Summer Movie List: Fargo and Sense and Sensibility

Here today with an edition of my summer movie list is a pair of directors that I admire greatly and whose filmography I’d very much like to complete. Of Ang Lee’s filmography, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution still rank as two of my favorite movies ever while Brokeback Mountain is an admirable feature. Meanwhile, the Coen Brothers have a sprawling filmography that I somehow have barely touched on. True Grit and No Country for Old Men are the only films that I’ve seen and while I admired the former for its undeniable beauty and entertaining structure, the latter was definitely bleak and a struggle to get through. Still, I’d like to expand my relationships with both of these directors and I chose films that feature actresses I like: Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Frances McDormand.

Fargo (1996) – dir. Joel Coen

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From the very beginning with the opening shot of a car coming out of a snowstorm, the film caught my attention. The diner scene with Jerry (William H. Macy), Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare) made me laugh and awe at the vileness of Carl, the intimidating quietness of Gaear, and the desperation of Jerry. The kidnapping is one terrifically shot scene, and the directors never dilute its impact by drowning it in music and clunky edits. But this is just the first half of the story, when the kidnapping gets out of hand, the very pregnant Margie Gunderson (Frances McDormand), a local police chief, gets involved.

What’s amazing about McDormand’s performance and Marge as a character is the essential simplicity of the performance and her story. Marge is a perfectly sweet and normal woman, whip-smart, and decent. She doesn’t cheat on her husband and never feels the need to do so either. What fascinates on first viewing is McDormand’s shifting facial tics. The wheels are turning in her head as she tries to solve the case, all with a sunny smile that belie the intelligence. That whole scene where she interviews the girls who slept with Carl and Gaear is hilarious while her last interrogation scene with Jerry reveals just how intelligent and intuitive she is without once breaking a sweat. McDormand shows that a character does not necessarily have to have a drug problem, a bad marriage, or any sort of crisis to be interesting. Essentially, she makes a very normal character compelling onscreen.

And that is ultimately what I find so incredibly fascinating about Fargo. It sustains its deftly balanced comedic and dark tone throughout the whole film. But underneath the gruesomeness of the crime, the Coen brothers remain interested in these people’s private and personal lives that even if the kidnapping and murders happen, I can sit and watch Marge’s perfectly happy and normal marriage, Carl and Gaear’s one-sided conversations, and Jerry’s customer service. Grade: A

Sense & Sensibility (1995) – dir. Ang Lee

I’ve only ever read one novel by Jane Austen and that was Pride & Prejudice, which I really loved. The richness of the world the Austen brought to life with her words is simply incomparable. Joe Wright’s 2005 film of this novel was something of a qualified success, and something that I’m quite fond of, especially for Keira Knightley’s justly Oscar-nominated work, the costumes, the beautiful music by Dario Marianelli (such a recognizable sound), and the romantic cinematography. Even better, however, was the Pride & Prejudice miniseries with Colin Firth & Jennifer Ehle, who I thought perfectly embodied Darcy & Elizabeth. In choosing this film, based on another novel by Austen, and by a director whose films I rank highly on my personal list, with actresses I generally adore, I thought I was going to get a home run.

In short, I was wrong. I found this movie to be a gentle snooze. To be fair, the film is rather picturesque, the music appropriate, and the writing adequate, but nothing seemed urgent about this film, least of all the performances by Kate Winslet and especially Emma Thompson, who play sisters searching for a little romance. Whereas the romance between Darcy and Elizabeth seemed so well-drawn, with their blossoming relationship so delicately laid out, the romances here seemed inadequate, and at worst, poorly conceived and improbable. Winslet may acquit herself well with the performance but I found her, interestingly dull, especially for a part that’s meant to be sort of a troublemaker. Her romance with Willoughby & Brandon feel almost half-assed on screen because they felt like such small chapters in the story. The marriage to Brandon, although I can see from a mile, felt almost depressing because she never indicated in her prior choices the affection for him nor did the film really try to show it. Meanwhile, Thompson is too old to play Elinor, and her styling seemed generally unattractive. But that’s not the only problem for her, Elinor is written as an extremely reserved woman, rational and practical about her feelings and actions, that she shows little emotion. Thankfully, Thompson can telecast so many withheld emotions with her face that no words are needed to show them. But at the same time, Elinor feels so poorly shaded as a character, lacking anything interesting to say, and mostly robs Thompson of the ability to sustain interest in her. Overall, I think this film was a bore. Grade: C+

Next Up: When Harry Met Sally, Akira, & The Philadelphia Story

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Summer Movie List: “Sad Movie” (2005) dir. Kwon Jong-Kwan

This isn’t on my final 100 list because I was watching the film while typing away at my laptop about the list.

When your movie is titled “Sad Movie,” it’s hard to really get invested without feeling like you’re being manipulated into feeling things before you can even see what’s happening. If you’re a fan of Korean entertainment, you’re in for a treat because of the many movie and TV stars that are in this film. Who do they have? Jung Woo Sung, Im Soo Jung, Cha Tae-hyun being adorable and cute like always, Son Tae-young, Yeom Jeong Ah, a very young Yeo Jin Goo (in his debut), Shin Min-ah, and Lee Ki Woo. I like most of the actors listed above and all of them work really hard to make this film special.

The film tells four different stories somehow interconnected with each other. It’s a formula that has stopped working in Hollywood with duds like Valentines’ Day or New Years’ Eve (but this film precedes those). Jin Woo (Jung Woo Sung) is a firefighter looking to propose to his girlfriend Soo Jung (Im Soo Jung), a sign language translator for the news, who is always afraid for his safety in the job. Her sister Soo-eun (Shin Min-ah) is a deaf girl with a facial scar, working as a mascot at a theme park, hiding her face behind a giant mask. She has a crush on a theme park artist Sanggyu (Lee Ki Woo), who is planning on studying abroad within a month. In another story, unemployed Jung Ha Seok (Cha Tae Hyun) gets dumped by his girlfriend Sukhyun (Son Taeyoung), a cashier at a grocery store, because he doesn’t have stable employment. He then got a job delivering break-up messages to people. Lastly, Yeom Joo Young (Yeom Jung Ah) is a busy mom who spends little time with her son Hee-chan (Yeo Jin Goo). But when a cancer diagnosis leaves her in the hospital, Jooyoung and her son reconnect.

The story is full of humor and a lot of sentimental moments that perfectly honors its title even if the director sometimes strains too hard for emotional effect. Each frame is flooded with light, seeping through windows, and giving the film an ethereal glow that makes the film like a scene in the afterlife. The soundtrack is light and peppy but juxtaposed against the sadder moments, it seems almost destined to make you cry. The best scenes in the film are the ones between Soo-eun and Sanggyu, who makes such a cute-looking couple, but is doubly funny because most of their scenes involve physical and visual humor.

What I don’t buy about the entire film is just how contrived each moment feels, which is a problem with films with overlapping stories in general. Nothing in each story really affects any other story but they all overlap in one way or another as if to say that they all exist in the same world. In other words, logic doesn’t really play into how the story is set-up but it’s designed for maximum star visibility.

But at the same time, those actors really make this film more enjoyable than it really should be. Cha Tae-hyun, even if I’ve seen him do this kind of acting a million times, is just so good at acting like a schlub but a lovable one. He nails his one dramatic scene but he’s just as good, if not better, in his lighter and funnier scenes. Yeom Jung Ah is a wonderful actress and she proves what a tremendous dramatic actor she is with the slow-burning reaction shots and the gentle but firm way she scolds her son. Lastly, Yeo Jin Goo’s debut performance promises such a bright future and I can see what makes him special in later films and TV shows here.

Ultimately, the film proves to be a good watch, even if it is disposable.

Rating: B-

Summer Movie List: “The 400 Blows” – dir. Francois Truffaut

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What is there to say about a film that has had essays written about it since it came out? Nothing I say will add anything more of value to a film that has endlessly been called one of the greatest films ever. At the same time, I find it really hard to find the right words to express my feelings on this film.

From a purely cinematic perspective, I can see why the film is lauded. The cinematography is quite virtuoso, with the camera fluidly following Antoine as he struggles in school and at home. The central performance by Jean-Pierre Leaud is strikingly simple: he highlights Antoine’s inner juvenile personality but also the turmoil that he is going through. The music is quite pleasing, adding to the story without overpowering it and aids in transitioning between scenes seamlessly.

But while I can appreciate it is a pure cinematic delight, what ultimately makes me love this movie a lot is how much Truffaut maximizes the emotions and feelings that Antoine experiences. His life feels like a fully lived-in childhood, full of painful fights and arguments and joyful memories going to the movies. Antoine’s life is tragic only because Antoine is so misunderstood by adults who are quick to judge him without taking a second look at what Antoine is saying. And it’s so easy to relate to Antoine’s troubles. It’s clear that he just wants to do right in some instances like the essay, but no one wants to take him seriously.

Overall, the film is beautiful to look at and never sentimentalized one bit of Antoine’s childhood problems.

Rating: A

2 Down, 98 to go! Next up, I’m going to watch Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver

Summer Movie List: “Woman is the Future of Man” (2004) dir. Hong Sang-soo

As one of the most prominent Korean directors internationally, Hong Sang-soo has unfortunately not been as popular at home as his fellow auteurs Park Chan-wook, Bong Joong-ho, or Lee Chang-dong. “Woman is the Future of Man” features Yoo Ji-Tae, right when he became a major star with “Oldboy”, which was also in competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. But unlike that movie, Hong’s film was received unenthusiastically by international critics and with little interest by viewers at home. 

The film tells the story of two friends, Lee Moon-ho (Yoo Ji Tae) and Kim Hyun-geon (Kim Tae-Woo) who reunite after a couple of years apart to discuss about Hyun-geon’s ex-girlfriend Park Seon-hwa (Sung Hyun-ah). Moon-ho is a professor and Hyung-geon is a filmmaker who just came back from studying abroad in the United States. During their meeting, Hyun-geon asks Moon-ho to reunite him with his girlfriend. Unbeknownst to him, Moon-ho and Seon-hwa had a sexual relationship after Hyun-geon left.

From the very first scene, I can already tell why Hong Sang-soo is often impenetrable for audiences and sometimes overvalued by arthouse critics. The story employs fractured storytelling, going back and forth between the past and the present, where the two friends try to find Seon-hwa. Meanwhile, Hong Sang-soo’s film is cinematically sparse: his preference for static shots and long takes is exasperating because we are always at arms’ length from the story. It’s hard to get involved with a film that tries so hard to be taken seriously without having much to say. 

The sexual politics, for instance, is really upsetting. The men in the film treat the women like objects. Both Moon-ho and Hyung-geon treats Seon-Hwa like a sex-doll and objectifies every other woman in the film. And even if this is the point that Hong criticizes, he does a bad job at making such a definitive statement, especially when the film itself treats the women with little interest. Consider the fact that Seon-Hwa is almost unknowable, always servicing men, but hardly being serviced herself. She might be the object of both men’s affection, but the film barely cares about what she likes or who she is as an individual. In fact, by the end of the movie, both men have left her alone stranded again, yet the camera continues on to Moon-ho’s character finding another girl to pleasure him. 

I can see what might attract critics to Hong’s movies, but as far as I’m concerned, his films are not as interesting or well-made as the other renowned compatriots who are quite popular worldwide right now.

Rating: C

1 Down, 99 left to go! 

Today’s Viewings: 4 Disney Films and House Episodes

Today, is my first official day of not having anything to do this summer. The best way to cure my boredom? Netflix. So here are some quick thoughts on these films and TV episodes that I watched.

1. Lilo and Stitch  dir. Dean Deblois & Chris Sanders (2002)

Thoughts: What a lovely film this turned out to be! I never watched the entire movie but I had fond memories of the TV show when I was younger. To my surprise, the storytelling is robust, never overselling the tragedy and punctuating each scene between Nani and Lilo with the right amount of melancholy. Stitch too is a hoot. (Grade: B+)

2. Hercules – dir. Ron Clements (1997)

Thoughts: I don’t really like how it mangles Greek mythology (I mean, how else can you tell a family-friendly story with all the sexual perversions included) but I did enjoy the score’s mix of gospel and classic Menken-style musicality. Hercules’s main arc works and Meg is an interesting female lead, but the overall story is a tad dull and the film is actually pretty hideous to look at (the colors clash horribly). (Grade: C).

3. Mulan – dir. Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook (1998)

Thoughts: I still think that Mulan is the best “Disney princess” for the simple fact that she kicks ass harder than anyone before or after her. More than that, she thinks independently and she doesn’t let any man stand in her way. Besides her, Eddie Murphy is pretty funny as Mushu and there are other musical gems in this film, including “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” and “Reflections.” (Grade: B+)

4. Pocahontas – dir. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg (1995)

Thoughts: Wow. This film is beautiful drawn, each scene brimming with colors and fascinating lighting. Pocahontas is also perhaps the most beautifully drawn character in the Disney canon. The animals are distracting and there are inconsistencies here and there with the storytelling (HOW ON EARTH CAN POCAHONTAS UNDERSTAND JOHN) but it feels like a movie with so much to say. (Grade: B+)

5. House M.D, Season 4:

Episode 1 “Alone”: A fascinating look at House’s head, as he struggles to do his job without a team. The twist at the end of the case is quite stunning and it features a lot of sharp dialogue. Too bad for the poor special effects at the beginnings. Overall, a satisfying beginner to a season (Grade: B+)

Episode 2 “The Right Stuff”: I love that we have so many new faces here, especially because they’re a volatile mix. House’s “hallucinations” of his old team is a fascinating sideline story but this is seriously all about making strong impressions for the new cast. (Grade: A)

Episode 3 “97 Seconds”: Amber continues to fascinate as a character and Forman continues to show just how boring the story gets when it strays away from House’s team. (Grade: B)

Episode 4 “Guardian Angels”: The competition keeps the story moving, even as the show tries to force Forman, Cameron, and Chase back into the show. I think it would have been a stronger show had the makers just let them go. (Grade: A)

Episode 6 “Whatever It Takes”: The CIA aspect is the best part about this episode because it’s always fun watching House bully doctors and woo another. The other patient storyline is interesting if only because the final twist is quite unsettling and unexpected. (Grade: A-)

Episode 7 “Ugly”: The episode is really poignant because of the ugly patient’s story. Nothing in the film is sentimentalized but one can easily sympathize for the patient. The documentary aspect is a bit gimmicky but it worked to bring some much needed humor into the episode. (Grade: A-)

Episode 8 “You Don’t Want to Know”. I was kind of bored with this episode’s case, but really fascinated by the character development going on among the fellows. House finally gets a case of lupus so way to go with ending that running gag (Grade: B-)

Episode 9 “Games”. Jeremy Renner before he became an Oscar nominee shows up as a rockstar. Otherwise, his case is not interesting. Again, the most interesting part of the episode are the fellows’ continued character arc. Also, what a great episode for Cutthroat Bitch. (Grade: B)