Top 10 Japanese Movies

Greetings, perusers. I’m taking a short break from Watched This Month as I have been quite preoccupied recently, but wanted to take this leisurely day to instead write about some of my favourite Japanese films. If you know me — which you probably don’t — then you’ll know I adore Japanese cinema, which has a fascinating history and a catalogue so very diverse, poignant, compelling and inspiring. Akira Kurosawa alone has inspired numerous contemporary directors, and has largely influenced films from A Bug’s Life to Star Wars. There’s much to be learned from Japanese cinema — thus here are ten films I would absolutely recommend.

Before you grab that battleaxe, I must stress this list is composed entirely in my opinion, and has been compiled with the aim of featuring ten truly dissimilar movies, thus I have chosen not to include multiple films from the same director. Similarly, this list includes just a handful of my most loved movies, and on a different day the order or inclusion of such titles may well differ — so please take this list as ten great movies, rather than a definitive rundown of ‘the best.’ I may well do an expanded list in the future.


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#10. The Man Who Stole the Sun (Kazuhiko Hasegawa, 1979)

Among the hundreds of Japanese movies I have seen, The Man Who Stole the Sun is a real stand-out in terms of its satire, tone and plot. It was penned by Leonard Schrader, an American screenwriter who fled to Japan to avoid conscription. Schrader taught American literature, but subsequently became involved with the Yakuza, with his experiences leading to his foray into filmmaking.

The Man Who Stole the Sun was his fourth feature as a writer and is a very radical piece. It follows science teacher Makoto Kido (played by Kenji Sawada), who decides to build his very own atomic bomb, with which he holds the country to ransom. What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Kido and police detective Yamashita (played by Bunta Sugawara), which culminates in an exhilarating thirty minute showdown, with car chases and set pieces more akin to a Western movie than something from Japan.

It has a steady pace, with characters brilliantly juxtaposed, and cinematography that ranges from experimental to skillful. It’s a real marvel in Japan’s cinematic catalogue and has even been looked to for inspiration by Hideaki Anno.


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#09. The Bird People in China (Takashi Miike, 1998)

Takashi Miike is best known for his outlandish and violent cinema, but is the architect behind over one hundred different movies, some of which completely contradict his reputation as a gratuitous filmmaker. Enter the poetic and wonderful The Bird People in China — a film concerned with ecology, and the mysticism and sacrality of nature.

The film follows a Japanese businessman who is sent to assess valuable minerals in a remote area of China. Along the way, he is accompanied by a member of the Yakuza, who becomes warped by the other-worldly beauty of the distant Chinese province.

Sporting alluring visuals and themes that are still relevant today, it’s a meditative, illuminating and well balanced commentary on technology versus nature, and very poetic and symbolic in its delivery.


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#08. Confessions (Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)

Confessions is in stark contrast to Tetsuya Nakashima’s preceding feature, Memories of Matsuko — swapping colour and quirks for a bleak palette and feelings of desolation. Confessions opens with high school teacher Yuko Moriguchi announcing her resignation due to the recent death of her daughter, which she attributes to two of her students. She ousts the children, but as they are protected by Juvenile Law, she concocts a twisted plan of revenge.

It’s a stylish and fluently plotted film, which maneuvers between multiple threads with the utmost finesse. The film doesn’t sport a score, with Nakashima instead choosing to compile a soundtrack of previously recorded songs, which includes pieces from Boris, Curly Giraffe and Radiohead, to name a few. These tracks compliment the visuals terrifically, creating a film bursting with artistry and panache.

It’s a movie with both style and substance, that features a comprehensive and wholly satisfying tale of desperation and revenge. The conflict is well paced and competently plotted, with an ending that is both stupendously exciting and terrifically haunting.


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#07. Adrift in Tokyo (Satoshi Miki, 2007)

Adrift in Tokyo is a completely endearing and wholesome piece of cinema. Joe Odagiri plays a loafer named Fumiya, who is in heavy debt. One day he receives a visit from a loan shark named Fukuhara (played by Tomokazu Miura), who makes Fumiya a proposition: If Fumiya accompanies him across Tokyo to a police station, where he intends on turning himself in for an unspecified crime, then Fukuhara will cancel his debt. Fumiya accepts the proposal and thus begins their journey across Japan’s illustrious capital.

The plot is — quite literally — wandering, but at the same time it never loses focus. Fumiya and Fukuhara traverse landscapes, encountering fresh personalities at every turn. With each chance meeting, they learn more about one another and develop a peculiar relationship that is at times jocular, and at others very precious and sentimental. Not only does it display the eccentricities and fascinating characters all around us, but it’s one hell of an advertisement for Tokyo, which is shown in all its beauty. The Japanese capital really is a treasure trove of flourishing neighbourhoods — the film will leave you lusting for your own wayfaring adventure.


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#06. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa is widely regarded for his samurai movies (interestingly, he is himself a descendant of samurai), but the director didn’t feature the popular swordsmen until his 14th picture, which almost needs no introduction.

Seven Samurai is a three and a half hour epic in which a band of ronin are recruited to help defend a small farming village from bandits. The film’s most memorable moments arrive during the fierce, rain-soaked climax, which was — as is usual with Kurosawa — an incredibly gritty shoot to ensure authenticity. Kurosawa refused to use a studio and instead had enormous sets constructed on location, which were stupendously destroyed in the climatic action.

The director ultimately regarded his 1985 film Ran as his finest work, but Seven Samurai has gone down in the history as a defining picture, with stunning technical innovations. It’s a tour de force in filmmaking and storytelling, and one of the most epic, enthralling and impressive of the 20th Century.


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#05. Millennium Actress (Satoshi Kon, 2001)

Satoshi Kon’s second feature is an indelible portrait of Japanese history, a genre extravaganza, an excursion into the art of filmmaking, and a meditative exploration of life and love — undoubtedly my favourite animated picture.

The film — penned by Kon in collaboration with Sadayuki Murai — follows a small documentary film crew, who are on their way to visit an enigmatic actress who withdrew from performing to live a life of seclusion, reminiscent of real-life actress Setsuko Hara. After convincing her to relay her story, Millennium Actress takes audiences on a wondrous voyage across centuries, as the actress’ life is explored through her body of work, with Kon employing his trademark blend of reality and make-believe.

Don’t be lulled by its surface simplicity — Millennium Actress is a sinuous and brooding journey across time, with a narrative that unravels in remarkable ways. Kon was a true master of the medium; a director well attuned with the scope of animation, who would utulise fresh techniques with each production. Millennium Actress employs a unique use of montage and transitions to meld narratives, producing an extraordinary visual flair. Couple this with Susumu Hirasawa’s hypnotising score and you have something quite special.


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#04. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his horror movies, but I find his 2008 film Tokyo Sonata to be the most poignant and memorable in his filmography. The film examines social constructs and the family dynamic in a modern Japanese setting, as the patriarchal figure looses his job and sole income. He tries to keep his misfortune a secret from his family, but things begin to implode nevertheless, as each member undergoes an introspective journey as they struggle to maintain stability.

It’s a masterfully shot film that is both distinctly Japanese and very universal, with the director exploring crisis within both the family unit and the economy. Kurosawa builds an eccentric tone by forcing his typical family into extraordinary situations, ultimately presenting a darkly comical sequence of events, but nonetheless he doesn’t shy away from heartache and melodrama — there are a number of doleful scenes that are tremendously affecting. It’s a spellbinding feature with many threads and layers, which includes one of the most wistful and lingering endings ever put to film.


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#03. 0.5mm (Momoko Ando, 2014)

Sakura Ando stars as a beguiling enigma in her sister’s sophomore feature (and a feature it is at three and a half hours long). The film is an odyssey of sorts, charting the journey of central character Sawa, who finds herself penniless and alone after losing her job. She reveals a deceptive side when she begins to take advantage of the elderly, blackmailing and forcing herself upon a number of men throughout the runtime in order to obtain money and board, but her cunning machinations turn bittersweet and poignant, as the men begin to reveal their inner pain. Sawa becomes a sort of mischievous angel who unlocks people’s suffering and steers them towards a path of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, with Sakura Ando the driving force. We learn little about her Sawa character, but she is endlessly compelling — an inscrutable figure you can’t quite keep your eyes off. It’s twice as long as an ordinary film, but could divide nicely into a series of shorts. It never repeats itself; every section of Sawa’s journey is extraordinary and distinctively alluring. I couldn’t bare to see it end.


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#02. Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)

Mischievous layabout Kikujiro forms an unlikely bond with young Masao, who is on a journey across Japan to locate his mother. What ensues is a road trip of hijinks and escapades, with a seamless blend of slapstick comedy and stirring drama. Kikujiro is Kitano’s eighth film as a director, following perhaps his most renowned work (Hana-bi) and preceding one of his most ignored (Brother).

The ‘road trip’ concept isn’t something explored often in Japanese cinema (I can think of Suicide Bus and Sake-Bomb off the top of my head), but Kitano uses it as a means to explore alienation in a variety of segments. As Kikujiro and Masao travel Japan, they encounter a number of characters who not only assist them on their journey, but also on an emotional and subconscious level. Some of these scenes are very subtle and poetic, aided tremendously by Joe Hisaishi’s sublime score.

Kitano’s deadpan, manzai-inspired humour weaves many endearing moments into the films lasting sentiment, adding a bizarre atmosphere to the pensive vignettes that fill the runtime. Kikujiro is one of Kitano’s most family friendly movies, but is at the same time one of his most poignant and affecting.


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#01. All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai, 2001)

No movie before or since has affected me in ways All About Lily Chou-Chou has — finding it was like unlocking a chest full of elegies from a long lost friend. It’s an enlightening and wholly mesmeric picture, that reveals new layers on every watch.

The film depicts the transformative journey of a group of high school students, some of whom become enamored with a mystical singer named Lily Chou-Chou. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of it’s time, and Iwai couldn’t have been more exact in his depiction of netizens, whose ease of connectivity can sometimes foster isolation. He portrays adolescence as a defining period in which some youths lose themselves; as they struggle to find compassion and familiarity in their peers, they turn to the internet and become absorbed with pop culture, which offers them a sort of exclusive comfort.

All About Lily Chou-Chou sports Iwai’s bewitching and hazy tone, and — in addition to the principal score, which includes some enchanting compositions — features a fully arranged album from the titular singer, which offers the enigmatic figure a very real and haunting presence, that almost goes beyond fiction.

Shunji Iwai focuses often on youthful characters who feel misunderstood and forlorn — I am continually impressed by his grasp of adolescence, and the clarity of his vision, and the organic sentiment his work so impeccably exudes. His films are enlightening in the most unobtrusive and delicate of ways; portraying pain and confusion with touches of warmth and repose.

Further to Iwai’s alluring writing and imagery, he seems to share a terrific rapport with the other talent in his work. Japanese Academy winner Yu Aoi debuted in All About Lily Chou-Chou, and Tadanobu Asano and Takako Matsu also established themselves in Shunji Iwai films. He comes across to me as a decided maestro of the art, and is the designer of some truly original, soul-stirring movies. All of his features, and even his short work, are bursting with individual merit, but — to me — All About Lily Chou-Chou is his masterpiece and is, in it’s most basic form, a remarkable voyage concerning loneliness, escapism, and what it is like to grow up during the onset of the 21st Century.

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 existence, 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)

A 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.

Watched This Month: March 2017

Good day to you, wherever you may be. Welcome to Watched This Month. You may have noticed that I have been much more restrained with these posts lately. This is to make them a lot more readable and accessible. When I started Watched This Month over a year go, it was supposed to be concise and informative, but sometimes I would write so much that I felt the posts became unsightly and difficult to discern at a glance. So, from now on, anything I am particularly enamored with or irked by will likely have it’s own review in a separate post, while Watched This Month will return to its intended function as a terse and instructive monthly run-down. Hooray!

Previous: February 2017

Film Rating
20th Century Women (Dir. Mike Mills)

20th Century Women shows that, no matter how old, we are always coming of age, absorbing new traits and moulting others. Continually, we gain fresh knowledge and learn about new things, all the while imparting and perfecting our wisdom as we traipse through a turbulent existence. It is a film about growing and living, depicting the relationships and the fleeting emotions that form our lives.

I feel like I could have sat through many more hours of those wondrous Californian vistas, accompanied by that dreamy principal theme, observing those truthful people, with their routine thoughts and emotions that feel so keen and touching and real.

★★★★★
A United Kingdom (Dir. Amma Asante)

A biopic chronicling the events leading to the formation of Botswana, following the lives of Prince Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, who shook the world by going against their families and culture in order to marry one another. It’s a fulfilling film that is both entertaining and instructive, as biographies should be.

I felt it lacked quite tremendously in the initial development of Seretse and Ruth’s relationship — a proposal is made within what seemed like the first fifteen minutes — but David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike truly embody their characters and make a terrific pair. Nothing seems too manufactured and the film displays well the conflict between emotion, politics and society.

★★★☆☆
Beauty and the Beast (Dir. Bill Condon)

Neither astonishing nor stagnant. Beauty and the Beast tells a complete and mostly content tale that is at times amusing and at others pedestrian, but it doesn’t offer anything you won’t find in the animated fable. Emma Watson was mostly agreeable, but largely forgettable and Dan Stevens as the Beast felt a little hollow to me, but otherwise the cast are the film’s biggest draw and many of the characters are very charismatic and enjoyable to watch.

The songs were neither too sparse nor too abundant, but they seemed to me — like most Disney music — more a show of falsetto and some easy exposition rather than anything particularly creative or even intriguing, though the choreography was quite eye-catching, at times. It’s all very Disney and knows well its target audience, which sadly isn’t me.

★★☆☆☆
Breathe In (Dir. Drake Doremus)

A largely convincing drama about an exchange student who begins to fracture the relationships of her host family by falling for the sullen husband, who dreams of the perceived freedoms of his former life and desires to be whisked away. As wrong and deceitful as their romance is, it was well developed and felt very authentic and sympathetic to a degree.

It explores well the fluctuations and fragility of the heart and though Guy Pearce and Felicity Jones are the clear focal points, their romance doesn’t feel one-sided and the film portrays very keenly the needless despair and anguish inflicted upon loved ones due to betrayal and duplicity. However, there are some coincidences in the plot that feel slightly contrived and the ending leaves a little to be desired.

★★★☆☆
Cafe Noir (Dir. Jung Sung-il)

A colossal three and a half hour film about a man who roams the streets of Seoul after breaking up with his lover, whose husband had just returned from overseas. Some of its imagery is rather pretentious, but ultimately it’s a majestic tale of love and loss, with cinematography and dialogue so captivating I would have gladly watched another hour.

The main character played by Shin Ha-kyun is like the French archetypes of the New Wave, a romantic loner who is rather tragic and almost nihilistic. There are also some tremendously long shots; in one a character charmingly recounts the tale of her past love over eleven minutes. It’s a mesmerising picture with some striking sequences, but certainly not for everybody.

★★★★☆
Chang-ok’s Letter (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

A series of shorts produced by Nescafe, featuring the talents of Bae Doona and Shunji Iwai; two of my favourite people. Bae plays a housewife at the beck and call of her family, who rarely show her their appreciation. Her mother-in-law purposely makes her life difficult, but Bae pushes on regardless, living a selfless existence.

It includes many long takes that exemplify Iwai’s quaint camerawork, as we weave around the cast in fluid and unobtrusive motions. The cast act out these theater-esque scenes with great naturalness, as Iwai builds an understated but nonetheless moving portrayal of an ordinary family divided. It’s masterful, as ever. I loved the final tinges of melancholy.

★★★☆☆
Get Out (Dir. Mike Mills)

A young black man goes with his white girlfriend to visit her family for the first time, only to find them and their acquaintances bemusingly unsettling. Get Out is a movie I watched based entirely on the positive word of mouth — I avoided all trailers and synopsis. Initially I felt the characters were a little too outlandish, which made them seem rather unauthentic, but this was clearly the point as it built a brilliant sense of uneasiness and irregularity.

I felt the film was masterful in its suspense; it was able to maintain a particularly disconcerting atmosphere throughout. It was also well written, with dialogue that plays with your preconceptions, though I do have some gripes with certain character motivations and wasn’t entirely behind the final act. All-in-all a decent thriller with a couple of horror elements, but I didn’t feel it lived up to the hype.

★★★☆☆
Ghost in the Shell (Dir. Rupert Sanders)

As a generic action movie, Ghost in the Shell is passable, but relatively unexceptional. However, as an adaptation of such a breathtaking and esoteric franchise, it misses the mark entirely. It is formulaic and devoid of any substantial philosophy — ultimately another great concept dumbed-down for the lowest common denominator.

It’s frustrating, as the allusions to the prior material generally translate well to live-action, but the vast alterations and perplexing union of sources hindered what could have been a terrific film. They couldn’t even commit and go whole hog with the ending, which seemed to be going the direction of Oshii’s initial adaptation before fizzling away and becoming completely vapid. It seems the ghost was far too much for them.

★★☆☆☆
I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

After being institutionalised, a girl who believes she’s a cyborg sets about trying to lose her sympathy so she can wreak vengeance on the white suits who took her grandmother away to a sanitarium. I’m a Cyborg is a very peculiar film that is at times funny and charming, but it was far from as engaging as Park Chan-wook’s other work.

It focuses less on plot and more on its characters and their interactions, and while the characters are quirky and unpredictable, they are essentially caricatures and are compelling mostly on surface level. The film has some great moments of comedy and delight, along with a couple of tender scenes with the two main characters, but it grows tedious and ultimately lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.

★★☆☆☆
Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Mike Mills)

A glimpse into the life of a struggling folk musician. In ways, Inside Llewyn Davis reminded me of a Shunji Iwai movie with its meandering plot and expert use of soft focus. It is perhaps the Coen brothers’ most poignant film, with tragic character Llewyn David played with tremendous finesse by Oscar Isaac.

The movie saunters between encounters as Llewyn struggles to subsist, presenting a wandering pace that may deter some viewers, but Llewyn’s life unravels with such terrific emotion and spontaneity that it’s easy to become lost in his world. The dialogue and the characters are very reflective, ultimately forming a splendid film with striking introspection.

★★★★☆
Jack Reacher (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

A competent if predictable action movie, in which Tom Cruise stars as the eponymous Jack Reacher — a former Military Police Corps officer hell bent on tracking down a sniper who murdered five innocent civilians.

The action is engaging and there are some terrific surprises within the cast (Werner Herzog plays the topmost villain) but it’s rarely daring and sticks to a very linear, undemanding plot that is full of tropes. Decent for its demographic.

★★☆☆☆
Kong: Skull Island (Dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts)

If you want to see a giant ape punching helicopters out of the sky and slamming creepy two-legged lizards into a mountain, then this is the film for you. There is much spectacle in Kong: Skull Island, but sadly not much else. The cast are impressive, but struggle to breathe much life into the undeveloped characters.

Much of the dialogue is woeful, with an eerie tone jarringly interrupted by frequent occasions of comic relief. While the action is thrilling, it is at times gratuitous and oddly out of place, with character deaths included at regular intervals to seemingly appease the lowest common denominator. There’s not much in the way of intelligence and originality here, but there’s a giant ape kicking ass so who cares.

★★☆☆☆
Logan (Dir. James Mangold)

An exemplary send off for both the Wolverine and Professor X characters, with incredibly moving themes of depression and hopelessness, handled with accuracy and care. It’s in stark contrast to the other X-Men movies, with characters weak in body and mind and a lot of very authentic human drama. Jackman and Stewart are the clear stand-outs and have the best characterisation.

The only thing that irked me was the plot concerning the mutants’ safety across the border. It felt very simplified and shallow to grant them immunity from such ruthless villains just because they passed into a different territory. Nonetheless, Logan is a tremendous picture. It likely won’t be the last X-Men movie, but it would be so bittersweet and poignant if it were — that last shot is impeccable.

★★★★☆
Paterson (Dir. Jim Jarmusch)

Paterson is a film with a stunningly pensive ambience. It’s introspective and meditative, not so dissimilar to Inside Llewyn Davis, though the two central characters are opposites. Whereas Llewyn sought fame as a singer-songwriter, Paterson is a talented poet but remains content simply creating art, never sharing it. We follow his life for a week, watching him converse with his wife, meet people walking the dog, and observe the world from the drivers seat of a bus.

Paterson is juxtaposed well with his wife Laura and the character is well articulated and developed through his mannerisms, dialogue and the set decoration — there isn’t any contrived or particularly obvious exposition; the city and its inhabitants uncoil very organically. It’s a leisurely film without an overarching plot, but it has a beautiful and understated message about the creativity of individuals.

★★★★☆
Split (Dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

The apparent resurgence of M. Night Shyamalan. Split is definitely one of his more engaging films, with James McAvoy playing a man afflicted with dissociative identity disorder, whose dangerous alters begin to take over. I felt it started a lot stronger than it ended, with the final act becoming almost comical and more fantasy than thriller.

I also feel it’s a film that suffered from oversaturation — the marketing gave away far too much. Nevertheless, it’s a solid film from a director who proves he has some amount of genius left. The two central performances from Anya Taylor-Joy and James McAvoy were also rather brilliant and very persuasive. The last scene was a little hokey, but also curious at the same time.

★★★☆☆
Spring Breakers (Dir. Harmony Korine)

A group of teen girls can’t afford to go on spring break, so they decide to rob a diner. Armed with sledgehammers and pretend guns, they motivate themselves with rudimentary dialogue about pretending to be in a video game. It’s all so shallow and gratuitous, with characters that barely possess a conscience.

Half the movie is monologue and ambience, with an abundance of intercut shots and a montage here and there — it creates a sort of video diary effect where the film is more a sequence of events rather than anything with substance. It’s horribly pretentious and the characters are irritating and frivolous. I couldn’t wait for it to end.

★☆☆☆☆
Stoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

A terrific tale of innocence lost. India Stoker has just turned eighteen, but is met with the news that her father has been involved in a fatal traffic accident. Shortly thereafter, an uncle she never knew existed comes to stay. While initially cold towards him, India grows curious and fascinated by this enigmatic man and his motives. Stoker is gorgeously shot and rich with symbolism — it’s tantalising to observe and enjoyable to interpret.

Chung Chung-hoon continues to offer much allure as Chan-wook’s cinematographer in residence and the script — penned by Wentworth Miller — unravels with tremendous intrigue, never revealing too much or too little. The main cast all hold their own as mesmeric, morally ambiguous characters and a number of scenes are very briskly edited, creating a spine-tingling succession of imagery. It’s bewitching on many levels and feels as though it will charm all the more with every viewing.

★★★★☆
The Wolf of Wall Street (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

A biographical film following the rise and fall of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, who made a fortune through corruption and fraud. It’s a movie absolutely held up by its performances, with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill terrifically charismatic and entirely captivating. I thought DiCaprio displayed an even more tremendous calibre here than in The Revenant.

The plot and the dialogue developed and unfurled very naturally, with the lengthy runtime going by in an instant. The characters are crooks and fraudsters, but Scorsese and co. entice viewers through curiosity. It’s a fascinating tale with remarkable magnetism, told with incredible passion, ferocious drama and rapturous wit.

★★★★☆
Undulant Fever (Dir. Hiroshi Ando)

An adaptation of Kei Nakazawa’s early novel When I Sense the Sea. It’s a tale of love, sex, femininity and perversion, with leading actress Yui Ichikawa giving a stellar performance. The narrative swaps between past and present as the central relationship is examined at a rather leisurely pace, with many long takes and static, observant camerawork.

It’s an interesting film, with a great depiction of the struggles and undulating emotions that come with romance, but it isn’t particularly engaging. Though I do admire it’s quiet, watchful moments; there’s less a reliance on dialogue than there is on the visuals and the expression of silence.

★★☆☆☆

Nineteen films this month and over seventy for the year so far. I’m well on my way to that one hundred goal and we’re not even half way through the year! See you next time.

Watched This Month: February 2017

Hello, friends. Welcome to Watched This Month! I managed to be punctual and get through another large and varied assemblage of movies this time. I’ve now accumulated over 20,000 words, writing about more than 140 movies over the course of fourteen months in my Watched This Month logs. I hope you’ve found at least a couple of sentences informative or interesting. Onward to February’s watch list…

Previous: January 2017

Film Rating
All Is Lost (Dir. J.C. Chandor)

A bleak movie about a solo sailor who gets stranded at sea. It captures the harshness of the ocean with remarkable clarity and contains some dazzling visuals. I felt like Robert Redford’s character could have done with some more dialogue, though. He didn’t talk to himself even once and bellowed just a single profanity. He’s eerily clam given the extremity of the situation. Overall, it’s a largely satisfying movie with a couple of marvellous moments. The final imagery is tantalizingly beautiful.

★★★☆☆
As One (Dir. Moon Hyun-sung)

A semi-biographical account of the unification of the Korean team at the 41st World Table Tennis Championships in 1991. As One is a competently shot and superbly performed film, with a fantastic ensemble cast who emulate the look and movement of athletes with keen precision. The plot is a little formulaic and certain details are slightly embellished, but the film maintains a decent level of authenticity where it matters and depicts the remarkable unification with the love and respect it deserves. It ends as an incredibly inspiring tale, displaying fervent compassion and great humanity in the face of division and adversity.

★★★★☆
Assassination (Dir. Choi Dong-hoon)

A historical action-drama detailing an assassination attempt during the Japanese occupation of Korea. It’s a fine film with an interesting historical context that doesn’t seem depicted very often in cinema. However, the plot has a few too many coincidences, which I feel prevents it from becoming great, though it was nowhere near as convoluted as I had read. The characters weren’t particularly nuanced, but I didn’t tire from their company and the action was exhilarating and the ending fulfilling.

★★★☆☆
Bleed for This (Dir. Ben Younger)

A biographical film that tells the story of professional boxer Vinny Pazienza, who was left with a broken neck and serious spinal injuries after being involved in a car crash. After being told he would never fight again, he ignored the doctors instruction and resumed his workout regime despite his limited movement and the huge metal brace screwed into his skull. The film tells a remarkable story, but is as structured and conventional as most boxing movies. Nevertheless, it seems very respectful and accurate in its adaptation and contains some stunning performances. It’s a shame it didn’t reach a wider audience.

★★★☆☆
Cart (Dir. Boo Ji-young)

A drama inspired by true events in which a crowd of retail workers band together to protest after being unfairly laid off. It’s a largely compelling film and the ensemble cast work wonders, but some parts are incredibly dramatised and lose a sense of authenticity. Still, it’s an astounding tale and important social critique — in the real-life story, the dismissed employees protested in front of the supermarket for almost seventeen months before the matter was settled.

★★★☆☆
Enemy’s Apple (Dir. Lee Su-jin)

A short film from the director of Han Gong-ju. Set amidst a showdown between police and violent demonstrators, two men on opposing sides face-off in an alleyway, with neither willing to relent. The film hinges on the interaction between these characters and forces viewers to confront societal structures, as it weaves between desperation and humour. It’s expertly shot and feels very organic, with a lot of intense close-ups and impressive grit.

★★★☆☆
Girlfriend’s Day (Dir. Michael Stephenson)

A bizarre film about a once successful greetings card writer who finds his past talents sought out by numerous competitors when the government introduces a new holiday named Girlfriend’s Day. It’s outlandish and attempts to be quite quirky, but ends up very tiresome and harsh due to a predictable plot and a wobbly tone. I like Bob Odenkirk, but the characters were very unappealing and though it’s a short film at just seventy minutes, it still seemed to drag. It has a decent idea at its core, but the script is very dull and almost inadequate, with comedy that misses the mark entirely.

★☆☆☆☆
I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (Dir. Macon Blair)

A dark comedy from Macon Blair, about a disgruntled woman who takes the law into her own hands after her home is burgled. It has a very snappy, self-contained plot full of amusing cynicism and sharp wit. Melanie Lynskey and Elijah Wood make a fantastic a duo of humorous oddballs who just want people to stop being so discourteous. After the disappointing Teenage Cocktail and Girlfriend’s Day, there is hope for Netflix movies yet.

★★★☆☆
Il Mare (Dir. Lee Hyeon-seung)

A touching South Korean romance that was remade by Hollywood just a couple of years after its release. A lonely girl named Eun-ju moves out of her extraordinary seaside house and leaves behind a letter asking the new owner to forward her mail, signing it off with the date in 1999. She gets a reply from Sung-hyun, who claims to be the house’s first resident in the year 1997. The two then discover they are able to communicate between time through the house’s elegant mailbox. It’s an inventive romance, with beautifully vivid and poignant depictions of love, loss and loneliness. The more I think about this movie the more I love it.

★★★★☆
It Follows (Dir. David Robert Mitchell)

An interesting idea that was apparently inspired by the director’s recurring nightmares. The film plays out like a nightmare itself, with an unspecified setting and absence of adult characters. It’s stylish, eerie and atmospheric and I enjoyed the feelings of impending doom in the score and central theme, but it’s sadly let down by characters whose motives and decisions feel largely manufactured and present solely to serve the narrative.

★★★☆☆
Jeon Woochi: The Taoist Wizard (Dir. Choi Dong-hoon)

A Korean fantasy blockbuster about a Taoist named Woochi, who winds up in the present day after being accused of murdering his master and subsequently sealed away for five centuries. The mythology was a bit tortuous, but all-in-all it was an entertaining film with some great characters. Kang Dong-won was very likeable as Jeon Woochi and the effects were well implement, with a fine display of martial arts and a playful use of perspective during the action scenes. The culture clash and comedy aspects were also very amusing.

★★★☆☆
My Annoying Brother (Dir. Kwon Soo-kyeong)

After watching Unforgettable, I was interested in seeing more of actor Do Kyung-soo. He plays the dignified sibling in My Annoying Brother, alongside irksome older brother Jo Jung-suk. After Kyung-soo loses his eyesight due to an injury sustained at a Judo competition, Jung-suk is given parole in order to care for him, though he has little intention to do so. What starts off as a sibling rivalry develops into something very tender and stirring. Despite some predictability, it manages to be a rather life-affirming and deeply touching tale, though it’ll likely be too melodramatic for some.

★★★☆☆
My Sassy Girl (Dir. Kwak Jae-yong)

A romantic comedy based on a series of anecdotes by writer Kim Ho-sik, which detailed his relationship with his girlfriend. My Sassy Girl was a huge success when it released in 2001 and is now hailed as a classic of Korean cinema. The movie is a bit skittish and frantic at times, but is enormously funny, with brilliant performances from Cha Tae-hyun and Jun Ji-hyun. Their chemistry is completely addicting and Ji-hyun’s character is a mesmeric enigma, somehow both abrasive and lovable. The last thirty minutes were pure magic — so tender and beautiful.

★★★★★
Night Fishing (Dir. Park Chan-wook and Park Chang-kyong)

A short film from Park Chan-wook and his brother, who had no prior filmmaking experience. It was shot entirely on the Apple iPhone 4 and follows a man who fishes up a dead body that comes to life. It has a clever twist and everything I’ve seen thus far of Korean shamanism has been entirely transfixing. It’s an intriguing short film that goes to show you don’t need specialised equipment to create a competent film.

★★★☆☆
One Perfect Day (Dir. Kim Jee-woon)

A short film that follows a young man through various unsuccessful dates. I stumbled upon this one due to the alluring Park Shin-hye, but was surprised to find it’s directed by the masterful Kim Jee-woon, who is responsible for A Bittersweet Life, I Saw the Devil and last years Oscar submission The Age of Shadows, just to name a few. As such, One Perfect Day is skillfully shot and exquisitely written. The evening sequences were wonderfully mesmeric and it’s equally funny and touching — a fine tale of acute loneliness and unexpected hope.

★★★☆☆
Pained (Dir. Kwak Kyung-taek)

Nam-soon suffers from analgesia and is insensitive to pain, whereas Dong-hyeon has hemophilia and even the smallest of wounds can be fatal. Pained follows these two characters as they strike up an unlikely relationship. It’s a little heavy on the melodrama and certain aspects came across as slightly manufactured and forced, but it’s a well-performed piece and I thought Nam-soon was very well written. It would have been easy to make such an emotionally barren character very stubborn, but I adored his wholehearted embrace at a glimpse of meaning returning to his life. It was a breath of fresh air for such a character to give in to his feelings. There’s a beautiful scene in which he laments all he ever wanted was for somebody to ask him what was wrong.

★★★☆☆
Red Eye (Dir. Wes Craven)

A competent thriller set aboard a red-eye flight with some unintentionally hilarious scenes. Cillian Murphy plays a terrorist who coerces Rachel McAdams in order to facilitate a planned murder of a politician and his family. It doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the genre, but Cillian Murphy is incredibly compelling and it’s amusing to watch the back-and-forth between him and McAdams aboard the flight — apparently every other passenger is too self-absorbed to notice their aggressive jostling and nonchalant talk of murder. The last thirty minutes were tense, but it ends exactly how you would expect.

★★★☆☆
Teenage Cocktail (Dir. John Carchietta)

An enormous waste of time about two high school girls who dream of escaping to New York from their quiet Californian town. To raise money, they resort to streaming sleazy webcam videos before moving on to blackmail. The plot has potential, but it lacks depth and is ultimately very crude and disengaging. It also opens with a snippet of the climax which spoils more than intrigues, essentially making the plot all the more predictable. Furthermore, the dialogue is incredibly uninspired and there are so many conveniences and nonsensical decisions made by the characters that it’s wholly grimacing.

★☆☆☆☆
The Beauty Inside (Dir. Baek Jong-yeol)

Since his eighteenth birthday, every time he wakes up, Woo-jin changes into a different person. The Beauty Inside follows the life of Woo-jin and the struggles that come with his unique situation, especially when he develops feelings for a woman. Initially, I assumed it would be a comedy, but The Beauty Inside takes its fantasy aspects seriously. It’s in the same vein as something like The Age of Adeline, but is much more poignant and melancholic. It’s based on a series of short films commissioned by Toshiba in 2012 that starred Mary Elizabeth Winstead and will be remade this year by Fox, with Emilia Clarke starring alongside the as of yet uncast Woo-jin. In the South Korean film, the character is played by no less than twenty different people.

★★★☆☆
The Tower (Dir. Kim Ji-hoon)

A disaster movie set inside a pair of luxurious skyscrapers on Christmas Eve. Despite containing all the familiar tropes and archetypes of the genre, The Tower is a well-crafted film that manages to be consistently thrilling throughout its two-hour runtime. Once the catastrophe begins, the film juggles between action and melodrama with great tenacity — offering up numerous spectacles in quick succession — but I found the opening very warm and quietly compelling. The skyscrapers made for an intriguing setting; so much so I would have happily watched a movie about the staff and residents preparing for a Christmas party. Though the characters are all rather rudimentary, they’re exceptionally varied and the actors were very engaging.

★★★☆☆
Unforgettable (Dir. Lee Eun-hee)

A drama set on a small island off the coast of South Korea, which follows four friends who return from the mainland for their summer holidays, along with a fifth friend, who isn’t able to venture like the others due to a degenerative disease in her leg. Unforgettable is a bittersweet film with very powerful depictions of love, loss and adolescence. It’s incredibly melodramatic, but for a sentimental person like me it hit all the right notes. I loved it’s raw and desolate depiction of emotional pain — there are no quick resolutions to heartache, only suffering and grudging acceptance. It’s a beautiful portrayal of formative younger years, with some really tremendous sequences.

★★★★☆
Windstruck (Dir. Kwak Jae-yong)

A South Korean romantic comedy from the director of My Sassy Girl, which also stars the sassy girl herself, Jun Ji-hyun. Windstruck is a very peculiar film — it’s like a parody of buddy cop movies with dashes of extreme melodrama. The first half follows the misadventures of police officer Kyung-jin and school teacher Myung-woo, while the second half swaps the comedy for drama, but has a couple of unexpected and oddly disjointed sequences where Ji-hyun’s character becomes a sharp, ruthless criminal hunter. While not as good as its would-be predecessor, Windstruck is still a lot of fun and has a brilliant soundtrack. Ji-hyun is always very entertaining and the references to My Sassy Girl were quite genius.

★★★☆☆

If you’ve made it down here then — as always — thank you dearly for stopping by. Twenty-two movies this month. Keeping up a substantial number! See you again.

Watched This Month: January 2017

Annyeonghaseyo! Welcome to the first Watched This Month of 2017. Apologies for being a week or so behind. You know my punctuality isn’t too great, but I watched more movies than there are days in January, so there was a lot to cover. I tried to cut down on the word count to avoid an unsightly fortress of text, but still ended up waffling on somewhat. Anyway, let us not delay!

Previous: December 2016

Film Rating
0.5mm (Dir. Momoko Ando)

An anthology of anguish and loneliness — broken people, striving and enduring through the unspoken agony of life. Sakura Ando’s character (Sawa) lives an unfocused existence, forcing herself into the lives of elderly men and blackmailing them into allowing her to stay. But with each encounter, she unlocks their suffering and sets them on a path, not so much of recovery, but of alleviation.

It has that expert blend of wry humour and tender, heart-rending drama the Japanese seem so proficient at, with many powerful and rousing scenes that are skillfully and subtlety employed. It’s transfixing through and through, but Sakura Ando is the driving force — playing an enigma that is captivating beyond measure. The film is almost three and a half hours long, but I didn’t want it to end. I want to follow Sawa’s life forever.

★★★★★
100 Yen Love (Dir. Masaharu Take)

100 Yen Love is a bit uneven, but oftentimes it weaves between comedy and drama with wonderful panache and is enormous amounts of fun. Like in 0.5mm, Sakura Ando is the driving force as a layabout with no direction in life, until she’s forced to move out of her parents’ house. She learns to take care of herself and takes up boxing after watching a friend’s bout.

It’s a splendid coming of age drama that is as hard-hitting and soul-stirring as it is funny. I adored it come the end and find myself all the more enamored with Sakura Ando. She had a hell of a year in 2014.

★★★★☆
2/ Duo (Dir. Nobuhiro Suwa)

A quiet film about the struggles and collapse of a relationship. The characters feel very organic and raw, with the director introducing faux documentary elements that add a keen sense of authenticity. I’m on the fence over the ending, but it’s nonetheless a very poignant and finely constructed piece.

★★★☆☆
A Girl at My Door (Dir. July Jung)

Bae Doona stars as a police officer who is transferred from Seoul to a quiet seaside town due to a personal scandal. She meets a timid 14 year old girl who is abused by her father, but the local police are reluctant to step in as the father is the backbone of the towns oyster farming business. As the newly appointed substation chief, Doona tries to set things right but is caught off-guard when her past begins to catch up with her.

The film was reportedly difficult to finance due to its (relatively tame) portrayal of a lesbian romance, with both Bae Doona and young actress Kim Sae-ron apparently working for free.

It’s a strong feature-length debut for director July Jung. Some scenes were a little far-fetched and the incompetence of much of the cast does wear thin, but as it progresses it peels off some interesting layers and presents some astonishing twists, with both Doona and Sae-ron giving superb performances.

★★★☆☆
A Kind of Murder (Dir. Andy Goddard)

A beautifully shot domestic drama turned classic noir about a man in a failing marriage who begins to wish his wife was dead. The cinematography is stunning, but for a thriller it wasn’t so thrilling and the mystery elements weren’t at all curious. The detective character also came across as very shallow and irritating.

★★☆☆☆
Argo (Dir. Ben Affleck)

A well acted and competently plotted movie from Ben Affleck, but somehow I didn’t find it as absorbing as it ought to be. My main gripe is with the ending, which felt largely synthetic and overly dramatised — but it is a movie, after all. It’s by no means bad and fulfills its duty as a historical picture, paying tribute and telling the story of those involved in the Iran hostage crisis.

★★★☆☆
Arrival (Dir. Denis Villeneuve)

Perhaps I need to give it another chance, but I thought I would enjoy Arrival a lot more than I did. On first viewing, I loved the aesthetics and tone of the piece, but didn’t fully get behind the third act and am struggling to comprehend how learning a language unlocks the fourth dimension. Maybe I will benefit from another viewing, but my first impression is that the premise is a little flimsy.

★★★☆☆
Collide (Dir. Eran Creevy)

An action movie with Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Nicholas Hoult and a fabulously blonde Felicity Jones. The plot is very run-of-the-mill, but the characters and action set pieces were thoroughly enjoyable. It wasn’t particularly memorable, but didn’t feel like a waste of time, either. The accents were a bit jarring.

★★☆☆☆
Easy A (Dir. Will Gluck)

A satisfactory if insubstantial movie. It’s well-executed, but run-of-the-mill — carried mostly by Emma Stone. The characters are very archetypal and some of the dialogue is a little woeful, but there are a few laughs and it has a certain charm to it.

★★★☆☆
Hacksaw Ridge (Dir. Mel Gibson)

A biographical picture about Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who refused to carry a weapon as a combat medic during World War II. While he also served in Guam and the Philippines, Hacksaw Ridge focuses mostly on his Fort Jackson training and the Battle of Okinawa, in which he saved the lives of 75 wounded soldiers.

It’s a magnificent film that displays very vividly the astounding bravery, faith and courage amongst the harrows of war. Initially, I thought it ended too soon, but the inclusion of actual footage of Desmond Doss gave it a very bittersweet and touching end. I would have loved for Andrew Garfield to be nominated for Silence over Hacksaw Ridge, but he nevertheless gave a remarkable performance.

★★★★☆
Han Gong-ju (Dir. Lee Su-Jin)

A haunting film carried impeccably by Chun Woo-hee. The eponymous character is forced to transfer schools after a vague incident occurs. As the film progresses, Han Gong-ju’s present day life is intersected with her past, revealing the reasons behind her situation and why she comes across as a very timid and despondent young girl.

I won’t go into details as the entire film hinges on what occurred in Han Gong-ju’s past and it’s all the more stirring without any prior knowledge of the plot (which is based on a true story).

★★★★☆
Happy End (Dir. Jung Ji-woo)

A drama from South Korea that was apparently quite notorious when it released in 1999 due to its explicit content. It follows a wife who engages in adultery after becoming the sole provider for her jobless husband and young child. The two leads deliver very convincing performances and the ending is terrifically rousing and bittersweet.

★★★☆☆
Hell or High Water (Dir. David Mackenzie)

I read somewhere once that the western genre never died, it just developed into modern action cinema. Hell or High Water is something of a fabulous blend of classic and contemporary, following two brothers who resort to bank robbery in order to save their ranch, which is in debt due to a reverse mortgage. The action scenes were incredibly tense and the dialogue between Gil Birmingham and Jeff Bridges’ Texas Ranger characters was terrific.

★★★★☆
Key of Life (Dir. Kenji Uchida)

Key of Life is a classic mistaken identity comedy. Sakurai is a hapless young actor who can’t seem to get anywhere in life. After slipping out of his home-made noose, he visits a communal bath house to dissipate his sweat. There, he inadvertently trips another patron named Kondo, who ends up knocking his head and being sent to hospital.

Sakurai happens to pick up Kondo’s locker key and decides to have a root around. Initially, he uses Kondo’s car and money to drive around paying off all the debts he owes, but when he discovers Kondo has amnesia, he decides to take up his identity full-time. However, it turns out Kondo is a seasoned hitman. Meanwhile, the actual Kondo unknowingly assumes Sakurai’s identity.

Key of Life is one of the funniest movies I have seen in a long while. It’s superbly paced and tells a very complete and wholly joyous story that’s neither unfulfilled nor overindulged. It’s outlandish and frequently amusing, but also has some tender moments. The characters are wonderfully quirky and hilarious in their own distinct ways. A really tremendous film — I don’t often describe comedies as memorable, but I won’t forget about Key of Life.

★★★★☆
La La Land (Dir. Damien Chazelle)

Looking at all of the reviews and accolades, I feel as though I’m missing something, but I thought La La Land was quite bland. Yes, it’s showy and colourful and fluid, but it felt soulless to me — a pale imitation of the musicals it pays homage to.

I love Ryan Gosling and I love Emma Stone, but I didn’t care one bit about their characters. It’s full with wonderfully attentive set decoration and gorgeous cinematography, but the musical numbers themselves felt very uninspired and insipid, with lyrics that seemed to emphasize rather than add anything interesting or new — there’s no subtlety. I think it would have been a stronger film without the musical interludes.

★★★☆☆
Linda Linda Linda (Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita)

A charming movie about four high-school girls in Japan who form a band for their schools cultural festival. It’s as endearing as they come, with the four main characters each bringing something distinct and enjoyable. Though, for me, Bae Doona was the stand-out as a timid Korean transfer student who becomes the bands vocalist.

Though light-hearted and fun, it’s also surprisingly bittersweet and moving, with a lot of nuances in the characters. The Japanese have absolutely perfected this sub-set of high-school dramas. Linda Linda Linda would form a wonderful trilogy with Swing Girls and Hula Girls.

★★★★☆
Manchester by the Sea (Dir. Kenneth Lonergan)

A powerful portrayal of sorrow with a very stirring performance from Casey Affleck, who portrays a person whose life has stalled. In a seemingly lulled state of existence, he’s haunted by the past and is unable to look towards the future. His despondency is so vivid and moving and the slow reveal to precisely why he is this way is incredibly well executed. Michelle Williams also brings such passion to her small role — her pivotal scene is heartbreaking.

★★★★☆
Men in Black 3 (Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)

I’ve seen Men in Black 3 before, but saw that it was on TV one lonely evening and decided to give it another viewing. While not particularly exceptional, the plot comes together well and provides the series a very satisfactory and complete ending. It’s a fun watch and everything you would expect from a Men in Black movie. It may actually be my favourite of the trilogy.

★★★☆☆
Monsters University (Dir. Dan Scanlon)

Another film I’ve seen before. Monsters, Inc. is one of my all-time favourite Pixar movies, so it was wonderful to be back in the universe and company of these characters I adore, but it’s let down by a fairly standard plot, which isn’t able to attain the same level of emotion, excitement and wonder as the original. It has its moments of genius, though, along with some great back and forths between Mike and Sully.

★★★☆☆
One Fine Spring Day (Dir. Hur Jin-ho)

After falling in love with Christmas in August last year, I am slowly making my way through Hur Jin-ho’s filmography. One Fine Spring Day is the tale of a couple who fall in and out of love and like Christmas in August, it portrays very poignant and moving scenarios, but is always very tender and understated.

Hur Jin-ho portrays both the passion and pain of love without a single line of vociferous dialogue. His characters are often reserved and indirect, but depict a tremendous range of emotion through their actions and lack of discourse. Similar to Christmas in August, it’s an unostentatious and delicate tale of love — formed through small, exquisite details — but is just as stirring and soul-destroying as some of  the genres most rousing movies. The last half broke me.

★★★★☆
Seed (Dir. Naomi Kawase)

A short film from writer-director Naomi Kawase, whose filmography is seemingly full with marvels I have yet to explore. Seed follows an eccentric girl played by Sakura Ando who seems caught up in the wonder of life. There’s not a lot of substance to it, but the film is beautifully shot and Sakura is a dazzling enigma.

★★★☆☆
Silence (Dir. Martin Scorsese)

I’ve been following Silence ever since Andrew Garfield was cast three years ago (which is a minuscule amount of time compared to its twenty year on-and-off production). I read the novel and found it incredibly profound and stirring, despite revolving around themes I wouldn’t usually explore. It’s stayed terrifically vivid in my mind ever since and I’ve been looking forward to Scorsese’s adaptation with bated breath. To finally see it was actually quite special.

It’s one of the most faithful book to film adaptations I have ever seen, with so many scenes playing out as I had envisioned. The cinematography was gorgeous and the themes were handled with grace and impartiality.

I was so happy with Yosuke Kubozuka as Kichijiro and Issei Ogata was a marvel as Inquisitor Inoue — even more devious and uncanny than I remember. Andrew Garfield portrayed Rodrigues with all the staggering turmoil and bewilderment that Endo had described and was the real backbone of the movie, for me.

I’m glad Scorsese approached the novel in such a direct fashion — including scenes that could have easily been left ambiguous or shrouded in imagery. I also appreciate that he expanded somewhat on the ending, including finer details of Rodrigues’ later life. It made the ending all the more striking.

The only gripes I have are that it was somewhat puzzling to have Garfield and Driver speak in Portuguese accents, but present Neeson in his usual tone. It was a little jarring and would have been more immersive to go one way or the other. In certain scenes, Ferreira also came across to me as a sort of ‘voice of reason’ rather than the pitiful husk he’s portrayed as in the novel. These a very minor though and I’m intrigued to see the impact of the movie on second viewing.

★★★★☆
Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

I watched Oldboy and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance about a decade ago, but only now am I getting around to the first feature in Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy. I was indifferent towards Lady Vengeance and thus pushed Mr. Vengeance to the back-burner, which turned out to be a mistake as it’s a remarkably shot and tremendously gripping film, with a cast of distinct, sympathetic and uniquely compelling characters.

I find myself continually impressed with the alluring imagery. Chung Chung-hoon is a constant I adore in Park Chan-wook’s movies (he’s worked with the director as cinematographer on every feature since Oldboy), but Byeong-il Kim handled the photography on Mr. Vengeance. Surprisingly, it was his first film as cinematographer, but his framing and use of overhead angles was masterful. I would love to see more from him, but his filmography is surprisingly bare.

★★★★☆
The Edge of Seventeen (Dir. Kelly Fremon)

A wonderfully endearing and completely hypnotic coming of age movie. Hailee Steinfeld is brilliant as an unorthodox teen indifferent towards her surroundings. The plot contains a few of the usual beats, but is complemented by some very persuasive performances and a lot of witty and well written dialogue. It captures the needless complications of adolescence impeccably.

★★★★☆
The Murder Case of Hana & Alice (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

Shunji Iwai has directed a couple of animated shorts in the past, but this is his first foray into feature-length animation. It made me realise Iwai’s biggest signifier is his writing and characters.

He has a very distinctive style of filmmaking, with heavy use of soft focus and handheld camerawork and while he doesn’t particularly emulate that style in animation, the film is unmistakably his.

It has this wonderfully quaint, idle pace and a plot that is so engaging, yet unfocused and almost evasive. Iwai focuses on the characters first and foremost and forms them through actions rather than words. His characterisation is beautifully attentive and his portrayal of youth so exact.

If you look at something like this, or April Story or even All About Lily Chou-Chou to an extent, the plots seem so basic and easy to describe, but at the same time the films themselves are incredibly layered and profound, full with subtleties and astoundingly pensive qualities. He forms complete and detailed pictures from the smaller details and handles exposition with incredible finesse. It’s like the films just tell themselves — they have this naturalness and authenticity that is difficult to describe. The man is a real marvel and I admire him very much.

It makes me curious to read his novels, where he can’t rely on the visual medium he is so incredibly adept with. Sadly, none have actually been translated in to English, which is a real shame as some of his more popular movies began as novels and I’d love to see the evolution from prose to script and screenplay.

★★★★☆
The Shawshank Redemption (Dir. Frank Darabont)

Another re-watch. You can usually count on The Shawshank Redemption popping up on TV at least a couple of times a year. It’s as quotable as ever and has yet to lose its charm. Thomas Newman’s score never falters — I can’t believe the man doesn’t have an Oscar.

★★★★★
Turbo (Dir. David Soren)

I loved the idea of Turbo and was eager to give it a long-overdue watch, but sadly it’s mediocre at best. It had a lot of perky, enjoyable action, but the characters were very one-note and I didn’t really connect with any of the drama or emotional beats.

★★☆☆☆
Turtles Are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (Dir. Satoshi Miki)

Another charming feature from writer-director Satoshi Miki. Very light-hearted and quirky in typically Japanese fashion. Perhaps too oddball for some, but a funny and joyous escapade nonetheless. Definitely not as good as Adrift in Tokyo, though.

★★★☆☆
Victoria (Dir. Sebastian Schipper)

An incredibly immersive film — shot in one continuous take over the course of almost two and a half hours. Despite constraints, the plot was engaging and fluently paced, with an entrancing performance from Laia Costa. Sucks that it was shut out of the Oscars.

★★★★☆
What We Did on Our Holiday (Dir. Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin)

I watched What We Did on Our Holiday on a complete whim, not really knowing what it was about, and came away largely satisfied. It’s neither remarkable nor dull, but Billy Connolly has a great role with some insightful and hard-hitting dialogue.

★★★☆☆
Why Don’t You Play in Hell? (Dir. Sion Sono)

Sion Sono is so passionate about film and it absolutely shines here. Why Don’t You Play in Hell took a little while to get going, but the second half is such an enthralling, exciting and incredibly funny all-out romp. One of the most satisfying and laugh-out-loud movies I have seen in a long while.

★★★★☆
Why Him? (Dir. John Hamburg)

A very by-the-numbers and wholly predictable comedy, but the cast were okay and there are some laughs to be had — you know what you’re in for. Fulfills its duty as a bit of simple, dumb fun, but left me with a sort of bitter taste.

★★☆☆☆

Thirty-two movies in one month. I wonder how long I’ll be able to keep this up. I feel like one of those machines that go for the 365 movie challenge. My goal this year was to watch over 100 movies, but I’m almost half way there already! See you again soon.

Watched This Year: 2016

Greetings! Welcome to the second ever Watched This Year. In this post, I’ll be listing every film I viewed in 2016, regardless of initial release. It’s helpful to keep track of everything I saw and an easy way to compile all of my ratings and thoughts in one place. Every link will take you to a relevant post that contains my critiques and appraisals and – as always – please drop by my letterboxd for more precise ratings, as I am a little restricted due to the inability to award half-stars on here.

I stated in my previous Watched This Year that I wanted to double the amount of films I saw and I’m pleased to reveal — I did just that! Last year, I only managed to get through 43 movies, compared to 88 this year. I also stuck solely to English-language films last year, whereas this year over a quarter of my viewings were in a language other than English. I have always been keenly interested in foreign cinema and am particularly fond of East Asian movies, so I am very happy to have redeemed myself somewhat, though still tremendously disappointed to have neglected them in 2015.

Next year, I would like to push for over 100 movies and continue to dedicate a lot of time to foreign cinema. Come back in twelve months for the results.

Previous: Watched This Year: 2015

Film Rating
10 Cloverfield Lane (Dir. Dan Trachtenberg) ★★★★☆
3-Iron (Dir. Kim Ki-duk) ★★★★☆
A Bittersweet Life (Dir. Kim Jee-woon) ★★★☆☆
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Dir. Shunji Iwai) ★★★★★
A Hard Day (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon) ★★★★☆
Anomalisa (Dir. Charlie Kaufman) ★★☆☆☆
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Dir. Zack Snyder) ★★☆☆☆
Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance) ★★★★☆
Bottle Rocket (Dir. Wes Anderson) ★★★★☆
Captain America: Civil War (Dir. Joe Russo and Anthony Russo) ★★★☆☆
Captain Fantastic (Dir. Matt Ross) ★★★★☆
Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuarón) ★★★☆☆
Christmas in August (Dir. Hur Jin-Ho) ★★★★★
Confession of Murder (Dir. Jeong Byeong-Gil) ★★★☆☆
Deadpool (Dir. Tim Miller) ★★★☆☆
Death Billiards (Dir. Yuzuru Tachikawa) ★★★☆☆
Doctor Strange (Dir. Scott Derrickson) ★★☆☆☆
Don Jon (Dir. Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ★★☆☆☆
Eye in the Sky (Dir. Gavin Hood) ★★★★☆
Faults (Dir. Riley Stearns) ★★☆☆☆
Green Room (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier) ★★★☆☆
Hail, Caesar! (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) ★★★☆☆
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Dir. Taika Waititi) ★★★★☆
I Am Not a Serial Killer (Dir. Billy O’Brien) ★★☆☆☆
I Saw the Devil (Dir. Kim Jee-woon) ★★★★☆
Imperium (Dir. Daniel Ragussis) ★★★☆☆
In the Heart of the Sea (Dir. Ron Howard) ★★★☆☆
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight) ★★★★☆
Kung Fu Panda 3 (Dir. Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh) ★★★★☆
Little Witch Academia (Dir. Yoh Yoshinari) ★★★☆☆
Me Before You (Dir. Thea Sharrock) ★★★☆☆
Memories of Murder (Dir. Bong Joon-ho) ★★★★☆
Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho) ★★★★☆
New York, I Love You (Dir. Natalie Portman, Shunji Iwai, et al) ★★☆☆☆
Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford) ★★★★☆
Now You See Me (Dir. Louis Leterrier) ★☆☆☆☆
Pawn Sacrifice (Dir. Edward Zwick) ★★★☆☆
Picnic (Dir. Shunji Iwai) ★★★★☆
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (Dir. Julian Jarrold) ★★★★☆
Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (Dir. James Marsh) ★★★☆☆
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards) ★★★☆☆
Side Effects (Dir. Steven Soderbergh) ★★★☆☆
Silenced (Dir. Hwang Dong Hyuk) ★★★★☆
Sing Street (Dir. John Carney) ★★★★☆
Smashed (Dir. James Ponsoldt) ★★★★☆
Snowpiercer (Dir. Na Hong-Jin) ★★★★☆
Starry Eyes (Dir. Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer) ★☆☆☆☆
Straw Dogs (Dir. Sam Peckinpah) ★★★☆☆
Suicide Squad (Dir. David Ayer) ★☆☆☆☆
Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood) ★★★☆☆
Swiss Army Man (Dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) ★★★★☆
Symbol (Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto) ★★★☆☆
The Chaser (Dir. Na Hong-Jin) ★★★★★
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson) ★★★★☆
The Handmaiden (Dir. Chan-wook Park) ★★★★☆
The Host (Dir. Bong Joon-ho) ★★★★☆
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Dir. Terry Gilliam) ★★☆☆☆
The Jungle Book (Dir. Jon Favreau) ★★★☆☆
The Little Prince (Dir. Mark Osborne) ★★★★☆
The Man from Nowhere (Dir. Lee Jeong-Beom) ★★★★☆
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Dir. Guy Ritchie) ★★★★☆
The Neon Demon (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn) ★★☆☆☆
The Peanuts Movie (Dir. Steve Martino) ★★★☆☆
The Place Beyond the Pines (Dir. Derek Cianfrance) ★★★☆☆
The Prestige (Dir. Christopher Nolan) ★★★☆☆
The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson) ★★★★☆
The Shallows (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) ★★★★☆
The Spectacular Now (Dir. James Ponsoldt) ★★★★☆
The Station Agent (Dir. Tom McCarthy) ★★★★☆
The Terror Live (Dir. Kim Byung-woo) ★★☆☆☆
The Wailing (Dir. Na Hong-Jin) ★★★☆☆
The Witch (Dir. Robert Eggers) ★★★★☆
The Wolverine (Dir. James Mangold) ★★☆☆☆
The Woodsman (Dir. Nicole Kassell) ★★★★☆
Tokyo Fist (Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto) ★★☆☆☆
Train to Busan (Dir. Yeon Sang-Ho) ★★★☆☆
Triple 9 (Dir. John Hillcoat) ★★☆☆☆
Tunnel (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon) ★★★★☆
Undo (Dir. Shunji Iwai) ★★☆☆☆
Warcraft (Dir. Duncan Jones) ★★★☆☆
Warsaw ’44 (Dir. Jan Komasa) ★★★★☆
While We’re Young (Dir. Noah Baumbach) ★★☆☆☆
X-Men: Apocalypse (Dir. Bryan Singer) ★★☆☆☆
Your Name (Dir. Makoto Shinkai) ★★★★☆
Youth in Revolt (Dir. Miguel Arteta) ★★★☆☆
Z for Zachariah (Dir. Craig Zobel) ★★★☆☆
Zootopia (Dir. Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Jared Bush) ★★★☆☆

As I wrote about every film throughout the year in my Watched This Month posts, there aren’t any brief comments like last time. Looking at the ratings, my most loved films this year are A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Christmas in August and The Chaser. My most viewed director is Bong Joon-ho, with me having watched four of his features in 2016 — Snowpiercer, Memories of Murder, The Host and Mother — and Ha Jung-woo is my most viewed actor, after watching The Chaser, Tunnel, The Terror Live and The Handmaiden. Much love for South Korea. I wonder what films are waiting to be discovered in 2017. Please feel free to leave any recommendations! I hope my writing has been satisfactory this year and as always — thank you dearly for stopping by.

Watched This Month: December 2016

Hello, hello. Welcome to Watched This Month. Finally on time again! It’s December, so that means this monthly post has now been going for an entire year, with me having written about almost one hundred different movies along the way. Hooray! Thank you to all those who have stopped by. I have no plans to end Watched This Month, so do please continue to visit. As the year is coming to a close, following this post will be my second ever Watched This Year, which compiles every film I managed to watch in 2016 into one convenient list. Gotta love a good rundown. Anyway, down to business…

Previous: October – November

Film Rating
A Bride for Rip Van Winkle (Dir. Shunji Iwai)

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle is bewitching, beautifully subtle three-hour drama and slight companion piece to All About Lily Chou-Chou, exploring disconnect in an ever-connected world. Unassertive lead Nanami – played by Haru Kuroki – finds her supposed beau online, but never truly connects with him. After marriage, she seems destined for a quiet life of discontent, shackled by societal traditions and forced into the role of housewife. She lacks the gumption to break her dreary routine, but after some meddling by an enigmatic online acquaintance, Nanami finds herself on a path of uncertainty, in which she may just find fulfillment.

It’s a wholly mesmerizing picture, with a lengthy runtime that seems to go by in an instant. Iwai’s visuals are dreamy and evocative, with his handheld camera work creating a sense of intimacy and delicate observation. Somehow, he hits the emotional beats almost infallibly, with actress Haru Kuroki communicating soft, unspoken emotions with absolute precision. Throughout, the two build a quiet sense of melancholy, slowly but assuredly dissolving viewers into Nanami’s world.

Though the story is often sorrowful and even tragic, it’s never ostentatious or even straightforwardly distressing. Iwai’s ethereal imagery and exquisite characterisation tug away at the heartstrings in the most unobtrusive and delicate of manners.

The character of Nanami is attentively written, with Haru Kuroki giving a beautifully understated performance. Right from the get-go, she’s a terrific representation of the younger generation, whose voices are aflutter online, all too often contradicted by their passive realities.

A Bride for Rip Van Winkle has a quietly pensive and very distinct quality, with the director imbuing typically sombre scenes with tinges of warmth and reassurance; molding forlorn into fascinating. It’s a gorgeously bittersweet and entirely spellbinding experience, with an usually alluring sense of abjection. Certainly, one of Iwai’s best.

★★★★★
A Hard Day (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon)

By masterfully combining typical – but well refined – thriller elements with touches of black comedy, director Kim Seong-hoon has created an action movie with a lot of personality.

A Hard Day follows detective Ko Gun-su, who finds his day goes from bad to worse after hitting and killing a passerby in his car on the way to his mothers funeral. Rather than own up to manslaughter, Ko concocts a plan to dispose of the body inside his mothers casket, but as soon as he believes he’s in the clear, he receives an anonymous call from a man who claims to have witnessed the ordeal.

It’s a solid action-thriller, with an engaging lead and a polished, well-paced plot that is not only gratifying in its tension and excitement, but also very effective in its humour and absurdity.

★★★★☆
Christmas in August (Dir. Hur Jin-Ho)

Despite the title, Christmas in August isn’t a terribly suitable seasonal film. It’s the tale of a portrait photographer who strives to live a peaceful and pleasant existence despite a terminal illness. He owns and operates a studio by himself and lives out his days with barely an utterance of dismay, but when a young parking officer enters his life, he’s faced with a romance that may be all too bittersweet.

It sounds very melodramatic, but in actuality Christmas in August is so incredibly subtle and understated. It tackles profound emotion and devastation with exquisite delicacy and finesse, deftly avoiding any heavy-handedness and instead taking a more poignant and passive look at mortality and the tender, fleeting moments of our lives.

It’s one of the most touching films I have ever seen and is at the same time, both terrifically evocative and yet remarkably tranquil. Han Suk-kyu and Shim Eun-ha are absolutely masterful in their roles, with director Hur Jin-ho so graceful and gentle in his approach; never spoon-feeding the viewer and exquisitely weaving symbolism and meaning into the films wonderful imagery.

I watched this on Christmas Eve, not knowing what I was really in for, but I feel it will remain very vivid and important to me — tugging at my tender emotions for years to come. This is one of those special films that will stay with me.

★★★★★
Confession of Murder (Dir. Jeong Byeong-Gil)

Tonally, Confession of Murder was a little unbalanced. The first sequence sets it up a vicious thriller, but the dark tone is then quickly subsided by the subsequent action scenes, which are very overblown and almost comical. It’s still a lot of fun, though.

The story follows detective Choi, who has been haunted by a long unsolved serial murder case with which he was deeply involved. Years go by and the culprit is never found; that is until the statue of limitations expire and a man claiming responsibility publishes a book detailing his crimes, which becomes an overnight sensation.

I thought the pace was a little too fast at times, but the story was very engaging from start to finish and had a number of extremely well-executed twists. The opening chase displayed some interesting camerawork, which was sadly abandoned as the film progressed, but the further action scenes were well directed and – though rather farcical – enormously entertaining.

★★★☆☆
Kubo and the Two Strings (Dir. Travis Knight)

A fantastical stop-motion fable set in ancient Japan, in which a young boy named Kubo – who can manipulate origami with a magical shamisen – must track down a suit of armor in order to defeat the vengeful Moon King. The plot has its conveniences and some of the exposition came across a little stilted, but the film is nonetheless an astounding achievement.

The animation and attention to detail is exquisite; the film is full with gorgeously visualised action and many remarkable set pieces. Furthermore, the characters – while rather conventional – manage to be memorable and enjoyable iterations, humanly developed and brought to life with some engaging voice work.

★★★★☆
Mother (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

Another gem from Bong Joon-ho, about a mother who takes it upon herself to prove her son’s innocence after he’s arrested for murder. It’s an exquisitely woven mystery, utilising the directors trademark blend of heavy drama and dark comedy, with undercurrents of tragedy.

It’s beautifully shot and the script is so tightly-knit; each scene adds another layer of intrigue and astonishment; everything piling up to a terrifically executed twist. It’s altogether immersive and entirely unpredictable, with a superbly convincing and absolutely heartbreaking performance from Kim Hye-ja.

★★★★☆
Nocturnal Animals (Dir. Tom Ford)

Nocturnal Animals follows a disillusioned art gallery owner named Susan, whose life has become rather joyless and undesirable. Her second marriage didn’t unfold as she envisioned, with her husband distant and frequently absent. One morning she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, whom she hasn’t seen in nineteen years. During their marriage, Edward aspired to be a novelist, but Susan never placed much faith in him. As she begins to read the manuscript, she becomes entranced with the fictional life of Tony, a family man whose vacation develops into a tragic tale of revenge.

I went into Nocturnal Animals barely knowing a detail and came away awed. It’s superbly presented, with the non-linear narrative expertly employed. The plot unravels with staggering finesse and great suspense; its steady divulgence of details meticulously constructing an exceptional tale of revenge and redemption. Jake Gyllenhaal gives a mesmerising performance and I was also deeply engrossed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who I have often found rather lackluster until now. Nocturnal Animals is – without a doubt – one of the most tense and tremendously captivating movies I have seen this year.

★★★★☆
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Dir. Gareth Edwards)

For the most part, Rogue One was pleasing – with an incredible final act – but it lacked the heart and soul of the more popular Star Wars movies, with the characters letting it down immeasurably. The performances were good, but none of the cast left much of an impression. The character arcs were either so rudimentary or missing altogether — Donnie Yen and Wen Jiang just seemed to tag along for the ride, with Riz Ahmed very one-note and pretty much a mere plot device. I wish more time was spent giving the characters a genuine voice and better framework.

However, the film succeeds tremendously in its more visual aspects. The action was compelling and the special effects were largely convincing, though I did find Tarkin somewhat jarring (Leia less so due to the amount of screen time). The culmination is where the film shines, with the final battle on Scarif possessing a wonderful sense of scale. It’s just a shame the characters didn’t have more emotional weight, which would have made the ending all the more bittersweet.

★★★☆☆
Sully (Dir. Clint Eastwood)

A biographical picture from Clint Eastwood that recounts the Miracle on the Hudson and the following investigation. Tom Hanks is very captivating and the film itself is incredibly compassionate and fluently paced, paving the way for a concise and honorable tribute to those present on US Airways Flight 1549, along with the service men and women who came to their aid.

However, I felt some members of the National Transport Safety Board were slightly vilified – though I guess a story of heroism does need some antagonism, particularly in cinema – and that, though the structure was very interesting and rather unconventional, some of the dialogue was fairly routine.

★★★☆☆
Symbol (Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto)

A man awakens to find himself sealed inside an empty, all-white room and is promptly greeted by an array of animated Cupid sculptures. The sculptures meld into the walls, leaving behind their protruding members, which – if pressed – shoot out random objects from inside the walls. Meanwhile – in a concurrent narrative in Mexico – a wrestler prepares for an important bout.

Symbol is an utterly bizarre film, but very creative and original. It’s mostly a comedy, with a lot of physical humour – akin to something like Mr. Bean – but the final act introduces some contemplative aspects. Despite its short runtime, some scenes were a little stretched and became slightly aggravating, but it’s a tremendously imaginative and surreal movie. The two narratives also connect in one of the strangest and most unexpected ways imaginable.

★★★☆☆
The Handmaiden (Dir. Park Chan-wook)

Another first-class feature from Park Chan-wook. Set in 1930s Korea, The Handmaiden tells of a plot to defraud a mysterious heiress by a conman who hires a thief to act as her maid, but complications abound when the two women begin to fall for one another.

It’s an entirely hypnotising feature. Beautiful, provocative, slinky and seductive — a feast for the senses and a whirlwind of emotions. The set design is gorgeous and the cinematography masterful; the camera lingers and maneuvers with extreme finesse. Apparently Chung Chung-hoon can do no wrong.

The plot develops, twists and turns with great unpredictability and intrigue, with some of the dialogue remarkably vivid and many scenes so transfixing — I found myself continually impressed with the films stunning proficiency. It has a mesmeric quality and everything just seems so attentively crafted and layered. It comes together successfully on so many levels.

★★★★☆
The Host (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

An unconventional monster movie in which moments of terror are mixed with political satire and dark comedy. The Host has some genuinely tragic and rousing scenes, but the central family is portrayed almost as if part of a sitcom. Tonally, it was completely unexpected, but absolutely refreshing and terrifically enjoyable.

It’s becoming quickly apparent to me that Bong Joon-ho is a master of subverting expectations and weaving dashes of humour into typically sombre scenarios. Some may find it a bit too offbeat or absurd, but it’s never predictable, with the comedy very organic and the family drama compelling in its eccentricity and intriguing dynamic.

★★★★☆
The Man from Nowhere (Dir. Lee Jeong-Beom)

A gritty action thriller in which conflict and emotion are in excellent melody. It succeeds where A Bittersweet Life faltered, by building an authentic emotional resonance before laying on the intensity and anguish. The action – particularly during the climax – is raw and unfiltered, performed with great vehemence and brilliant choreography, and while the plot does suffer from some tropes, its emotional backbone and memorable characters ensure it stays enthralling.

Bin Won plays a tender, melancholic soul with a challenging past, with Sae-ron Kim’s endearing but neglected young character helping him to love again. There’s also a fascinating villain in the form of Taiwanese actor Thanayong Wongtrakul, whose climatic confrontation with the protagonist is incredible and particularly indelible.

★★★★☆
Your Name (Dir. Makoto Shinkai)

An utmost emotive and visually arresting animated film from Japan, that follows two unrelated high-school students – a boy and a girl – who begin to randomly swap bodies with one another. As they grow accustomed to sharing lives, they get to know each other by leaving notes, slowly growing closer despite never having actually met.

Shinkai treads familiar ground, employing his wonderful knack for imbuing typically ordinary settings with a delicate touch of fantasy and science fiction, but manages to avoid much of the tedious melodrama and overt melancholy that I felt impeded some of his other work. The director maintains a fine balance, creating an often funny and very memorable human drama, that is nonetheless achingly beautiful and absolutely heartrending.

★★★★☆

That’s it for December. I’m still traversing a lot of missed South Korean cinema, but I want to catch up on some Japanese gems soon, too. Please stick around for Watched This Year: 2016 — coming up shortly! Adios for now.

Watched This Month: October – November 2016

Hello! Welcome to Watched This Month. It feels good to be on time and caught up again. I managed to average a couple of movies a week over October and November, which isn’t too bad considering I’ve had my face glued to Pokemon Sun since it came out. The majority of my viewings this time are South Korean, which I have neglected for far too long. About half a decade ago, most of what I watched was Japanese or Korean, but last year I barely saw anything foreign. Get that shame bell out. Anyway, I’m very happy to return to the fold, as South Korea is home to a wonderfully assorted and absorbing filmography.

Previous: June – September

Film Rating
3-Iron (Dir. Kim Ki-duk)

Kim Ki-duk swaps the alluring Cheongsong County for a miscellany of apartments in 3-Iron, but with seeming effortlessness, he molds the commonplace into imagery that is both mesmerizing and wholly memorable. 3-Iron is an enchanting think piece in which the main character (who doesn’t have a single piece of dialogue) breaks into the homes of strangers to quietly live their lives whilst they’re away. It’s stacked with beautiful aesthetics and the spiritual third act gratifyingly concludes one of the most spellbinding and unique pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

★★★★☆
A Bittersweet Life (Dir. Kim Jee-woon)

South Korea has an exceptional catalogue of revenge thrillers, with A Bittersweet Life a fine example of the genre. The action is incredibly tense and well choreographed – with an inventive use of POV shots – and I enjoyed the tinges of tragedy and melancholy in the main character. However, I thought it lacked a genuine emotional pull, which prevented it from becoming truly remarkable.

★★★☆☆
Captain Fantastic (Dir. Matt Ross)

A touching comedy-drama about a zany family man who lives an unorthodox life with his children in a North American forest, withdrawn from society. It’s a lovingly crafted piece that brings into question topics of society, education and upbringing, with Viggo Mortensen giving a stunningly evocative performance as the tough loving patriarch. It suffers from some expected tropes, but comes together beautifully and felt very balanced in its conversation, avoiding biased commentary despite basking in nonconformity, allowing audiences to ponder the finer details.

★★★★☆
Doctor Strange (Dir. Scott Derrickson)

More of the same from Marvel. A fine popcorn flick that doesn’t deviate from the formula – you know what you’re in for. The effects were great, though the action was more martial arts than magical sorcery. The climax and confrontation with Dormammu was interesting, but slightly anti-climatic and I thought the comedy was pretty woeful. The characters were very hit-or-miss for me, but the cast did a good job with the material they were given.

★★☆☆☆
Memories of Murder (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

An engrossing police procedural in the same vein as Zodiac. Memories of Murder is based on the real-life story of South Korea’s first modern serial killings, which took place between 1986 and 1991. The case was never solved, but the film does well to command the viewers attention, displaying many facets of the investigation and presenting what feels like an authentic insight into the culture and handling of the case by local detectives. It’s a meticulously constructed picture, with the dialogue smart and convincing, but also surprisingly witty. Amongst the tension and drama, there are ingenious moments of respite, delivered with ease by the cast. It’s slow at times, but entirely worth it come the end, which is extremely poignant and haunting.

★★★★☆
Silenced (Dir. Hwang Dong Hyuk)

A distressing and intensely dramatic film based on a true story, in which children at a hearing impaired school in South Korea were found to have been repeatedly sexually assaulted by members of the staff. I have such admiration for the child cast, who are absolutely vivid and powerful in their roles. It’s an unsettling subject tackled bluntly by the director, but for all the evil in the world there is also compassion and beauty, with Gong Yoo delivering a very tender and determined performance. The real-life case was swiftly reopened following the films release, which led to the permanent closure of the school, a number of convictions and the abolition of the statute of limitations for sex crimes against minors and the disabled.

★★★★☆
Snowpiercer (Dir. Bong Joon-ho)

An outstanding post-apocalyptic fable that doubles up as a political allegory. Snowpiercer is not to be taken too seriously, it’s more a think piece, heavy on metaphors and symbolism, striving to open a dialogue on society and capitalism. Wonderfully, though, it never gets bogged down by political ramblings or intellectual jargon. On the surface, it’s a fierce and flashy action piece that hardly relents, but underneath it’s rich in analysis and interpretation, with many having wrote in depth about its deeper meanings. A great film for an attentive viewer, with some exquisite cinematography, intense action and gripping scenarios.

★★★★☆
Suicide Squad (Dir. David Ayer)

I found Suicide Squad fine as a brainless piece of light entertainment, but ultimately very bland and by the numbers. There are a couple of vaguely interesting characters, but nothing remotely thrilling or inventive ever happens. There’s an obnoxious music cue for what seems like everything and the action was so free of tension that it became tedious, but there’s a drinking game in there somewhere.

★★☆☆☆
The Chaser (Dir. Na Hong-Jin)

The Chaser is a brutal thriller in which a shady ex-detective turned pimp tries to track down several missing prostitutes who had all visited the same client. It’s one of the most riveting films I have watched in recent memory and an incredible accomplishment for a directorial debut. Shot almost entirely under the cover of night, the Seoul streets are beautiful but bleak, with the bitter conflict between the two vicious leads absolutely relentless. Toying with your tender emotions, rarely allowing you a moment of respite or even a fleeting sense of ease, The Chaser is a tiring, but wholly memorable and truly remarkable film. An absolute must see if you’re at all interested in Korean cinema or crime thrillers.

★★★★★
The Terror Live (Dir. Kim Byung-woo)

The Terror Live has a great premise, with a radio host attempting to make some personal gains after landing an exclusive with a terrorist. The first half an hour was very absorbing, but somewhere along the way it seemed to get lost in its own tempo, skipping essential details and leaving plot holes. Overall, it’s a slightly ostentatious movie that needs a little refining, but if you can overlook certain elements there’s an interesting story in there and Ha Jung-woo gives a fine performance.

★★☆☆☆
The Wailing (Dir. Na Hong-Jin)

Having loved The Chaser, I was eager to explore more of Na Hong-Jin’s work. The Wailing was a pleasant, but completely unexpected surprise. It had all the twists, turns and thrill of the directors debut, but was seeped in symbolism and had some very dramatic tonal shifts, starting as a sort of mystery thriller, but ending as a supernatural horror. It’s absolutely gripping – with a number of bewitching scenes that stick with me to this day – but also slightly mystifying and thus a film that feels like it would grow on the observer more with time and repeat viewings.

★★★☆☆
The Wolverine (Dir. James Mangold)

The Wolverine is a mixed bag, but is saved from becoming wearisome by its lead actor an interesting setting. While the story becomes more generic as it progresses, the premise and first act were very intriguing and the action scenes throughout were a lot of fun. However, the romance felt rather stilted and underdeveloped and the villains weren’t very memorable. It also skimps on details as superhero movies tend to do, but Hugh Jackman is always very watchable and gives it his all.

★★☆☆☆
Train to Busan (Dir. Yeon Sang-Ho)

I’m not the biggest fan of horror cinema, let alone zombie apocalypse stories, but found myself completely enamored with Train to Busan. It’s extremely well paced and manages to maintain a solid emotional connection throughout. The characters are quite typical, but at the same time so endearing, that even the most over-done and seen before zombie tropes appear effortlessly riveting.

★★★☆☆
Tunnel (Dir. Kim Seong-hoon)

A superb, multifaceted disaster movie from South Korea in which a man becomes trapped inside a road tunnel after it collapses around him. Certain parts were a little predictable, but the film has some very powerful moments and really shines in its portrayal of events following the catastrophe, balancing sensationalist, personal and political viewpoints and ultimately depicting what feels like a very human and true-to-life story.

★★★★☆
Z for Zachariah (Dir. Craig Zobel)

A beautifully shot drama, with a low-key love triangle and post-apocalyptic setting. Craig Zobel succeeds in creating a very intimate picture, exploring human relationships with a delicate touch, but the film lacked a real impact and was surprisingly void of tension. It’s an intriguing piece that feels like it could have been so much more, but Chiwetel Ejiofor was terrific.

★★★☆☆

That’s it for October and November. Just one month left before two-thousand-and-seventeen. Anybody else still pronouncing the years like that? Twenty-seventeen just doesn’t sound as nice. I remember reading how Stanley Kubrick wanted people to pronounce 2001: A Space Odyssey as two-thousand-and-one (A Space Odyssey) in hopes that – should it become popular – it would influence the pronunciation of the year. That man had plans. Anyway, thank for dearly for stopping by and I do hope you’ll visit again.

Watched This Month: June – September 2016

Well, well. What do we have here… Watched This Month? It’s that ancient monthly post I said I would keep up with. So much for that! I lasted five months from January until May until I got sidetracked and the posts stopped. Apologies! Forgiveness, please! Here’s the long overdue list that covers every film I watched from the beginning of June to the end of September. Also, I just realised I’ve already watched more this year than I did in 2015. Hooray! Still on track to double last years amount. Anyway, if anybody is still here… Hello again! It’s lovely to see you.

Previous: January, February, March, April and May

Film Rating
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Dir. Zack Snyder)

As somebody who isn’t massively into Batman or Superman (and has long since departed the superhero hype train), I was ready to give this film a miss. However, the entice of Ben Affleck eventually got me on board and I made room for it one lazy day. Though bloated and overly long (I watched the three-hour extended cut), Batman v Superman is a largely innocuous action movie, at least perhaps to the common folk. It’s rather by-the-numbers and pretty unremarkable all things considered, but it saw me comfortably into the evening and was fulfilling as a decent piece of light entertainment, despite being relatively dark and unfunny throughout.

★★☆☆☆
Blue Valentine (Dir. Derek Cianfrance)

An incredibly moving film; alluring and sweet, yet heartbreaking and tender. One of the most affecting and remarkable I have seen in recent memory. I can’t recall another quite like it that portrays romance in such a beautiful, yet forlorn and bittersweet manner. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams go from elation to pain and then to utter heartbreak so fluently; the entire film has such an authentic feel to it that a number of scenes are soul-destroying to watch. One of those rare films that stays with you.

★★★★☆
Bottle Rocket (Dir. Wes Anderson)

It’s brilliant to see how Wes Anderson’s quirks, style and talent as a director was so discernible and seemingly honed right from his first feature. The story behind the inception of Bottle Rocket is as charming as the film itself and the picture is such a strong start for not only Anderson, but also Luke and Owen Wilson. The characters are as eccentric and endearing as you would expect and the ending is just lovely. Easily one of my top three favourites from Wes Anderson.

★★★★☆
Death Billiards (Dir. Yuzuru Tachikawa)

In Japan, there exists an annual project funded by the government that supports young animators. Dubbed the Young Animator Training Project, it produces a number of animated short films every year. Death Billiards is one of four produced in 2013 and follows two recently deceased men who are allegedly trapped in a mysterious bar which acts as a sort of purgatory. The bartender has the men compete in a game of billiards with the fate of their souls on the line. It’s a very interesting, high-octane concept that does well to avoid the crippling melodrama found all too often in anime. It’s fluently paced, with an intriguing atmosphere and some interesting dialogue. It was adapted into a full series in 2015, but sadly never quite reached the allure of the original short.

★★★☆☆
Eye in the Sky (Dir. Gavin Hood)

A superb modern thriller with a sublime cast that focuses heavily on topics of morality and the politics of war. Helen Mirren is stunning and Alan Rickaman bows out with a memorable performance and chilling last lines.

★★★★☆
Green Room (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)

A dark, enticing thriller that is unfortunately a little predictable in areas and ultimately let down by a number of archetypal characters. Nevertheless, Saulnier builds an imposing sense of dread and is able to execute some masterful suspense.

★★★☆☆
Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Dir. Taika Waititi)

My favourite of the year thus far. Sam Neill and Julian Dennison are so joyous together. It’s tender and touching, yet fun, energetic and a totally wild romp with some wonderfully witty dialogue. Also, who knew Sam Neill was a Kiwi? Until now, I thought he was Irish through and through!

★★★★☆
I Am Not a Serial Killer (Dir. Billy O’Brien)

I went into this blind and came away mildly satisfied. One of those movies with a promising start that slowly falls apart with every act. I didn’t get behind the ending and wish it had gone a different direction, but solid performances from both Max Records and Christopher Lloyd nonetheless. Couldn’t believe that was the kid from Where the Wild Things Are at first.

★★☆☆☆
Imperium (Dir. Daniel Ragussis)

Daniel Radcliffe is quite amazing. I enjoyed him in the Harry Potter franchise and adore his charisma, but hadn’t really rated him as an actor until now. Imperium itself is a rather by-the-books thriller, but is elevated and carried wonderfully by Radcliffe. He’s one to watch from now on, for sure.

★★★☆☆
In the Heart of the Sea (Dir. Ron Howard)

After the lukewarm critical response, I didn’t expect much from In the Heart of the Sea, but found it a rather grand, compelling and well-produced tale. It takes certain artistic liberties – some unfortunate – but I liked the inclusion of Herman Melville as a character and came away rather fulfilled and happy. An action-adventure with a lot heart and soul.

★★★☆☆
Little Witch Academia (Dir. Yoh Yoshinari)

Another animated short produced in 2013 as part of the Young Animator Training Project, alongside Death Billiards and two others. Little Witch Academia is a lively foray into the world of magic, with a straight-forward but nonetheless exciting plot, complimented wonderfully by a perky roster of characters, humorous dialogue and a number of enjoyable set pieces. At just twenty-six minutes long, it’s well paced and surprisingly comprehensive.

★★★☆☆
Me Before You (Dir. Thea Sharrock)

One of those quirky, impassioned romantic dramas that will have you either rolling your eyes or releasing your tears. I’m a sucker for them, though. Emilia Clarke was a delight, with the film itself very charming and fun, but with an utterly heartrending final act. It very much subscribes to its genre and is thus a tad predictable, but if you’re a fan of these sort of modern romantic tragedies, then it can do no wrong.

★★★☆☆
Now You See Me (Dir. Louis Leterrier)

Honestly, this film was a waste of time. The plot was absolutely absurd; full of amazing coincidences and a stupidly uninspired twist that is so far-fetched it’s actually mind-blowing. I can’t believe they made another.

★☆☆☆☆
Pawn Sacrifice (Dir. Edward Zwick)

I was in the mood for some tense Tobey Maguire à la Brothers and Pawn Sacrifice didn’t disappoint. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Maguire plays the late chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, who is pit against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Chess Championship. The film itself was compelling, but never quite exceptional. Still, it offered good insight into Bobby Fischer and is carried wonderfully by Maguire, who is brilliantly captivating. I can’t comment extensively on the films accuracy, but often the best biographical pictures are able to well-up a great sense of intrigue surrounding their subject – so much so, you want to know more – and in that regard, Pawn Sacrifice was a success and entirely worth watching. I spent a good hour or two reading up about Bobby Fischer afterwards. A fascinating and enigmatic man, to say the least.

★★★☆☆
Side Effects (Dir. Steven Soderbergh)

I find Rooney Mara captivating. She has the ability to be very eloquent and expressive in the most subtle of ways. She seemingly inhabits her characters and – I feel – frequently delivers memorable performances. Side Effects wasn’t as much of as Mara vehicle as I expected – much thanks to the ever dashing Guy Pearce – but remained a captivating thriller with a couple of interesting twists and turns.

★★★☆☆
Sing Street (Dir. John Carney)

An utterly charming and wondrous film, with an endearing atmosphere brought completely to life by a cast of lively, genuine characters. Sing Street is one of my favourites of the year and probably one of the most memorable of recent times. Even now, I find myself humming along to the Riddle of the Model. The ending, too, was near flawless. A good film can completely fall apart without a decent conclusion, but Sing Street’s final moments were wonderfully executed and I loved the tinges of ambiguity.

★★★★☆
Smashed (Dir. James Ponsoldt)

I really loved Smashed, in large part due to Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays an oblivious alcoholic who decides to finally tone down her drinking, opposite her on-screen husband Aaron Paul. Despite strong performances all-around, Winstead is the clear driving force, helped along by some sharp dialogue and a largely well-paced plot that does well to balance the drama with some more light-hearted and downright hilarious moments, preventing the subject matter from becoming overbearing or melodramatic.

★★★★☆
Straw Dogs (Dir. Sam Peckinpah)

Straw Dogs is a film I have wanted to see for years; to finally watch it feels like some sort of accomplishment. Filmed in the early 70s and set in rural England, it follows an American mathematician and his young English wife who become victims of ruthless local harassment. The build-up to the explosively violent climax was masterfully executed and it was interesting to see Dustin Hoffman in such a different role to what I’ve seen him in previously. Apparently, he only took it for the money, but you wouldn’t be able to tell. His character felt fully embraced and Susan George was equally compelling as his lively and glamorous wife.

★★★☆☆
Swiss Army Man (Dir. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert)

This film really is something else, with an opening that – at first – seems utterly bizarre, but quickly develops into something quite magical that continually blurs the line between beautiful and peculiar. Paul Dano plays the most lovable stalker of the year and Daniel Radcliffe is perhaps the most convincing dead body ever. The soundtrack, too, is remarkable; largely a cappella and bursting with zest and emotion, it’s the perfect accompaniment of film and music, elevating the most stirring scenes to wondrous, enchanting degrees.

★★★★☆
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Dir. Terry Gilliam)

Still working my way through Andrew Garfield’s filmography, I have arrived at The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. This is only my second Gilliam film after Monty Python and the Holy Grail and it has me on the fence. On one hand, Doctor Parnassus is incredibly creative and bursting at the seams with imagination, but on the other – beyond the visuals – it wasn’t particularly engaging and felt a touch meandering and haphazard. Though much of that was likely due to Heath Ledger’s unfortunate passing and it is admirable how Gilliam and the writers were able to get back on track and mould the movie into something coherent given the circumstances. I’m slightly hesitant, but also somewhat intrigued to explore more of Gilliam’s work.

★★☆☆☆
The Neon Demon (Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

I really wanted to like The Neon Demon. The cinematography is certainly a feat and I loved the soundtrack and the whole neon vibe, but come the end it just felt soulless and vulgar. Refn took the supposed cutthroat nature of the fashion and modelling industries a bit too literally. It lacked substance and frequently came across as pretentious. Disappointingly, it had much more in common with Starry Eyes than I hoped.

★★☆☆☆
The Place Beyond the Pines (Dir. Derek Cianfrance)

I had to follow Blue Valentine with another by the same director. The Place Beyond the Pines – whilst not as arresting and memorable as Cianfrance’s previous film – was nevertheless a powerful and thought-provoking watch, with an enthralling ambience and persuasive characters. Like Blue Valentine, it felt largely authentic and fluently performed, with some stunning cinematography and a couple of particularly rousing sequences, tinged with melancholy.

★★★☆☆
The Shallows (Dir. Jaume Collet-Serra)

You know what you’re in for with The Shallows, but – wonderfully – that barely detracts from the suspense and gripping terror of the film. Blake Lively gives a brilliant performance and the digital shark is largely convincing. The cinematography is enthralling, communicating with seeming effortlessness both the allure and dread of the ocean. Scenes of joyous surfing are brilliantly foreboding and the inevitable attack is suitably and very memorably savage; the ocean tainted blood red, followed by a spine-chilling, inaudible shriek from under the waters surface. The films climax is gritty and relentless and all-in-all – despite arguable predictability – The Shallows is a marvellous, anxiety-inducing experience.

★★★★☆
The Station Agent (Dir. Tom McCarthy)

An endearing, well-crafted, exquisitely written film bursting with understated beauty. Peter Dinklage absolutely shines as a lonesome yet innerly benign young man; both defeated and hopeless, yet longing and disposed. A very human film – heartfelt and soulful – and an all-around delightful watch.

★★★★☆
Triple 9 (Dir. John Hillcoat)

Triple 9 seemed to have all the components of a tremendous heist thriller, but never quite got there. It’s a satisfactory watch with two brilliant heist sequences, but ultimately I found the plot rather lackluster and – despite the large and morally diverse roster – I didn’t feel there were any particularly likable characters or people to root for, which made for a very apathetic, humdrum payoff.

★★☆☆☆
Warcraft (Dir. Duncan Jones)

Warcraft isn’t a perfect film, but it’s a wonderful start to a franchise that has magnificent potential. It was engaging from title to credits and ended on a great note. I adore the world and with a little polishing and some further melding, the characters will become deeper and all the more engaging. I really hope a sequel is possible and that it isn’t another ten years from announcement to release.

★★★☆☆
X-Men: Apocalypse (Dir. Bryan Singer)

I enjoyed First Class and Days of Future Past, but Apocalypse felt rather shallow in comparison. The new characters had absolute minimal development and impact and whereas First Class and Future Past featured two very solid, gratifying climaxes, the ending of Apocalypse felt like a major cop-out, with some quick resolutions and – essentially – a deus ex machina. It’s a fun watch if you’re up for a brainless blockbuster, but nonetheless disappointing after two stellar prequels.

★★☆☆☆
Youth in Revolt (Dir. Miguel Arteta)

Say what you will about Michael Cera, but he was terrific in this. His François alter-ego was superbly portrayed, with the dialogue masterfully delivered. The plot never relents and the comedy is continually on-point; all-in-all Youth in Revolt is such a fun watch. Nice seeing Portia Doubleday’s earlier work, too. Adore her in Mr. Robot.

★★★☆☆

Finito! Apologies again for not sticking to my proposed monthly schedule, but I’m slowly catching up. I’ll try and get October and November written up by the end of the month, then Watched This Month will be back on track! There’s still so much I’m dying to see this year. I managed to squeeze in some television, too, but I’ll probably leave those thoughts for an end of year write up. I just don’t watch enough television to comment on it on a monthly basis. Anyway… until next time, meine freunde.

Movie Talk: All About Lily Chou-Chou

Title: All About Lily Chou-Chou (リリイ・シュシュのすべて)
Director: Shunji Iwai
Screenplay: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Hayato Ichihara, Shûgo Oshinari, Ayumi Itô, Yû Aoi
Released: Oct 2001 (JP), Jul 2002 (US), Aug 2002 (UK)


Ever since I discovered All About Lily Chou-Chou in 2006, it has held a special place in my heart. Along with Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine, it is one of the first Japanese films I remember watching and – still unlike anything I have seen since – it remains to this day one of my all-time favourites. It is a film rich in detail, substance and beauty; a story of youth culture, escapism and loneliness just as important now as it was fifteen years ago. Rather than present a straightforward review, I wanted to take a moment to write somewhat about the films aesthetics, why it is so important and continually relevant, and why it should be on your radar.

Japanese director Shunji Iwai released his third full-length feature – All About Lily Chou-Chou – in 2001. The film – a rather eerie and melancholic drama about the escapism of a group of children through cyber culture and the fictional pop sensation Lily Chou-Chou – follows Yuichi, a particularly shy and lonesome youth, who becomes entranced by the mysterious pop star. The film charters the increasing solace and comfort Yuichi discovers in Lily’s music – and explores others touched by the enigmatic figure through messages posted on a ‘Lilyphilia’ internet forum – to the backdrop of the harsh realities of the outside world. In many ways, All About Lily Chou-Chou was ahead of its time. Released fresh into the new millennium, it portrayed a generation of youth caught in a seemingly endless adolescence, enthralled by cyber culture and confused with their identity and emotions, isolated in the all-too-big world and seeking escape through electronic communication rather than physical interaction.

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The characters find redemption of sorts in the form of ambiguous pop-sensation Lily Chou-Chou. Her music provides them with an emotional resonance; the characters confide in her songs and revel in the other-worldly feeling her music creates – what they label as the ‘ether’. With music and a fan-base reminiscent of the Icelandic ambient scene (think Sigur Rós, amiina and múm) back here in the real world, the characters empathetically discuss the singer on the ‘Lilyphilia’ forum and listen intently to each other’s stories of self-discovery and what Lily’s music has brought them. But as the characters progress deeper and deeper into the ‘ether’ and engage more and more openly with their online counterparts, thus begins their descent into isolation and withdrawal from reality. Their internet messages are communicated to the viewer through text on the screen, though with only internet handles and vague clues to go off, it’s up to the audience to work out which of the characters are typing what. Very little is explicitly stated in the film; the audience – more so than usual – are mere observers and it is clear Iwai has great respect for the viewers’ intelligence.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a film that could only be made in this millennium, in the here and now, as it centers around the evolving of communication – or perhaps degrading, depending on how you look at it – in the age of the internet. It captures the disconnectedness of the current youth and, as Empire note; “portrays a generation in a world of electronic communication which promises greater interaction, but instead fosters isolation.” Loneliness and isolation are major themes within the film and the characters are all grounded in their attempts to connect physically with one another. Iwai even presents an underlying barrier between adults and children; in fact, the adult characters take a step back and almost have no place in the story at all. Iwai displays them as very distant and incomprehensible; people, despite social constructs, which the children struggle to look up to or trust in. All About Lily Chou-Chou spares no expense at posing questions, yet it seeks to answer none – Iwai displays the world as anything but simply black and white, as anything but straight forward.

This is emphasised in the narrative, told in a non-linear fashion with the middle first, followed by the beginning and then the end. References to disconnectedness are left, right and center, and for such emotionally compromised characters, the hugely dominant child cast work wonders. The films main characters are Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara) and Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) – mutual admirer’s of Lily Chou-Chou whose friendship collapses after a fateful holiday – and the films back-drop is largely rural Japan, with much of the middle chapter set in Okinawa; largely secluded and alien areas, again referencing that isolation. The cinematography and tone is very melancholic, with the crew creating some stunningly bleak visuals, often contrasted with the hypnotic beauty of the Japanese countryside. Iwai presents a spellbinding, starkly beautiful and wholly unique visual flair, which has since become one off his trademarks as a filmmaker.

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Another key aspect is the music and the films almost God-like idol, Lily Chou-Chou. The singer herself is rarely glimpsed, but is always portrayed as some near-deity, an ethereal Goddess, absolutely worshipped by her fans, which displays the level of idolisation and the prominence and development of pop culture through technology and social media in the current generation. The music in All About Lily Chou-Chou works as a narrative element and a vessel for the main characters, helping to communicate their thoughts, feelings and desires to the audience. The soundtrack is actually made up of two complete CDs, one being the film score (a stunning collection of melancholic piano compositions written and arranged by Takeshi Kobayashi, along with three wonderful Claude Debussy renditions by actress and pianist Yui Makino) and the other an album by Lily Chou-Chou titled Breathe, which was made specifically for the film and features prominently. The film and its music was actually received so well that it established a career for Japanese singer Salyu, who portrayed Lily Chou-Chou.

All About Lily Chou-Chou is a master class in filmmaking, displaying completely how every element in sync creates one tremendous piece of art. The film just oozes emptiness and desolation, but it is tackled in such a calm and – dare I say it – ethereal way, that it isn’t necessarily depressing so much as it is enlightening. Like the music of Lily Chou-Chou, the film has an other-worldly feel to it, something magical resides there. It isn’t light viewing, but once you wrap yourself around the narrative and delve into the minds of the characters, it’s comforting in a slightly haunting way. Anyone who has ever felt disconnected or apart from society should watch All About Lily Chou-Chou; it is a film about what it is to be human in the 21st Century and quite possibly one of the most important of its generation.