Both in movie watching and writing, these last two weeks have been catch-up time. Several were re-watches including the Guardians of the Galaxy series and I have finally gotten to familiarizing myself with the reboot of the Planet of the Apes series. Without further ado, here are my capsule reviews of movies I saw in the last two weeks.
The Villainess (2017) – dir. Byung-gil Jung
If this Korean action film had a story to match the impressive action sequences on display here, it would have really amounted to quite something. The action scenes are certainly memorable, right from the opening brutal knife and gun fight filmed as the POV shot of its lead female assassin more than ably played by Ok-vin Kim (it is reminiscent of 2015’s Hardcore Henry, though thankfully the POV dizziness doesn’t last for the whole film to become tedious). The final action sequence set in a city bus, as the camera goes in and out of a desperate and violent melee like a participant in the action, is also very impressive. Also, it is not often you get to see a woman in a wedding dress with a sniper rifle. However, the story in between gives you the sense that the filmmakers took you around a long, convoluted route to drive up the storytelling taxi meter. The trip just adds up to a tale of an assassin confused between the loyalties of a government agency and a secret criminal faction. Convoluted storytelling might work if there is enough of an emotional anchor to latch on to, but nearly all the characters (played by accomplished actors like Ha-kyun Shin and Seo-hyung Kim) are set up to be distrusted that the main protagonist comes off as foolish for believing anyone at all. The action sequences may make it worth seeing anyway but you may find yourself itching in between those sequences.
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) – dir. Jon Watts
Even though I knew Marvel had taken control of the character, I still found myself asking, “Do we need yet another Spider-Man movie?” While this does not displace Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie for me (I know many will disagree), Spider-Man: Homecoming at least avoids rehashing the origin story (unlike The Amazing Spider-Man series, which was perfunctory for that very rehashing) and brings enough fresh character and story touches to make it worthwhile. Like the way Tom Holland breezily plays Peter Parker, the film doesn’t take itself as seriously as the Tobey Maguire series (though I think the first two of those have the dramatic weight to support it) and the humor often hits the bull’s eye for laughs. An action sequence in the middle set at the Lincoln Monument is tense and very well done, but the climactic action sequence with the plane is sadly shot in a dark and disorienting fashion that I could not tell what was going on most of the time. However, there are some clever character touches with familiar characters from the comic universe such as Flash, among others, who is not made to be a physical bully, but a verbally insulting one.
Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet (2016) – dir. Joon-Ik Lee
This film tells the story of the famous Korean poet, Dong-ju Yoon, who wrote in the period when Korea was under Japanese colonization. Some of his famous artful poetry is integrated nicely with the film’s elegant black-and-white cinematography, giving it a historical feel. The black-and-white palette of the film reminded me how the removal of color forces us to pay more attention to shapes and geometry in a scene (which is fitting, I think, with the theme of colonial oppression, as the characters often appear to be boxed in). Joon-Ik Lee is a director that I have liked for picking rather humanistic stories like The King and the Clown and Wish but I have found his visual style to be rather stale. This is certainly his most visually striking film to date, however, and through the duality of Yoon (Ha-neul Kang) and his cousin, Mong-gyoo Song (Jung-min Park), the film conveys the tragedy of a people without national sovereignty and whether writing in literature is a means to fight against the oppression or run away into the wilderness of intellect.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vols. 1 (2014) and 2 (2017) – dir. James Gunn
Rating for Vol. 1: 81/100
Rating for Vol. 2: 78/100
So I guess I got into bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy kick, as I re-watched Vol. 2 in theaters the first week of July and then caught the first one playing on FX with special behind-the-scenes footage and interviews the following week. The humor worked for me as well as it did the last time, and It is always fun to be dazzled by how the directors and actors have to imagine the CGI effects that will be filled in later. The niftiest details that I was realized this time were in how they imagined the characters of Rocket and Groot, which points to how actors who serve as the model for motion capture do not get enough credit (which is also true of the Planet of the Apes series, more on that later). Bradley Cooper does a fine job of voicing the sardonic Rocket, but it is the director James Gunn’s brother, Sean Gunn that provides the physical movement. For Groot, it is the motion capture performance of Krystian Godlewski who provides the real substance to Vin Diesel’s repeatedly saying, “I Am Groot” (and you know the other line).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – dir. Rupert Wyatt
So I finally got to catch up with this much-praised reboot trilogy of Planet of the Apes and, while it is yet another tale of humans playing God against nature and losing, the movie nicely updates the elements for a modern retelling. Best of all, it has Andy Serkis, who, after bringing Gollumn from Lord of the Rings and King Kong to life, imbues yet another character with vivacious heart in the form of the intelligent ape, Caesar. Caesar is a product of experiments done by a scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), who is trying to find a cure for his father’s (John Lithgow) degenerating Alzheimer’s disease. While Will and Caesar form a bond, Caesar is taken away in a locked in a cage and mistreated by other humans, as he eventually brings together a race of apes to rebel against the mistreating humans. The elements are familiar but director Rupert Wyatt enlivens the action sequences with swooping cinematography by Andrew Lesnie and the aid of CGI to capture and follow the apes’ paths of climbing from limb to limb.
War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) – dir. Matt Reeves
I still have to watch the second part of the reboot trilogy, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but this third one really improves on the elements of the first. The opening title cards get the audience up to speed with the events of the first two and a human army is sent to eradicate the rising species of intelligent apes led by Caesar. More than Avatar or District 9, this movie really has us rooting against the human species, and Serkis once again imbues ample heart and humanity to Caesar, who starts out on a personal path of revenge against the unnamed Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leading the army. I should also point out that the story that seems to be in the trailers is not what is in the movie (it is much more interesting than a one-dimensional war between apes and humans). While some may read into possible political parallels in the movie (e.g. the Colonel is trying to build a wall to keep his enemies out), given the length of time in filmmaking, I usually see such parallels as coincidence and take the director, Matt Reeves at his word when he says “it was unintentional”. It is also to the film’s credit that, with the exception of one crucial scene of exposition, it propels the story forward with action, suspense, and not much explanatory dialogue. To be fair, with the oppressive humans being painted as villains, the climax resorts to some of them acting not so intelligently and the ending catastrophe feels somewhat arbitrary. However, the movie conveys its symbolic messages and parallels (such as the biblical Exodus) lightly and subtly enough in the mix of a rousing entertainment. Also, it has become a cliche to say that motion capture performances like Serkis’ are undervalued and it is time for some actual awards recognition to end the cliche.
Police Story (1985) – dir. Jackie Chan and Chi-hwa Chen
I personally find good repeat value in the best of Jackie Chan’s action comedies and Police Story is certainly one of his most exhilarating. As a caveat, I do find this one troubling to watch in one sense because Chan, the actors, and the stunt players are really getting injured. Well, okay, Chan has gotten injured making a lot of his movies and he got one of his worst here as he slides down a long pole in a shopping mall surrounded by electric lights. However, this one in particular has so many people getting cut by glass throughout (and many of the cuts are real) in the final mall melee and I get a slightly queasy feeling that we may be a few steps shy of watching a live death video. Still, it is better to praise the actors for the risks they take to deliver the sensational action throughout. This movie also has one of my favorite comedic sequences by Chan when his character, Ka Kui tries to take on multiple telephone calls coming into the police station including his girlfriend, Amy (Maggie Cheung). As a side note, she has got to be one of the most understanding girlfriends in movie history considering the increasing amount of misunderstandings and peril he puts her through in the Police Story series.
The Big Sick (2017) – dir. Michael Showalter
It turns out I saw the best movie for last. This was the independent film that broke out as the sensation from the Sundance Festival this year and I can understand why. The movie, directed by Michael Showalter and written by Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, is Kumail’s own real life story of balancing romance and stand-up comedy. As Kumail, who is an immigrant from Pakistan aspiring to be a stand-up comedian, meets a Caucasian American woman, Emily (Zoe Kazan), the movie goes through some familiar territory in dealing with obvious familial and cultural differences. Once a pivotal event happens, however, and Emily’s parents (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano) enter into the picture, the movie becomes highly fresh and original in navigating different facets of a growing but awkward relationship. It was a particular thrill for me to see Hunter and Romano again in memorable roles that remind us how they can balance quirkiness with dramatic heft. I didn’t know much about the particulars of this story, so I hesitate to say much more. But Kumail’s story, as co-written and acted by himself, is sweet without being too cloying and serious without taking itself too seriously (especially thanks to many of Kumail’s hilarious zingers in his routine).