyo's I Hyeoksu that soften her.

Of course, none of these performances nor the competent and oftentimes pretty direction by I Jaedong save this show from completely ruining itself in its last act. A show might start roughly, but it if ends well, people will praise it for ending well. My Spring Day suffers from its problem of starting well, spending most of its story too quickly, and then dumping all of its plots in the last act in favor of a too-simple non-resolution which is certainly disappointing after soaring well on an economically told story and well built relationships. So despite all it does right, viewers will mostly be left with the disappointing memories of the draggy, stalling, and boring final four episodes of My Spring Day. And they will be glad that this particular spring day is over. 4/10.

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

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

내 사랑 내 곁에 (2009)

Originally published at Dramabeans on October 17, 2014

Director Bak Jinpyo is best known for unconventional melodramas like Too Young to Die and You Are My Sunshine, but when I heard about the basic premise of Closer to Heaven I thought perhaps director Park had finally decided to make a conventional terminal illness melodrama. And in terms of its story, Closer to Heaven really is a conventional terminal illness melodrama. However, it's restrained directorial approach and superior performances helps elevate it above other efforts in the genre.

In Closer to Heaven, I Jisu (Ha Jiwon) is a mortician whose work has left her twice divorced. She is hired by Baek Jong-u (Gim Myeongmin), an old friend of hers who suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease). Jong-u proposes Jisu on the spot, both knowing that he likely only has a few years left, but moved his lack of disdain for her profession, she accepts and things are good for a while. Then the disease progresses and both Jong-u and Jisu struggle with his steadily weakening condition and mortality as they become residents of a hospital ALS ward.

Although the story is built on the clever concept of a terminally ill man getting involved with a woman whose job is to prepare the dead for their ceremony of passage, the actual story is fortunately focused more on the reality of romance and relationship in the face of mortality and suffering. The story beats are about what you might expect from terminal illness romance melodramas--Closer to Heaven doesn't deviate from the form--but the execution of the story, particularly in direction and performance is where the film stands out.

Since the film is so focused on the two lead characters, it's important that both Ha Jiwon and Gim Myeongmin are up to the task. Gim Myeongmin is of particular note, dedicating himself to the character to the point that he physically lost a ton of weight and let his own muscles atrophy to potently capture the increasingly frustrated Jong-u's perspective. Ha Jiwon does play a bit plucky at times per her common type, but manages to perform across Gim Myeong-min's Jong-u well enough when a more dramatic air is called for. Both took home trophies from Korean award ceremonies for their performances.

And director Bak tackles this subject matter by drawing back and mostly letting the characters and the picture speak for itself to the point that most of the notable music in the film is diegetic. There is no dramatic swell of music when Jong-u collapses or suffers a setback nor does the film try to sweeten the early romance with pop songs. However, because the film is titled after Gim Hyeonsik's classic tune, music does remain important to the film as Bak Jinpyo presents and recalls a song that the pair share together.

After the story reaches the ALS hospital ward, it extends to include moments with other patients, which is a welcome as it opens the window to multiple perspectives of love in terminal illness. On the other hand, the narrative isn't always solid, especially towards the final act as the film never really defines the moments that determine how Jong-u and Jisu see each other in the end.

This takes a bit of the air out of the film's sails, even though all the tears that Closer to Heaven engender in its audience are earned. Closer to Heaven isn't the kind of terminal illness melodrama that yanks tears out of your ducts through carefully engineered moments of sympathy like A Millionaire's First Love or A Moment to Remember, but are won as we get to believe in the characters through excellent performance and patient direction.

So, while Closer to Heaven doesn't really add anything to the terminal illness melodrama that we haven't seen before, the film does provide a more genuine and natural experience than most. And I think that makes it worth checking out with a box of tissues, if this kind of film is what you're looking for. 7/10.

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