Monday, January 23, 2017

This week's DVD releases

The Handmaiden ***½
Chan-wook Park’s The Handmaiden is deliciously perverse, delightfully twisty, and unapologetically erotic. Delivered with a dash of black humor and a fair amount of bare flesh, Park (using Sarah Walters’ novel Fingersmith as a template) delves into Hitchcockian territory and delivers a story that would have had the Master of Suspense roaring his approval. Unfettered by concerns about an MPAA rating, Park doesn’t hold back when it comes to the sex scenes. The Handmaiden may not be high art but it’s tremendous entertainment. For those who enjoy this kind of material, there’s nothing better out there and one can make a compelling argument that this is the best work of Park’s career (yes, even better than Oldboy, although certainly not weirder).

The Handmaiden is divided into three parts. The first two are mirror images of one another, presenting the same story from different perspectives. The third unites the first two and drives the narrative forward to its conclusion. Although Park isn’t the first director to employ this approach, the device works exceptionally well in this case since the viewer will not have the same interpretation of the scenario after Part 2 that he or she has after Part 1.

The movie focuses on Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim), a lonely Japanese heiress living in 1930s Japan-controlled Korea. A con man who goes by the name of "Count" Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha) has designs on her fortune and, to that end, he employs a Korean pickpocket, Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) to pose as Hideko’s handmaiden. Sook-Hee’s mission: convince Hideko to reject her current suitor (and uncle), the sadistic Kouzuki (Jin-woong Cho), and instead marry Fujiwara. However, during the course of her assignment, Sook-Hee develops feelings for Hideko, which she believes are mutual, and becomes jealous when Fujiwara attempts to take possession of his "prize."

The Handmaiden is loosely adapted from Welsh writer Sarah Walters’ 2002 novel, Fingersmith, with the location and time period shifted. Although the underlying premise and structure resemble those of the novel, Park adds numerous flourishes to the production and one of the film’s most notable twists is new to the screenplay. Additionally, the character of Uncle Kouzuki is filtered through Park’s worldview. Kouzuki is as twisted a monster as has appeared in any of Park’s productions, and that’s saying something.

Many of Park’s films, regardless of how violent and degrading the content might seem, have an underlying current of dark humor and The Handmaiden is no different. There are some very funny moments, including one literal instance of gallows humor. The lesbian sex scenes, hot and explicit as they may be, are important to italicize the deepening relationship between the two main characters. The central sex scene is presented twice (once in Part 1 and once in Part 2) with key differences that are crucial to understanding the importance of this moment to both characters and the overall narrative.

The casting couldn’t be better. Korean A-list actress Min-hee Kim presents Lady Hideko as a multi-layered character who is far more than the timid, high-bred heiress she initially seems to be. Tae-Ri Kim makes Sook-Hee spunky and energetic but imbues her with the unfortunate anchor of a conscience. Jung-woo Ha’s Count Fujiwara oozes charisma and shallowness. And Jin-woong Cho creates the most diabolical of human monsters.

I don’t think I’ve ever compared Park to Hitchcock. His previous efforts (including Oldboy, the "Vengeance Duology", and his only English-language movie, Stoker) are closer in tone and intent to Tarantino or Burton. There’s a lot about The Handmaiden that fits with his oeuvre but this is a more ambitious and, in many ways, compelling endeavor. Its twists and turns are better plotted and its weirdness seems in keeping with the story rather than a garish appendage. The Handmaiden is one of the best neo-Hitchcockian mystery/thrillers to have emerged from any country in any language during the last few years, if not longer.

The Light Between Oceans **½
Great drama requires trust. The director has to trust his actors to convey the complexity of the human experience without smothering their performances in manipulative filmmaking devices. He also has to trust the viewer to bring their own interpretations and emotions to the story, meeting the characters halfway along the spectrum of the human experience. Derek Cianfrance can’t find this trust in The Light Between Oceans, an adaptation of M.L. Stedman’s novel. It's a film with greatness within that’s been lost due to varying degrees of distrust; ridiculously tight close-ups in soft focus feel like they’re pushing you to cry instead of allowing emotion to come organically. Narrative beats and themes are hit repeatedly, just to make sure you don’t miss an opportunity to feel something. Buried beneath this melodrama — but shining through nearly enough to justify a look — one can see the film that could have been, as anchored by great performances and emotional truth. It’s just lost in the fog.

Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, giving a very measured, confident performance) is a World War I veteran battling Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before his condition really had a name. In some of the film’s best scenes, we learn that Tom has been burdened by the randomness of life and death. Why did he live but his fellow soldiers die? One almost gets the sense that Tom doesn’t think he "deserves" to have made it home, and that he’s going to spend the rest of his life in solitude, refusing to take the creature comforts that other young men lost forever when they went to war.

To that end, Tom signs up to take a job that not many would want, manning an extremely remote lighthouse in Australia, at a spot in which one can see two oceans from its top. The last lighthouse keeper was fired when he told someone that he allowed his wife to signal a passing ship. The break in protocol was a small problem — the fact that his wife had been dead a few years was a much bigger one. And yet this not-at-all-coveted job changes Tom’s life when he meets the daughter of his new boss, a headstrong and beautiful young lady named Isabel (Alicia Vikander). Before long, Isabel and Tom are married, planning to start a family on Janus Island. Isabel gets pregnant, but loses the baby in a heartbreaking scene in which Tom is in the lighthouse and she can’t get to him. She gets pregnant again. Tragedy strikes again.

While Isabel and Tom are mourning the loss of their second child, a miracle happens. A rowboat washes ashore, carrying a dead body and a baby. No one on the mainland knows that Isabel lost the second baby. They could just take this new child as their own and no one would know any differently. At first, the plan seems to work perfectly as Isabel, Tom, and their new daughter Lucy find happiness, but a visit to the mainland forces an encounter between Tom and a mysterious woman (Rachel Weisz) that changes everything.

Derek Cianfrance has undeniable skill with actors, drawing masterful performances out of Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine and his large ensemble in the highly underrated The Place Beyond the Pines. That skill is evident here mostly in Fassbender’s largely internal turn. His take on Tom is often stoic, haunted by the ghosts of World War I in a way that makes him quiet, sometimes uncertain. Vikander often goes in the other direction, offering the more extreme emotions that Tom keeps hidden, but she’s rarely given the room to breathe life into the performance. And I mean that almost literally. Cianfrance and cinematographer Adam Arkapaw put us right in her face in extreme close-up, thinking that this will help force a viewer’s response. It’s distracting more than effective, as is the soft focus and overcooked score by Alexandre Desplat. When Arkapaw and Cianfrance let their characters breathe, or even when they admire the gorgeous landscape, the film feels more effective and less manipulative.

Ultimately, it comes back to trust. Don’t force us to feel, trust that we will do so. This is a film that I kept wanting to emotionally connect with and give myself over to the human power of its tragedy, but it kept pushing me away. With the undeniable, unwavering skill of the trio of actors at the film's center, we would have followed them through this heartbreaking tale without the signposts that tell us what to feel along the way.

Inferno *½
One of the biggest mysteries about the Robert Langdon movies is why they don’t work. Dan Brown has a large, built-in fan base. There’s no lack of talent in the productions. The director is Oscar winner Ron Howard (who was near the zenith of his career when he made The Da Vinci Code) and the lead actor is household name Tom Hanks. Yet these movies have never succeeded. The Da Vinci Code was adequate but forgettable. Angels & Demons was godawful. Inferno is somewhere in between — watchable but by no means worth the effort to make a special effort to rent or stream it.

Inferno starts with the hero, symbologist Langdon (Hanks), awakening in a Florence hospital with a head wound. He has no memory of how he got it. The attending physician, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), informs him that he was grazed by a bullet and the short-term amnesia he is suffering will pass. Soon, however, an assassin (Ana Ularu) has invaded the hospital and is gunning for Langdon. He and Sienna escape using staircases and a back door and, as the symbologist recovers both his memories and his powers of deduction, he begins a quest to determine who is trying to kill him, and why. It is connected to a lethal virus that the late nutcase billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) intended to spread. Following Zobrist’s death, the virus remains "out there", waiting to be activated by an unknown disciple. Meanwhile, a consortium hired to assist Zobrist has become disturbed by his activities. After watching a video elucidating The Plan, the consortium’s Provost (Irrfan Khan) decides to join forces with the World Health Organization to stop the madness. But there are traitors aplenty, making Langdon’s task all the more difficult and dangerous.

The movie can be neatly divided into three sections. In the first, lasting about 30 minutes, we have no idea what’s going on as director Howard attempts to replicate Langdon’s fragmented state of mind. The movie feels disjointed and there are repeated apocalyptic visions inspired by Dante. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good way to provide viewers with a gateway into a motion picture world (especially those unfamiliar with the character from his previous outings). The first act is confusing and Langdon’s infirmity distances him from us.

The second section, which comprises the film’s middle hour, has Langdon, supported by his attractive doctor-turned-assistant, in investigative mode as he hopscotches across Italy. To the extent that Inferno works, it’s because of this segment. Langdon’s dogged pursuit of clues (which generally lead to other clues rather than a solution) is engaging and there are a couple of action sequences inserted to keep things from becoming too exposition-heavy. Unfortunately, the screenplay suffers from compression issues — too many pages being condensed into too little running time. The pacing is poor and plot holes result from cuts to the material.

The third section is an anticlimactic disaster. Not only does it not follow the book (which had a smarter, albeit less cinematic, resolution) but it devolves into generic James Bond-inspired action. Langdon is no 007 and the logistics of the finale make little or no sense. The same can be said of the motivations and actions of some of the characters. To the extent that Inferno‘s first 3/4 can be called "entertaining", the climax is a letdown of catastrophic proportions.

The acting is a tick above adequate. Hanks, as was the case the other two times he played this character, is collecting a paycheck. Jones isn’t given much of an opportunity to do more than walk in his shadow. (Attempts to give her a backstory — scenes that don’t happen until well past the halfway point — are perfunctory.) Foster has little screen time. (We can be thankful for this because he moved on to make the superlative Hell or High Water.) The best work is turned in by the nearly mute Ana Ularu (whose fierce expression speaks volumes) and Khan, whose character is intriguing enough to deserve more screen time.

The problem with adapting a narrative as complex as the one spun by Brown in Inferno is that it requires considerable massaging to pummel it into screen-ready shape. In this case, most of the choices made by Howard and script writer David Koepp seem to be the wrong ones. They diminish the story’s intelligence and plausibility, transforming it into a cut-rate Bond/Sherlock Holmes hybrid … and that probably sounds more interesting than it is. Inferno is a disappointment — perhaps not to the degree that Angels & Demons was but enough to sadden fans of Brown’s books and confuse and distance those who haven’t been exposed to the author’s prose.

Other New Releases This Week
The Monster **½ In the end, this film does more by way of thrilling tension and heartfelt admissions than it does through any scares, but that doesn’t make it a bad horror film. Director Bryan Bertino reveals a gushy soft side, only to tear out his heart and hoist it for all to see.
The Vessel **½ A modest but not maudlin parable of hope about mustering the strength to vigorously plunge again into life’s uncertainties after a devastating loss.
I’m Not Ashamed * Many Christians yearning for faith-based entertainment will be moved by this film. But more picky viewers will admit that even taken solely as an exploration of the trials of being a Christian teen, it’s awfully weak tea as a movie, instantly disposable if not for the tragic backdrop.
USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage * This is a World War II "epic" that’s overscaled yet underimagined. It’s a tale of survival that never provides the viewer with a basic entry point into how and why we should care.

**** Excellent.
*** Good.
** Fair
* Poor
No stars Abysmal

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