Saturday, May 20, 2017

Barking Dogs Never Bite (Flandersui Gae)


A yappy little dog somewhere in the big apartment complex irritates the unemployed Yun-ju (Lee Sung-jae) to no end in the South Korean dark comedy BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE. When Yun-ju finds what he believes to be the offending canine, he disposes of it. To his dismay, he learns that he got rid of the wrong dog and now must abduct and kill another. Even worse, his pregnant wife brings home a dog to dote on.

Bookkeeper Hyun-nam (Bae Doona) takes note of the increase in residents wanting her to approve flyers about their missing dogs. From a distance she is horrified to spot Yun-ju tossing one off a building. Hyun-nam is also determined to bring him to justice for this because the fame in catching him to justice may provide financial rewards. A janitor (Byun Hee-bong) for the buildings doesn’t mind coming across these dead dogs because he can add them to the soup he makes in the basement.

BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE has a twisted sense of humor that will undoubtedly offend some viewers’ sensibilities. The film opens with a statement that no animals were hurt in its making, and it t is not graphic in depicting the ends the unfortunate pooches meet. Nevertheless, the premise and some images are likely to be upsetting to some prospective audience members. For those who can get past such obstacles, director and co-writer Bong Joon-ho provides a series of inventively funny scenarios, whether from misunderstandings, pushing the boundaries of good taste, or a combination. Sometimes he applies a live-action cartoon style, particularly during foot chases, which helps to cue that the film intends for it be received with a lighter tone despite the darker comedy.

As Bong’s debut feature, BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE is marked with first film shortcomings. It takes awhile to settle into its unhurried pace. Scenes often unspool deliberately rather than with a flurry of jokes, highlighting his ability to craft individual moments and struggle to connect them meaningfully. The film finds a rhythm that makes sense in the larger picture--it is, to some degree, about the experience of time when stuck personally and professionally--but the storytelling can breed impatience. There’s a brashness to the film’s risks that feel somewhat like a young filmmaker determining what he can get away with, although to Bong’s credit, the film doesn’t play as a work of meaningless provocation.

Economic and social concerns underpin BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE that may be more immediately obvious to native audiences or those who saw it during its initial release. The satirical elements linking it with the novel A DOG OF FLANDERS and commenting on the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s were lost in translation for me to a point, which may be why the dramatic turns feel grafted onto the back stretch. Yun-ju is demoralized by his trouble finding a job as a professor. He’s further disenchanted that he only catches a break via an acquaintance’s accidental demise and his ability to submit a bribe to the dean. Hyun-nam and her friend bank the improvement of their stations in life on the turn of the century equivalent of going viral. Unlike the dogs that people lavish unconditional love on, these characters feel like strays. BARKING DOGS NEVER BITE thus casts a hard look at why the cruelty visited upon the animals is so shocking while comparative treatment to humans goes ignored.

Grade: B-

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Wall

THE WALL (Doug Liman, 2017)

The Iraq War is officially winding down in 2007 in THE WALL, but fulfilling their duties are no less dangerous for Staff Sergeant Shane Matthews (John Cena) and his spotter Allan Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The pair are summoned near a pipeline under construction where an Iraqi sniper has been picking off contractors. They are on the scene to ascertain whether there are any survivors and if they can find the enemy responsible for killing with surgical precision.

Scanning the site from a distance while camouflaged, they determine that no one is alive but are less certain if the gunman might still be in the vicinity. Matthews grows tired of waiting and approaches the construction scene. It’s not long before a bullet strikes him and brings him down. Isaac attempts to come to his help, but unable to locate the sniper, he is also shot and is forced to take shelter behind a crumbling wall. His radio is damaged in the exchange, so when he is able to make contact with his communications device, the voice on the other end belongs to Juba (Laith Nakli), the hidden Iraqi responsible for all of these casualties.

THE WALL provides a good example of how direction and editing can enhance what is on the page. The screenplay by Dwain Worrell could be realized as a stage play mounted on a shoestring budget and not lose its essence. That quality doesn’t inherently detract from the film but reveals its limitations. THE WALL is primarily a dialogue between Iraq War counterparts that hits familiar notes about soldiers on opposite sides of a conflict. The film feels most vital when the conversation is about the matter at hand and digs into the cat-and-mouse tactics each man employs to gain advantages. Exploring this single faceoff as emblematic of the larger conflict yields more ordinary observations.

What Worrell brings to the film isn’t to be discounted, but director Doug Liman keeps this showdown tense when the story and dialogue fade in urgency. THE WALL has something of an exercise or challenge aspect to the production. It’s as though it is being made under limitations for the sake of prompting more creative decisions. Liman and editor Julia Bloch are up to the task as they never lose sight of the real-time (or mostly real-time) pressures and constrain the film’s perspective to what Isaac can see with the naked eye or his busted scope.

With Juba existing as a disembodied voice, he assumes the mantle of confessor and executioner. Isaac continues to live not out of mercy but so he can account for his and his country’s sins while receiving no promise of absolution for either. The desert setting lends to the impression of Isaac and Juba’s interaction harkening to a stark, primitive time when man felt more deeply vulnerable to an unseen interlocutor in control of his fate. THE WALL is not obliged to resolve the issues it inspects about this particular war, but its bitter conclusion smacks of a beginner’s casual understanding of nihilism. The pessimism isn’t necessarily uncalled for; it just seems like the easiest way out.

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 18, 2017


SNATCHED (Jonathan Levine, 2017)

In SNATCHED Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) loses her job and boyfriend in quick succession, meaning that the timing for her imminent, nonrefundable vacation for two to Ecuador comes when she needs it most and can least afford it. Unable to find a friend interested to take her ex’s spot, Emily persuades her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) to tag along. Linda is a worrywart who is happy to lay around the resort reading books than seeing the sites. Hotel guests Ruth (Wanda Sykes) and her best friend, retired Special Ops agent Barb (Joan Cusack), confirm Linda’s fears about being vigilant for one’s safety while out of the country.

Emily disregards them and sidles up to handsome stranger James (Tom Bateman), with whom she has an amazing night experiencing the area like a local. Emily convinces her mother to join her and James on a day trip that ends with the validation of Linda’s worst anxieties. They are abducted and held for ransom. Their best hope for rescue rests back home with Emily’s agoraphobic brother Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz) even as they escape from their captors and end up lost in the Colombian countryside.

Teaming up heroes across a shared universe is the go-to strategy for event pictures these days. In bringing together most prominently Schumer and Hawn, who returns to the movies after fifteen years, SNATCHED does something similar with funny women in film. It’s a good idea in theory even if it doesn’t always translate in practice. In spite of the equal billing, Hawn is often underutilized, especially because her character isn’t on screen for a significant portion of the film’s ninety minutes. She has a good rapport with Schumer but deserves more opportunities to show off her comedic chops than this second fiddle part. Christopher Meloni’s supporting role as an expedition leader produces bigger and more memorable laughs than the presumptive co-lead.

As the main character it’s hard to suggest that Schumer steals a movie that basically belongs to her anyway. Regardless, her TRAINWRECK follow-up reasserts her talents as a film comedian. She’s game for whatever Katie Dippold’s screenplay throws her way, and that comfort allows her to shrug off the humiliating lengths her character will go to in pursuit of her desires. Although Emily bares a neediness that leads her into embarrassing situations, Schumer plays it as a strength in expressing herself instead of exposing a pathetic, mewling quality. She’s good-humored about it, which is why she can pull off a scene as mortifying as the one when her date accidentally sees her in a compromising position as she gets cleaned up for a night out.

The humor in SNATCHED is certainly not refined but exudes puckish vulgarity that grants more leeway for the dirtiest jokes and a hilarious gross-out gag with a tapeworm. The playfulness also helps to gloss over the the potentially troublesome stereotypes the film imposes on many of the South American characters. SNATCHED appears to be laughing at the distorted views of this part of the world as shaped by the news, but it’s fair to consider if it is reinforcing them. The takeaway from the film isn’t such depictions, though, but Schumer’s willingness to go for broke.

Grade: B

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Train to Busan (Busanhaeng)

TRAIN TO BUSAN (BUSANHAENG) (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)

The passengers on a train bound for South Korea’s second biggest city see news reports of riots breaking out across the country but expect they are largely shielded from it as they zip across the land in TRAIN TO BUSAN (BUSANHAENG). Unfortunately for them, an infected person slipped onto the train without notice and starts turning others on board into zombies.

Among those fighting for their lives are fund manager Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) and his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), a high school baseball team; and a pregnant woman (Jung Yu-mi) and her husband (Ma Dong-seok). A large number of riders emerge unscathed from the initial attack after noticing that the zombies lack object permanence. If they can’t see you, whether in the dark or by covering a window, they won’t pursue. The passengers plan to disembark at the next station, but when it proves to be overrun with the living dead, the best choice is to get back on the train, even with its threats, and go to Busan, which is reportedly still open.

TRAIN TO BUSAN bolts through its stripped-down premise like the fast zombies terrorizing South Korea. Director Yeon Sang-ho, a co-writer with Park Joo-suk, uses the urgency and efficiency in the zombies-on-a-train scenario to keep the film in a constant state of tension once the outbreak begins. It’s the kind of genre exercise that is essentially bulletproof. Put people in a contained space with their antagonists, and let the survivors get sorted out. Yeon and Park come up with several different situations for the humans to fend for their lives as though they are video game heroes completing levels. Pace and novelty are maintained while characterization and topical interests lag behind.

TRAIN TO BUSAN’s lack of backstory is a virtue because there isn’t a pressing need to know why this is happening, just that it is. The details that might bring more color and resonance to the struggle get papered over amid the excitement of sticking close to the protagonists as they try to avoid nasty bites. The characters are ciphers who don’t need names because each with any prominence has an identifying characteristic while the rest serve as set dressing. Whether or not the passengers abide by the Golden Rule carries significance, but the simplistic sprinkling of thematic import hardly provides serious contemplation of the pros and cons of altruism.

Still, this lean and vicious zombie movie is effective in a visceral way. Those in the hungry mob are unsettling with their spastic movements. TRAIN TO BUSAN isn’t especially gory, but the quickness and violence of the attacks and the snarling sounds imply visions of more horrific wounds than what gets seen. Although the film doesn’t aspire to achieve much beyond the basic thrills, it’s sufficiently satisfying in that regard.

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Lost City of Z

THE LOST CITY OF Z (James Gray, 2016)

An undecorated British soldier whose family name was tarnished by his father’s drinking and gambling, Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) seeks to make his mark when London’s Royal Geographical Society asks him to map the the border separating Bolivia and Peru. The assignment in THE LOST CITY OF Z offers the promise of respect and glory that has so far eluded him. Although it means leaving his pregnant wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and their son for more than a year working in the field beginning in 1906, Fawcett accepts. Deep in the Amazon he and his aide-de-camp Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) come across what might be artifacts from a hidden city his native scout spoke of, but circumstances prevent them from exploring further.

Fawcett remains enthusiastic about returning to search for a place that sounds to some like the mythical El Dorado. Years later Nina’s discovery of a document fuels his belief that there is an advanced place in the jungle that would upend western civilization’s perception of what they think to be a savage land. Nina hopes that her part in building support for another exploit in the Amazon can be parlayed into joining her husband, but despite his belief in their equality in mind, he rejects her suggestion that she can endure the physical hardships in such an undertaking. Again his journey to Amazonia hints at the promise of a find, but he comes up short. Nearly two decade after his search, Fawcett is funded for another opportunity.

Based on a true story told in David Grann’s book of the same name, THE LOST CITY OF Z promises a grand adventure that plumbs the depths of a man’s obsession. Fawcett may have a smidgen of Indiana Jones in him--a single shot, intentionally or not, mirrors one from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK--but the hero and the film have more in common with the explorers in Werner Herzog’s AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD and FITZCARRALDO. The persistent tugging at Fawcett’s soul to achieve something great could be what allows him to make a singular discovery in history. It could also be a touch of madness, which certainly inflicts Klaus Kinski as an expedition leader in AGUIRRE and might be diagnosed in his rubber baron endeavoring to have indigenous Amazonians drag a steamship over a hill in FITZCARRALDO.

Writer-director James Gray makes clear the daunting nature of Fawcett’s efforts but is coy when it comes to the strange experiences the protagonist has. THE LOST CITY OF Z possesses a dream-like quality enhanced by a hushed sound design that invites watching in a state between being awake and lost in a reverie. There are moments in which it could be possible that what is presented is fevered illusion instead of reality. Gray doesn’t demarcate whether what transpires under stress and strain in the wild Amazonian environment is as tangible as conversations in the shadowy, tamed interiors of England and Ireland. Hunnam plays Fawcett with firm and fervent belief, building a man who one would be confident to place trust in even as he might be self-deluded and bringing about his own ruin. Miller’s performance is key because Nina bears the burden of what consumes Fawcett yet puts her faith in him nonetheless.

Gray and cinematographer Darius Khondji evoke a bygone era for this story and in cinema with painterly shot compositions and lighting that provide an unending source of pleasure in their own right. THE LOST CITY OF Z is constructed of sumptuous and often very dark visuals, which underline the mystery and the desire to dive inside into the unknown to see what others haven’t spotted. The knockout final shot does not clarify what to make of the characters’ outcomes but instead emphasizes again the seductive power of vanishing into a place ripe for discovery.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, May 03, 2017


COLOSSAL (Nacho Vigalondo, 2016)

In COLOSSAL unemployed writer Gloria (Anne Hathaway) moves from New York City back to her parents’ empty house after her self-destructive ways become too much for her boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). Gloria catches a break when she runs into Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), an elementary school friend with whom she’s long lost touch. He’s eager to help her out, including giving her a part-time job at his bar, although that may not be for the best considering her troubled relationship with alcohol.

Life gets much more complicated for Gloria when, twenty-five years after first appearing in Seoul, a giant monster again manifests out of thin air in the South Korean capital. The significance of this isn’t immediately apparent, but Gloria comes to realize that somehow she is connected to the kaiju. If she sets foot within a playground’s boundaries at the right time, the creature materializes a continent away and follows her movements. Not only is this supremely strange, it also gives Gloria reason to be remorseful for the inadvertent damage she wreaks as this monster.

Gloria’s bond with the beast functions as an inventive allegory for problematic drinking, although that perspective has a limit. Whether in her blacked-out stupor or monstrous self-projection, she has a habit of causing harm to those around her. Hathaway avoids giving a mannered performance, favoring instead a more casual way of acting that highlights the character’s ability to function while noticeably in need of a healthier lifestyle and self-image. COLOSSAL skirts the question of if Gloria is an alcoholic, in part because that subject is not what is of primary interest.

While the film looks like it may view the Hathaway-starring drama RACHEL GETTING MARRIED or Billy Wilder’s THE LOST WEEKEND through a contemporary genre lens, writer-director Nacho Vigalondo has a different target in its sight. To reveal in depth what’s really being explored would spoil the pleasure of discovering it for oneself. Suffice it to say that it seems deliberate for Vigalondo to hide the pill inside a film likely with the most surface appeal for a young male audience. The purpose of the trick is to evoke empathy in those who might be more resistant if Vigalondo was more direct about what he wants to address.

COLOSSAL could get to the point faster than it does and would benefit from smoothing a pivotal character shift that seems rather abrupt even if, in retrospect, the revealed qualities were there all along. The sarcasm Sudeikis often brings to roles can make him seem insincere, but that trait serves him well in a character whose motivations are submerged. The film’s humor lightens the heavier thematic components and provides a great exclamation point. Although COLOSSAL is a bit ungainly, this unusual comedic mash-up of monster and message movie profits from its ambition.

Grade: B