Top 10, 2011

01) Hugo – Martin Scorsese (USA) *****
02) Melancholia – Lars von Trier (Denmark)
03) The Tree of Life – Terrence Malick (USA)
04) Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen (USA) **** 1/2
05) Weekend – Andrew Haigh (UK)
06) The Skin I Live In – Almodovar (Spain)
07) Tyrannosaur – Paddy Considine (UK)
08) Moneyball – Bennet Miller (USA)
09) Boys on the Run – Daisuke Miura (Japan)
10) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part II – David Yates (UK) ****

The Day He Arrives – Hong Sang-soo (2011)

If there is a director who has essayed the uncomfortable randomness of meeting someone on the street — or the soju sit downs that so often follow it — better than Hong Sang-soo, I’ve never seen it. In The Day He Arrives, he’s boiled the film down almost entirely to that: walking, talking and drinking. But in not blazing a new stylistic path, he has almost redefined himself in the way Kim Ki-duk did with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…Spring, stripping away everything that wasn’t at the very core of his idea, even the color. The Day He Arrives is a lean film, running at just 78 minutes, and shot in black and white, the fat trimmed off entirely. It is a whiskey-and-soju-soaked play on the ideas of déjà vu, coincidence, human contradiction, and the way we often live our lives at two different extremes.

Not to break with the familiar territory theme, Hong has set his story in a world populated by filmmakers, or at least the filmmaking adjacent. Seong-joon (Yoo Joon-sang) is a once-successful director who used to be based in Seoul but now teaches in Daegu. He’s made four films, but has run out of creative steam since. Likely a middling talent, he seems to now only be known by fellow filmmakers and critics. Luckily — or unluckily — for him, he is surrounded by filmmakers, actors, and film school professors. He is back in Seoul to meet up with his old friend, Yeong-ho (Kim Sang-joong), but more likely it’s to see an old girlfriend, Kyeong-jin (Kim Bo-kyeong), with whom he is still obsessed. After suitably embarrassing himself in her presence, he goes on drinking with his film friends who mention his work in passing, but never in depth. He nods appreciatively, but would like to talk about anything but, especially with Joong-won (Kim Ee-seong), the leading man of Seong-joon’s first film, who was replaced at the request of the producer in his second film and has since fallen on hard luck. More than having been replaced, it seems to be the act of cowardice that Seong-joon had his assistant call Joong-won to tell him that he’d been replaced instead of doing it himself that looms like a sulpher cloud over their drinking excursion. Seong-joon squirms and evades, eventually escaping outside to smoke, hoping the bar hostess (also played by Kim Bo-kyeong) will join him. She does, but she also doesn’t.

What I mean by that is that the film seems to fall back on itself throughout, repeating scenes of street meetings and drinking sessions, while simultaneously striding forward: repeated scenes seem to take place in consecutive days, but there is never a true marker, and everything is ever-so-slightly different to the point that you’re never actually sure of the film’s timeline. By the end, even Seong-joon can’t remember how many days he’s been in Seoul for or how many days he has left.

In that fog of the time-space continuum, Hong allows his characters to muse on in rambles about whether or not reality has a special force behind it, or whether the brain is trained by our own insecurities to create a through-line for life out of the random threads of passing time. It’s a question that could be readily overheard in any college dorm room (especially the ones with the funny smell wafting from under the door), but that may be part of the joke. The thing about Hong’s films is that, though they seem to be heavy dramas, it is okay to laugh at them, especially the characters. More often than not, it seems that Hong is torturing his characters for our benefit. They are often selfish and pathetic, people who once had promise in life, but did not fulfill it, especially the men. They are past the point of redemption with their habits or the ways they’ve hurt their friends and lovers, but there is a tongue-in-cheek element to his films. Hong never explicitly winks at us with his camera, but he sometimes gives us the hint of a barely contained laugh as they flounder or a forehead slap when they wound. He does seem to care for his characters, even – or especially – the unlikable ones, but still creates an environment for them that is harsh, in which they lash out in ways that they don’t seem to be in control of, especially here in the scene where Seong-joon visits his old girlfriend and embarrasses himself. He seems to be drawn to her apartment by a magnet set by Hong and doesn’t know what he’s doing there, or why he’s suddenly crying. This scene happens early on in the film though, where it would happen at the end of most films. But in Hong’s world, that’s a much better place to start than end, if only because it leads straight to the whiskey.

Quick Hits on: The Descendants – Alexander Payne (2011)

-I feel like I’m officially an old man now. The lasting impression I will take from The Descendants is that kids are terrible. They’re such assholes. I know why everyone hated my generation now too. We were assholes. When Alex and Matt were in the hospital room  and she confronts her comatose mom, which was clearly the wrong time and place, Matt half-heartedly tries to spank her. He was justified. He should have bent her over his knee and spanked her with a kitchen spoon, and he should have washed Scottie’s mouth out with Lava. Seriously, get off my fucking lawn, you brats.

-My old man rage may be stopping me from seeing the greatness in this that everyone else seems to be seeing. I thought the film broke down to one fantastic segment (when they are hunting down Brian Speer (see above) and finally find him. Matt, confronted with a few possibilities of what to do, chooses to see if he can make inroads with Speers wife, Julie. They flirt, but he doesn’t seem to have the stomach for it. He seems to be relieved when Scottie comes out of the water to get him. He boils his revenge down to one self-satisfied moment, when Julie goes to kiss him goodbye on the cheek after Matt and Alex have finally confronted Brian. He evades the cheek kiss and plants one fully on her lips. She is startled, but doesn’t pull away. Her suspicions about Brian (and Matt’s visit) may have gotten the best of her, or it may just be frozen terror at his audaciousness. But it still seems like a private revenge. Would Julie tell Brian about this? Would she feel too guilty to? Even after he confesses about his affair? She doesn’t seem the type to use it as a sledgehammer, and it was still an innocent kiss. I find it interesting to see the small ways people take revenge on one another, especially in film, where the unbelievable, broad stroke revenge is usually favored, which is much less interesting.

Quick Hits on: Young Adult – Jason Reitman (2011)

-I was left somewhat surprised by the fact that is a somewhat difficult film to pin down. With Reitman and Cody getting together again, I figured there was to be another relatively soft comedic drama that focused on a simple life crisis. Perhaps it is just that I’m rapidly approaching a mid-life crisis and am pre-planning for it enough to find this a more complex set of problems than I found the childbirth-adoption story in their previous Juno. Of course, Mavis’s problem set is entirely different from mine and I have no idea what my mid-life crisis will look like. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs, so I don’t have that baggage, and I would rather shoot a nail into my baby toe than meet any of my old friends or girls who I had crushes on. But then again, I am relatively sure it will include a lot of ice cream. You know, for a change of pace.

-Still, this was another case of the sum not being as great as its parts. Charlize Theron was terrific, so was Patton Oswalt, and so was Elizabeth Reaser as the girl who got Buddy Slade. Patrick Wilson was a little goofy, but still has his charms, and worked in that way of keeping us not sure if he is worth the trouble now, but still being able to see that spark in his eyes from 20 years ago when he would have been worth the while. And in a decidedly poised, adult way, Diablo Cody even managed to not include cheeseburger phone. But there was an element missing somewhere, a binding element that it needed to hold it together. There was too many instances of dipping into the trite world of the high school reunion cliches, and they came annoyingly in order to cut up and destroy the path cut by these wonderfully light and affecting scenes of Mavis’s aimless drift/wreckless descent.

A Better Tomorrow – Song Hae-sung (2010)

It’s been twenty four years since John Woo and Chow Yun Fat conspired to make trench coats and firearms as a permanent fixture in our minds by pitting them together in the sweat-drenched street scenes of A Better Tomorrow. But for everything iconic about the original, Song Hae-sung’s remake of the film makes little to no impression at all.

It didn’t have to be this way, of course — and honestly, it’s almost criminal that it was. Song and his army of writers (Kim Hyo-seok, Lee Taek-kyung, Choi Geun-mo & Kim Hae-gon) began their film by weaving a pattern of homegrown depth, setting their story against the backdrop of a splintered Korea in the shape of a family who get separated as they try and flee the repression of the North.

Twenty years after the fact, Kim Hyeok (Joo Jin-mo) ends up a gangster in the South, middle management for a drug-smuggling Pusan mob. His mother and younger brother, Yeong-choon (Song Seung-heon), are held captive and regularly beaten by North Korean guards. Through his mob connections that apply the right amount of grease to the right palms, Kim Hyeok searches furiously for his little brother and manages to find him in a North Korean prison camp. Little Brother is not so forthcoming with forgiveness when he meets Kim Hyeok for the first time — their first meeting since childhood.

The two films – both of which are actually remakes of an even earlier Mainland China film – follow roughly the same path: a deal that goes bad lands Kim Hyeok in jail for three years after being double crossed by the insipid, cloying underling Tae-min (Jo Han-seon), who has been a gangster for about three hours and already wants to be boss. Sometimes all it takes are the balls to want something for which you’re willing to kil. While Kim Hyeok is in jail, Yeong-choon is repatriated and becomes a cop in Pusan, keeping such a close eye on Tae-min he’s almost thrown off of the force.

But Song Hae-sung is not the visionary cinematic tailor that John Woo once was (and no longer is), and cannot weave anything compelling out of his attempt to recapture a special film. Pusan plays its own role – the music of the docks at night and the comfort of family noodle stands – but again, Song can not pull the same magic out of the atmosphere that Woo managed to make with Hong Kong. For all of its failings to live up to the original, it does make the grade in one area, though: sticking religiously to the John Woo doctrine that states, “Why use 1 bullet when 10 look so cool?” Even after all of these years and all of the half-assed attempts to emulate this image, I have to admit that it is still satisfying to see the lollipop sucking Lee Young-Choon (Song Seung-Heon), Kim Hyeok’s best jopok buddy, storm their rivals’ massage parlor two-fisted in order to take out revenge for the double cross.

Perhaps it is unfair to compare this remake so closely to the original, but that’s the problem with remakes, especially for classic films. The standard is set in stone. I struggle to see the point of remaking this film a quarter century later. John Woo’s film has only grown over the years and has not been forgotten. Unless you’re going to bring something new to the table, some point of view, something to say, some basic reason besides money to revisit the well worn story of cop and criminal siblings…why do it? They could have gotten to all of those, and even started to, but then didn’t. Again, why? Cop versus criminal is not a dead trope — well, not yet, despite world cinema’s best efforts to kill it — but it ended up being a wasted opportunity to expand on John Woo’s work by introducing and delving into the wealth of thematic baggage that comes with being a North Korean refuge in South Korea. Instead of diving in head first to this rich topic, director Song tiptoed around the issue and largely used it as a cosmetic trait, not a theme. The rest of the film took its cue from the cautionary tiptoeing and did not develop significantly beyond a cheap revenge film with a pretty cast and a lavish bullet allowance.

Quick Hits on: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – David Fincher (2011)


-I seem to be very much in the minority on this issue, but I preferred Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Lisbeth Salander to Noomie Rapace’s. Not to knock Rapace’s performance, because it was quite good — she handled the character with a slithery quality worth of her tattoo — but I found Mara more believable and felt she offered the same slithery quality, but with a level of vulnerability that Rapace didn’t have. The great part about the vulnerability is that Mara’s Salander operates like she seem to be aware of it, even though its noticeable to everyone with the possible exception of Micke (Daniel Craig). There is almost a gender reversal in their relationship. Someone (in The New Yorker, I think, but can’t remember or I’d link it) made the observation that Lisbeth fucks Micke like a teenage boy who doesn’t care if the girl gets anything out of the experience, and that’s a dead-on accurate assessment. Lisbeth comes off like Micke’s guardian angel because of her sealed off avenging nature, but it’s really just her way of articulating a crush, which he spurns in the end, of course.

-The problem is the same in the new version as it is in the original version though: the mystery plot is terribly boring, and it only got worse in the original sequels. If they keep the remake series going, I hope they break off from the book series like the Bourne movies did and just come up with new stories to fit Lisbeth and Micke into. I know all of the warnings about the original sequels, how they were made for TV and had no budget, but even for that level they were still dreadfully boring, especially the third one.