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Monday, December 31, 2012

Some of My Favorite Films of 2012

In no particular order:

21 Jump Street: (directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller) I had gone into this film thinking it was going to be the TV show told again, with the same characters. Instead, it was so much better. It was new characters, who were put in a " revived cancelled undercover program from the 80's," because "nobody can do anything new." The film was ridiculously hilarious, and I was surprised at how good Channing Tatum was at comedy. The jokes about the cops looking too old for high school, trying new personalities, the expectation that cars should explode on impact and other cop movie cliches, it was all so much fun to watch.

The Central Park Five: (directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, David McMahon) A documentary about the unlawful imprisonment of five teen boys accused of beating and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. It is incredibly sad to watch these boys being manipulated into telling false truths, and the racist witchhunts that the media perpetuated in order to bring the suspects to "justice." It was a devastatingly sad film, but important to watch.

The Avengers: (directed by Joss Whedon) So much fun. I didn't know much about the superheroes going in, because I'm not a comic book fan, but I liked the chemistry between the actors, Joss Whedon's snappy dialogue that was reminiscent of Buffy (Tony Stark: Then tell him to suit up... I'm bringing the party to you. [he and the Leviathan break out of a building and speed away toward the rest of the Avengers] Natasha Romanoff: I, I don't see how that's a party...), the post-credits scene that continues on a minor line said during the final battle, and how awesome Mark Ruffalo was as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, bringing more depth to the character than I've seen before. Afterwards, I did watch Thor, and was surprised to see how unintentionally funny Thor could be in his stoicism and seriousness. I got bored with Iron Man, and I wasn't interested in Captain America. So I probably won't see the individual superhero movies, but would see Avengers 2.

Looper: (directed by Rian Johnson) It was creative and fascinating, with great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, and Emily Blunt. It reminded me of Back to the Future, Twelve Monkeys, and The Terminator at times, but I didn't mind. I enjoy science fiction and time travel stories, as well as plotlines that make you think and piece the film together regarding events and alternate futures. I would definitely watch it again.

A Girl and a Gun: (directed by Cathryne Czubek) This was a documentary that I saw at DOC NYC this year, about womens' relationships with guns. It showed a broad pool of women from all over the country who had guns and their personal reasons for owning them. It was very educational and interesting, and I not only learned more about guns from watching it, but enjoyed the storytelling and diverse range of subjects profiled. I know there is a massive push for gun control after Sandy Hook, which I do support. I believe that people should be licensed to carry guns, but also to take psych profiles as so the guns aren't used in a malicious manner, either for hunting or self-defense.

Argo: (directed by Ben Affleck) Fantastic film. I loved the attention to detail, making it look like a period film from 1980. The spy story was thrilling and full of suspense, and even though I knew how the story would end, I was still worried along with the hostages when they were planning their escape and going through customs. Ben Affleck has greatly improved as a director since Gone Baby Gone, and this was an excellent film in the espionage/CIA genre.

Cabin in the Woods: (directed by Drew Goddard) Another film written by Joss Whedon. I liked how it not only played with horror movie cliches, but added a new twist and more depth to why they are being targeted by evil beings. Particular credit goes to Fran Kanz as the dopey stoner who was yet the smartest member of the group, and Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as the "puppet masters" of sorts. While the ending was a bit disappointing, I still loved the turn of events when one would think the movie would be over. Really creative and fun to watch.

Dredd: (directed by Pete Travis) This film didn't do very well because of bad marketing, bad association with the Stallone movie, and that Dredd is a British comic book character. But this film, in just an hour and a half, was one of the best films I saw this film, and one of the best I've seen in the sci-fi genre. It is very dark and brutal, Karl Urban does a fantastic job in communicating so much with only a third of his face shown for the entire film, Olivia Thirlby's character expanded from being an apprehensive rookie cop to a badass fighter when her life was at stake, and Lena Headey played a great villain, though I wish her character could have been developed more. The building reminded me of the Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, a walled city of cheap apartments, stores, restaurants, and black market businesses, as well as many people of different ethnicities being crammed together in one overpopulated city. Judge Dredd is much like Robocop in tone and style, and I highly recommend it.

Hysteria: (directed by Tanya Wexler) This was a wry and funny little film, clearly not taking itself too seriously, and a little anachronistic, as Maggie Gyllenhaal's character acts more like a modern-day feminist than a woman raised in the 19th century. I liked Hugh Dancy's performance as being a bit of his league, and the way the story unfolded to how the vibrator was invented, whether it really happened that way or not. The film came and went, but it was pleasant to see for an afternoon at the movies.

I am sure there are others that I've seen that I enjoyed, but I don't remember. I don't really have any worst films that I feel like listing, because I don't want to dwell on something that wasn't good.

There are other films that came out this year that I'd like to see, like Robot and Frank, The Raid: Redemption, Middle of Nowhere, Zero Dark Thirty, Safety Not Guaranteed, and Rust and Bone.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

Through a friend's recommendation, I decided to watch Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (2005) today, the last in Park Chan-wook's "revenge" trilogy, following Oldboy (2003) and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002). I have seen Oldboy, and thought it was a great film, a complete mindtrip with a messed-up ending. Lady Vengeance, while being brutal in nature, differentiated itself by combining the brutality with a wry sense of humor, different for a horror film based on a revenge plot. I have not seen Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, so I don't have any comparison.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance follows the story of Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae), an ex-convict wrongly imprisoned for the death of a five-year old boy. She had been a young girl at the time, and the story was a media sensation, so she was imprisoned for 13 years. For her duration, she plotted her revenge on the real murderer. But because she had been a model prisoner, with a kind, giving demeanor, she was released early, and thanks to her good deeds for former prisoners, whether it be donating a kidney or poisoning the prison bully, she had a network of support in order to find the killer. And shedding her innocent appearance, Geum-ja dons red eyeshadow (a stunning color scheme against her pale skin and black hair), pumps, and form-fitting dresses, becoming "Lady Vengeance."

What I truly enjoyed about the film was its dark sense of humor alongside the theme of revenge, regarding Geum-ja's former prisoners. There is a robber couple, whose female half laments that "they should have couples' prisons!" to which her mate responds, "Then it would be paradise, not jail!" A bullheaded inmate who uses a meek woman as her "prison bitch" gets her rightful comeuppance. A former prisoner now creates statues of a woman holding the decapitated head of her man, a popular item for order, with pictures included to design a particular man's face. The scenes are shot and edited in a colorful manner, jumping from present to past in a bizarre manner, a radical change from the solitude and morose air that was Oldboy.

The introduction of Geum-ja's daughter Jenny (Kwon Yea-young), adopted as a baby from an Australian couple after Geum-ja's imprisonment, is also unintentionally funny as a pest to her biological mother, tagging along with her and adjusting to life in Seoul and the Korean language after having grown up in Sydney. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which Geum-ja and Jenny are saying goodbye to one another, while a voiceover translates their words between Korean and English. It was really quite inventive, and a bridge between a mother and daughter's language barrier.

A minor nitpick is while the daughter is supposed to be Australian-raised and cannot speak Korean, a Korean actress was chosen for the role, with accent and fluency in the language, so the casting choice didn't make sense. I suppose it was easier to find a local actress than look for a Korean-Australian child actress, but it still stuck out. But a freeze-frame of Jenny's method of convincing her parents to let her go to Seoul via threat of suicide was hilarious in a sick and bizarre manner.

What was unique about the film was that while Geum-ja finds the killer (Choi Min-sik, the hero of Oldboy), she doesn't handle him the way the viewer would think. After the build-up for her quest for revenge, it at first seems like it's too soon for her to find and capture the killer. But when uncovering a disturbing past about him, she takes advantage of it to exact a more sinister, yet fitting revenge. Part of her revenge plot involves a scene detailing his crimes that most likely will be left out of the upcoming American remake of this film (starring Charlize Theron), or heavily sanitized. However difficult this portion of the film was to watch, I was glad it unfolded that way, and became a deeper film overall than just one woman's quest for vengeance.

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance is a very interesting film, not because it raises any questions about revenge and its consequences, but because it is able to take dark material seriously, yet treat other scenes with a knowing humor that undercuts the brutality. It has a magnificent color scheme, and isn't bound by its horror genre to be gloomy and disturbing. It is available on Netflix, and is definitely worth seeing.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Debt

I do not watch spy films too often, though there are ones that I really enjoy and appreciate. The Saint. Munich. Spy Game. The Jason Bourne series. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Ronin. But one of the best spy films I have ever seen came out last year, with little notice. The Debt, directed by John Madden (Shakespeare in Love), was a fantastic thriller about three Mossad agents in the 1960s who capture a Nazi war criminal to bring him to justice, and the fallout from their actions thirty years on. The film was a remake of an Israeli film of the same title from 2007, directed by Assaf Bernstein and starring Gila Almagor.

I had been interested in this film when I saw the trailer, but the film's release was pushed back, and by the time it came out I had forgotten about it. I rented it this month, and it's an excellent film with a lot of suspense, and a very intelligent and complex female lead in the character of Rachel Singer, portrayed by Jessica Chastain (in the 1965 scenes) and Helen Mirren (in the 1997 scenes). Both actresses carry this elegant grace and quiet intelligence to them that fully develops the character, making both an admirable person and deeply vulnerable. In the 1960s scenes, young Rachel is very serious and dedicated to her work as a Mossad agent, whose fragile beauty is a deception for her quick Krav Maga moves and inner quest for vengeance.

The story shifts between the past and present, as the former agents are honored through a book by Rachel's daughter for their valiant work in capturing this notorious criminal named Dieter Vogel, nicknamed the "Surgeon of Birkenau" for his horrifying medical "experiments" on Jewish prisoners during WWII. The secrecy and stress of agent life has taken a toll on Rachel's life, as she is an emotionally removed person. In the party scenes for her daughter's book, she is polite but reticent, as if there but not truly present, for reasons related to the capture that are revealed later on.

In the past, the agents, Rachel (Chastain), David Peretz ( Sam Worthington), and Stefan (Martin Csokas) go undercover into East Berlin, and Rachel and David pose as a married German couple. Rachel implements herself into Vogel's OB-GYN practice by playing a patient undergoing a routine gynecological exam. She, in those scenes, is both vulnerable and in control of the situation. Vulnerable because she is a patient and allowing the doctor to examine her genitals, but in control because she is playing an innocent housewife, and can ask pointed questions and take secret photos without suspicion, using her locket as a camera. And given how the agents were children during WWII and most likely lost family members in the Holocaust, the mission is incredibly emotionally driven, posing a threat to let resentment get in the way of objective orders. As through a conversation between Rachel and Stefan about David and the Holocaust:

Stefan: I spent two years with him and I don't know him. Nobody knows him. He's alone.
Rachel: What about family? (Stefan doesn't answer and Rachel realizes what he means) All of them?
Stefan: All of them. Maybe it's not always a blessing to survive.

A standout scene involves a border crossing at a Berlin transit station, closed but guarded by the Stasi, the East German secret police (watch The Lives of Others for a detailed understanding of their story). As trains pass, timing is everything, and the agents are meticulous in knowing exactly when to move, and how to maneuver pass the policemen. It is a scene that takes its time in building, and it's spy scenes like this in films that makes me feel like an agent myself, my heart beating along with the agents onscreen. While I knew the agents would survive (as they appear in the film thirty years later), it's still an excellent moment of suspense.

A flaw to the film is that while I found the character of Rachel fascinating, I had trouble telling the male agents apart, and remembering their names, both when they were young and when they were middle-aged. They didn't leave much an impression on me, because they seemed more like generic male agents, while Rachel, besides being a woman, had the contradictory nature that I noted before. The film centers on her, and it was due to the talents of the writers Matthew Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Peter Straughan, and the actresses Chastain and Mirren, that made Rachel a memorable and excellent character.

Another problem that I had was that whereas the characters were Israeli, they were played by Anglo actors from England, America, Australia, and New Zealand. While I know that Israeli people have Eastern European roots from immigrating to Israel after WWII, and could have Ashkenazim Jewish features, it was a little distracting seeing obviously English, Christian-looking people putting on Israeli accents to play these characters. But that was a minor nitpick.

I highly recommend this film. It is an intelligent spy film that got little attention when it was released, and continues in the tradition of spy films that are complex and that raise issues of the consequences of vengeance (much like Munich did), as well as featuring a heroine who isn't a super-spy a la Evelyn Salt or Sydney Bristow (as much as I liked Salt and Alias). The film is streaming on Youtube, and is well worth a watch.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Needle Through Brick

At the Museum of the Moving Image this month, I attended a screening of the 2009 documentary Needle Through Brick, directed by Patrick Daly, about Chinese kung fu masters who immigrated to East Malaysia following the Cultural Revolution, and are working day jobs while struggling to pass on their legacy to a new generation, who are less likely to learn traditional kung fu in favor of the acrobatics of wushu or the immediacy of video games. It was only an hour long, and was an insightful film that showed kung fu masters as not as the wise old men speaking in proverbs in the mountains as movies would have you believe, but just average men working jobs like selling shoes and landscaping and cooking in restaurants, all the while focused on maintaining a powerful art form.

At the Moving Image museum, the film was introduced by its composer,  Gil Talmi, who spoke of the film's origins. Patrick Daly was studying traditional Kung Fu with a master for a year in Borneo, East Malaysia, and had gained the trust of masters who wanted their stories to be heard. While martial arts for centuries was always seen as a family and military practice, never one to be taught to the general public or outsiders, the masters realized that a worldwide audience would see their art, and reduce its chances of being lost forever. It was a relationship between filmmakers and the masters of mutual interest and respect that led to this small yet remarkable film.

The speed and agility that these masters maintained was sharp and inspiring to see. They truly possessed their essence of chi, with a calmness that commanded respect. One of the masters said, "It's not just about fighting, it's a way of life. It's spiritual, it's physical, it's everything." And I agree with his statement. Martial arts is a practice that is popularized through action films, seen as only a means of attack or an act of violence. But when seeing artists practice their form individually with ritualized movements and steps, it reminded me to maintain my practice in dance and martial arts, because the peace that comes from practicing classic movements centers me, and I grow as a student when I learn the basics.

At times, the masters sounded like crabby old men when talking about young kids favoring wushu over traditional martial arts. The film intercuts this with students flying and twisting through the air in acrobatics that would be seen in a tricking video or a Jet Li film. I myself have taken a wushu class, and found it exciting and a lot of fun, a combination of beautiful movement with explosive acrobatics. As kung fu has an almost endless amount of forms due to combining styles and modern interpretations, I feel it is important that a student does learn the traditional form while also studying styles that are more suited to their personality or interests. I took Wing Chun because I wanted to learn more self-defense moves, and was breaking the habits that I had learned from Muay Thai, like positioning of stances, punches, and kicks. Similarly, I enjoy taking dance classes because I love different forms of movement and challenging my body to take on unfamiliar positions and steps. In that case, I take classes in ballet as a ground root for other dance styles, like hip-hop, modern, and jazz.

Another one of the masters said "Learning Kung Fu is like studying. You need to gather your information slowly, then you can achieve greatness." For true practitioners of dance and martial arts, learning slowly is a process that can be frustrating, but ultimately rewarding when you apply your lessons to advance further than you thought you could. When I first studied Muay Thai, I was frustrated because I wanted to throw punches and kicks with speed and power, like the advanced students. I would miss my mark, or would just be messy. I didn't want to be slow, because I didn't want to slow down others, and didn't want to progress slowly. I had to focus on technique, and the slower applications of the movements, as well as think about my body mechanically rather than focusing on the end result. From that practice, I did become more skilled because I maintained a deeper focus and serenity rather than just wanting to fight, and improved my punches and kicks as a student, feeling relieved that I was getting over the hump of not advancing. While I have not practiced Muay Thai in over a year, I was still able to take what I studied and compare my training to my classes in kung fu, and, most recently, samurai swordfighting. I am a novice in all of these forms, but I enjoy learning and studying, and growing not just as an physical artist, but also in confidence and maturity and maintaining a calm center when life feels stressful.

This film can be found on Hulu to watch, and I recommend just taking an hour out of your day to listen to the stories of these masters who only want to ensure that their traditional art form is not lost in a rapidly changing modern world.