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


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


Summer Movie List: Chaplin, Scorsese, Baumbach and 2 Korean classics

In the past three days I watched six films of varying genres and styles from acclaimed directors and represent some of the finest that cinema can offer. It took a few days for me to process what I saw, but here are some brief thoughts I’ve had on each one of the films I watched. In the future, I might write more about these films, but for now I still need time to think through them.

1. Frances Ha (2013) – dir. Noah Baumbach

The photography in this film is beautiful, each scene perfectly lit and shot like a still photo. Frances is a frustrating childish character but Greta Gerwig never lets her neuroses, her constant need for attention and her chatty personality make her less likable. In fact, all her tics are endearing even if they can get annoying and self-important. Being from New York City, I can relate to some of her concerns and having friends who live this kind of life. Overall, what a fine and funny film worthy of all the hype. Grade: A-

2. Taxi Driver (1975) – dir. Martin Scorsese

That opening shot with the taxi coming out of the smoke with the jazz music blaring in the background slayed me. The next two hours was just one beautiful shot after another with the jazz music seeping through my skin. Robert De Niro gives one of the finest performances ever on screen, detailing the ever-growing neuroses and the unchecked machismo as each minute ticks by. This film is perhaps the best I’ve seen from Scorsese’s oeuvre so far and I’m excited to watch his older stuff now that I have a taste of what he accomplished. Grade: A+

3. City Lights (1931) – dir. Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin is hilarious and even if he doesn’t utter a single word, every gesture, motion, expression registers so much feeling or meaning that words are useless. Chaplin is a fascinating director: each scene almost feels random with little to no connection, but the plot reveals themselves once the story progresses. I love that Chaplin makes jokes about alcoholism or about diseases or sickness without once being offensive. It helps that Chaplin is an astounding actor, who knows his body so well. Overall, one of the funniest films I’ve seen ever. Grade: A+

4. My Sassy Girl (2001) – dir. Kwak Jaeyoung

I’ve know about My Sassy Girl for a while now, since every Korean friend or even some of my non-Asian friends swear by how amazingly funny it is. And now that I’ve seen it, add me to the chorus of believers. Cha Tae-hyun and Jeon Ji-hyun are known for playing similar character types and they’ve built a career on doing the kind of films that play to those strengths; namely, Cha’s adorable dorkiness and Jeon’s hilarious feistiness. This film basically set that standard for them and I can see why everyone was won over. This film brims with hilarity anchored by an emotional and melancholic story. Cha and Jeon have so much chemistry that it overcomes even the slower less interesting parts of the story. Grade: A-

5. Oldboy (2004) – dir. Park Chan Wook

This is such a bizarre film. Each image is more unsettling the next but Park has such a remarkable control of each scene, particularly a long take of Dae-su fighting through men with a hammer, that I couldn’t look away. The film has so much “wrong” about it, with the incest and intense fascination with violence. I can see why Quentin Tarantino went crazy for it Cannes in 2004, it has a lot of his hallmarks. But for all of the craziness here, this film thrives on the human emotions and feelings that its characters go through. Choi Min-sik, in particular, gives a moving performance of a man unhinged. That last encounter with Yoo Ji Tae’s Lee Woo Jin is exhilarating acting. Grade: A

Up next: Fargo and When Harry Met Sally

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

The great thing about the start of every season is the wishful thinking that we can start anew. Each season, I have the urge to start a project: whether for physical self-improvement purposes like a diet or an exercise regime or for self-enrichment like reading novels or textbook or watching classic films. This summer, I plan on watching classic films that have been wilting on my list of things-to-watch for at least 5 years now. How can I profess to being a cinema aficionado, when I’ve seen so little of the movies that are constantly being hailed as some of the greatest? Of the 50 Greatest Films listed by Sight and Sound 2012, I’ve only seen 5 Films, which is quite embarrassing. On top of that, all of them rank highly on my list of favorite films.  So this summer, here’s 100 movies I plan on watching. I made sure that all of these movies are available to me either via Hulu’s Criterion Collection, Netflix, or my school’s library collection.

The first list, is a collection of the Sight and Sound Poll films that I find interesting or really important based on all the things I’ve read.

  1. Vertigo (1958) – dir. Alfred Hitchcock (AU Library)
  2. Citizen Kane (1941) – dir. Orson Welles (AU Library)
  3. The Rules of the Game (1939) dir. Jean Renoir (Hulu+)
  4. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)dir. FW Murnau (AU Library)
  5. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – dir. Stanley Kubrick (AU Library)
  6. The Searchers (1956) dir. John Ford (AU Library)
  7. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) dir. Dziga Vertov (Hulu+)
  8.  (1963) – dir. Federico Fellini (AU Library)
  9. Battleship Potemkin (1925) – dir. Sergei Eisenstein (AU Library)
  10. L’Atalante (1934) ­– dir. Jean Vigo (Hulu+)
  11. Breathless (1960) dir. Jean-Luc Godard (Hulu+)
  12. Apocalypse Now (1979) dir. Francis Ford Coppola (AU Library)
  13. Late Spring (1949) – dir. Yasujiro Ozu (Hulu+)
  14. Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) dir. Robert Bresson (Hulu+)
  15. Seven Samurai (1954) – dir. Akira Kurosawa (Hulu+)
  16. Persona (1966) – dir. Ingmar Bergman (Hulu+)
  17. Mirror (1975) dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (AU Library)
  18. L’Avventura (1960) – dir. Michaelangelo Antoinini (Hulu+)
  19. Contempt (1963) dir. Jean-Luc Godard (AU Library)
  20. The Godfather (1972) – dir. Francis Ford Coppola (AU Library)
  21. Ordet (1955) dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer (Hulu+)
  22. Andrei Rublev (1966) – dir. Andrei Tarkovsky (Hulu+)
  23. Mulholland Dr. (2001) – dir. David Lynch (AU Library)
  24. Shoah (1985) ­dir. Claude Lanzmann (AU Library)
  25. The Godfather Part II (1974) dir. Francis Ford Coppola (AU Library)
  26. Taxi Driver (1976) dir. Martin Scorsese (Netflix)
  27. Bicycle Thieves (1948) dir. Vittorio de Sica (Netflix)
  28. The General (1926) dir. Buster Keaton (Hulu+)
  29. Metropolis (1927)dir. Fritz Lang (Hulu+)
  30. Psycho (1960) dir. Alfred Hitchcock (AU Library)
  31. Sátántangó (1994) – dir. Bela Tarr (AU Library)
  32. The 400 Blows (1959) dir. Francois Truffaut (Hulu+)
  33. La Dolce Vita (1960) – dir. Federico Fellini (AU Library)
  34. Journey to Italy (1954) – dir. Roberto Rossellini (AU Library)
  35. Gertrud (1964) – dir. Carl Theodore Dreyer (Hulu+)
  36. Playtime (1967) – dir. Jacques Titi (AU Library)
  37. Close-Up (1990) dir. Abbas Kiarostrami (Hulu+)
  38. The Battle of Algiers (1966) dir. Gillo Pontecorvo (Hulu+)
  39. City Lights (1931) dir. Charlie Chaplin (Hulu+)
  40. Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) – dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (Hulu+)
  41. La Jetée (1962) dir. Chris Marker (Hulu+)

The next list is all the movies that I’ve been really curious about and I have been dying to see for a while now.

  1. The Philadelphia Story (1940) – dir. George Cukor (AU Library)
  2. The Red Shoes (1948) – dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressberger (AU Library)
  3. The Third Man (1949) – dir. Carol Reed (AU Library)
  4. Ikiru (1952) – dir. Akira Kurosawa (Hulu+)
  5. Sansho the Bailiff (1954) – dir. Kenji Mizoguchi (Hulu+)
  6. The Seventh Seal (1957) – dir. Ingmar Bergman (Hulu+)
  7. The Housemaid (1960) – dir. Kim Ki-Young (Hulu+)
  8. Woman in the Dunes (1964) – dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara (Hulu+)
  9. The Good, Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – dir. Sergio Leone (Hulu+)
  10. The Pornographers (1966) – dir. Shohei Imamura (Hulu+)
  11. Enter the Dragon (1973) – dir. Robert Clouse (AU Library)
  12. Chinatown (1974) – dir. Roman Polanski (Netflix)
  13. Jaws (1975) dir. Steven Spielberg (AU Library)
  14. Monthy Python and the Holy Grail (1975) dir. Terry Gilliam (AU Library)
  15. In the Realm of Senses (1976) dir. Nagisa Oshima (Hulu+)
  16. Insiang (1976) – dir. Lino Brocka (Hulu+)
  17. Annie Hall (1977) – dir. Woody Allen (AU Library)
  18. Alien (1979) – dir. Ridley Scott (AU Library)
  19. Manhattan (1979) – dir. Woody Allen (Netflix)
  20. Raging Bull (1980)  dir. Martin Scorsese (Netflix)
  21. Kagemusha (1980) – dir. Akira Kurosawa (Netflix)
  22. The Ballad of Narayama (1983) dir. Shohei Imamura (AU Library)
  23. Back to the Future (1985) – dir. Robert Zemeckis (AU Library)
  24. Blue Velvet (1986) – dir. David Lynch (AU Library)
  25. Akira (1988) – dir. Katsuhiro Otomo (AU Library)
  26. Coming to America (1988) dir. John Landis (Netflix)
  27. When Harry Met Sally (1989) – dir. Rob Reiner (AU Library)
  28. Days of Being Wild (1990) dir. Wong kar-Wai (Netflix)
  29. Edward Scissorhands (1990) – dir. Tim Burton (AU Library)
  30. My Own Private Idaho (1991) – dir. Gus Van Sant (AU Library)
  31. Thelma & Louise (1991) dir. Ridley Scott (Netflix)
  32. Howard’s End (1992) – dir. James Ivory (AU Library)
  33. Schindler’s List (1993) – dir. Steven Spielberg (AU Library)
  34. Three Colors: Blue (1993) dir. Krystof Kieslowski (Hulu+)
  35. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993) dir. Lasse Halstrom (Netflix)
  36. Bullets over Broadway (1994) dir. Woody Allen (AU Library)
  37. Ghost in the Shell (1995) – dir. Mamoru Oshii (Hulu+)
  38. Sense and Sensibility (1995) ­– dir. Ang Lee (Netflix)
  39. Fargo (1996) – dir. Joel & Ethan Coen (Netflix)
  40. Boogie Nights (1997) – dir. Paul Thomas Anderson (AU Library)
  41. Rushmore (1998) – dir. Wes Anderson (AU Library)
  42. Boys Don’t Cry (1999) – dir. Kimberly Pierce (Netflix)
  43. Peppermint Candy (1999) – dir. Lee Chang-dong (Hulu+)
  44. Requiem for a Dream (2000) – dir. Darren Arronofsky (AU Library)
  45. Fat Girl (2001) dir. Catherine Breillat (AU Library)
  46. My Sassy Girl (2001) – dir. Kwak Jaeyoung (Hulu+)
  47. 2046 (2004) – dir. Wong Kar-wai (AU Library)
  48. Before Sunset (2004) – dir. Richard Linklater (AU Library)
  49. Oldboy (2004) dir. Park Chan-wook (Netflix)
  50. Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall…Spring (2004) – dir. Kim Ki-duk (AU Library)
  51. Woman is the Future of Man (2004) dir. Hong Sang Soo (Netflix)
  52. Vera Drake (2004) – dir. Mike Leigh (AU Library)
  53. 3-Iron (2005) dir. Kim ki-duk (AU Library)
  54. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007) – dir. Cristian Mungui (Netflix)
  55. Syndromes and a Century (2007) – dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul (AU Library)
  56. Milk (2008) – dir. Gus van Sant (AU Library)
  57. A Simple Life (2012)  – dir. Ann Hui (Hulu+)
  58. A Touch of Sin (2013) – dir. Jia Zhangke (Netflix)
  59. Frances Ha (2013) – dir. Noah Baumbach (Netflix)

Wish me luck as I embark on this adventure!