Watched This Month: April 2017

Hello there. Welcome to Watched This Month. May is just around the corner, which means some of the years most anticipated movies are edging ever closer, although May itself doesn’t have too much to offer besides Alien: Covenant. But it’s difficult to gauge a real overview of the year, since there are so many worthwhile films that seem to pop up from nowhere. I wonder what this year’s unexpected hits will be. This month, I managed to squeeze in seven new releases, which include Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Ordinary Person, The Boss Baby, The Discovery, The Fate of the Furious and Their Finest. On to the commentary!

Previous: March 2017

Film Rating
A Beautiful Mind (Dir. Ron Howard)

A biopic based on the life of John Nash, a Noble Prize-winning mathematician whose theories have influenced areas such as global trade and evolutionary biology. Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are both mesmeric in this film, but I felt at times it failed as a biography due to certain liberties taken in order to streamline the plot.

It is indeed coherent and engrossing, but seems to follow a rough guideline of events rather than a detailed timeline. It’s more ‘based on’ than straight adaptation, but is nevertheless a fascinating film with performances alone enough to captivate and charm you through the runtime.

★★★☆☆
A Fistful of Dollars (Dir. Sergio Leone)

Sergio Leone’s unofficial remake of Kurosawa’s classic jidaigeki film Yojimbo. It’s a competent feature and Clint Eastwood is always very watchable, but it’s just too similar to Yojimbo to appraise on its own merits.

Here’s a fun fact — after the release of a Fistful of Dollars, Leone received a letter from Akira Kurosawa which read as follows: “I have seen your film and it is a very fine film, but it is my film.” Kurosawa demanded payment from Leone and the case was eventually settled out of court, with Kurosawa receiving 15% of A Fistful of Dollars’ worldwide box office.

★★★☆☆
Collateral Beauty (Dir. David Frankel)

Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena operate a successful business, but find themselves in dire straits when Will Smith’s character loses his daughter, forcing him into a deep depression. His co-workers then hire actors in an attempt to alleviate the situation.

Looking beyond the deceptive marketing, I felt Collateral Beauty was a solid, if unremarkable film. It’s not winning any awards, but was in essence a worthy melodrama. It has a terrific cast and a lot of heart, but tries to do and say too much in some roundabout and offbeat ways that don’t play out authentically. If reigned in slightly or honed in a particular direction, it had potential to be far greater.

★★★☆☆
Colossal (Dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

Anne Hathaway plays an unemployed alcoholic who’s forced to return to her home town after being kicked out by her boyfriend. There, she meets up with old pals and finds part time work, but struggles to quit her heavy drinking lifestyle, until she finally gains some perspective after realising she’s responsible for the kaiji currently destroying Seoul.

The first half of Colossal is creative and fun, but as though in an attempt to find purpose, it ventures down a wobbly path, swapping out comedy for heavy drama and messy metaphors. Nonetheless, it’s a very original film and worth watching despite its more off kilter moments. Anne Hathaway is brilliant.

★★★☆☆
Denial (Dir. Mick Jackson)

A historical drama based on the legal case between American historian Deborah Lipstadt and British author and renowned Holocaust denier David Irving, who sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin Books for libel.

It’s a classic courtroom drama, with terrific performances from both Timothy Spall and Tom Wilkison. Rachel Weisz was also riveting for the most part, but faded into the background somewhat during the second half. It’s competently shot — with a perpetually rainy London — and remains terrifically captivating throughout its duration, with organic dialogue and some brilliant rebuttals in the court sequences.

★★★☆☆
Destruction Babies (Dir. Tetsuya Mariko)

A nihilistic film about an eighteen year old boy who wanders Japan, picking fights and breaking noses. It’s an interesting premise that doesn’t really go anywhere — the entire film felt like an opening act. The characters are explosive and cynical, but Destruction Babies doesn’t really have a distinctive voice or anything particularly new to add to Japan’s cinematic catalogue of youthful rebellion.

It lacks the heart of the classic taiyozoku films and the impact of something like All About Lily Chou-Chou or Kids Return. I wasn’t a big fan of Nijiro Murakami either, whose performance felt rather stilted, but I applaud its depiction of violence, which felt raw and authentic.

★★☆☆☆
Guardians of the Galaxy (Dir. James Gunn)

Another superhero escapade, this time following a well-meaning group of ragtag aliens as they travel the cosmos in search of bounty and vengeance. I’m terribly burnt out on Marvel movies, but Guardians of the Galaxy was a pleasurable experience.

It does little to leave the mold, but the characters are incredibly charismatic and fun. I like that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, as I feel some of the other Marvel movies have a very awkward tone due to their jarring blend of drama and comedy. Here, the balance between comedy and drama is much more seamless, and all-in-all, it has a consistent and largely compelling pace.

★★★☆☆
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Dir. James Gunn)

Sequel to the much loved Guardians of the Galaxy, this time following the group as a more firmly established galactic defense force. Old favourites return and the cast expands with the introduction of Quill’s father, along with his companion and a new race.

Sadly, it doesn’t best the first installment, with a weaker villain and a more trying pace. There’s some great action, but also a lot of excessive colour and undue explosions. However, it succeeds in broadening its setting and characters — though there is an abundance of exposition — with Yondu a real stand-out. Ultimately, it’s a worthy sequel, but still doesn’t offer anything challenging or unexpected.

★★★☆☆
May 18 (Dir. Kim Ji-hoon)

Kim Ji-hoon’s decade old debut depicts the Gwangju Uprising, which saw thousands of citizens rise up against a brutal onslaught by South Korea’s government troops in 1980. The film is very evocative in its portrayal of the massacre, focusing in particular on the lives of some key — albeit fictionalised — people within the uprising.

It captures horror and despair, but also displays the unrelenting strength of community. Some circumstances were a little contrived and the romance aspect felt rather artificial, but it is nonetheless a striking film that does its duty as an educative and engaging piece of cinema.

★★★☆☆
Millennium Mambo (Dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien)

A hazy, neon-toned chronicle from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, charting the life of Vicky, a young woman floating through a turbulent life, torn between two men. It’s a lot more unfocused and itinerant than I expected, but was nonetheless a striking picture.

Shu Qi is both captivating and convincing as the leading character, who is introduced and bid farewell as a bit of an enigma. It’s wandering pace was at times hypnotic and at others tiring, but it has an ethereal quality rarely matched. It’s certainly a film I look forward to revisiting.

★★★☆☆
Moving (Dir. Shinji Somai)

A drama about a girl dealing with her parents’ divorce. The mother is thrilled, the father seems indifferent, but the girl is stuck in-between, struggling with emotions and sensibility. The anguish sends her on a rite of passage as she comes to terms with her new reality.

Moving is a remarkable film, with such a fluent and unspoiled pace. Emotions arouse and fester with terrific authenticity as the subject matter is attentively developed and explored. It never lays blame, which allows all characters to retain a degree of sympathy, but Tomoko Tabata who plays the young girl is a real stand-out, both ferocious and fragile. The last thirty minutes are truly spectacular in every sense of the word.

★★★★☆
Nerve (Dir. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost)

Video technology and connectivity are abundant, thus enter Nerve — a truth-or-dare styled mobile app in which users compete against each other for cash prizes, engaging in increasingly difficult challenges set by their ‘watchers’.

The premise certainly has potential, but ultimately I feel Nerve was just too vague and unfocused to really garner any true investment. An effort has been made to ground the film in reality, but the rules and plausibility of the game are extremely far fetched, making the plot seem too silly to engage with.

★★☆☆☆
One Hour Photo (Dir. Mark Romanek)

I remember first watching One Hour Photo when it was released on DVD in 2003. I was too young and callow to notice its subtleties and finer details then, but every time I have watched it since, Robin Williams’ Sy has stood out as such a terrifically formed character.

He is disturbed and at times frighteningly ominous, but is at the same time, pitiful and misunderstood. He’s a tragic miscreant, a societal outcast who lives his days unnoticed and unloved, with the late Robin Williams bringing such substance and finesse to the role. The actor once said he was drawn to Sy because he wanted to play a character so unlike himself, but he embodies the character with such tenacity and persuasion​, it’s surely one of his finest performances.

★★★★☆
Ordinary Person (Dir. Kim Bong-han)

Kim Bong-han’s sophomore feature tells of government corruption amid South Korea’s impending constitutional reform in 1987. Kang Seong-jin is a hotheaded Police Detective with a loving family, whose morals are questioned and stretched when government officials persuade him to fabricate the country’s first serial murder case.

Ordinary Person is one of those movies with the hardiness to travel down a bleak and desolate path, subjecting its protagonists to brutality and torture that isn’t necessarily warranted nor requited. It’s in this harshness that the film is terrifically organic and raw, with main character Seong-jin sporting a tremendous character arc — the film charting his odyssey with terrific clarity and vehement emotion.

★★★★☆
Rushmore (Dir. Wes Anderson)

Ambitious and well-spoken student Max — who attends the prestigious Rushmore preparatory school — finds himself enamored with new teacher Rosemary. He attempts to win her heart, turning to the father of two of his classmates for advice.

Wes Anderson’s sophomore feature contains all the charming eccentricity and lovable wit audiences have since come to expect. It’s such a pleasing film, with an indelible tone and an expert screenplay, featuring some of Mr. Anderson’s most memorable characters and dialogue. Schwartzman, Williams and Murray form such a humorous and fascinating love triangle, and the supporting cast is comprised of so many engaging, outlandish and memorable personalities.

★★★★☆
The Age of Shadows (Dir. Kim Jee-woon)

A thriller set in Korea during Japanese colonial rule. Lee Jung-chool is a member of the resistance turned police captain, whose allegiances are tested as he’s tasked with rooting out his old comrades.

The Age of Shadows was South Korea’s entry to the Oscar’s last year and finally I can see why. It’s a terrific film — tremendously gripping and cinematic, with fantastic cinematography, employing great use of shadow and light, alongside fabulous set design. It’s also very unpredictable, with some completely unexpected character deaths and the need for a lot of second guessing.

★★★★☆
The Boss Baby (Dir. Tom McGrath)

In a world where babies seemingly come into existence in their own world above the clouds, some find themselves more attuned than others — these are Boss Babies. Their mission is to ensure the love and attention of babykind isn’t being stolen away by other cute things, but recently puppies have begun to gain more prominence.

Thus, one particular Boss Baby is sent to the home of two Puppy Co. employees in order to learn about the unveiling of a new puppy that will surely capture love from the world over. It’s a rather standard animated tale that includes all the usual plot beats and fanciful comedy you would expect. It wasn’t drab, but it wasn’t remarkable. I wish Jimbo was given more screentime.

★★☆☆☆
The Discovery (Dir. Charlie McDowell)

The Discovery is an interesting premise gone wrong. It’s set in a reality where the existence of an afterlife has been scientifically verified, but it’s far from compelling science fiction or intriguing philosophy. It avoids discussions of science and an actual look into the state of society following such a revelation.

Instead, it focuses on an undeveloped love story that feels completely banal compared to its surroundings, with characters that don’t feel particularly organic. The perturbed trailer implied a tone that was completely absent from the actual film, which has led to much disappointment.

★★☆☆☆
The Fate of the Furious (Dir. Felix Gary Gray)

Street racing messiah Dominic Toretto is living the high-life on the lawless island of Cuba, hurtling around in flaming balls of metal by day and making love to his woman by night, until he’s whisked into another tale of conflict and cars, this time himself the adversary.

Definitely leave your brain outside for this one; the plot is wholly contrived and the set pieces — while entertaining — are completely absurd. At this point the franchise has almost become a parody of itself, but it’s a blast for what it’s worth. My major gripe is with the villain, who I found incredibly disengaging and shallow.

★★☆☆☆
The Lobster (Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos)

The Lobster is set in a reality where single people are stigmatised and turned into an animal if they’re unable to find a new partner within 45 days. In this predicament is David, a sullen middle-age man whose wife left him for another man.

It’s a bizarre film with dialogue and characters intriguingly deadpan despite undertones of psychological horror, making it darkly comical. However, despite the fascinating premise and unconventional performances, I didn’t find The Lobster particularly engaging on first viewing. It’s interesting satire but I expected far more given the acclaim.

★★★☆☆
The Yellow Sea (Dir. Na Hong-jin)

Na Hong-jin’s second feature is a terrifically violent and superbly gripping thriller. Gu-nam, an ethnic Korean living in poverty in the Chinese city of Yanji, is thrown a lifeline after being offered money and passage to South Korea in order to carry out an assassination. It’s a bleak film with a sinuous plot that seems a little too convoluted on first viewing, but it all comes together masterfully in the end.

There are some contrivances and a bit of an over-reliance on shaky-cam (and Kim Yun-seok’s character — who at one point dispatches assailants with some meat on a bone — was absurdly superpowered) but it’s a remarkable and terrifically engaging film, with an incredible performance from Ha Jung-woo, who I find blends into almost every role he tackles.

★★★★☆
Their Finest (Dir. Lone Scherfig)

Set during the early years of World War II, before American involvement, a British film crew attempts to boost morale by making an inspiring picture based loosely on a true story.

All in all, it’s a very competent and watchable film, but I feel it discredits itself towards the end. All fiction is emotionally manipulative to a degree, but certain events in the final act felt terribly forced, abrupt and tasteless. As the result, the climatic drama just didn’t feel particularly persuasive. However, the cast were all very engaging and Bill Nighy is an absolute treasure.

★★★☆☆
What We Do in the Shadows (Dir. Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi)

An frequently hysterical mockumentary about a group of vampires who share a New Zealand apartment, which also stars its two directors Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi.

It’s very naturalistic in its comedy, with the modern setting allowing for some brilliant absurdist humour given some of the vampires are hundreds of years old. The characters — eccentric as they are — feel tremendously authentic, expressing their dialogue and rapport with terrific plausibility.

★★★★☆

Twenty-three films this month, an improvement over last month’s nineteen. I can hardly recall where I found the time. Ninety-six for the year so far — looks like I’ll be reaching my goal in no time.