Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Chaser

“The Chaser”

South Korea. 2008. Directed by Na Hong-jin. Written by Hong Won-chan, Lee Shin-ho and Na Hong-jin. Starring: Kim Yoon-seok, Ha Jung-woo, Seo Yeong-hie, Kim Yoo-Jeong, Koo Bon-woong, Lee Sang-gyu, Jeong In-gi, Park Hyo-ju, Choi Jung-woo and Min Kyung-jin.

Rating: ★★★½

The Chaser is an unusually effective thriller from South Korea that fearlessly puts out all the pieces of its puzzle to paint an angry, scathing social attack. It is also rare in how it mounts its tension not so much on shocks and revelations but strictly on the pervading emotional drive of frustration. We even know who the prime suspect is from the very beginning and the suspense builds in its sadly, aggravatingly realistic portrait of the country’s police force that is often much more concerned with protecting its image rather than properly upholding the law.

The actual titular protagonist himself is not exactly of the heroic kind either and even as an antihero, the emphasis would be far greater on the “anti.” He is Joong-ho (Kim Yoon-seok), an ex-cop now turned pimp who, by the way we see him treating his prostitutes, suggests that he may have been disgraced because he treated his suspects or even his fellow policemen just slightly worse. He is not even generous enough to grant one of his call girls, Mi-jin (Seo Yeong-hie) proper sick leave when she needs it (when a call comes from him on her cell phone while she is ill in bed with the flu, the caller ID on it reads, “Filth”).

Moreover, several of his call girls have lately gone missing. He initially merely assumes that they are running away in order to avoid paying their debts. But he soon tracks by a common cell phone number and finds that they actually all went missing after seeing the same client, the very same one that Mi-jin is going to as well. This leads him to the selfish conclusion that this guy may just be secretly selling his call girls away somewhere. Stop reading here if you wish to watch this film cold.

His police instincts soon start telling him otherwise and it is not revealing too much that the client, Young-min (Ha Jung-woo) is a serial killer, which the film clearly establishes at the 15 minute mark in a brutally harrowing scene where he attempts to strike her with a chisel but is interrupted by a phone call. Joong-ho even manages to catch up to him and beat him to a pulp, though they are both taken in when they are spotted by the police because Joong-ho is not a cop anymore. At the police station, the killer is not coy about revealing that he has killed the missing prostitutes as if goading and challenging the cops to find enough evidence on him (they don’t have a warrant on him yet).

The movie’s strategy to build dread is by using the audience’s superior knowledge to point a critical finger at the various cops’ vexing incompetence to properly find the killer’s latest victim. They are not even doing this primarily to save Mi-jin but the captain says himself that his cops should even plant evidence to solve the case in order to draw the media away from an earlier embarrassing situation in which the mayor was doused with human feces in a city market under the police’s watch. Joong-ho, working as an outsider, is able to quickly figure more things out that would actually help the cops but his current profession and his former disgrace combined with the fact that he had recklessly beaten the suspect mean that hardly anyone will listen. Some of that ignorant judgment from his former fellow cops including his past friend, Gil-woo (Jeong In-gi) teeters straight into dark, morbid comedy in seeing just how inept they really are in grossly overlooking such obviously transparent information and insights.

Many might think that this portrayal of the police force is too cynical but the characters are all so vividly drawn and acted with rough and gruff weathers and the story is told with such conviction that we soon believe it has the basis of truth (and in fact, the movie is based on a shocking real-life case). The first-time director, Na Hong-jin, along with his co-writers, Lee Shin-ho and Hong Won-Chan, is also uncanny in how he breaks so many conventions of most thrillers and builds a rooting human interest almost outside the initially thoroughly unsympathetic nature of the antihero. We care initially because we have seen that the already sick Mi-jin leave a 7-year old daughter (very convincingly acted by Kim Yoo-jeong) home alone to do her work at night. It is when Joong-ho sees that the girl cannot be left alone in this situation that he starts to regain his own conscience and really care about saving Mi-jin’s life.

It is also a testament to Kim Yoon-seok that he manages to maintain a credible gravity of doggedness within his character to help us ultimately identify with his desperate quest (though his “doggedness” is upped with some doses of physical brutality on the various men he questions). Ha Jung-woo, on the other hand, has a different kind of acting challenge in showing that classic, seemingly contradictory case of almost mild-mannered evil. Many heinous crime stories revolve around deranged people who are never suspected to be cruel and sadistic by their neighbors because of their normally quiet, introspective nature and Ha is subtly eerie and scary in balancing those two characteristics.

Although the revelations of the murders are grisly and disturbing, director Na tackles it with an artful tact devoid of the exploitative lingering usually found in these kinds of thrillers. Some may still find the film a tough watch because the movie rarely allows respite from its foreboding tone despite that there are some very good old-fashioned foot chases staged in between. But Na lays out his clues very clearly and ingeniously to allow us to follow Joong-ho return to his detective thinking and keep us riveted (albeit he does rely on a somewhat convenient plot coincidence at a climactic scene).

The recent wave of South Korean cinema has become renowned for the fascinating ways it bends the rules of traditional movie genres (and even cross-pollinates them). With the new wave that has included other accomplished crime thrillers like 2003’s masterful Memories of Murder, audiences in the country have also responded strongly to real movies that break the conventional genre mold and mount a brutally relevant social commentary (this movie is the most commercially successful film released in Korea so far this year and yet another Hollywood remake is reportedly in the works). And while so many routine thrillers as well as horror films contort and pain themselves to merely conceal the identity of its criminal perpetrator and/or nastily fixate on the slashing and gore, superior ones like The Chaser see through it and realize that it is the feeling of human frustration that audiences empathize with and build fear and apprehension from.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Dark Knight

“The Dark Knight”

USA. 2008. Directed by Christopher Nolan. Screenplay by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan. Story by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Based on characters created by Bob Kane. Starring: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curmen, Ron Dean, Cillian Murphy, Chin Han and Eric Roberts.

Rating: ★★★★

From the very opening minutes of Christopher Nolan's brilliant The Dark Knight, I quickly shed off the feeling that I was watching a “superhero” movie. If there is a movie that can truly be labeled as transcendent, it is this sequel that elevates itself to an epic crime story and a deep, heartbreaking tragedy. The genre’s emotional and philosophical capacities have been rewritten.

The 2005 Batman franchise reboot, Batman Begins chronicled the journey of Gotham City billionaire Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in the aftermath of his parents’ murders and his ultimate decision to channel his anguish over that loss into a determination to fight his city's crime and corruption. The Dark Knight puts that decision to the ultimate test with the introduction of The Joker, who is played by the late great Heath Ledger in one of the most nerve-wracking villain performances ever. What makes him more menacing is that he crafts diabolical situations that build into ethical tightropes that cause the Batman and others to perhaps compromise their very own core values to protect the city. The Joker is not clownish or jocose anymore but, as his entrance with the disappearing pencil trick firmly establishes, he is just plain scary.

Batman himself is already drawing massive scorn from Gotham’s citizens who believe he is nothing more than just another vigilante despite that he has secretly been working closely with good cop, Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to clean up the streets. The Joker is disgusted at how the mobsters fear their days may be numbered and, contrary to Bruce’s initial surmise that he must be looking for some quick reward, his only purpose is to inject pure criminal evil into the city and humiliate all those who uphold justice including Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Bruce’s high-tech guru and Wayne Corp’s board director, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes from the first film). As Bruce’s loyal butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) says to Bruce at one point, he is one of the “people who just wants to watch the world burn.”

Such a storyline could tempt the filmmakers to make the movie into an overt villain-oriented showcase, which was the crucial drawback of Jack Nicholson’s flashy version of the Joker in Tim Burton’s original Batman. The poetically written screenplay by director Christopher Nolan and his brother, Jonathan makes sure that Ledger’s rendition occupies just the appropriate amount of space in the overall terrific ensemble and canvas. Every performance is exceedingly good from Eckhart’s Dent finding his moral rectitude progressively scarred by tragedy to Gary Oldman’s Gordon who must deal with the increasing emotional toll of remaining the sanest and most upstanding cop in the city. All of this, of course, leads back to Bruce Wayne on whose face, as portrayed by Bale, we can see the psychic trauma this new breed of crime is causing as he finds himself capable of doing things he never thought he would do.

Unavoidably, it is hard to shake off the shadow of the late Ledger, especially considering the rumors that his extremely committed effort to immerse into his character led to the deep depression that may have indirectly claimed his life. While that may philosophically bring into question the potentially severe tolls of intense, method acting, from the frightening makeup to the affected accent indicative of the wound-inflicted smile on the Joker’s face, this remarkable accomplishment Ledger has left on the screen will no doubt catapult him up to the rank of other similar legends like James Dean and Bruce Lee who tragically never fully lived out their career highlight. If, come Oscar® season next year, he becomes the first posthumous acting nominee since Massimo Troisi in 1994's Il Postino or even the first posthumous acting winner since Peter Finch in 1976's Network, it will be far from a vote of compassion.

While the story is powerfully propelled into near biblical proportions under the reins of director Christopher Nolan, the film also responds to the slight common criticism of the first film in its action choreography. Like the first film, Nolan uses special effects sparingly and only when necessary and the shooting style of his action is much more confident in resorting less to quick-cutting and letting the camera remain mostly static to capture the rousing, old-fashioned stunts and fight scenes filmed in Chicago (with a brief, thrilling detour to Hong Kong). And if you think the trailers have already revealed the big money shots like the gigantic semi being flipped over or the Batpod, rest assured the complete ingenuity of their triggers is not given away and the extended sequences in full are as pulsating as any crime picture from the golden age of the 70s or Michael Mann's Heat (which Nolan cites as a major influence).

The Dark Knight is not only an improvement over the already great Batman Begins but a most ambitious marriage of allegorical artistry and pop entertainment (and, for once, the movie’s gargantuan hype and record smashing box office results are truly wholly deserved). It also represents the peak of this decade’s continuing renaissance of superhero movies that began with the classical entertainment of the Spider-Man movies. Now, with a superhero who resides in a very real, fallen, crime-ridden world like ours, The Dark Knight expands and deepens the Batman persona to even spiritual levels to explore how a troubled hero must learn to adapt to impossible sacrifices lest he quickly succumb to pride and villainy.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wanted

“Wanted”

USA. 2008. Directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Screenplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Story by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas. Based on the comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. Starring: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman, Thomas Kretschmann, Terrence Stamp, Konstantin Khabensky, Dato Bakhtdatze, Chris Pratt and Lorna Scott.

Rating: ★★★

Wanted is nothing more or less than a balls-to-the-walls action thrill ride. The laws of physics are not even acknowledged to exist in the first place and bullets curve and travel wacky trajectories from impossible distances. It is all in the breakneck energy and the ultra slick atmosphere and this film has no shortage of that.

Much like Neo in the Matrix movies, the protagonist of this film, Wesley Gibson (James McAvoy) is a guy in need of a jolt like that. He has a dead-end accountant office job and gets chewed up by his boss, Janice (Lorna Scott) everyday at work. Worse, he cannot even stand up against his girlfriend, Cathy (Kristen Hager) who is having an affair with his best friend, Barry (Chris Pratt).

Enter Angelina Jolie as Fox who taps on Wesley at a convenience store and informs him that the father he never knew about was one of the greatest assassins who ever lived (it’s not everyday that happens). Only seconds later, she is covering him from another assassin, Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) in an extended car chase in which she is somehow able to balance in the hood with only her legs inside and blast at her nemesis with a shotgun.

Wesley is cowering in disbelief in the midst of all this until he is finally brought to Sloan (Morgan Freeman), who heads a fraternity of assassins and informs him that he too has the gifts of a professional assassin. The fraternity apparently decides their victims by the Loom of Fate, which decides the few people who must be sacrificed to save a thousand. Wesley is dumbfounded by all this, of course, but ultimately decides joining the fraternity is better than the ennui of his everyday existence.

To further describe what happens would be to make a long list of the techniques of wild, brutal training that the hero is put through and the fantastical ways he finally goes about exacting the precise, curving trajectories of his bullets to hit his targets. And it goes without saying that the film never really stops to ask questions like how he manages to just eyeball the path of a bullet hit atop a speeding train. There are a few twists and turns in the screenplay by Michael Brandt, Derek Haas and Chris Morgan when a key character named Pewarsky (Terrence Stamp) enters the picture but the film is really more about building a slick sheen (though often with rather bloody images of bullets exiting out of people’s heads). The fact that motion capture animation is used so often in these shots probably gives further evidence that the technique really works better when it is combined with live-action to enhance it rather than existing by itself to confine the possibilities of animation to live-action as was the case in Beowulf.

The fancy disregard for logic and physics will not come as a surprise for those who have seen director Timur Bekmambetov’s previous Night Watch series. Hard as it may seem, the style and energy he brings here is much more controlled and focused than those Night Watch and Day Watch films, which I thought was purely indiscernible, mindless chaos. Some of that might have to do with how this time he is working off a comic book series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones and much of that has to do with how McAvoy (who has mostly been in more austere projects like last year’s Atonement and is now getting his big Hollywood break) and the other actors actually inhabit the action scenes with as much gravitas as it can possibly have rather than merely serve as Energizer bunnies that come back hungry for more. It is also refreshing to see that Bekmambetov makes a rare, R-rated action ride in a film market thought to be long run over by teenage summer audiences.

In many ways, Hollywood action films have been leading up to this complete blurring of fantasy and action reality where the rules of logic no longer apply. There will, of course, be the naysayers who state that realistic action always works better but a key reason we go to the movies is to see things that we would not normally see in reality. As good action films show, the enjoyment is not necessarily in the plausibility of the stunts but in the style and delivery. Wanted may not have much to do with the real world in physicality or emotional substance but makes up more than enough on its glossy veneer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Get Smart

“Get Smart”

USA. 2008. Directed by Peter Segal. Screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. Based on characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner, James Caan, Bill Murray, Patrick Warburton, Masi Oka, Nate Torrence, Ken Davitian, David S. Lee and Dalip Singh.

Rating: ★★

Strange how Get Smart collects such an ideal cast and misuses it. Also peculiar how the film tries to be an action comedy but never really manages to get the action and the comedy right at the same time. On the surface, from the trailers, the players all certainly seem primed and ready to capture the spirit of the 60s spy spoof TV show. It is just that they are sadly shackled by a lugubrious screenplay that simply looked at the summer calendar and forgot to fill it with actual funny jokes.

What a bummer because Steve Carell is just about the perfect choice to play Maxwell Smart, the bumbling analyst turned agent originally played by Don Adams and created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. He works for a top, elite U.S. secret agency called CONTROL where he deciphers cryptic information from the evil terrorist organization called KAOS. He, however, wants to rise above being just an analyst and become a field agent. The Chief (Alan Arkin) has doubts and believes Smart’s talents lie strictly with intelligence. Plans change though when The Chief learns that all his agents have been compromised and must hire Smart to become the new Agent 86 and save the day.

As fans of the TV show know, the comical appeal was seeing a bumbling guy who is a little too cock-sure to realize that he does not quite have the chops to be an agent like his knockout partner, Agent 99 (played originally by Barbara Feldon and here by Anne Hathaway), who occasionally has to bail him out. The miscalculation of the screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember is quickly losing that potential of seeing Smart survive almost purely by luck and turning Smart into a skilled agent practically overnight. Sure, there are a few initial bumbles along the way as in that largely seen trailer clip when Smart misses crashing into a window and says, “Missed it by that much” or when he inadvertently causes a curtain of beads to fall apart and somehow makes a crony trip over them later. But why hire Carell to carry the movie when his deadpan comedic talent is not fully utilized and the actor himself will be replaced by stuntmen and green screen to fall from dizzying heights or perform acrobatic moves?

The director, Peter Segal handles all the stunts and action sequences quite well from a technical standpoint, of course, and after making a few lighthearted, successful comedies like 50 First Dates and several inane ones like The Longest Yard and Tommy Boy, I guess this may be his calling card for making more summer action thrillers. But I am not sure that a summer thriller with much too prolonged “serious” action sequences is what Get Smart should be. Maybe the director and the writers guessed (probably correctly) that most of the audience don’t recall the original show but for those like me who have seen the show or any other Mel Brooks spoof, are we to be satisfied merely with just a handful of split-second sight gags tucked in here and there? Perhaps I should not have expected so much considering Segal is working from a screenplay from the writers of the Matthew McConnaughey and Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy bomb, Failure to Launch.

Also, as Segal’s previous lame comedies have shown, what he still sorely lacks is a sense of timing to actually make the slapstick violence on display funny, thus failing to fully graft the comedy into the action. A scene, for example, when The Chief gets clocked in the head by Smart with a fire extinguisher comes off as more excruciating than funny because it lingers more on the brutal physicality of the violence than on the latter’s actual blundering comical reaction. And a later joke in a dizzying fight atop an SUV in the climactic action sequence is rendered unfunny simply because it removes the element of surprise by needlessly flashing back to its setup and not trusting the audience will instantly get it when they see it.

The brightest spot is the choice of casting, particularly Alan Arkin as The Chief, who spells out his agency’s rivalry with the CIA in one humorous line when he claims that Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) jamming a stapler into a man’s forehead is CIA practice. Johnson himself is an inspired choice to play Agent 23 as the by-the-books operative who is maladjusted to office life and Hathaway shows a flash of depth when she explains how she became the beautiful agent she is. But every actor, including Terrence Stamp as KAOS’ head villain, Siegfried, seems to just get his or her one scene and then turn into yet another stock character, particularly Hathaway who is ultimately relegated to just another damsel in distress. And the less said about James Caan in a lazy, supremely dull take-off of George Bush as The President, the better (partly because that cheap gag with him in a children’s classroom tilts the terrorist plot into an unnecessary, distant echo of 9/11).

In the end, I guess the summer release date should have been a warning sign for this bombastic adaptation of Get Smart. A June release most often means the screen will be filled with a plethora of mindless clocks, bangs, booms and pows. Unfortunately, the mindless clocks, bangs, booms, and pows alone can never really generate comedy and that is not the treatment Get Smart and its comically talented cast deserves.