A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Nine Lives (2005)

            It has never been considered uncommon to go to the theater to watch a series of scenes performed onstage, so it seems that this should easily transfer onscreen as well, yet it is hardly attempted. Nine Lives, an intriguing film which made its mark at the Sundance Film Festival this past year, is very theatrical in the sense that it is composed of nine scenes from the lives of nine very different women. What adds to the theatrical feel of the film is the fact that each scene is done in an unbroken take, making a film out of nine shots which are unedited.


            Nine Lives Begins with Sandra, a prison convict who is visited by her daughter. Diana (Robin Wright Penn) is shopping in the second segment when she runs into an old flame. This is the most poignant and honest of all the segments, which is unfortunate because it is over quickly and there are seven more scenes to follow. Next is Holly, who has come home to tell her step-father how he has hurt her. This is definitely the most melodramatic of the series, never really allowing the audience to know what is going on. Sonia, played by Holly Hunter, is going to visit friends with her boyfriend when he decides to share intimate details of their relationship. Samantha is a young woman trapped between her two parents who don’t talk to each other directly. Lorna (Amy Brenneman) is attending her ex-husband’s wife’s funeral with her parents, despite the fact that most don’t feel it is appropriate for her to attend. Ruth (Sissy Spacek) is flirting with the idea of adultery in a cheap hotel. Camille struggles with her fears by snapping at her husband and the nurse in a hospital before a surgery. Maggie (Glenn Close) has a picnic with her daughter (Dakota Fanning) at the grave of a loved one.


            Not all of these nine women are likable, but they all have a common theme to one another. Each of them is significantly tied to another person because of a relationship, and within these short segments we are allowed a glimpse of this. It is profoundly touching for all of its simplicity. Although some of the characters are intertwined within each story, this is not what makes this film so beautifully done. What makes it truly good is not even the technical achievement of creating a film with only nine shots. What makes this film startling is the simple honest truth of the emotional moments that these women experience in the short time we are with them.


            With a simple and poignant score to backdrop the lives of these women, Nine Lives flows wonderfully from one moment to the next. Although I can’t say that I liked all of the characters, or agreed with their actions, after their segment was over, I felt that I had experienced them if only for a short while. This is the true markings of a great script, and a great director. A mark was made on me, but more importantly, I was put into the shoes of nine people very different from myself.

A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Madame Curie (1943)

Each year around award season there are always a few biopics, which are almost certain to receive enough acclaim to achieve award nominations, if only for the performances. Apparently it was no different in 1943, because Madame Curie is a compelling biopic which earned seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress.


I felt somewhat misled by the cover of Madame Curie, which had large photos of stars Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon which looked similar to their Mrs. Miniver roles, with a tag-line that makes it seem as though this is a sequel. In all truth the film is about Marie Sklodowska, a Polish girl who attended the prestigious Sorbonne in Paris and eventually made a breakthrough in science with her husband, Pierre Curie, a professor at the university. The only hint of that on the cover is a small photo of a book with a photo of the real Madame Curie.


The first half of Madame Curie is the love story, of how they met and fell in love through the shared love of science. This portion of the film isn’t so much romantic as it is humorous, although there is sweetness in the absurdly extreme intellectuality of the couple. Even as he proposes to her he is using equations as metaphors for why they would make a compatible match together and they take scientific books to read on their honeymoon together.


 After this arrangement is made we truly see how perfect they are for each other. They find casual discussion of complex science to be invigorating and will abandon all else to work in the lab together. Watching them problem solve together is a fascinating second half of Madame Curie. The problem solving leads them to the discovery of radium, a new element at the beginning of which led them to 1903 Nobel Prize.



Desert Island Films: South Korean Cinema

Although it has been a long time coming, this year seems to be the first where it is impossible to ignore the influx of Korean filmmakers in Hollywood. Chan-wook Park made his English-language debut with Stoker, while the second film in his revenge trilogy (Oldboy) is also being remade with Spike Lee at the helm, with a release set for later this year. Jee-woon Kim (A Tale of Two Sisters, The Good, the Bad, the Weird) also made his American debut with The Last Stand, which was also Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to film. Joon-ho Bong (The Host, Mother) makes his American debut with the star-studded science-fiction film, Snowpiercer. Anyone who has paid attention to international cinema in the last decade would have been able to predict this wave of new arrivals from South Korea. Hollywood has been pillaging the talented directors from thriving foreign markets since the early days of cinema.

Korea had a slow start in joining the world in the participation of the film production, with the first feature film produced in the early 1920s. For many years the condition of the nation’s cinema was a proper reflection of the country itself, which was often quite tumultuous. During the silent era of cinema Koreans suffered Japanese Occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945. Though the films were strictly censored, the Koreans found a way to circumnavigate this problem through the use of the byeonsa. A byeonsa was somewhat like a live narrator, there to translate the intertitles for the audience. They were also free to interject their own comments of satire and criticism when Japanese authorities were not present.


            Sound brought unique issues to filmmaking all around the world, but the censorship in Korea made it especially tricky. Film was universal without words, but the addition of dialogue only meant further censorship for Koreans. In 1938, the Japanese government encouraged the use of the Japanese language while simultaneously banning the use of the Korean dialogue. Fortunately, the end of the Pacific War in 1945 resulted in Korea’s liberation.


            In the years following, the north and south split apart, with Soviet military troops advancing and taking the northern portion of the peninsula. The United States placed troops in the southern region and the Korean War made film production nearly impossible until the ceasefire in 1953. With assistance from the United States, the South Korean government then reorganized the film industry, resulting in a brief flourish of success.


This was short-lived, however, as the most oppressive time in Korean cinema history arrived with the military coup of 1961. During the 1970s, Korean cinema was crippled by censorship. The success of television matched with no freedom of expression resulted in a depression in theaters and many production companies. The Korean CIA had spies within the media, as well as schools and churches, so as to unearth any dissenting individuals. Censorship did not merely mean that the films would not be seen, but often resulted in imprisonment, torture, forced confessions and even executions.


It wasn’t until the assassination of President Park in the 1980s that South Korean cinema finally had a chance to begin. From 1988 to 1995, the censorship laws were slowly revoked, allowing for a completely fresh generation of filmmakers to create their own national cinema from the ground up. Even more remarkable than the speed with which South Korean became internationally praised and appreciated since moving to civilian government in 1993 is the fact that it has also become one of the few places in the world where homegrown films outsell the Hollywood imports.


I can appreciate that foreign films can often be difficult to recommend, not simply because of the subtitles but because of varying styles and pacing preferences. For those wanting to ease their way into international cinema, South Korean cinema finds a great deal of influence in Hollywood films. There is also preference to violence, especially with the removal of censorship and the freedom to delve deep into the content that was, until recently, forbidden. There is no better substitute for fans of a Hollywood blockbuster than a South Korean blockbuster. In some cases, I prefer the latter.


5. The Man From Nowhere (2010)


            The Man From Nowhere follows in the tradition of popular thrillers in South Korean’s recent past, most notably Oldboy. There is heart at the center of a film filled with graphic and fascinating action, which somehow always remains more than moderately believable and entertaining. The Man From Nowhere had the highest box office numbers of the year in Korea, and it is easy to see why. Although it may not be entirely original or unpredictable, The Man From Nowhere is endlessly enjoyable.


             The film begins with a little girl and an ex-special agent. Cha Tae-shik (Won Bin) lives next door to an impoverished child named So-mi (Kim Sae-Ron) who often escapes into his pawn shop in order to avoid her addict mother. When So-mi’s mother uses the pawn shop in order to hide a large amount of drugs, he is pulled into a larger plot. In order to rescue his next-door neighbor and friend, Tae-shik comes out of hiding in order to carry out swift justice.


            There are some spectacular fight sequences, which are both brutal and fast, leading up to a few final sequences worth watching the whole film for. Much of the film is filled with drama that is so effective that there is more power in the violence. Hollywood action films could take a lesson from South Korean cinema, as few are able to blend believable characters and melodrama out of implausible action scenarios the way they do. This was the second feature from director Jeong-beom Lee, who also wrote the screenplay.


4. My Sassy Girl (2001)


            Based on a series of true stories posted by Ho-sik Kimon the internet describing his somewhat dysfunctional romantic relationship, My Sassy Girl is an implausible film. There are so many ways that this movie should not have worked, and in fact, when it was remade in America, it absolutely did not work. And this is despite the fact that the remake was directed by Yann Samuell, a French filmmaker who directed one of my Desert Island French films. But that’s another list. This is not easy material to convey with sincerity. There is some sappiness, some predictability, and the film ends with what can either be construed as science fiction or fate. All of this in a film which is part drama, part comedy and has a running time of over two hours. All of this comes together, despite every reason it should not, because of a great cast and filmmaker, Jae-young Kwak.


            Director Kwak also adapted the stories by Kimon for his screenplay, which follows the misadventures of hapless college student Gyeon-woo (Tae-Hyun Cha), who inadvertently becomes involved with a young nameless girl (Ji-hyun Jun) when she is drunk on the subway and strangers assume that the two are together. With no other choice but to take care of a stranger, Gyeon-woo finds himself entangled. Their relationship is mostly one-sided, with the girl behaving erratically, stringing Gyeon-woo along just enough so that he continues to amuse her. These games are both amusing and sad, because there is a reason the girl keeps Gyeon-woo at a distance.


            This film hasn’t been released in the United States, despite having been poorly remade by Hollywood. The only way to see this film is by import DVD. I myself have only seen it once, and this is one of the few films that I love which is not in my massive collection. It is also a film which I can recall the feelings of watching it more than the film itself, perhaps because I was shocked by how emotionally connected I became with the characters over two hours time. A film with such a lasting impression and emotional resonance is extremely rare, making this one of my favorite romance films as well. Find a copy of this any way you can, get a box of tissues for the unavoidable tears and enjoy the only film in my South Korean list without bloody carnage.    



3. The Host (2006)


[Review from film’s theatrical release in the United States]


It has been a really long time since there was a really good creature film. They are simple and don’t need a lot of explanation. The creature just exists and must be destroyed for order to be restored. The Host is a creature film at times, but there is focus spent elsewhere often during the film. The film follows a family as they try and find their youngest family member, who is struggling to survive in the creature’s nest deep in a sewer. There are many things going on besides the creature, but the essence of the film could at any minute switch back to creature should it randomly appear. Like many horror films, The Host is a survival film. It is also a family-in-peril horror film on top of being a survival creature film. And, like any good horror film, it knows when to make fun of itself also.


Just as Jaws made the beach seem frightening and suspect, The Host turns the Han River, a dull and unexciting river running through much of Korea, into a horrifying co-creator and home for a monster that emerges one day to wreak havoc on the city. The creature is created when an American scientist tells a lowly Korean assistant to pour dozens of bottles of chemicals into the sink. This begins a theme against authority running through the film. It isn’t just American authority, although they don’t look that great at any one point, but all authority, including Korean officials and police officers. Even seeming to make a point that it isn’t the individual as much as the whole, an American soldier off duty in Korea helps to battle the creature alongside one of our Korean protagonists, almost as if he were on duty he might have been part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.


The authority figures are of no help when a young girl is taken with her family left grieving, but even more shocking is their refusal to help when the family receives a phone call from the girl letting them know she is still alive and being held in the creature’s lair within the sewer. With the authorities claiming the phone call to be just a bad dream or grief, the family decides to break free from quarantine and escape to rescue her themselves. Her father, a near narcoleptic bum, her grandfather, the owner of a small snack shop by the river, her aunt, a world famous archer, and her uncle, a college graduate who can’t find a job, all equip themselves as best they can and set out to kill the creature and save their youngest family member.


It is a sad fact that American horror films are anything but original these days, and yet there is so much going on outside of Hollywood, and along with the Descent and 28 Days Later, The Host belongs in a category with films that are groundbreaking and will play a large part in the direction horror goes in next. Far better than I could have expected in terms of scale and emotional attachment to characters within a horror film, The Host is not only one of the best horror films in years, but simply one of the best films in years and certainly the best monster film in decades.



2. The City of Violence (2006)


Korea’s particular burst in cinema this last decade makes it an interesting country for examination right now, especially concerning the subject of revenge. Many Korean films in the recent past have dealt with revenge, most notably Park Chanwook’s Oldboy, the second in his vengeance trilogy. Until the 1980s Korean cinema was highly oppressed for many years, but from 1988 to 1995 the censorship laws were slowly revoked, allowing for a completely fresh generation of filmmakers to create a New Korean cinema. These films have proved to be highly violent and often dealing with vengeance and revenge as a common theme and although much of this is associated with Korean filmmakers suddenly being freed from censorship, able finally to make more violent film, in fact violence, revenge and torture have long been engrained in Korean stories. The City of Violence continues this tradition along with some new tricks to keep it cutting edge.


Part detective story and part buddy action, The City of Violence begins with a single act of violence which spawns the film’s events. Detective Taesoo (played by director, Ryoo Seung-Wan) doesn’t appear to be a very motivated or hardworking hero when we join him sleeping at a desk along with three shirtless thugs. His demeanor is calm and collected, even stoic as he receives a phone call from back home telling him that his friend Wangjae has died. He returns home to find that his friend’s death was no accident and decides to stay and try and figure out what really happened. Eventually he joins forces with another high school friend, Sukhwan, who has been investigating on his own. What is interesting is watching the two friends work together each piece of the puzzle on his own until they join forces to find the person responsible and get revenge. City of Violence continues this theme in Korean cinema along with many other expected areas of focus.

For instance, Korean cinema also tends to place a great deal of focus on the time period of being young and in school, both as a bonding period and as a period and setting where horrific events can happen. This is primarily because of the intense amount of time a child spends in the Korean school system by the end of high school. In The City of Violence the high school segments come as they do in many films; through flashbacks, but director Ryoo Seung-Wan adds in his own postmodern style to the traditional storyline. Before the first flashback a split screen is showing us the person on the other end of a phone conversation but it suddenly switches another shot which is taking place a few moments in the future. This jarring bit of editing plays with the audience’s concept of time immediately before throwing them into a flashback, a whirlwind of changes that is quite interestingly disorientating.


As much attention is given to the smaller details in the film, the focus is bound to be on the action, which is a perfect balance of realism and entertainment. The streets in the film are overrun by gangs which seem to echo The Warriors and when all of these gangs corner our hero in the street the result is the perfect answer to the horribly digitalized fight scene in The Matrix Reloaded in which Neo fights hundreds of men. (One could answer that this was already done with the climactic battle of Kill Bill Volume One, and there certainly seem to be some valid points to that argument and I wouldn’t doubt that Tarantino would love this film and nearly all of New Korean cinema.) This scene takes all of the elements which worked in all of this films, and maybe a little of Oldboy’s hallway battle, and makes them work in a natural and unique way. Instead of ripping off other action films or attempting something so original that it doesn’t even seem to echo in reality, Seung-Wan has simply improved upon many previous concepts and made them work to his advantage. And this is within the first thirty minutes of the film and only the second large fight with plenty left to come.


Even as the fighting takes on a life of its own, there are many moments within the film which seem to be inserting a pastiche from several American films with cult status. It seems a perfect counter-response to Tarantino’s Kill Bill which takes much from Samurai films. These brief references are done with the respect of the new wave of postmodern filmmakers Tarantino seems to helm so appropriately, especially after the Grindhouse experience.



1. Oldboy (2003)


            I have often heard it said that there are no more original ideas for films anymore. It is believed that all that could be thought of has already been done, and now we can only expect copies. While Chan-wook Park’s new film, Oldboy borrows the mood and feeling from many great films of the past, the premise is one that seems shockingly unique.


            After the film opens with a confusing scene in which it seems as though Dae-su Oh (Min-sik Choi) is holding a man from his tie over the edge of a building, it immediately jumps into a hilarious scene where a much more clean-cut Dae-su Oh, a seemingly ordinary man, albeit extremely intoxicated on his daughter’s birthday, goes through a whole spectrum of emotions waiting to be released in a police station. After being picked up by a friend, Dae-su Oh calls his daughter and wife, and then is kidnapped off the street. He is placed in a room with decent living conditions including a television, and is kept there for fifteen years.


            As the fifteen years pass within the cell, the mystery builds as to why Dae-su Oh is held captive, and it seems as though the film can go nowhere from this point, but when he is released on a grass filled rooftop the film just gets better. Dae-su Oh receives a phone call telling him that he has five days to figure out why he was held captive, and with the help of a young woman he meets in a sushi bar, he sets out to solve the mystery. Little more can be said of the plot without spoiling the surprise, which met every expectation I had from the film as it had impressed me so far. The mystery is built until the very end in which all of the film comes crashing into a wrenching, disturbing, and Shakespearian climax on par with films like Seven and Titus.


            Although Oldboy is not necessarily an action film there are a few fight sequences which are choreographed and shot in a way which will make you wish more of the film had action. One scene shot in a hallway is done in all one continuous shot, reminiscent of the famous scene in samurai film Sword of Doom. The brutality of the scene is only matched by the humor, which is just enough so that the violence is slightly more bearable.


            The characters are so well developed in Oldboy that when they begin to go through the extremely graphic situations it is much more difficult to watch. Min-sik Choi plays Dae-su Oh with such precision, despite an extended amount of the film spent in isolation. The last fifteen minutes of the film were so stressful to watch that it actually gave me a headache. And it was worth it. This is perhaps one of the best films in its genre in years. There is simply no other way to stress the fact that despite the limited distribution, this film should be well known and talked about. I am certain that every audience member which sees this film will not walk out and forget it.


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A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Last Days


Written and Directed By: Gus Van Sant
Producer: Dany Wolf
Director of Photography: Harris Savides
Cast: Michael Pitt, Lukas Haas, Asia Argento, Scott Green, Nicole Vicius, Ricky Jay, Ryan Orion

            Like Gus Van Sant’s last two films, Gerry and Elephant, Last Days is both ripped from the headlines as well as untraditional in the use of storytelling. To say that Last Days is similar to the previous films would be an understatement as well as a slightly undeserved compliment. While Last Days certainly makes use of the same techniques visually and through music and often evokes the same feeling as well, the technical aspects have taken a slight dive in quality from the other films. Although this is apparent for most of the film, especially for fans of the past two, there are moments of greatness in which one cannot help but be mesmerized.


            Mirrored after the last days of Kurt Cobain, Michael Pitt plays a fictional musician, Blake, who has escaped into a large house in the woods, hiding from the world. The film begins with a journey Blake takes into the wilderness to bathe in a creek. The next morning he returns to his home, slinking from room to room, occasionally with a purpose, all the time avoiding the friends living in his home. The only time he is approached by his friends is when they want something from him, and even then the conversations are remarkably one-sided. Blake opens up and speaks more with a man from the Yellow Pages sales department than he does with those close to him.

            Many of Blake’s actions are so far gone that one can only assume there are drugs involved, even though he is never seen taking them in the film. Blake changes his clothes with ferocity, at one point even wearing a dress as he carries a gun around the house. Blake’s friends also act with the same sedation as they move about the house, at one point having an extended conversation with two brothers from The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.


            Although there are moments of dialogue most of it does not include Blake. Blake is the focus of the film and yet he always remains quite distant from the audience. He is often speaking to himself but we are not privy to most of what he is saying, and there are very few moments when we even see his eyes. He spends a great deal of the film on camera, but either his back is to us or his long hair is hanging over his face, shadowing him. In this sense we are able to experience what Cobain may have gone through during his last days, but we are never allowed to understand it. The few moments that Blake seems to be exposed are when he has an instrument in his hand. Pitt wrote and performed the songs and they provide crucial moments in the film.


            While the structure of the film is as good as the last two films, I cannot help but compare the technical quality. Gerry and Elephant possessed such strong visual qualities to them, it was near impossible for me to take my eyes away. Although Last Days has a certain beauty to it, and there are a number of impressive shots, there is a definite decrease in the quality of the cinematography. With a film so reliant upon the visuals because of the lack of dialogue, it is somewhat upsetting that the quality did not match its predecessors. I also found the audio mixing to be somewhat difficult to bear at times, with sporadic water sounds and church bells ringing for some unapparent reason. When there is music, the film soars, but at moments without it I felt attacked by the constant use of loud background sound. Perhaps it served its purpose, but to me it just seemed distracting.


            I would like to see Van Sant try this style some more, assuming he can get his hands on another subject as compelling. I really enjoyed Gerry and Elephant, and Last Days nearly grabbed me as well. They are difficult films to watch and they go completely against the pace which we have been forced to adjust to with the MTV age. I find the slow pace a nice change, although I don’t expect it to catch on in multiplexes any time soon.

A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Kabluey (2007)

Sometimes there is a danger when a writer/director also chooses to star in his own film, and it is an understandable one. When you are in charge of both the material and how it is presented, there is an urge for the actor in the writer/director to make himself look good. The urge for vanity never seems to occur to Scott Pendergast in Kabluey, a film about depressingly low and demeaning things we will do for family. Although Pendergast seems to be the only actor playing a likeable character in the movie, his script puts him in more demeaning and embarrassing situations than anyone would normally put themselves in when vanity is an issue.


            Lisa Kudrow has a bad habit of getting cast as either extremely dumb women or unbelievably bitchy women, and Kabluey definitely throws her into the latter category. She stars as Leslie, a struggling army wife who is less tough and rough around the edges than she is unreasonably demanding while her own actions are laced with all kinds of hypocrisy. Her bitterness is understandable considering her two unruly children, bills that continue to pile up, and the recent deployment of her husband to Iraq, but the fury in which she unleashes it upon her brother-in-law makes her extremely difficult to like.


            Salman (Scott Pendergast) is a unique and slightly strange unemployed thirty-two-year-old man with nothing better to do than help his sister-in-law, but he hasn’t seen his brother or Leslie since their wedding. Salman is very different than his muscular and menacing brother, and immediately receives resentment from Leslie and the two children because of this. They terrorize him, treat him like an idiot for things he wasn’t told, and one of the children even threatens to kill him, but Salman patiently continues to try and help the ungrateful family in their time of need. When it seems like things aren’t going to work Leslie asks him to leave, but without the money for a bus ticket he is stuck with them.


            In order to help Salman, Leslie gets him a job at her work, so long as he helps pay for day care for the children out of his paycheck. Salman goes along with it, not realizing that the job requires him to be the mascot for a dying internet company, parading around in a sweltering blue costume. Between handing out flyers for office space in the middle of nowhere and taking care of demonically uncontrollable children, Salman is forced to grow accustomed to an unappreciated lifestyle of hard work that is new for him.  

A-Z Daily Throwback Review: Jigoku (1960)


The events in the film are all set in motion when two men, one seemingly good and the other apparently evil, hit a man while driving one night. Shiro is a theology student who also happens to be romantically involved with his professor’s daughter. It is a perfect situation that is destroyed, as everything is, by the one accident of killing a man in a hit and run. The evil man convinces Shiro that he is partly responsible for deciding to take the road that the drunk man was stumbling down. When it turns out that the drunk man they killed is a yakuza whose mother saw the car, Shiro and Tamura find themselves in trouble. Shiro is punished the most because he is forced to watch the people he cares about die until he finds his way to hell. We follow the two men on their journey to hell, at which point the style of the film is in complete control and narrative structure is fiendishly confused.


Shiro is allowed to ask forgiveness with many that he meets in the afterlife, possibly giving him some final redemption, but it is important to remember that the literal translation of the title is “hell”, and that seems to be the exact journey that the film tries to take the audience on. There is no relief in which Shiro has a chance to recover ground. It is a fast and steady decline from the moment that he makes the one mistake. As he makes the journey we are brought through the different stages of hell, allowed to experience them through the strange style which director Nobuo Nakagawa commits to through the entire film. There is a lot of fire, screaming and weird men with their faces painted, but as the film continues the violence becomes more and more shocking.


The visions of hell are solid and are definitely the strongest thing about Jigoku, which is apparent when the images are shown in much more emphasis than the plot in the second half of the film. The first half does a good job at setting up the random manner in which the story will be told, but it also does very little to prepare the audience for the horrors which follow.


The DVD of this film from 1960 brings a great transfer which is newly restored and high definition digital. There are a number of other perks, but the best in the bunch is definitely Building the Inferno, a new documentary which focuses on Nakagawa during the making of the film. The documentary also features interviews with actor Yoichi Numata, screenwriter Ichiro Miyagawa and many other collaborators. There is also a theatrical trailer, galleries of poster art, and an insert essay by Asian-cinema critic Chuck Stephens.

A-Z Daily Throwback Review: I’ve Loved You So Long

            Watching an actor speak in a language a language different from what the audience is accustomed to, is somewhat like watching an actor reinvent themselves. Any variety of costumes, make-up and accents can do little to disguise the actor we are familiar with, but actors who can move fluently between languages has the ability to shift cultures entirely. Make-up is noticeable, especially when done on an actor or actress whose face is familiar by all, but the ability to speak languages requires more than a skilled artist. Kristin Scott Thomas is so remarkably capable in the French I’ve Loved You So Long, it is hard to believe she is best known for an English-speaking role in The English Patient. It is also remarkable that she was not honored by at the Oscars, though it may come as no surprise that Penelope Cruz was given the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the bilingual character in Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona.


            Kristin Scott Thomas is Juliette Fontaine, a middle-aged woman just released from prison after a fifteen year sentence. She is picked up from prison by her younger sister, Léa (Elsa Zylberstein), though their relationship has been broken fro the entire time in prison. Juliette has a cold silence about her, seeming to protect herself with slight resentment and bitterness, though in moments alone it becomes apparent that the entire ordeal is simply overwhelming for the woman. Léa is having an equally difficult time, though she is determined to repair the relationship with her sister, carrying the guilt of having obeyed her parents in pretending Juliette no longer existed.


            The crime which Juliette committed as a doctor fifteen years prior was not only illegal, but also carries weight with its impact. For this reason I won’t go into details, though Léa’s husband, Luc (Serge Hazanavicius), is less than pleased to have an ex-convict in the house with their adopted children. Soon Juliette develops a relationship between the girls, which comes surprisingly easily to the woman despite her past. Luc’s father, Papy Paul (Jean-Claude Arnaud) seems content simply to ignore her, despite the fact that Juliette opens up to the old man more than anyone else. In a scene that he is more determined to read, she shares more with the man unable to respond than all of the questions she has received since arriving. Her probation officer (Frederic Pierrot) seems to be on her side, though his stability is not something that Juliette can rely on. The struggle proves nearly impossible to understand completely, especially in Juliette’s silence, but this allows a sense of discovery for both audience and sister as she begins to open to Léa.


            Words can’t describe the manner in which the performances of fully developed characters prevent the film from ever appearing dull or uninteresting. Even when there is little significant to say about a particular scene, the reactions on the actors faces convey a wealth of understand to the audience. The Blu-ray release of the film offers an alternate audio track with an English-speaking version dubbed with Scott Thomas providing her voice for the track. There are also a series of deleted scenes with an option commentary track with first-time director Philippe Claudel.

A-Z Daily Throwback Review: H (2002)


            So much time is spent worrying about remaking Asian horror movies in Hollywood, but hardly ever in another genre. Perhaps this is because they are doing the same with the genres Hollywood has already exasperated. The thriller H has many qualities which could have been taken directly from Se7en and Silence of the Lambs, and they don’t seem ashamed about this either. Even the DVD cover says in large letters, “Se7en meets Silence of the Lambs”. However, this fact cannot be held against the film too much considering it has been years since a thriller as good as those two was released from Hollywood or elsewhere. H is definitely not the film which will reach the same level as those films, but aside from a rather silly ending it manages to pull its own weight for most of the film.


            Detective Kim and Kang are on the case of a series of grisly murders beginning with the murders of pregnant women and moving on to other victims. The unique element of the murders is that they are exactly like the ones committed by a killer who now rots in jail. This killer, Shin Hynn, confessed to his murders after driving the cop on the case to suicide. Now all signs point to him although he is behind bars. As the horrific murders continue, even as they think they may have already caught the killer, Kim and Kang begin to despair, realizing that it is likely Shin Hynn is responsible.


            There are all of the necessary elements in H to make it mesmerizing in the disgusting way that only thrillers can manage. Even though we don’t see many of the murders they manage to be graphic in a way that few films have managed before. It seems that new ideas must be born to make these films work, and H has created an awful idea involving a pregnant woman.


            Aside from the gruesome elements, there are also some very good chase sequences in the film, one of which over a rooftop, very much reminiscent of the chase in Se7en. These chases are where the film succeeds the most, able to use the camera work in a way that fuels the energy of the film while looking really good at the same time. Where the film fails is in the prison questioning Shin Hynn. He is not nearly as menacing as he could have been, mostly because he is exposed from the very beginning.


            The acting in this film is good, but most credit goes to the two detectives, Yeom Jeong-a and Jee Jin-hee. They manage to pull the weight of the film playing opposites that work off of each other. Jeong-a is almost too deadpan throughout the film, but it is balanced by Jin-hee’s looser approach.