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.

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