Saturday, March 28, 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)

British director Matthew Vaughn is probably best known at this point as the man responsible for a series of comic book adaptations as he was most recently responsible for the film versions of Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. Successful as these films were, it's no surprise that Vaughn's next directorial project is yet another comic book adaptation, this time a spy-genre film. However, in many ways this film, Kingsman: The Secret Service, ends up being a somewhat more hollow successor to Kick-Ass, only really winning in its moments of action and sheer shock value of overkill imagery.

Adapted from The Secret Service, the titular organization is a non-governmental British intelligence agency funded by hereditary wealth that solves a variety of problems around the world. One Kingsman agent is Harry "Galahad" Hart (Colin Firth), whose protege dies in his service leaving behind a family. The child of that family, Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (Taron Egerton) has grown up to be quite the chav and eventually gets himself in quite a pinch with the law. Given an unconditional favor as a child by Hart, Eggsy calls upon it and Hart come to the rescue--more than just getting Eggsy released from the police however, Hart offers Eggsy the opportunity at a vacant seat at the table of the Kingsman. Meanwhile, the murderer of the now perished Kingsman, is none other than billionaire tycoon and philanthropist, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a mysterious plan up his sleeve to solve global warming.

There is a minor transformation for Eggsy, although it's hardly motivated, and from there on forth, the story is actually pretty flat. It's half training montage as Eggsy and his fellow would-be Kingsmen undergo a dangerous set of exams to vie for the remaining spot. And the other half is spy film as Harry Hart tries to uncover what it is that Valentine is up to. But even the expected twist towards the final act doesn't really motivate anything and the film moves along on autopilot as Eggsy and the gang make their bid to stop Valentine's nefarious scheme.

Granted, the film does amusingly get in a myriad of references of classic spy films and television series and even weaves the awareness of them into the plot as Valentine and Eggsy, among others, refer to those films, subvert and also replicate them. It's an amusing shell for meta-aware comedy given the nature of the film itself, but it ends up being more clever than meaningful. Likewise, the violence on display in Kingsman is not unlike the variety seen in Kick-Ass: over the top and shocking, the film sometimes gleefully showing the chaos and destruction wrought by its characters. And there are several moments in the film that it goes on for an extended period of time almost making the plot seem to exist for these displays rather than the violence used to further the story.

And I think that's perhaps what makes Kingsman a bit disappointing as its running time could have actually packed in a real character transformation story. Instead Eggsy only really changes on the surface and there's no real testing of a change or growth to his character. Now, the glee with which Vaughn directs the film's action sequences has its merit, but Kingsman is easily overlong and the ended action sequences are one of the film's many excesses. I think the performers do fine with Firth doing an especially appreciable job in changing from his typical fare, but there really isn't much to any of their characters anyway.

Kingsman is, in the end, all surface and no depth. The characters, including our protagonist Eggsy, all go along the most obvious of rails and while there is some pleasure to both the meta-aware way the film handles its genre and the degree to which Vaughn is willing to go to shock the viewers, there really isn't anything more to the film than just that spectacle. It's still entertaining enough that those looking for an action spy film might still find Kingsman satisfying, but it's the hollow satisfaction of confection that's being consumed here. 6/10

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

라이방 (2001)

I picked up a copy of Ray-Bang for cheap during an online sale as I remembered hearing about it at the Koreanfilm.org forums way back when I was first getting into Korean cinema. Then I discovered that it was directed by Jang Hyeonsu, whose name I recognize as the man behind the helm of the often incoherent Born to Kill. If Jeong Useong's megawatt star power and charisma couldn't save that lackluster film, I certainly wasn't sure that a handful of character actors are going to sell this movie.

But Jang Hyeonsu's had five years since Born to Kill to improve his craft and Ray-Bang does end up benefiting from simply being a much less ambitious and less genre-focused film. That's not to say that there aren't major storytelling problems in the film, but this comedy at least has some moments and well defined characters.

Ray-Bang is actually the Korean pronunciation for Ray-Ban, as in the sunglasses brand and which are acquired by one of the characters over the course of the film. Seeing that it takes place during one very hot summer in Korea, the wearing of the sunglasses makes sense, especially for our main characters, who are all taxi drivers. Haegon (Gim Haegon), Junhyeon (Jo Junhyeong), and Hangnak (Choe Hangnak) are buddies who work for the same taxi company and are often found drinking together after hours at a local restaurant.

The life of a Korean taxi driver isn't glamorous and Junhyeong and Hangnak in particular have some serious money demands on their lives as they support children or families. On top of that, this particular summer is especially hot. However, they soldier on sharing the same old stories and driving their customers around the city. However, this summer will prove to be especially trying for the three friends when something unexpected happens at work and they find themselves with even less money than before. To resolve their money woes, they plot a small caper.

The actual caper plot only happens in the final act and Ray-Bang actually spends most of its time noodling around, following the characters on their jobs and examining both their personal and domestic problems, as well as just observing them in their friendship. For most of the film until the actual money crisis arises, Ray-Bang kind of feels aimless, but it fortunately anchored by how well developed the characters and their interactions are. In many ways that leaves the movie feeling a bit episodic, with the final act finally reaching the "story", almost like a compressed television series.

If it weren't for those characters and just how amusing they can be at times, I think Ray-Bang would have been utterly frustrating a watch because several storylines show up but are ultimately dropped, like Hangnak chasing a much young woman, and some things happen off-screen and go unexplained, like how Hangnak ends up with the titular Ray-Bangs when Haegon is the one that first acquires them. Other story points, like the mid-story introductions of Junhyeong's brother and Hangnak's daughter get established in a way that keeps them from feeling significant. Ray-Bang is definitely nowhere near a representation of tight storytelling.

If it's not the writing, but the characters that sell the film, a lot of the onus of Ray-Bang is on the actors and they all are uniformly strong in their respective roles, playing characters named after themselves nonetheless. Perhaps that's one reason why each main character feels so well fleshed out, because perhaps the actors are just playing fictionalized extensions of themselves, but they alone, in their organic interactions with each other keep many of the films scenes more interesting than the writing or even the directing would suggest.

To Jang Hyeonsu's credit, the directing is overall much improved since Born to Kill. The on-camera action all makes sense and Jang even does some interesting work in terms of choice of framing and having things happen off screen. I think Jang knew what he had going with his performers though, so he did the rational thing in keeping the camera pointed as his actors most of the time. The production of the film is still on the rough side, but not unexpectedly so as in 2001, the Korean film industry was still developing and only a handful of films managed the kind of polish that we just expect from Korean film today.

But it's not the rough production that keeps me from giving Ray-Bang a ringing endorsement. It's just the fact that the story is all over the place, frequently starting and ending storylines and sometimes not conclusively. Sometimes this all just adds to the feeling of the hot restless summer that the characters are facing and once the film's main plot gets going deep into the film, some of the setup pays off well, particularly with Junhyeong and Hangnak's stories, but I still can't help but feel like Ray-Bang often doesn't know what its own story is for much of its runtime. Still, with strong performances and characterizations as well as a good balance of pathos and comedy, it's not a bad watch either. But while you won't feel it a total loss to watch it, Ray-Bang is also not quite a film worth hunting down to watch. 6/10

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Firefly (2002)

For a time, Joss Whedon's shows were flying high. Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was enough of a hit to last seven seasons on The WB and then UPN (now combined into the network known as The CW). It created an enormous cult following, and a spinoff series. While all this was going on, Whedon pitched a new show: Firefly. Seeing how successful his last shows have been for The WB, what could go wrong?

By fan metrics, nothing did go wrong. Whedon's characteristic storytelling style, humor, drama, and inventiveness where all present. However, this show wasn't on The WB, it was on Fox and the ratings demands were higher. And despite (or perhaps because of) the intervention of Fox executives, the show never reached the network's targets for their Friday night slot and Firefly got axed after having only aired eleven of its fourteen produced episodes.

It was a big blow for Whedon’s fans and following the surprise cancellation of Angel just a couple years later, the beginning of the feeling for many that networks were out to tank Whedon’s shows. However, in its short time on air, Firefly gained itself a number of fans, fans that propagated themselves once a DVD set of the series was released and I was one of these second wave fans. The so-called Browncoat movement got strong enough then that Whedon and company were able to get the team back together for a feature film to give the series closure.

But the Serenity that I’m interested in is not the movie, but the ship upon which much of the action of the series takes place. This series takes place deep into our future. Humanity has solved faster-than-light-flight and has colonized many worlds. At some point the outer colonies found themselves in conflict with the core worlds and sought to succeed from the one-universe government called the Alliance resulting in a civil war. They failed. Into this we find our ship, a Firefly class vessel called Serenity, and its crew captained by Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). A former Browncoast, as the independents were called, Mal finds himself primarily working outside the law smuggling contraband from place to place and sharing the profits with his crew, trying to keep out of the way of the Alliance and keep their ship--and makeshift family--afloat.

I can’t call Firefly a wholly unique pros position as the hybrid of science fiction and Western had been done before, on TV nonetheless with Brisco County, Jr., however Whedon does construct a distinct universe during the episodes that were made with interesting conflicting forces and characters. The Western tensions were brought out especially by the greater conflict between the empire-minded Alliance and the trailblazing independents and the setting of most of the series on the space frontier. And science fiction wasn’t neglected, in particular via the character of River (Summer Glau) as an exploration of what might happen when we start “enhancing” ourselves. There were hints of more science fiction spread about, but the show was ultimately more of a Western in space than a sci-fi in the West.

Unfortunately, the show never really gets to delve too deeply into much this world. The Reavers and the men-in-blue only show up significantly in a single episode each after the pilot, despite having a lot going for them and about half of the episodes end up in more syndication-friendly dilemma or criminal activity of the week kind of storytelling. Most of these episodes still do manage to characteristically push forward characters or the greater narrative, but the actual stories into which the crew of the Serenity finds themselves (for example, “The Train Job”, “Safe”) often don’t feel that well woven into the greater narrative nor really explores the depth of their world.

Another issue with the series that got ironed out with the DVD is that the original broadcast pilot, “The Train Job”, was actually a weak episode that didn’t really do much to bring the audience into the world or the greater narrative. Towards the end of the broadcast run, “Objects in Space” was aired before “Heart of Gold”, resulting in the episode having content that didn’t make sense if you didn’t see that previous episode, but this is all more a problem of Fox than of the series.

Adding in all the correct episodes in order and starting with the proper pilot makes the series much more compelling and the characters considerably more interesting. Firefly is still clearly building by the point it got canceled. We've seen some characters tested like in "War Stories" and "Objects in Space" and while some internal conflicts, like that between Jayne (Adam Baldwin) and the Tam siblings get resolved faster than expected, the world is barely built and the overarching story tensions were only hinted at in the last couple episodes and that was only between Mal and Inara (Morena Baccarin).

The one major criticism I have of Firefly is that the universe ostensibly comes from a collision of the Anglophone west and China becoming the primary dominant cultures. As such, all the characters do occasionally speak some almost unintelligible Chinese. However, for a universe where one of the two most populous nations became a major power, there is a tremendous dearth of people you might actually believe came from China--the language, mangled as it is, is present--but there are almost no Asian characters, even in the background. And this fact alone makes any of the presence of Asian language, costume, or other signifier seem fake and probably Orientalist, which is a huge detraction because of how frequently Asian cultural elements abound. Firefly is essentially playing yellowface and that injures the experience greatly.

Aesthetically, Firefly is a bit rough and tumble. While the show was shot in high definition, the actual direction often uses handheld camera and many of the overall setups seem almost amateur. Granted, this is a science-fiction television show working on a limited budget, so I wasn't expecting it to look like a prestige show, but there are times where the show almost feels like a B-level show. And that might be a little intentional because both the Western and science fiction genres historically had a lot of B-level shows and movies. And most of the time, this isn't particularly distracting since we're not dealing with supernatural elements like Buffy and Angel, where some of the costumes and makeup were laughable.

But when Firefly is at its strongest, it's quite entertaining and it rarely stumbles, at least not enough to entirely tank an episode, although in the bigger picture, it's really hard not to notice the show's Asian problem. However, since we're only working a partial season that never really got to really flesh out its world and nor get much into its overarching season story and theme, Firefly is admittedly limited. It's a show with promise building upon even more promise, but perhaps only really delivered on that promise a couple times during its run and was then cut too short to see that promise fulfilled. At least until Serenity. But while it was building all that promise, the show did manage to entertain pretty well and that makes it a decent watch even now. 7/10

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

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Firefly (2002): "Objects in Space"

"Objects in Space" was the final episode of Firefly to air, itself a kind of bottle episode, and while it's admittedly nowhere near a fitting early close to the series--the last episode produced, "The Message", holds that distinction--"Objects in Space" does manage to resolve a main tension of Firefly, bringing the crew into a state of relative harmony and provides an interesting guest character for the crew to deal with.

The whole of the episode takes place on Serenity as River finds herself with the ability to read the crew's thoughts and frightens everyone by carrying around one of Jayne's pistols perceiving it as a branch. This leads to a discussion of what can be done about River. Meanwhile, crafty and eccentric bounty hunter Jubal Early (Richard Brooks) spies on the ship and makes plans to capture River.

Everything about the episode is working towards the central story of Firefly, meaning that while there's not much exploration of the world of Firefly in "Objects in Space", everything has to do with what the series premised itself on in the pilot, going back to how Mal and River are wanted as well as the formation of the expanded crew of the Serenity. Jubal Early is an pretty interesting character to set against River as well as he's sort of a dark mirror to her in that he is clearly mentally off, ultra-proficient, and prone to rambling philosophically at random, but frighteningly sharp and sadistic. They both maintain an interesting fixation on physical objects, which is most notably shown by their respective fascination with guns in the episode--but their differences are shown in how they perceive these things.

The episode also manages an interesting back and forth contrast between comedy--thanks to Early's peculiarities--and suspense, as despite Early's eccentricity, he remains highly dangerous and believably so. The suspense in particular carries the episode from its start to its finish and the final act twist with River is striking and actually makes sense as well as giving the Tam siblings' conflict with Serenity at least some partial closure. River's development in the episode also opens up some more avenues of mystery to explore as well, so while the episode closes one door, it opens another to keep the series moving forward--especially since Alliance pursuit as well as need for money is a constant threat. The episode keeps Inara running on a hamster wheel this episode and it was probably a little curious to see that subpoint during the original airing since it references a development in "Heart of Gold" that wouldn't have been seen.

There is one curious logic matter at the episode's end as they send Early's ship flying off instead of collecting it in their cargo hold and selling it on the black market, but that, along with Kaylee again being made a damsel in distress, turns out to be the only real weaknesses in the episode. Guest star Richard Brooks especially turns in a memorable performance as Early and although he seemed utterly defeated at the episode's (and series') end, I'm sure a character and performance that juicy would not have gone too long without showing back up in the series.

Unfortunately, this marked the end of Firefly and although it wasn't a satisfying ending, it's hardly the series' fault, having been canceled mid-season and without enough warning to wrap things up. Fortunately, the episode does manage to end the story at a good enough place that the film Serenity could eventually pick up and conclude the tale. But as an episode of the doomed series, "Objects in Space" shined like a celestial body. 8/10

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Friday, March 13, 2015

Firefly (2002): "Heart of Gold"

The penultimate episode of Firefly in the intended viewing order, "Heart of Gold", never made it to air during Firefly's original broadcast run. The episode finally escaped the indignity on home video and it's surprising that the series was canceled because "Heart of Gold" exhibits a series that's finally not only found its legs, but has come to understand where it can run with them.

"Heart of Gold" puts a little twist on a Seven Samurai plot and uses the moment to examine Mal and Inara's developing relationship as well as putting pressure on it. The episode opens with local wealthy man Ranse Burgess (Fredric Lehne) threatening to take away his biological heir from the pregnant brothel worker Petaline (Tracy Leah Ryan). Knowing that Burgess will use force, madame Nandi (Melinda Clarke) calls in a favor from Inara, which brings Mal and the crew of Serenity to the rescue as they prepare to defend the Heart of Gold brothel from Burgess and his goons.

Like some of their caper or crime centered episodes, the actual defense of the Heart of Gold brothel isn't particularly interesting. It mostly falls into the job-of-the-week type of story. It does make it a little more interesting that the people calling for help are sex workers and there is a bit of the Western settler story going on. However, the episode is mostly uplifted by the effect it has on Mal and Inara in particular as it moves their overall story forward as well as exposes just a tiny bit more about Inara. Unfortunately, the episode often feels like a vehicle for this at times more than an interesting story in itself.

The episode actually ends with a major moment and it's pretty tragic that the show got canceled shortly after this episode got made because there is a lot of promise in it--the characters have mostly taken root and there's plenty of material to go deeper into. "Heart of Gold" itself isn't the strongest example of Firefly's storytelling, but at least everything's clicking into place for the problem-of-the-week type storytelling and I think that makes it a pretty decent episode. 7/10

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Deux jours, une nuit (2014)

Two Days, One Night has a pretty simple plot, but remains captivating because of the tension created by the stakes involved and the time constraints of the character. Aided by a strong performance by Marion Cotillard and pointed observations about work culture and the tenuous nature of employment, Two Days, One Night is a surprisingly efficient drama.

Cotillard plays Sandra Bya, an employee of a solar panel production company, mother, and wife, who is recovering from depression, which had left her on disability until recently. Unfortunately, the Friday before she is set to return to work, she is alerted that the company had put the other employees to a vote and had them decide between cutting her and losing their substantial bonus and fourteen of the sixteen have chosen to cut her. However, her two friends at the company fight for her and their boss permits a revote by secret ballot on Monday. While discouraged and her family unable to make mortgage without her salary, if Sandra wants to keep her job, she must personally convince a majority of her coworkers to sacrifice their bonus over the weekend so that she can stay employed.

Two Days, One Night's story succeeds in two ways: first the setup allows for a tense and efficient story over a short period of time. As Sandra only has the weekend before the vote and only a limited number of people to visit, every visit ticks away time on the clock and every person visited results in a changed likelihood of keeping her job or losing it. That makes every single encounter, as well as time lost during it, matter. And this has a strong impact on the film's observations of both depression and how it impacts Sandra's thinking and attitude by magnifying the significance of each setback and making empathetic her feeling of helplessness.

It also increases the lens under which personal interests are weighed as each employee has their reasons for supporting or refusing Sandra's request and a lot of which comes down to many of those employees being in situations where they need the money as well. They all are aware that the dictate comes from their company, which shows the precarious position that blue collar workers are in and the seeming inhumanity of a business that would easily cut one if they found that they could be more efficient--a critique on profit-at-all-costs-oriented business culture. And the Two Nights, One Day manages to do all this as well as explore the relationship between Sandra and her husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione) in just ninety five minutes, making every minute and every frame of the picture feel like it counts and no second of excess is seen.

The brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne stay close to a handheld and personal style of filmmaking, bringing us close into Sandra's perspective and rarely leaving her side. This helps us in empathizing and sympathizing with her and is also shot in a way that heightens the intimacy and realism of the moment by making us a silent partner in Sandra's quest. Of course, spending so much time with Sandra means that Cotillard needs to perform spectacularly as she's on screen almost all the time and she performs excellently, capturing Sandra's weaknesses and dual sense of hopelessness as well as her desperation and the little fragments of her remaining pride. As Sandra transforms over the course of the film, Cotillard adjusts in subtle ways, never leaving the reality of Sandra that both the Dardenne's want to show us and that we are privy to.

The supporting players also help, but the almost Dogme 95 style of filmmaking and Cotillard's impressive performance, as well as the lean, but powerful scenario and story, are what makes Two Nights, One Day so convincing. In ninety-five minutes, the Dardennes and Cotillard present a microcosm of the life of Sandra and her coworkers at Solwar, capturing their respective situations magnified through our intimacy with Sandra. Those ninety-five minutes are gripping, the resolution satisfying, and every one of them is worth seeing if you like concentrated, realistic dramas. 9/10

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Firefly (2002): "The Message"

"The Message" marks the final episode of Firefly produced, although it's not the last episode chronologically. As the show had already been canceled while this episode was being produced, the tragic and somber tone that it ends up taking might reflect the show ending as much as the events in the story. And that actually somehow manages to add a bit of weight to the episode. Unfortunately, "The Message" also introduces at least three rather obvious story logic problems that make the final resolution of the episode rather unfeasible. I think it was played well enough that it doesn't fully break the episode, but it does make the whole experience much weaker.

The whole affair begins when Mal and Zoe receive a package containing the corpse of one Private Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward), a subordinate of theirs during the war. In Tracey's hands is a voice recording noting that his final request is for Mal and Zoe to take him to his family for burial. Unfortunately, hot on their heels is Alliance soldier Lieutenant Womack (Richard Burgi), attempting to recover the corpse. This makes it clear to the crew that Tracey's corpse isn't what it seems to be and what they find out about Tracey is doubly surprising.

And it's this twist that I found highly effective, especially after setting up the truly somber tone in the first act and then putting the pressure on through Womack. It does raise a question about how dead Tracey even got himself mailed in the first place--but that's mostly fridge logic. Having my expectations subverted in a spectacular moment worked well. Slightly disappointing is the minor running story about Simon putting his foot in his mouth with Kaylee again and it gets entangled with the main story and then never really gets resolved as Simon basically vanishes from the story from there.

It's at the end that the episode stumbles the hardest. One plot point could have been easily resolved if any character would have just yelled out "I have a plan" and another if the crew had remembered that they had one of the best surgeons in the Alliance on board who had solved this kind of problem before when it was seemingly more dire. These two issues kind of broke the final act of the episode for me especially considering that the pursued alternative to the penultimate conflict was for everyone to die.

Still, the brilliance of the twist and its execution was good enough to anchor this episode for me. That it gave up on good sense at the end and also really failed to make good on the Tracey-Kaylee-Simon substory, which could have been interesting, was disappointing. However that the episode gets the double bonus of reflecting on demise, particularly of itself helps a lot of the genuflecting moments to have gravity. And I think that's what saves the episode the most. 7/10

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