Cronos (1993)

“Suo tempore.”

★★★★

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook

Inside a gold contraption that can fit into the palm of your hand, there are cogs and wheels turning to the rhythm of eternal life. This little ticking toy takes some of your blood, mixes it within the body of a poor slave-driven insect, and injects you with a few more living years. But like most fascinating machines, this one comes with a manual. And for those who don’t use the device with caution, they could end up chewing off more than they can swallow.

cronos

 

Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, Cronos captures the imagination with a magnetic sense of horror. As we are drawn to the gold giver of life with as much curiosity and desire as the film’s protagonist, Jesus Gris (Luppi), Guillermo del Toro unwinds a beautifully crafted story of a man who has immortality thrust upon him. With wonderfully theatrical scenes of color design and a heartbreaking relationship between Jesus and his granddaughter, Guillermo del Toro fashions a uniquely impressive horror story that ticks to its own style of suspense, black humor, and beauty.

Event Horizon (1997)

“Who knows where it’s been, what it’s seen. Or what it’s brought back with it.”

★★

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by: Philip Eisner
Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan

Set in the year 2047, Paul Anderson’s Event Horizon takes a space rescue team out to Neptune, where they recover a deep space exploration ship that disappeared some seven years ago. The ship, named ‘Event Horizon’, was part of a secret mission to enter a gateway to another universe. How the ship returned, and what it brought back with it, is a mystery. That is, until the rescue team is lured into the evil that caused Event Horizon’s previous shipmates to turn into human pâté.

event horizon

While Event Horizon has the look of a well-oiled space horror film, it doesn’t quite pull off its blend of supernatural elements and science fiction fear. The crew is made up of likable and intriguing characters, but as their personal demons – including traumatic past experiences and family members – take the place of the flesh eating aliens that we’re used to, Event Horizon fails to lift its psychological scares out of the shock value orbit.

In the end, Event Horizon leaves it up to the explosions and the bloody gore to tie up loose ends in the plot’s logic and major fear factor. With a set and ensemble cast ready for take-off, Event Horizon lacks the suspense or the psychological depth that it needs to be an out-of-this-world space thriller.

War of the Arrows (2011)

“Never seen an archer like that before…”

★★★

Directed by: Han-min Kim
Written by: Han-min Kim
Starring: Hae-il Park, Ryu Seung-Ryong, Mu-Yeol Kim

War-of-the-Arrows

It isn’t a “war of the arrows” so much as a war of one man vs. the entire Manchu army. Or perhaps, Korean archer Nam-Yi is battling with a traumatic experience from his past. Perhaps it’s an internal struggle of guilt? Perhaps he’s actually fighting his own nation’s stubborn aversion toward diplomatic relations with its regional neighbors. In any case, Han-min Kim’s War of the Arrows doesn’t beg for deeper thought or analysis with its fast-paced action, flying arrows, and small, exciting turns in the plot. Had the film invested a little more time in the characters and the film’s historical context, however,  it may have hit the mark.

Having lost their father to the hands of Korea’s unmerciful law enforcers, Nam-Yi (Park) and his sister Ja-In (Moon) grow up in the home of a military official and his son. From the traumatic experience of seeing his father sentenced to death for promoting diplomacy with foreign countries, Nam-Yi develops an overprotective attitude towards his younger sister and a cynical view of heroism. But when Ja-In and her husband-to-be (you guessed it, the military official’s son) are kidnapped mid-wedding in a surprise attack by invading Manchu soldiers, Nam-Yi’s overprotectiveness goes into overdrive. With expert skills in archery, Nam-Yi stalks down his sister’s captors in a wild goose chase through the Korean wilderness.

There’s no denying that Han-min Kim is a talented writer-director for action. Once Kim releases the tension of the incoming invasion, action unfurls without a pause for breath. Kim’s navigation of the Korean forest landscape and direction of the ensuing arrow-fueled violence is attention-grabbing and exciting enough for us to stick it out through to the end. Kim’s expertise in action direction may fly high, but when it comes to pulling back bow of tension and character development before the action takes off, Kim doesn’t give us the time to get to know characters that are about to get in the thick of action. If Kim had fleshed out Nam-Yi as a likable character, and invested more time in building his relationship with his sister, the compelling quality of the story would have shot through the roof. Instead, War of Arrows is happy to assume that audiences will tap into the universal understanding that familial ties are strong, that defending your country is important, and bravery comes from jumping across cliffs, hiding behind trees, and taking on an army of Manchu guys. War of Arrows may be good (not great) entertainment, but it’s not the most satisfying story to have crossed Korean cinema’s collection of action flicks.

Hana and Alice (2004)

“Don’t you think real people are scarier than zombies and ghosts?”

★★★★

Directed by: Shunji Iwai
Written by: Shunji Iwai
Starring: Anne Suzuki, Yû Aoi, Tomohiro Kaku

hana and alice

If your best friend has a crush on a boy, and she takes advantage of a situation in which he runs into a door to convince him that he has amnesia and forgotten she is his girlfriend, you help her. At least that’s what Hana (Suzuki) and Alice (Yu) see as the most natural turn of events. Writer-director Shunji Iwai, who explored the extremism of teen angst in All About Lily Chou-Chou, proves his understanding of adolescence once again in the more conventional, tried and true love triangle story that makes Hana and Alice accessible and simultaneously affecting.  

Hana (Suzuki) and Alice (Yu) are the perfect partners in crime. While they are giggling examples of youthful innocence in their school uniforms, their internal workings are a little more devious, sadder, and darker than what you see on the surface. Director Iwai unfolds these tangled inner workings of teen girls, beginning with Hana’s fixation on Masahi (Kaku) – a soft-spoken boy in the storytelling club at school who catches the same train as Hana and Alice. When Hana takes advantage of Masahi’s head accident to become his girlfriend – fabricating incidents of love that she convinces must have been lost in his amnesia state – Alice is sucked into a series of Hana’s lies that she happily plays to, until she too falls for Masahi.

While Hana and Alice ostensibly appears to be a love story, it is a film about self-discovery and maturing emotionally. Shunji Iwai tells the story of two girls who fall in love with a terribly boring and uncharismatic boy because of certain limitations and obstacles within their own personal lives. The two girls feel these internal sufferings on a very fundamental level, and yet, aren’t quite sure of what they are, where they stem from, and how they can overcome them. Shunji Iwai explores this adolescent confusion with charm and humor. He shows us the sadness of his characters with absurd situations, unpredictable moments, and scenes loaded with the same sense of unease and uncertainty that his characters are burdened with. Beautifully crafted and purely enjoyable to watch, Hana and Alice looks at the adolescent experience with a creative eye and a deeply relatable story despite its bizarre and quirky qualities. 

Cutie and the Boxer (2013)

“Art is a demon that drags you along.”

★★★★★

Directed by: Zachary Heinzerling
Starring: Ushio Shinohara, Noriko Shinohara, Ethan Cohen

Ushio Shinohara’s art style packs a punch. One of his most iconic works is an explosively marked canvas, created by punching the blank space with a pair of boxing gloves dipped in paint. His sculptures of large motorcycles and fighting creatures also share an aggressive and kinetic quality that oozes with thick color and confronts the viewer with distorted shapes made from discarded cardboard boxes. Ushio’s wife, Noriko Shinohara, on the other hand, illustrates a series of drawings centered on a female character, Cutie, and her husband, Bullie. The drawings blend a child-like innocence with the tragic and heartbreaking realities of love and life, and Noriko attends to her work with a silent and serene demeanor, dipping into the pained memories of her relationship with Ushio and art. The two differing art styles speak volumes about each artist’s personality and their history as a married couple. It is first-time director Zachary Heinzeling’s cinematic style, however, that tells their story with heartbreaking beauty and poignancy.

cutie and the boxer

Cutie and the Boxer is a documentary that follows the lives of the married artists – Ushio and Noriko Sinohara. The Shinoharas offer visually eye-popping settings for Heinzerling’s film as their art studio and apartment in Dumbo are as cluttered and messy as their complex relationship. Heinzerling, however, navigates the lack of order in the lives of these two struggling artists by unfolding their history with interwoven slices of Noriko’s animated illustrations, old video footage, present-day conversations and interviews that peel back the folds of canvas and paint that consume their passions and interests. What Heinzeling sheds light on through the story of the Shinoharas is profound. Without ever forcing a moment or glorifying the life of an artist, Heinzerling allows us to observe the ups and downs, the bold colors, the rough edges, and the charming sensibilities of the Shinoharas, and make our own meaning. From paint to sculptures, photography to animation and cinema, Heinzeling sees the art of marriage, the art of life, and the art of love, in Cutie and the Boxer.

Only God Forgives (2013)

“You can’t see what is good for you. So it’s better if you don’t see.”

★★

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vithaya Pansringarm

Ryan Gosling in Only God Forgives

Nicolas Winding Refn’s ninth feature, Only God Forgives, had me disappointed and annoyed in the first half, puzzled throughout the second half, and then deeply contemplative on my train ride home from the cinemas.  Hence, the two stars.

At first, it was difficult to discern whether the film was actually achieving anything. Only God Forgives follows the story of US ex pat (Gosling) Julian, living in Bangkok and running a kickboxing gym to disguise his real work: dealing drugs with his older brother Billy and random family friend/colleague. When his brother goes on a weird bloody rampage and kills a prostitute, he finds himself lying on a hotel floor with his head bashed in by the prostitute’s father. Overseeing this whole fiasco is Chang (Pansringarm) – a retired policeman who goes around chopping people’s limbs off according to his own sense of justice. When Julian’s mother, Crystal (Scott Thomas), however, arrives to claim her son’s body and get revenge, Julian is sucked into a moral dilemma of family obligation versus his own conscience.

Summarized in this way, the film doesn’t seem puzzling at all. But when this simple plot is given the Refn makeover, it turns out to be a piece by piece, connect-the-dots type of movie that is so uncompromising in its style and pace that it almost hurts to watch it. This could have been helped with a protagonist that we genuinely care about. For the first hour or so of the film, no amount of arm flexing or heel clicking around by Ryan Gosling makes us care for his character. There is only one pivotal scene and snatches of dialogue from Crystal that make us care about him, and even then, it comes too little and too late.

Having said that, in my post-movie state, the film made me over-analyze what Refn may have been trying to do. My interpretation is that Only God Forgives is Julian’s nightmare – an experience that involved the unearthing of all of his inner demons and coming face to face with the inevitable punishment (embodied by Chang) that he believes he deserves, but has been running away from all this time. In this sense, the backdrop of Bangkok only serves to signify the corruption and debasement that Julian feels he is a part of, and his brother’s strangely inhumane actions link to an evil as thick as blood that Julian feels guilty of being a part of.

Whatever Refn was trying to do, it could have been significantly more effective if he balanced the amount of silent, drawn out scenes with actual dialogue, scenes more representative of the character’s depth/true nature, and brutality scenes that were more convincing/engaging. I do not doubt that the concept for this film is incredibly deep and thought-provoking in Refn’s head, but it’s a shame that he couldn’t share that with his audience in a way that was far reaching and powerful. 

Man of Steel (2013)

“My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me… out of fear. He was convinced that the world wasn’t ready. What do you think?”

★★★

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: David S. Goyer (screenplay), David S. Goyer (story)
Starring: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon

MAN-OF-STEEL_612x380

In Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel,  nine year old Clark Kent is given a word of advice from his father about keeping his super strength and unnatural abilities under wraps. His father (Costner) explains: “people are afraid of what they don’t understand” – that is, the world isn’t ready for Superman just yet. It would take time for the young Superman to develop his inner moral compass, and understand what it meant to be a regular human being. On that note, I was ready for another Superman movie. I would have preferred to wait for a fully developed, post-adolescent Superman that didn’t simply rely on his super effect powers to impress a crowd. With Hollywood exhausting the superhero genre (to the point where Ryan Reynolds was cast as Green Lantern), sequels, 3-quels, and reboots to boot, I don’t think the world needed another summer blockbuster to rip out another page from comic books.

While I continue to pray for a different trend to ride the waves of the summer blockbuster money stream, I will give my two cents on Superman without too much complaining, because my eyes didn’t heat up and burn holes through the screen from anger. It was a decent film.

Snyder’s Man of Steel attempts to remove itself from the long lineage of Superman films that have come before it by taking on a much darker and serious tone (courtesy of Nolan). It also tells the Superman story a little differently. It opens with Superman’s parents Jor-El (Crowe) and Lara (Zurer) fighting to keep their plant Krypton from A. imploding, no thanks to a complacent government happy to overlook the environmental warning signs, B. falling into the hands of General Zod. Jor-El and Zara cling to their son, Kal-El, as their last hope, sending him off to planet Earth as the first naturally conceived Kryptonian in years. Instead of creating a dichotomy between nerdy, socially awkward Clark Kent, and muscly, suave Superman, Snyder creates a juxtaposition between Clark Kent the human, and Superman the Kryptonian. The power that comes with knowing your own origin story, we soon find out, gives Snyder’s Superman invincibility.  But will his humanistic empathy bring him down? (No, it doesn’t. But you probably already knew that.)

Without much humor or warmth, Man of Steel zings around CGI heavy worlds that face close-calls in the form of falling buildings and lots of fire. In many ways, it’s a smart change – with so many Supermans and superhero films to compare to, and despite plenty of opportunities to wisecrack, Man of Steel remains … steely… and actually benefits from it. Taking as much time as it needs to, Man of Steel examines Superman’s difficult moral decisions, his personal development growing up as a human, and the world’s reaction to him – both as an outsider (an E.T. of sorts), and as a weapon of mass destruction.

Like Henry Cavill, Man of Steel is not hard to look at. It has state-of-the-art CGI and the action is very typical of Snyder (300Sucker Punch, Watchmen), but the film doesn’t do much to go beyond safe artistic and conceptual limitations set up by a plethora of other superhero films. It lacks the signature dramatic tension we’ve seen in Nolan’s Batman reboots, and it decides to opt out of the charming humor that wins us over in The Avengers, leaving it in an awkward middle ground that isn’t made any more impressive by the operatic special effects.