THE HANDMAIDEN**** “Hell hath no fury…”


“THE HANDMAIDEN” IS Park Chan-Wook’s outrageously sexy retelling of Sarah Waters’ “Fingersmith”, a story originally set in Victorian London, now transferred to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea. The story – structured around the delicious contrasts of bright surface opulence with dark hidden deceptions – centres on the lusts, fantasies and longings of four main characters. Sookie (Kim Tae-ri) is a low life pickpocket in the pay of a con-man (Ha Jung-woo). She has been briefed to present herself, as a respectable handmaiden to the wealthy (and reputedly naive) heiress Hideko (Kim Min-hee), in order to subtly woo her on behalf of her con-man boss, now disguised as the aristocratic Count Fujiwara. His intent is to seduce Hideko away from her uncle, Kouzuki (Cho Jin-woong), an old lecher and collector of erotica, who also has designs on Hideko’s fortune.


Despite their stark social differences, dramatised by the dingy hovel of the one versus the palatial splendour of the other, Sookie and Hideko are both prisoners…of circumstance and convention. Both have been bred and trained, like decorative birds, to do the bidding of their breeders: Sookie to steal, Hideko to engage and entertain her uncle’s book-buying clientele with her lascivious readings of his erotica. To their male ‘masters’, they’re no more than beautiful, erotic routes to their deepest lusts…for money not sex. And as the handmaiden dresses herself in her mistress’ dresses, they both become interchangeable…almost mirror images of each other.

But the men, so wrapped up in their own sense of haughty masculine superiority (It would not be inappropriate in this context to describe them as “cock-sure”) have no inkling of the far deeper deviousness of these two trapped women. Freedom will out. In one glorious scene, Hideko -she who can go nowhere- introduces the bare-footed Sookie to her serried rows of shoes…and offers her a pair. Now they both have the -physical- ability to roam. And in their unspoken search to free themselves from society’s norms/masculine control, they discover the freedom in each other’s bodies. In the trust and tenderness of intimacy lies the healing measure of freedom. Park’s (and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon’s) sensuous, almost tactile cinematography delights as much in the tingle and shimmer of their naked bodies as it does on the textures and gloss of their clothes and surroundings.

Control (the first part of the story is very measured and mannered) gives way to love in a wonderfully, intricately plotted story that frequently loops back on itself, seen from differing points of view and with a single, gasp-inducing twist in the middle. One of the themes that drives the movie is that of the illumination or deception of storytelling (or the art of lying): each of the characters frames a narrative aimed at masking intent and creating a desired image; Hideko’s “role” in life is to seduce by her storytelling; The Count comes along with an entirely fabricated back story; the uncle’s tongue has been blackened with the stories he writes even though his library is a place of truth (in the same way the serpent brought truth in The Garden, etc.

It’s one of those movies that – like the best thrillers- makes more and more sense to the viewers (as susceptible to seduction as any one of the characters) the more privy they are to the layers of deceit that, like Hideko’s garments, are slowly removed, eventually revealing all.

This is certainly a “see it again” movie. Now armed with the knowledge of the end, and of Park’s sleight of hand’s deceptions of surface, there is so much more to be seen. Park’s production designs and clever symbols (Hideko lives in a home that’s part Japanese, like the colonial masters from whom, like her, the Koreans sought liberation, and part Western, like the story’s creator) are so overwhelming, that I’m sure I must have missed, and will now hopefully see with new eyes more of the director’s multiple signs and suggestions, all guiding (seducing?) me to his final vision of love, deception, seduction and money…

life’s four verities?

 

THE HANDMAIDEN. Dir: Park Chan-woo (“Stoker”, “Oldboy”). With: Kim Min-Lee, Ha Jung-woo, Cho Jin-woong, Kim Tae-ri. Writer: Sarah Waters (from her novel), Jeong Seo-kyeong & Park Chan-woo. Production designer: Ryu Seong-hie. Cinematographer: Chung Chung-hoon

 

 

GET OUT****Something New This Way Comes


“GET OUT” – SCARY…hypnotic- makes for mesmerizing viewing. It’s one of those movies whose clever writing and meticulous direction seduces you away from what seems like an everyday, ordinary boy/girl romance into a world so bizarre you view it through unblinking, horrified eyes.

Writer/first time Director Jordan Peele signals from the very start that things aren’t going to end well. The movie begins at night with a black young man who has lost his way and has found himself in a dimly lit, tree-lined, affluent (for that, read, white) neighborhood. When a car arrives and slowly begins to trail him, you’d be right to be apprehensive.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya from “Sicario”) and Rose (the all-American Allison Williams) are the young, happy, flirtatious couple. They’re off for him to meet her folks (in their large, elegant, isolated home). She reassures him that the fact that he’s black (she’s white) is no biggie. Dr. and Mrs. Armitage (Bradley Whitfield and Katherine Keener), her parents, voted twice for Obama and would have voted for him again. They’re welcoming enough, though he’s a bit unnerved by the (all black) staff, who greet him with broad smiles and dull vacant eyes. A slightly deranged brother (Caleb Jones) turns up and wants to wrestle; and the following day, a queue of limos arrive, bearing their wealthy white passengers. It’s the Armitage’s annual get together, which Rose claims to have forgotten about.

Chris, much to his consternation, is clearly the centre of attention (and is constantly reassured of the guests’ liberal creds: one guest boasts of having met Tiger Woods, another is fascinated by just how strong and firm he is; one asks him whether it’s better to be black ‘these days’). And we’ve clearly journeyed not just from city to country, but to the world of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Soon enough, the initial slow drip of warning signs becomes a waterfall. These aren’t simply super rich white folks self consciously aware of a black man in their midst. There’s something amiss. Nothing here feels right. Get out now. Run. As he tries to figure out just what’s amiss, he isn’t even aware that one of those creepy white folks has ‘won’ him in a Bingo game. Just what do you do with a young, strong, black man? What the host (a neurologist) wants to do to him….that beggars description.

This is a movie with a B-movie format cleverly concealing A-movie insights. It strips away (bloodily) the well-heeled veneer of polite, white, some of my best friends are black, liberalism to reveal a darkness (a mix of hate confused with the envy of the black ‘super masculine menial’) far deeper than mere prejudice or hypocrisy. And, along with the always surprising, never clichéd score from first timer, Michael Abels, Director Peele keeps you suspended between laughter, outrage and shock horror. It’s a difficult balancing act that he pulls off with aplomb.

Daniel Kaluuya brings an engaging sympathetic performance. He’s without question, the good guy. But his Chris wasn’t markedly different from his character in “Sicario”. Allison Williams’ performance however is one to take note of. Her Jeckyll and Hyde character is a treat.

More than this, there’s something of historical significance at work here. It’s a first time outing for three new black movie talents: the director, the composer and the special effects artist. Not too long ago we were treated to the brilliance of another black directorial newcomer: Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight”. This is a good trend. Peele and Jenkins along with the likes of Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”) and Julia Ducournau (“Raw”) begin to feel like a trend. May we be entering into a new (brash, young, challenging, not yet given over to commercial annihilation) era of filmmaking?

GET OUT. Dir: Jason Peele. Writer: Jason Peele. With: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitfield, Katherine Keener. Composer: Michael Abels. Cinematography: Toby Oliver

 

GHOST IN THE SHELL** Shell Game


Scarlett Johnson is Major, a cyber enhanced soldier ‘controlled’ by a human brain; one that has been altered by implanted memories (and regular doses of ‘medication’) so as to eradicate all traces – all ghosts – of her actual humanity. This is not an A.I that has achieved the singularity (consciousness), but a human who has been embedded into a robot. She’s an evolved version of Robocop.

The conceit that drives the story is Major’s intuition, fueled by dreams of a burning pagoda, that she isn’t who they (shady corporate villains) make her out to be. If she can only identify who she was before she became this hacked, carefully controlled consciousness, she can potentially free her ghost trapped within her shell.

And what a shell it is. Beneath her battle gear, Major wears an invisibility cloak that’s a gossamer thin extra skin that renders her invisible to all, but almost – but for the absence of nipples – naked to viewers. Far more compelling than the Blade Runner inspired futurescape (a crowded, though lifeless place, reminiscent of The Sixth Element, but with the wet, watery feel and Sino-Japanese iconography of Blade Runner along with CGI-clever holograms) a near naked Scarlett Johansson makes for attentive viewing.

But if the shell’s great, the acting’s no more than a ghost of a performance.  Though this isn’t exactly a character driven story, Scarlett Johansson seems to have put so much emphasis into the robot side of her character that she managers to drag her way through the entire one hundred minutes of the movie with but one facial expression and no trace of intonation in her voice. Ms Johansson’s recent oeuvre has majored in the ‘non-human’. She’s an Avenger, a superhuman fighter (“Lucy”), a disembodied voice (“Her”) and an alien (“Under the Skin”). Her last decent movie was “Vicky, Christina, Barcelona” in 2008. Based on this sorry performance, either she simply decided to flaunt her very flauntable bod and take the money (she earned $10m for this); or she’s simply forgotten how to act…since her public probably isn’t all that interested in that side of her talent anyway.

Whatever.

This is a yawn-inducing movie. And no amount of production expense ($110m) can plaster over what is essentially a rag-tag plot strung together with the clunky, forgettable dialogue of three B movie writers and a director (Rupert Sanders) whose last big hit was that instant classic, “Snow White and the Huntsman”.

Nevertheless, along with production designer Jan Roelfs (whose achievements offer an interesting balance between the big production visionary sagas such as “47 Ronin” and “Alexander” and much more intimate fare: “Dark Blood”) he certainly works hard at giving the enterprise the visual gravitas of “The Matrix” series (which apparently borrowed heavily from the original animie version of “Ghost…”). And many of his set piece action sequences are visual delights.

But visual delights alone do not a tolerable movie make. Let’s just hope “Ghost in the Shell” isn’t a quality indicator of what the rest of this year’s summer blockbusters holds in store

GHOST IN THE SHELL. Dir: Rupert Sanders. With: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbaek, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche. Cinematographer: Jess Hall (“Transcendence”). Production Designer: Jan Roelfs

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER***Fancy Dress Ghost Story


WHEN YOU WANT something badly enough and your belief that that something is but a grasp away, then perhaps all signs point to that which is so obsessively desired. So it is with Maureen, (Kristen Stewart) who has persuaded herself and her friends that she’s a medium and who is convinced that her recently dead twin brother is reaching out to her from beyond the grave…scarily.

The scenes of Maureen wandering around in the large, dark lonely house in which her brother died are very, hold-your-breath spooky. Indeed, much of this movie grips one with the iciness of good old-fashioned horror.
Maureen is also a personal shopper for a haughty, bitchy woman, for whom money is no object. She is partly a messenger, ferrying bags of couture from exclusive ateliers in Paris and London to her boss, and partly also the curator to how her boss is seen by the public.

Director Olivier Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria” also with Kristin Stewart) offers us these two worlds: one world – the world of fashion obsessiveness- is one of pure external surface. What you see is shimmering glam. It isn’t what’s real. The other world is the invisible, purely internal one. And what you’re allowed to see may perhaps actually be real. Or at least Maureen thinks it is…to the extent that she can’t tell them apart.

The initial signs of what might be her brother’s spirit (whispy zephyrs of smoke and odd noises here and there) seem to harden into a disturbing series of texts that know where she is and that begin to commandeer her actions. Her need to get a sign is so strong that she seems to put her rational, sensible self on hold in the belief that the texts really are coming from ‘the beyond’ and as a result going, alone, to strange hotels at odd hours. This is less about communicating with the dead brother than being haunted by him.

Driven by the need to escape the texts, her personal haunting, and by her penchant for the forbidden, she violates her boss’ restrictions and begins to model her clothes. The sloppily dressed messenger girl morphs into an elegant, sexy ‘other’…as if this ‘other’ is just a disguise she can hide herself in. But these ephemeral surface changes are no barrier to the internal demons that haunt her and that ultimately result in a ghastly murder.

Kristin Stewart dominates the movie – is in every frame. And she’s watchably, seductively engaging. Her acting style works so hard at stripping away any thespian exaggeration that, when it doesn’t come off (as in “Certain Women”) it just feels flat. But here, she absolutely makes watchable what’s really an entirely silly movie.

The movie is atmospheric, often creepy, often best seen through narrowly parted fingers. But it’s a movie that’s just OK and which could actually have been quite good (It certainly isn’t worth all those five star reviews). “Personal Shopper” suffers from a few glaring problems: the characters are woefully underdeveloped, especially one central character who we glimpse only fleetingly, but who turns out (Shazam, gotcha!) into a major catalyst. It’s the “huh? Really?” factor. The idea of an obsession with the spiritual world is gripping. (After all, millions of Christians have intimate conversations with a God who’s ever interested in all their sordid little thoughts and activities). But this world is never presented with any hint of artistic ambiguity. Like any B movie horror, director Assayas offers the world of floating spirits and glasses that levitate at face value. These aren’t Maureen’s fantasies. We’re to take them as real phenomena. Assayas’ big potential revelation at the end (which modesty prevents me from spilling the beans on) is just a cheap cop out. And, the focus on Stewart so dominates the movie that we have to work too hard to salvage scraps of information to piece together the why’s and wherefore’s.

it’s just not worth all that effort.

 

PERSONAL SHOPPER. Dir (and writer): Oliver Assayas. With: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger. Cinematographer: Yorick Le Saux (“Clouds of Sils Maria”)

 

KONG: SKULL ISLAND** Why? Why? Why? Oh Why?


THE CGI IS great. Or perhaps I should say, at least the CGI, led by veteran SFX veteran, Chris Brenczewski, is great. And a buff Tom Hiddleston tries hard (unconvincingly) to beef up his Bond credentials in this unnecessary, forgettable, often risible monster movie.

The fundamental problem with “Kong: Skull Island” is that though the director (Jordan Vogt-Roberts) assaults us with mega monsters, an ape the size of a ten story building, thunderous explosions and helicopters piloted by silly pilots who fly into certain death, he makes no attempt to build suspense, create interesting characters or even terrify us out of our wits. Perhaps, I am therefore concluded to suggest, all directors, or the producers who green-light monster productions like this, should be made to sit a written exam after studying the genius of Spielberg’s original “Jurassic Park.”

Now here’s a movie that fully shows up the awfulness of “Kong: Skull Island” when you remember all the magnificent touches it had that “Kong: Skull Island” is too lazy and too cynical to bother with. Remember the hold-your-breath tension when the two kids are in the kitchen hiding out from those toe-tapping velociraptors? No such tension here. Remember the multiple and very human relationships between the flawed adults and the kids…the greed (and wonderful cummupance) of the would-be thief? No such human-kind lives on this movie planet. Kong’s people are mainly gorilla food or very fast runners (with tight shirts), with a stock in trade bad guy (Samuel L. Jackson in full-bore cartoon role) and a pretty girl in a very tight top (Brie Larson really slumming it after “Room”). Remember Spielberg’s effort to lull our disbelief in the actual do-ability of recreating dinosaur DNA and the thoughtful sub-plot about not messing with nature? No such effort here. It’s a big ape living among big fantasy monsters. Take it or leave it.

So…it lacks tension, lacks scream out loud moments, lacks likable or evenly hisssssably nasty people and offers instead a storyline that shreds any semblance of logic…It lacks the pretence of making any sense. It seems that it’s also lacking a good return on the $325m it took to get it to our screens.

And all of that could have been avoided had director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (no past movies of any repute to mention) writers Dan Gillroy (“The Bourne Legacy”), Max Borenstein (“Godzilla”!), Derek Connolly (“Jurassic World”) and John Gattins (“Flight”) and the ten producers, taken the simple “Follow these Jurassic Park Rules” exam before cameras rolled and Tom was made to make such a fool of himself in public

 

KONG:SKULL ISLAND. Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts. With: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman. Cinematogapher: Larry Fong (“Batman v Superman”). Production Designer: Stefan Dechant (his first movie as head of production design). Special Effects set coordinator: Chris Brenczewski (“Jurassaic World” “Avengers Assemble”)

 

CERTAIN WOMEN****Certainly worth viewing


HERE ARE THREE stories about four women. Their stories are only tenuously linked by the dull, empty monotony of the land and by relationships that, like the endless trains and trucks that rumble across the landscape, seem to go nowhere.

Director KELLY REICHARDT (who also wrote – adapted from a book of short stories by Maile Meloy – and edited the film) frames her scenes and layers her narrative with an artist’s precision. (On multiple occasions, we see her subjects half obscured by hazily reflecting glass, as if to suggest that our understanding of people is only one of snatches and glimpses). She (and as a result we, the viewers) regards the slow ebb and flow of the lives before her like a curious observer, one removed from the action…an anthropologist observing the mating rituals of small town America.

The first few frames of the movie neatly summarise its themes. We witness a massive train (one of many throughout the movie), a vast mechanical divider, slicing diagonally across the flat winter-hard landscape. Far way in the distance, are the snowy outlines of the Montana mountains, like the walls of silence that hem in the inhabitants. The scene shifts indoors. On either side of another wall, two lovers are dressing themselves in post coital silence.

These silences, or the inconsequential dialogues, are the emotional walls that divide partners and lovers. This may be Montana, but it’s really Carson McCullers’ territory where the heart is forever a lonely hunter.

The first of the three stories centres around Laura (the always compelling Laura Dern). She’s at the end of one relationship; and, despite her studied indifference, is being courted by Fuller (Jared Harris of “The Crown” and “Allied”), her client. He’s a sad, snivelling, needy, emotional wreck, whose life has been ruined by an uncompensated work-related accident and a shredded marriage. He lives in a fantasy world where his legal troubles can be put right and where she’ll succumb to his neediness. It’s a relationship. Of sorts. The lover and the indifferent beloved.


This same sort of unromantic, unrequited, one-way love maps out the relationship between an indifferent student lawyer, turned part time teacher, Elizabeth (Kristin Stewart, underplaying her role to the point of near invisibility) and a drop-by student (a tremendous Lily Gladstone, whose forlorn agony is the movie’s emotional touchstone). The student’s life – she’s a stable hand…not even given a name – seems to be one of unvarying sameness. There’s a numbing monotony to her daily routine; and you wonder whether part of her attraction to Elizabeth is that she represents a break in the routine…something to do, someone to talk with, a means of shifting the inevitability of life’s arc, a warm body to brake the snap of winter.

Even Gina (Michelle Williams) who is part of a (more typical) family unit: mother, father and daughter, lives in her own world of silence and apartness. The three of them share a house, a camping tent, an extended family. But they don’t share a life. For reasons that are really not relevant, Gina lives in her own world, excluded from the cosy relationship between her husband and daughter.

But, like Elizabeth and Laura and the student, she does as we all do: simply carry on.

The movie presents us with a slice, a moment, in the narratives of their lives. We are privy only to hints of the pasts of these four women. As to what lies in store for their future, director Reichardt’s depressing suggestion is simply, more of same. Like the trains and trucks that forever rumble through their towns, their lives will simply rumble on. Monotonously, unvaryingly, undisturbed by the catharsis of love.

This is an intelligent, heartfelt if distressing evocation of loneliness and anomie. But it’s also a bit dull. Reichardt’s distanced observation of her subjects feels cold. It’s intellectually engaging but emotionally un-involving. Some of the stories could have ended thirty minutes before they did…or two hours after.

Indeed, it’s one of those movies that’s better when you think about it than when you’re actually seeing it (probably the opposite to the ever loved “LaLa Land”)

 

CERTAIN WOMEN. Dir: Kelly Richard (“Night Moves”). Screenplay: Kelly Richards (based on the stories by Maile Meloy). With: Michelle Williams, Kristin Stewart, Laura Dern, Lily Gladstone. Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt (“Night Moves”)

 

LOGAN**** X-cellent


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“LOGAN’ IS THE final, tremendous, outing of the wonderful character created by Hugh Jackman seventeen years ago. Seventeen, would you believe? When we first met the wolverine, he was cage-fighting for money. It was a fitting symbol of the character he remained: a caged animal; a savage killer, driven by the demons of his mutant body, all barely held in check by the enduring humanity and basic decency of his ravaged soul.

What made that first outing of the X-Men such an engaging piece of pulp moviemaking was not only the superhuman heroics of its mutants, but the strong relationships that drove the stories: the father/son relationship between Logan and Professor Charles Xavier; his paternal relationship with Rogue etc. In “Logan”, this final fling, these same strong, surprisingly tender relationships – between Logan, Xavier and Laura, a (badass) ten year old girl – give the movie its heart and its impetus.

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When we again meet Logan and Xavier (Patrick Stewart), they’re holed out, like bums, in El Paso. Logan’s a limo driver; and a carer to a decrepit Charles Xavier. Xavier, now ninety, has to be helped to the loo and regularly fed a regimen of meds to keep his destructive mental abilities in check (He’s prone to generating earth-shattering, mind crippling storms). Logan himself is a shadow of what he used to be: he’s old, tired, aching and slowly dying of the adamantium that’s cemented to his skeleton.

When these X-Men movies succeed (many haven’t) and why “Logan” works so well, the people and the emotions feel real. This emotional credibility enables the audience to accept as ‘real’, the hokum of endangered mutants battling corporate enterprise. The quasi father/son family group of Logan and Xavier, is served by a strange, bandaged albino creature, Caliban (Stephen Merchant, in a marvelous, barely recognizable role), whose abilities warn them of the approach of danger. Into this tortured trio comes Laura, a hissingly vicious ten year old mutant, also with adamantium claws, who has managed to escape from the lab in which she was created, using Logan’s DNA. (Daphne Keen, an Anglo-Spanish actor, in her first movie role, is Laura. She has a tremendous screen presence, and there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing a lot more of her)
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They must all find their way to safety, either South on a boat or North in a new Eden, and escape the thunderous, scorched-earth approach of Transigen -The Corporation – armed with a new and improved clone of wolverine. Many battles, and huge loss of life ensue. (There are always sub-texts to these movies; in “Logan”, our heroes must escape one place of safety, Mexico, for another place of safety, Canada. The real danger lies in the US. Hmm)

Director James Mangold (whose oeuvre is a mixed bag: the awful “Knight and Day” and the tremendous “Girl, Interrupted”, plus the laborious “The Wolverine”) and co-writers Scott Frank (“The Minority Report”) and Michael Green (“Green Lantern”) give Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart very meaty, almost theatrical, roles. Gone is the imperious, haughty arrogance of their youth. They’re now crumbling, all too mortal men battling to stay the inevitability of death (a first for movies of this sort?) But it’s by no means a somber, lugubrious film. Mangold’s flair for well-staged action set-pieces, and the breathless momentum of what is essentially a single long chase sequence, keeps the energy high and the adrenaline pumping.

I guess next we can look forward to “X-Men. The New Generation”. But that script, no doubt, is still “in the works”

LOGAN. Dir: James Mangold. With: Hugh Jackman, Partick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook (“Morgan”), Stephen Merchant (“The Office”). Cinematographer: John Mathieson (“The Man from U.N.C.L.E”), Production Designer: Francois Audouy (“The Wolverine”)