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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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Selma (2014)

In many ways, Martin Luther King, Junior can be larger than life. He is one of those figures that you read about in American History books and has been nearly sainted in popular memory for his dream of racial reconciliation and his pursuit of laws protecting racial equality, being one of the main leaders of the American Civil Rights movement that effected no small amount of change in the country. As such, it's sometimes hard to remember that he was a man too, a man with fears, doubts, and concerns--one that suffered physical attacks, jail time, and even a concerted effort by the FBI to discredit him and distract others from his causes by exposing his marital infidelities.

Efforts have been made before to remember the man and his mission, from the immediate documentary of King: A Filmed Records... Montgomery to Memphis to the television miniseries biopic "King", but the only theatrical biopic that King had received to date was 2001's Boycott. Until now. Not treading on the toes of the last movie, Selma looks very specifically at King (David Oyelowo) and his comrades at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their mobilization of the black people of Selma to protest the state of Alabama's suppression of their voting rights.

The protest would be in the form of a march from Selma to Montgomery, but the march itself faced great opposition from the local government. The film chronicles the beginnings of the march, the struggles it faced, and its final conclusion as well as the resulting passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The film is decent in its overall filmcraft, everything is treated with the kind of intimacy and respect that you expect from a biopic with particular attention paid to fleshing out King and giving the people around him a bit of character--but the story is primarily on King and Selma, making Lyndon Baines Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) a larger character in the film than Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), as Johnson plays the role of being the goal in the film, to change his mind and heart or to force his hand to create and push through legislation to protect minority voting rights is the measure of King and company's success.

Rather than attempting to be a historical dramatization, Selma instead examines the cost of the Civil Rights effort, weighed against its hopes. We get to know characters that will be beaten on screen as well as those that will perish at the hands of murderous supporters of segregation and voter suppression. And all this has a potent impact on the audience, but what I particularly find interesting about it is the impact that the film shows it having on King. Those doubts are used to explain the moment that King ends up defusing the second attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery before seeking federal protection of the march. More significantly, it makes King more human in our eyes, as a man with fears, doubts, and weaknesses and that is perhaps the most significant aspect of Selma. For all the things that King accomplished during his short stay on earth, he was still a human being like any of us and desired to have the full life that we all desire too, as noted by his final words to the agent of the government that was sent to advise him.

But while such moments and the acknowledgement of King's infidelities dissolves any accusation that Selma is a hagiography, its largely formalistic restraint and decorum still align it in the well tread cinematic space of the biopic genre, unlike the more adventurous and directorially impressive 12 Years a Slave and more like the safer Dallas Buyers Club, both from the past year. Likewise, the performances from the predominantly British cast are surprisingly strong, with Oyelowo doing an excellent job of immersing himself in King's mannerisms and speech style.

But while the film is competent in its production, performance, and direction, the ultimate convincing reason to see it is still its subject matter, which somehow manages to be as relevant today as it was back in 1965, the connection made blunt by actor-rapper Common's included song over the credits, "Glory". Selma does a solid job of humanizing King, but its existence alone becomes a reminder that we've come a long way, but still have a long way to go as it stands as a temporal mirror to the present. That Selma remains a decent watch for its filmcraft intrinsically only helps the case to see it. 8/10

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

내 마음의 풍금 (1999)

Originally published at Dramabeans on January 4, 2015

I think one of the best topics for nostalgia films is the first crush. The crushes of our youths seem to be the kind of topic that always comes up when we meet with old friends and I think that's true of cinema as well. Certainly with Korean cinema as the nostalgia film Sunny--featuring a first crush as a conflict-driving subplot--did exceptionally well when it was released in 2011. But nostalgia films are an old enterprise and the generations of yesteryear have their reminiscences too. In 1999, Korea produced Harmonium in My Memory.

Adapted from a popular novel, this particular reminiscence of youthful infatuation is set in the Korean countryside in the 1960's, just about a decade after the Korean War. Fresh out of teaching school, twenty-one year old Gang Suha (I Byeongheon) arrives in a little village to serve at its school. As he arrives, he catches the attention and, very quickly, the affection of the seventeen year old Yun Hongyeon (Jeon Doyeon), one of the eldest youths in the village attending the elementary school. Also arriving the same day to start as a teacher is twenty-five year old Yang Eunhui (I Miyeon), who shares with Suha a love of music. He too is instantly smitten. And we have ourselves a love triangle.

Now the setup has all the trappings of a melodrama, but because of the nostalgic lens through which it's viewed, Harmonium in My Memory spends plenty of time with the characters, helping us to get acquainted with them. Through the time spent with Hongyeon, we see that because of her typically younger peers, she acts younger than her age, so her first crush has quite a potent effect on her. She doesn't really know how to deal with her feelings and ends up pouring them into her class journal. This results in several hilarious written passages--which never fully out her feelings for her teacher--where Hongyeon bluntly praises Suha and also does her best to put down Eunhui once she realizes that Suha and Eunhui are friendly.

While the story is simple, the study of infatuation is well done, especially with capturing all those awkward moments one might have in front of one's crush, like Hongyeon following Suha around and ducking out of sight when he turns around. Another wonderful moment is when Hongyeon is playfully pinched by Suha--Suha mistaking her arm for Eunhui's--and she's on cloud nine for the rest of the day or perhaps the week, per her journal entries, wondering to herself what such a pinch might mean--knowing full well that Suha will be reading it. And then there's the emotional devastation when rumors of Suha and Eunhui start floating through the school.

Though many of the film's moments are spent with Hongyeon and Suha dealing with their crushes, I appreciate that Harmonium in My Memory still takes the time to draw them in context. We see Hongyeon's bickering relationship with her mother (Song Oksuk) and many boy siblings (resulting in an amusing rant on hating boys in her journal) and we see Suha learning how to be a teacher through trial and error. This helps ground both Hongyeon and Suha so that they have dimensions beyond just being infatuated while also giving their respective infatuations a more specific character.

And I think that character is well delivered by the leads. I Byeongheon, having established himself with leading roles on television, manages to capture Suha's idealism and naivete well, but giving him just enough experience to separate himself from Jeon Doyeon's Hongyeon. And Jeon had her work cut out for her in regressing to a shy teenager after having a huge hit playing a woman her own age in The Contact two years prior.

Thanks to some excellent choices with wardrobe and hair and seemingly connecting with herself a decade prior, Jeon manages to convince as a teenager, only a few times seeming to overplay Hongyeon's youthfulness. I Miyeon, the most veteran of the leads--playing the major part in the previous year's genre-making Whispering Corridors, also as a teacher--has a smaller role in Harmonium, but plays out her experienced idealism well and carries some subtle untold backstory with her acting.

Less experienced is director I Yeongjae, who is helming his first feature film with Harmonium and it shows, especially in his uneven camera direction. At times he does well, capturing the euphoria of a crush via a tracking shot across a field as Hongyeon shouts with joy, as well as using a static camera of drunken, crying Suha, framed from three-quarters view to emphasize the smallness that he feels. However, the direction also often falls flat. This is most evident when Suha is being introduced to his fellow teachers, each time cutting to an almost 1980's sitcom-intro of each teacher stopping what they are doing to turn to the camera and introduce themselves with a smile and a characterizing comment. It's highly unrealistic and further muddling the story is the bookend of Hongyeon playing a record in the present: If the film is about her remembering the past, why do we get so deeply into Suha's perspective as a dual protagonist?

What the record playing intro does do well is to set the nostalgia film's use of music to connect to the past, filling the soundtrack with oldies like Connie Francis's "Don't Break My Heart" to set the time well. Accordingly the production also uses costumes well too, like Suha's slightly-too big suit to show that he's still a very young man and the villagers' generally modest clothing, indicating their status as a poorer rural community. Everything in the film has a bit of a rough quality to it, from the film stock to the materials used for the wardrobe and sets, but it's fortunate that those qualities actually fit Harmonium's humble setting well.

And Harmonium in My Memory's goals are fairly humble as well, aiming to capture these moments of infatuation in the lives of a student and her teacher. It succeeds. Harmonium in My Memory isn't wrought with powerful drama about teaching or the hardships of life in the impoverished countryside, nor is it loaded with high comedy and candy-coated romantic mischief, but instead it uses its setting, production, and performances to tell the kind of warm recollection your old friends might remind you of when you get together. And though the value of that nostalgia might be limited, when it's as effectively done as it is with Harmonium in My Memory, it's certainly appreciable. Just like memories of a first fleeting crush. 7/10

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Friday, January 16, 2015

Predestination (2014)

A lot of times, people think of science fiction films and they mostly imagine space-set movies and action and it's true that a lot of films in the genre tend to fall into these kinds of genres, frequently dipping into fantasy. However, there are also plenty of examples of cinema that are interested in the questions that science fiction poses and one such film is the recent Australian film, Predestination. Predestination also falls into the time travel genre--which is one that gets an entry only once in while and frequently suffers logic headaches due to the implications of time travel.

Interestingly enough, Predestination, based on the short story '--All You Zombies--' by Robert A. Heinlein, directly confronts the logical paradoxes implicit in time travel films, although to go into detail about how would probably be a spoiler. What it doesn't escape are some character and story and character logic holes that weaken what we're seeing on screen as well as never really coming to a point with its exploration of time travel paradoxes.

The film begins with a time-travelling government agent that goes to the past to stop a notorious terrorist called the "Fizzle Bomber". The agent is successful, but horribly disfigured in the process. He (now Ethan Hawke) gets reconstructive surgery and is sent on his final mission, where he poses as a bartender in the 1970's. There he encounters a young writer of fictional magazine confessionals and, establishing a rapport, listens to his remarkable life story over a wager of alcohol--before offering to top that story with an even more astonishing one.

I think the greatest thing that Predestination has going for it on the paradoxical twists that the film builds itself upon. However, the writer-directors, Michael and Peter Spierig, do manage to tip their hand a little too much at a few points allowing astute viewers to piece together all the twists about a third into the movie--and while the idea is kind of mind blowing at first glance, if you stop to dwell on it a little more, the story logic that enables the paradoxical twists to exist is rather unconvincing, relying on far too many unlikely coincidences that occur offscreen to motivate the events onscreen.

While Predestination is ostensibly a thriller with the story about trying to stop the "Fizzle Bomber", it really doesn't spend all that much time on the said bomber or the attempt to stop the bombings and instead spends a significant chunk of its time telling the story of Jane (Sarah Snook), which all operates as an extended setup for the rather peculiar paradoxical twists that it would then reveal. While the twists are shocking and the young woman's story engrossing, spending so much time in the past sort of results in the "Fizzle Bomber" aspect of the story getting dropped and the thriller aspect is never really recovered well from there.

Furthermore, aside from exposing the brain twisting paradox, Predestination never really sells any other story--there is a life story that's weakly woven into the story, but that love story is riddled with so many hugely improbable story and character logic flaws that it's completely undermined and even undermines the credibility of paradoxical twists. What's more, the film's ending twist, aside from being wholly predictable, also suffers from similar character motivation holes and logic flaws.

That the Spierig brothers are still able to make such a strangely paced story so engrossing is a feat, but their adaptation of Heinlein's story probably stretches the premise more than it could handle, if the original short story was even really logically sound to begin with. Their visual work is almost noirish at times, especially when dealing with the thriller element, but I think they are aware that the film isn't really a thriller and they direct the bombing moment accordingly as a mystery--framing carefully not to expose who is who at the time so as not to give away the twists.

Much more agreeable were the performances by Hawke and Snook, with Snook capturing a rather wide range of attributes in her transformational acting. Hawke plays a much more straightforward role, but does so pretty well.

And maybe those performances, along with the mind-bending twists will be enough for those looking for a burst of speculative fiction. Granted, the integrity of the story suffers greatly from logic holes if you think about it at all, but this is a problem that endemic to a great deal of time travel stories and it might not even be a thing you notice on the first viewing, thanks to an engrossing character in Jane and some effective, if uncommon, pacing for a somewhat mainstream facing feature film.

Predestination is a film that I'd like more if it was either more ambitious in its storytelling aims or if it were more coherent--but that said, I think it handwaves effectively enough that most audiences looking for a twisty story about time travel will appreciate it if they're willing to not sweat the details. And that's something. 6/10

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Monday, January 12, 2015

北京飯店 (1999)

Originally published at Dramabeans on December 28, 2014

The food created by Chinese immigrants to Korea is a major part of Korean culture, like how American Chinese food has become embedded in American cuisine. A lot of Koreans eat no small amount of jjajangmyeon in their lifetimes; such is the prevalence of this culinary tradition. And, in 1999, Korea even produced a film about a restaurant practicing this tradition called Peking Restaurant (also known as Chinese Restaurant, The Grand Chef, and a variety of the titles' words in combination). It's a drama about a small Sino-Korean restaurant with a proud tradition that never really dazzles with its storytelling flavors, but has a warm enough journey that it might still satiate some viewers.

In Peking Restaurant, young Yang Han-guk (Gim Seokhun) arrives at the titular restaurant, the Peking Hotel, to pay back a debt his father had with its proprietor, Mister Han (Sin Gu). So he joins the kitchen staff of the restaurant, which is like a little family, but trouble is brewing as Head Chef Ju (Myeong Gyenam) has a difference in opinion with Mister Han. Soon, a crisis arises and the restaurant might be forced to close, leaving it in the hands of Han-guk and the remaining kitchen staff to save the Peking Hotel.

While Han-guk is ostensibly the film's protagonist, in many ways, he's sort of an interloper at the Peking Hotel's kitchen, coming in from outside, galvanizing the kitchen staff and inspiring them to save the day. He does become part of the team, but he doesn't have a journey. He's the same character at the beginning of the film as he is at the end, except for perhaps improved skill in cooking Sino-Korean food. Instead, the film is kind of more about the transformation of most of the rest of the kitchen staff from being employees of the Peking Hotel, to becoming invested in it and its patriarch. And seeing Han-guk act as that catalyst while making his way into the hearts of the staff and Mister Han's daughter, Mirae (Myeong Sebin) is surprisingly affecting.

That said, the Peking Restaurant never really gets deeply into any of the characters, so they are fairly one-dimensional, choosing instead to superficially spend time with competing restaurants. However, none of that time spent with other restaurants even pays off that much in the story, so those moments tend to drag. Also, while the film hints at the beginnings of romance between Han-guk and Mirae, it never really makes anything of it, nor does that tension really push Mirae's moment of character development--which really just seems to happen without proper motivation.

Peking Restaurant also sports a bit of an episodic narrative structure with three independent crises for the kitchen, the last of which is cheaply resolved, sapping it of drama and never really creating anything resembling a greater statement or theme for the film. Perhaps that's why, by it's end, Peking Restaurant felt rather light and inconsequential.

Because of that, I think what ultimately makes Peking Restaurant work really comes down to the performances by the kitchen staff and the chemistry they forge. While many of the actors are relatively young at the time and occasionally their performances are rough when solo, their chemistry when together is quite strong, evident from the moment that Han-guk, fellow kitchen boy Taekjung (Jeong Jun), and delivery boy Changwon (Gim Junggi) begin their introductory drinking game early in the film. They capture the awkward water-testing one-up-manship that men often engage in with almost theatrical tension, Taekjung's exasperation at the volume of alcohol being drunk by Han-guk and Changwon helping to vent it with comedy.

And since Peking Restaurant's journey is built on the collective of the kitchen staff, that we get to spend so much time with them working and living together really helps sell the story in a way that almost makes up for its shallow, meandering writing. That core group chemistry combined with the episodic nature of the narrative ends up making Peking Restaurant feel a bit more like a short miniseries that has been placed end-on-end and, fortunately, a series can make do with shallow stories if their characters and cast come together well.

In terms of direction and production, there is no shortage of food photography in Peking Restaurant, but the absolute roughness of the production (the film was made before the Korean film industry really upgraded itself) keeps it from reaching the more appetizing levels of other food and restaurant films. Director Gim Uiseok handles the film fine, adding in a couple neat crane shots, but mostly just works to establish and then follow the film's core strength: the characters. A wise choice. Appropriately, the score is generally composed of Chinese-inspired synthesized music.

This means that, like the Peking Hotel itself, Peking Restaurant doesn't look nor sound like much. It's not really the kind of film you praise for its strong cinematography or direction. Even the story isn't especially compelling. But what ended up convincing me was the cast and the natural chemistry between the kitchen staff. Yes, it feels a bit like serial television narrative due to its episodic nature, but it fortunately makes the best of that structure by focusing on watching the group change and grow together. And like the Sino-Korean dish, jjajangmyeon, Peking Restaurant might not be especially fancy, complex, or deep, but it satisfies with warmth and a focus on doing a couple simple things well. 7/10

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Friday, January 9, 2015

Into the Woods (2014)

I have to admit that musicals often don't fare well with me and on this blog, most of them average a mediocre score of 6/10, with a few dropping lower and a couple rare ones much higher. It seems like I appreciate animated musicals and originally-made-for-film musicals more than stage adaptations in particular. Knowing that Into the Woods was a Stephen Sondheim musical, having thought his previous film musical, Sweeney Todd, was also a rather mediocre work, I didn't have a lot of hope for Into the Woods. I mean, it's not bad. Or at least not as bad as Les Misérables. But it was also so thin on story and suffers from some of the more general weaknesses in musicals--that songs don't move story forward--that, aside from its technical merits, it's a bit forgettable.

Adapted from Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's stage musical and, with their cooperation, made a little more family friendly, Into the Woods is part of the fairy tales gone wild pastiches that inform comic books like Fables, movies like Shrek, and television shows like Once Upon a Time. This mashup features several fairytale characters in a shared universe and two original ones, a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). They are childless and want a child. It turns out that their neighbor, a spiteful witch (Meryl Streep), cursed their household as a result of the baker's absent father's theft of magic beans from her garden.

But she offers the would-be parents a chance to lift the curse. They just need to bring her four objects: a cloak as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, a slipper as pure as gold, and hair as yellow as corn before the third midnight. These are owned by Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), all of whom end up travelling through the titular woods for various reasons. Also, just when everything seems like it might go right, it gets even more complicated.

Now, I do like the pastiche usage of the fairytales to some extent, using the characters colliding to tell a different tale than their original intentions, while riffing on those intentions. However, Into the Woods juggles far too many stories and that results in a far too shallow story for all of the main characters. It would seem the baker and his wife are nominally the protagonists since they have the most screen time and see the most change, but that lead on screen time is kind of short and every other character that eats up screen time weakens the overall story.

For example, the witch and Rapunzel get a nice healthy chunk of screen time together, all of which is eaten up by the one-note single teenage rebellion conflict that never really goes anywhere. You keep thinking with how much the witch shows up in the musical that perhaps Into the Woods might be her own story, but her story with Rapunzel never really makes it out into the overall storyline nor does it really drive or propel any of her actions outside of when she's with Rapunzel. What's more, Rapunzel is the baker's sister, but after dropping that fact, Into the Woods never does anything with it.

Similarly, Cinderella is given quite a bit of time and attention, but the problem of indecisiveness never really connects at all with her fairy tale problem nor her problem later in the story, where she effectively just becomes a pawn to resolve the greater problem. The problems she faces are compartmentalized into parts of the play, but never connect at all and as a result, we spend a lot of time with a character that is ultimately insignificant.

At least with both Red and Jack, they get a little less screen time and are clearly more support for the baker and his wife, rather than eating up a huge amount of screen time without really providing much story. And while the music that the characters sing is nice, it's not especially memorable nor emotionally potent. And, for the most part, it's descriptive rather than driving. The characters sing their situations and even sometimes their conflicts, but these things are resolved also in song and not with action, making for songs that don't drive the story forward. This might be fine if I were just listening to a collection of related songs on a concept album, but it often feels like I'm just waiting for the song to be done with so I can see what they do after they describe how they feel.

Granted, this almost seems like a problem endemic to film adaptations of stage musicals, because I think the different mediums and their histories result in differences in modes of effective storytelling. Stage plays and musicals do a lot of telling--film does a lot of showing. So I don't know if it's really so much the fault of Into the Woods in particular that the film version feels stilted, but a problem with adaptations of this kind altogether--one that I don't know can be solved without actually revising the songs and how they fit into story and scenes altogether. Perhaps this might explain why I have a preference for musicals where the music is written for the screen as it tends to drive more towards conflict-driven action.

While Into the Woods really needed to do more with shoring up the protagonists' stories, at least it does all right in terms of production. It looks great, like most contemporary big budget films and gives the stage musical a lot of depth, especially in capturing the opening title song, which cuts between all the players in different locations--something that would be harder to accomplish on the stage. The direction is also fairly dimensional, with enough motion in the shots and choice of angles to give the impression that we're not watching a stage--even though much of the movie was shot on a sound stage.

The cast is a bit uneven, with Blunt, Streep, and Corben performing best in both acting and song, the others ranging from workmanlike to dull. The song of the two princes, in particular, was ridiculous and the heavy emoting of both Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen was so over the top I couldn't help laugh at it--the rest of the theater also eventually found it laughable too. I want to believe all the shirt ripping and arm waving was intentionally campy, but because that wouldn't fit in with the rather earnest vibe of the rest of the production, I just have to chalk it up to the cast and director simply not being able to handle the song.

I did try to walk into the theater with an open mind, but Into the Woods only seems to confirm to me that stage-musicals need a lot more revision to really be able to adapt to the screen. There are a few things I like about Into the Woods--in particular, the production and art design and some of the performances, but the rest of the film doesn't really get much better than tolerable. The story is so shallow that the very few moments of character development seem to come out of the blue and the lyrics of the songs aren't as compelling for the screen as they would be on a stage. This results in the songs feeling a bit long and almost all of the characters without compelling substance. And that's how the movie feels too. 6/10

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Firefly (2002): "Trash"

"Trash" continues the general upswing for Firefly and even does better where "Ariel" was weak, better executing on the heist genre premise. This episode also marks the second example of a recurring character on the show, bringing back the well received Saffron (Christina Hendricks) for another round of mischief. There are still a few rough spots in the episode, but it's probably the most entertaining episode since the back-to-back successes of "Jaynestown" and Saffron's last appearance in "Our Mrs. Reynolds".

In this case, Mal meets an old friend, Monty (Franc Ross) and quickly discovered that Saffron, now going as Yolanda, has suckered Monty into marrying her too. Quickly abandoned by Monty, she eventually tempts the cash-strapped Mal with a heist for a valuable antique, which she can easily access. While the crew is wary after being duped by her in the past, despite Inara's protests, they decide the score is worth it. Of course, with Saffron involved, surprises will abound.

The heist is mechanically uncomplicated, much like the heist in "Ariel", but the complication presented by Saffron is much less predictable than the one that we got from Jayne in the aforementioned episode. So while there might not be much surprise in the actual heist story, the twists and turns by the inevitable betrayals and counter-planning sells the heist genre well--because sometimes it's who gets away from the loot that's more interesting.

That said, the episode is more self-contained than the preceding episodes, not really doing much to advance the overall narrative and Simon and River take a backseat this time too. However, the episode ends with a nice piece of development between the Tams and Jayne that also exposes a lot about who Simon is as well as further teasing River's nature that we saw a bit of on "War Stories".

Again, the actual mechanical heist part isn't especially thrilling, part of which has to do with the direction and the lack of defined stakes for failure to carry it out. Saffron proves herself an interesting returning character, although it's a little worrisome that she's resurfaced so early into the series, unless she is expected to take a bigger role in the series. I kind of wished we could have had a little actually revealed about her or at least a story about how she got away after "Our Mrs. Reynolds", but those aren't really necessary.

It's the writing that really sells "Trash". The first twist, though expected, is executed in an unpredictable way and the subsequent twists are much less predictable. And that's what makes "Trash" work well as a heist episode. Although the cast of Firefly seems to take a backseat to Saffron and the twists and turns, sometimes this kind of simply entertaining standalone serves a series well. 8/10

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