The Happening (2008) • USA • M. Night Shyamalan

Confession: I watched this movie and thought it was unrelentingly, embarrassingly bad. It looked pretty good, it had that Shyamalan style, but too much of the dialog felt bullied onto the characters. I couldn't believe how unnatural it sounded, how forced and amateurish it felt for the purpose of filling in plot. And it's a message flick—"we've abused the planet so don't be surprised if it fights back some day"—and message flicks, in my experience, are the worst offenders in the bad movie department because the message, and trying to make the point, often get in the way of making a good film.

Then I read a brief comment from a reviewer at the MRQE: "Shyamalan doesn't conform to the needs of modern movie goer zombies. It doesn't mean he sucks. It means you don't get it. At least someone still takes risks in the ART of cinema. It's not unintentionally hilarious. It's a blatantly comedic satire."

Whoa! That changes everything. Satire gives Shyamalan a free pass from ridiculous straight through to funny; except I'm not sure what he is satirizing. Himself? Message movies? Horror movies? Science? What? Doesn't satire involve an obvious subject in order for the satire to be got? I'm not going to hold the MRQE reviewer to his literal words because if The Happening is "blatantly comedic" I have lost my sense of humor completely. There is the part with the greenhouse guru—who pretty much solves the mystery of the Event by declaring that plants, because they can't run around and throw punches, develop neurotoxins to fight off threats to their existence—and his ironic enthusiasm for bringing hot dogs along on the getaway trip. That was funny. When he asks Mark Wahlberg and then Zooey Deschanel if they like hot dogs, they both respond negatively, but not so much as in "No, they give me the creeps", but more like "Not really, but more importantly your enthusiasm for them is giving me the willies."

Satire can also bring forgiveness to plot wonders and plot holes. One of the more uncomfortable moments in the film for me is when John Leguizamo decides to turn back and go into the dead zone to look for his wife. He is about to entrust his daughter's safety to Mark and Zooey but when Zooey reaches out to take his daughter's hand John barks at her: "Don't take my daughter's hand unless you mean it." On paper the line is in character, perhaps, but in performance it's way out of line. Are we supposed to laugh at the pain in Zooey's eyes as she reacts to this idiotic ungratefulness? I dunno. I don't get it. Shyamalan could very well be forging a new path, creating his own rules for satire, or deconstructing it and tossing aside certain aspects, like humor, for the sake of his art.

There's the famous bit of dialog from the movie trailer where Wahlberg confronts the getaway train conductor (or whatever he is) about why they can't get back on the train and keep going. The conductor says, "We've lost contact." Wahlberg asks, "With who?" and the conductor replies "Everyone." That seems pretty final until a few scenes later where a woman is talking on her cell phone to her daughter who's back in the infected zone. Mark walks up like Jack from the TV show Lost and offers instructions to pass along to the daughter of the hysterical woman who puts the call on speaker-phone so we can all hear her daughter die. Cut. There's the scene where someone whips out an iPhone and plays a high quality video that was just sent to them from someone in the infected zone. I'm not going to tell what the video shows, suffice to say it's blatantly comedic. As is the notion of running away from the wind but I'm not bringing that up.

I have an extremely high tolerance for the gravity of plot as it weighs on a story. I'm not deducting points for any failure to bear that burden; I'm deducting points because so many of the scenes are written badly. And the story is stupid. Yes, playing the satire card shines a new light on everything but I'm not sure it makes anything more attractive. I'm reminded of a Seinfeld episode where an elderly couple are admiring a giant portrait of Kramer and the guy says something to the effect of "It's obscene. I can't turn away." Honestly, that's how I feel about The Happening. It's so bad it has to be brilliant. But blatantly comedic? I'm not sure. Your mileage may vary.


Unholy Women (Kowai onna) (2006) • Japan

The only reason I picked this one up is because I'm stalking the four women who starred in the fabulous Japanese independent film Strawberry Shortcakes and one of those women is in this film. She's my least favorite of the four but it's probably not her fault, more likely it's due to her character in that film.

Unholy Women is three unconnected thirty minute shorter films packed together to make a longer ninety minute film. My target stars in the first of the three called "Rattle Rattle". She's hanging out with some guy who's married and that's all we need to know in order to proceed to the rest of the film where my heroine runs around screaming, all frightened and sweaty, trying to avoid the clutches of a J-Horror-Goth-Chick—which is another reason I picked this one up. I love the JHGC.

Usually the JHGC is depicted as a ghostly white, youngsterish, somewhat sympathetic, semi-sensuous spirit having a bad hair day. The one in this film is ugly with a capital F, and wears red. I think she is supposed to be more real than her genre sisters but she does have the signature slow, bone rattling shuffle that allows for lots of responsive screaming time. It's hard to say what "Rattle Rattle" is about because I don't remember it having much of a story beyond the running around and the infidelity setup, but I think it's pretty good because of several JHGC moments. I don't remember how it ends.

The second film is called "Steel" and it's pretty funny because it tries to be creepy but doesn't know which way to go. It stars a girl who is a burlap sac from the waist up and likes to sew. Her father pumps (literally, with a pump) gallons of what appears to be liposuction remains through a tube into her sac part and lures young men into dating her by offering them a job and showing them a picture of some hot babe. One guy, with the requisite diversity training I guess, dates her and sees beyond, through, around—I don't know—the burlap sac part and tries to have sex with her. He crawls between her legs in an enlightened post-feminism foreplay maneuver to get under her sac and never comes out. Surprise, surprise.

The third film is called "Sleep My Child", and it's about a cute young boy whose world is mysterious and confusing, has some dead people floating around behind him, a freaky grandmother, and an abusive mother with an overly kind public comportment, all of which is exacerbated by the fact that his mom always seems to be waving goodbye to him when she really means 'come here'. That confused me too.

All in all Unholy Women has some reasonably creepy atmosphere without a lot of plot to get in the way. Look for it in the cheap bin or on late night cable.


Lost In Beijing (Ping guo) (2007) • China

Lost In Beijing PosterChina's weird. Didn't we just learn from the Olympic Committee that there's billions of people living there? I think we did. Why then is this one of only a few films I can think of, off the top of my head, coming from there that has any semblance of lived-life-now? Lived life now under peculiar circumstances, sure, because it is a movie after all, but still. Everything else seems to be costumed drama kung fu palace historical Mao-sanctioned fantasy crap. I'm talking mainland China here. Taiwan and Hong Kong don't count. Ang Lee doesn't count. All the Chinese filmmakers making films in other parts of the world, and getting them financed and released in other parts of the world, don't count—and there's the rub.

Lost in Beijing is banned in China and its filmmakers are banned for two years from making films in China. What kind of nonsensical time-out is that? I mean no disrespect to the Chinese, I just want more of them to fall through the cracks and make films like Lost in Beijing—which is nothing like Farewell My Hero's Kingdom of Flying Yellow Flowers.

Fan Bingbing, known in the west as Bingbing Fan, stars in this film as Liu Ping Guo (Ping Guo, the Chinese title, translates literally as "Apple"), a foot massage girl who is raped by her boss (played out-of-this-worldly great by Tony Leung Ka Fai who's been in enough movies that every Chinese citizen could pick a film of his to see without any two people seeing the same film—western audiences may know him as the guy who has sex with Marguerite Duras in The Lover), and the rape is witnessed by her husband, a window washer who just happens to be hanging from a scaffolding washing the windows of the room at the massage parlor where the rape takes place. Foot massage is big business in China so I guess that's why this massage parlor is some kind of skyscraper that needs these scaffolded window washers, but I digress. The husband sees this as an opportunity to milk a little money from the well to do parlor owner. Lost in Beijing turns a critical eye toward the new moneyed urban class set against the rural, immigrant-in-their-own-country, if you will, working class.

Bingbing's husband confronts Tony's wife with the rape news and demands money for his pain and suffering, yes, you read that right, his pain and suffering. Tony's wife laughs at him and suggests a better revenge would be for him to have sex with her, and then in a moment of barely noticed brilliance while she's riding him cowgirl puts sunglasses on him so she can't see him looking at her.

It turns out Bingbing is pregnant and things get a little more complicated. If you complain when a film uses overly convenient plot devices to move forward you probably won't like this film as much as I do. I'm more concerned with the caliber of the characters. All four of the main performances in Lost in Beijing are magnificent. (Tony's relationship with, and handling of, his over sized wallet/day-planner is hilarious, as is his response of randomly checking the top of his head for bald spots when he's busted for trying to use a mirror to peek at Bingbing in the shower.) The direction is good and the camerawork creative, sometimes a little too creative to the point where I got dizzy a couple times so I'm deducting a point for that. Beijing is the backdrop here, captured in all its beautiful gray and bustling self.


Next Door (Naboer) (2005) • Denmark • Norway

Next Door (Naboer) Movie PosterThis is right up there with 's Funny Games in the twisted creepy department. There's a surreal normalcy that pervades the proceedings even when they get completely bent. Something about the story, though, after it is fully revealed might leave you a little underwhelmed. You've seen it before and you'll see it again, but so what?

This film is anything but predictable as you're being dragged through it. I'll wager an episode of Dallas that it won't be until after the final denouement that you'll feel like you knew where things had any possibility of going. If the ending does disappoint it's because the entirety of everything that preceded it has you expecting more. Good films do that. Good films are like roller coasters: you can know where they start and where they end, and many of them are alike but that doesn't prevent you from jumping on and enjoying a ride. Naboer is a well put together film with greasy, seductive characters, a thoughtfully subtle soundtrack, and an eerie set. The girls' apartment, which grows throughout the film mirroring the expanding recesses of their mind fuck, is a character of its own.

By now, if you've heard of this film you've heard about the sex scene (I guess you'd call it a sex scene) where a man and woman bloody one another by sprinkling their lustful moves with punches to the face. If you haven't, now you have.

Part of the intrigue of watching "foreign" films comes from the fact that they usually employ foreign actors. Duh. The visual cues to their personality makeup are different. This guy, Kristoffer Joner who plays the seeming innocent, his face, his body language, they're confused yet curious dread personified. The girls, they're some kind of sleazy, sexy, creepy crawly mash-up teetering between repulsive and titillating. This might be a genre piece with a story arc you've seen before but I'll bet you've never seen it played like these players play it.


La Capture (2007) • France

La Capture (2007) Movie PosterThis semi-arty little semi-revenge flick from France features a refreshing performance from Catherine de Léan as Rose, a young woman who wants more than payback for the abuse she witnessed and suffered as a child at the hands of her father. She wants her father to understand that his legacy, and the continued abuse of her mother and younger brother, is wrong. So with the help of a couple friends she captures him, gives him a great big grown-up time out and ties him to a radiator in an empty rehearsal studio and attempts to enlighten him.

La Capture also features some nicely nuanced direction from veteran French actress Carole Laure who also wrote the screenplay. Employing not so much a vignette technique as a chaptered one, scenes fade in and fade out the way someone might illustrate a process using bullet points. Sometimes details are left out or unresolved but that only serves to underscore their unimportance in the telling of this story. For example, a scene of Rose doing a poetic reading to her father of man as social animal philosophy is followed a little later by a scene where several animals populate the rehearsal studio and do nothing more than look upon this man tied to a chair. It's a powerful and interesting scene without explanation of how the animals may have come or gone, but it's not that far-fetched a scenario given the portrait Laure has painted of Rose as a seemingly well-adapted, well-liked, sexually happy and satisfied young woman whose life is grounded in practicing that new-age acting technique where people pretend to be animals.

Catherine de Léan has a tough, natural beauty well suited, for the most part, to the role of skirt and boot wearing Rose. Part of the story arc involves changes to her character that occur after she becomes the one in power exerting control. I wasn't as convinced by her portrayal of the gun wielding crazy sister who rescues her brother from drug dealers, but that may be due to the overall inferior telling of that part of the story. Her brother hasn't fared as well in life, hasn't yet "gotten away" and serves as a more typical case juxtaposition to Rose. Director Laure uses a few provocative, though not too explicit sex scenes showing Rose as more atypical from many victims of abuse. Sexually fulfilled is a necessary ingredient in a happy life, right? There's only an implicit case made for the power of new age consciousness in Rose's well adjusted living.

La Capture does a better job showing us than telling us, but that's not a criticism. This is an engaging film to watch and I think the director set out to make it that way and succeeded. I was in the mood for French and La Capture delivered a well crafted, smartly done package. Nice to see Pascale Bussières as la mère (the mother). It's not a big role, and her character is medicated and abused to the point of numbness—a woman who "floats, barely there ... invisible by choice", but just having her around adds to the film's rep.

And the ending is magnificent!


Welcome to the Quiet Room (Quiet room ni yôkoso) (2007) • Japan

Welcome to the Quiet Room (Quiet room ni yôkoso)(2007) Movie Poster2007 marked the return to the big screen of ex-model, ex-singer, no longer ex-actress, drop dead gorgeous Yuki Uchida. Her first film in almost 10 years, Glory to the Filmmaker! was written and directed by Takeshi Kitano's (as Beat Takeshi), and in her next film, Welcome to the Quiet Room, her ex-husband is played by Shinya Tsukamoto. Seems like an odd pair for a photobook girl to be jamming with.

Having only this film to go on I can't really give her high marks as a thespian, but ... good lord, the woman's got Ivory Soap charm and the beauty to back it up. Welcome to the Quiet Room is not a good film ... but you can have a little fun with it. I believe Yuki Uchida is in every single scene. Problem is, she shares them with some obnoxious others. It's as if all the direction they got was "get loud and act stupid. You're in a film about a nuthouse." Uchida also plays the first third of the film with splashes of vomit in her hair and smeared on her face. Subtle, but distracting. And not to sound superficial or anything but I hope this woman has hair insurance. It's too bad that when she's styled up in million-dollar-messy she's the sweetest, sexiest looking thing on two legs—except for the puke accouterments. One of her inmate pals combs the stale upchuck from her hair and adds a couple thin braids off to each side causing her to lose a lot of sex appeal. I've never ogled hair so much.

Yûko Nakamura, from the fabulous film Strawberry Shortcakes, has a small role as the reasonable roommate. She's complicated though. Yû Aoi practically steals the show in a supporting role as a sexy bulimic guru of sorts—the one who has "figured out the system." Ryô is scary beautiful good as the head ward nurse and nemesis to all. And just so we have enough for basketball, Mai Takahashi rounds out the dream team of Japanese beauty in a small role as a lifer and musical genius with an eating disorder who's retreated into childlike behavior. Beyond that, the "get loud and act stupid" crowd gets too much screen time. If you're not put off by folks who confuse obnoxious with funny, give this one a visit. If you're looking to enhance your appreciation of fine Asian cinema you should wait a while for a Yuki Uchida fix. I have a feeling this woman is about to do something good.

Welcome to the Quiet Room is plagued with confused writing and bad direction. ***Here comes a spoiler*** It seems odd that such a lightweight film would end so, so ... unfriendly-ly. When Uchida is about to be released, all her "friends" who helped her find her true self again, through song and dance therapy, sign a big bon voyage card for her. Yû Aoi, her mysterious mentor, is the last to sign because plot recently had her get punched in the face by Uchida, and so we wait with baited breath to see if she is going to sign it or not. She does, and writes "Destroy this in one hour or die", presumably meaning "Once you're out of here destroy all connections to the place or you'll be Welcome to the Hotel California." When Uchida leaves she promptly deposits the card, and a beautiful gift she also received, in the trash can. She's still got contact info for her recently released reasonable roommate, played by Yûko Nakamura from the fabulous film Strawberry Shortcakes, the woman who lent her a brush and gave her chocolate and good advice. Maybe Yûko Nakamura dies or is on her way back in (which would be a great big "I told you so" from Yû Aoi), but the glee with which this last attachment is discarded seems selfish and mean.


The Chair (2007) • USA

Horror films are a gamble but it's easy to tell fairly quickly when it's time to hold 'em and when it's time to fold 'em. The direction, cinematography, and character introductions reveal promptly where the film is aiming at on the stupid scale and how serious of an effort it's going to be. The Chair was shot on video but looks remarkably good to my eyes and Brett Sullivan's direction is smartly done—not so much in the way he captures the scenes but for the way he gets to them—the camera peers around a corner, or from across the room, from inside a closet, or it nestles itself on the ceiling and observes from there. It's not rocket science to make those choices for a film about a haunted house, but Sullivan's execution is inspired.

The Chair begins with a few black & white moments of spooky snippets and background data on mesmerism. Then we're brought to the present in the presence of a blond pony-tail. Uh-oh ... a quick shot of pony-tail girl from the attic of the house she's about to move into, letting us know we're not alone, and she's off to the bathtub to relax and pleasure herself. Umm ...

Alanna Chisholm plays the pony-tail and looks like she could be Nicole Sullivan's twin sister. It's her performance that makes this film a winner. Once she's out of the tub and on to developing her character it's refreshing to see she's not playing it anywhere near bimbo. She's got big expressive eyes and a quirky yet confident mixed-uppedness about her that's appealing, inviting both fear and empathy. We know she's medicated and has a history of breakdowns, which she uses to her advantage. Since she is operating under suspicion of not having both oars in the water, she is unpredictable—but never hysterical. She never imagines anything; it's all really happening. It's just up to her grad school self to find the paradigm it all fits into. When her sister and the cleavage she rode in on arrive to act as the reasonable foil, Chisholm begins playing with a cold determination that works as a transition to the possessed by the never quite dead 100 year old spirit of a killer that invades her body character.

Said spirit belongs to a man who was mesmerized right at the moment of death—while sitting in a spooky chair in the very house Chisholm now inhabits—and then buried alive causing him to remain in a state of horrifying limbo for a hundred years—a fate the mesmerist feels is worse than death for the man who killed his daughter, or something like that ... so there's some plot going on behind Chisholm's performance.

Plot is a difficult thing and even if we give it only a 3.8 on a scale of 10 it could still win a batting title. What interests me more are the nuances and subtle humor Sullivan and Chisholm bring to the proceedings, which also grant the film membership in the much vaunted Horror version2 category.

When it's time to explore the dark and secret room they discover in the house (plot), Chisholm and her sister's cleavage use one of those flashlights you have to wind up to get any light from. It's done without fanfare, making it quite funny. The big race-against-time action sequence toward the end of the film seems to fizzle out empty and unproductive, deliberately, making it funny and absurd. My favorite bits of the film, however, are when Chisholm settles down to research and does a slow roll of her neck, cracking it. Makes creepy noises.


The Harmonium in My Memory (Nae maeumui punggeum) aka Organ of My Heart (1999) • South Korea

I love Do-yeon Jeon and what I love about her is that she always appears completely genuine in performance. In this film, however, her every move is riddled with acting. It's hardly her fault as she is given the mighty task of portraying a fifth-grade girl. What is that? Ten years old? Eleven? Her character could be seventeen for all I know, given the poverty and functional illiteracy of her community, but she's still a fifth-grader. All the self-conscious insecurities and pouting of a girl that age—not to mention a girl that age whose day to day life is overwhelmed by a mad crush on her new twenty-one year old school teacher—all the mannerisms are forced. But enough about that. No use crying over spilled milk, or, thank god in this case, unrequited love.

The Harmonium in My Memory is a sweet little nostalgia film set in rural South Korea sometime after the war around 1960, give or take, centering on the teachers and students at a community school. Many of the students can't afford basic school supplies, are often rowdy in class and prove to be quite a handful for the rookie teacher played wonderfully by Byung-hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life; Joint Security Area). It's the youthful idealism of Lee's character who wants to treat the students with respect and tolerance set against the older teachers' old-school values of beating and discipline that serves as the film's basic theme. The other likeable character in the film, played by Mi-yeon Lee, is another young teacher who takes her students outside to make noise and run off steam, much to the chagrin of her elders. She's Lee's love interest, and she and he share a passion for music, providing for many a musical moment in The Harmonium in My Memory. "Don't Break The Heart That Loves You", sung by Connie Francis, captures the torchy milieu of these characters perfectly—perhaps a little too easily.

The Harmonium in My Memory isn't a bad film, but expectations are extremely high for Do-yeon Jeon, and she disappoints; all the characters in the film are cliché; the use of dramatic music seems like a shortcut to emotions the characters aren't capable of making us feel; and the ending is manipulative, tacked on to make us get happy about a film that left us empty.

And what's the deal with kids bringing stool samples to class?


Boarding Gate (2007) • France • Olivier Assayas

If it weren't for the smoldering performance of Asia Argento, and I'm not talking about the parts where you get to see her tattoos, I would admit defeat and zero this one out. I don't know why the film is called Boarding Gate; the plot is thin and confusing; Michael Madsen can whisper and grunt all he wants and nobody is going to mistake it for good dramatic acting; the film seems to meander along in prologue mode for about forty-five minutes and then, BANG! somebody dies with great surprise; despite the fact that the location moves to a new country, the film doesn't seem to go anywhere; and not understanding the story won't prevent me from saying with confidence that the ending is lame.

Ms. Argento doesn't need to act. She lives the role of Sandra, relying on her naturally scary-cool charisma and complex heart to suck us in to her character—the script isn't going to do it. She's transcendentally tough and vulnerable at the same time. From one moment to the next she is spitting razor sharp barbs and then crying but never weeping, never weak. The incomplete script works to her advantage here. It's not clear why she is attracted so deeply to either of her love interests with the net result that she appears twisted, courting danger and abuse to feel alive.

Contrary to what the movie posters might lead one to believe, Argento doesn't parade around the entire film in her underwear. There's one quick shot of her being thrown to a bed by her lover where upon she delivers the most authentic and erotic response I've seen in a movie, and there's an extended scene in Madsen's apartment where she's in and out of her dress a couple times. The latter is the best scene in the film, not for its limited display of flesh but for the warped cruelty in their battle of wits—mirrored in stop/start kinky sex they never manage to get very far along with for one reason or another.

Boarding Gate is billed as a thriller and, given its writer/director's resumé, is supposedly about how selfishly cruel and inhuman the world of contemporary multi-national capitalists can be. Blah blah blah. Who's arguing that point? What emerges from the film is a portrait of a modern day neo-femme-fatale who doesn't dress nice or comb her hair trying to juggle a couple of corporate wackbirds (I stole that word from somebody) to her meager advantage and gets a lesson in betrayal along the way. The action parts of the film, the parts where people run around and shoot guns and stuff, aren't interesting at all. The thriller parts, the parts where mystery and suspense are supposed to propel the film, aren't articulated very well. It's the parts where the players settle down to talking smack on one another to gain psychological advantage that are good. If you are a fan of Asia Argento and like your eroticism dark and implied, or are interested in finding out what Argento is capable of as an actress, then check out Boarding Gate. If you are looking for a good thriller, or a film with a little action and good production values, look somewhere else.


Shine a Light (2008) • USA • Martin Scorsese

The Good: the film is staged, shot, lit and (visually) edited extremely well; Mick Jagger has emerged from his tunnel of self-parody and carries the film on his energetic old man shoulders, his voice as strong and as accurate as ever, his lithe little body defying all the rules that apply to most sixty-plus year old bodies; they don't play any of the crap music they've written in the past few decades, sticking to oldies and standards.

The Bad: the Rolling Stones suck as a rock and roll band now, a guitar driven rock and roll band, that is; Keith Richards is mesmerizing in a "What is that thing?" kind of way, but as a guitar player, nope. The unfriendly way to put it would be to say he's lost his chops or has forgotten how to play all the riffs that made him one of the greatest rock songwriters of all time. The friendly way to put it would be to say he doesn't know the difference between what he feels and what he plays—all the riffs and rhythms circulate through his bloodstream perfectly but the technology doesn't exist to send them through the sound reproduction system so all we get is what pulses to his finger tips—all we hear is his accompaniment to his inner self. His approximations to the riffs of "Tumblin' Dice" and "Brown Sugar" are almost forgivable but his butchering of "Start Me Up" is not.

Ronnie Wood. He may be a fine guitar player but he doesn't play well with others. It's as if he doesn't listen to, or hear, what other members of the band are doing. A couple of the film's highlights are the two songs Keith sings featuring Ronnie as the sole guitarist. He plays great acoustic (slide) guitar on "You Got the Silver" and rocks well on "Connection." Throw him into the mix and he plays junk. As soon as you want to excuse either Keith or Ronnie because they are old, Buddy Guy, seventy-plus years old, comes on stage and makes clear what it sounds like when the first thing a good guitar player does is listen to what other people in the band are doing.

The Beautiful: Mick singing "As Tears Go By" accompanied by Keith on 12-string acoustic. Perfect.

The Bizarre: with the caveat that I watched and listened to this film on a standard television set so I don't know what the Dolby 5.1 sounds like, the audio mixing practice of boosting the sound level of the performer in the visual edit, down to single notes sometimes, sounds ridiculous. Luckily, Mick was the visual focus of most of the film, his vocals out front and clear.

The Disappointment: "Lovin' Cup" sans piano. Terrible.

The best parts of the film, and by that I mean the best songs in the film, are the minimal, simpler ones. It's too bad there aren't enough of them. Mick Jagger can channel himself channeling himself all night long, he can be double-plus-good, but he doesn't have a band behind him any more. By showcasing the band's relationship to its music as product delivered to an audience, an audience of hand-picked, paid extras that also includes Bill and Hilary Clinton, Scorsese doesn't shine a light or bring any new insight to the Rolling Stones in this film.


Closed Note (2007) • Japan

OMG! And I mean that. What a wonderful weeper. A tad trite with some minor manipulations and big blunders, but it's well played and when crying time came I was a willing participant. This film contains a couple firsts for me: a pen fetish as plot device, (our heroine works in a pen store where they have test units "not ready" for sale); and a mandolin recital that reaches adrenaline rushing heights, (she also plays the mandolin). The performance of the man conducting the mandolin orchestra is worth the price of admission alone.

Closed Note is beautifully shot and set. It's not unusual for a movie to depict locations that promote envy in its viewers, but the lush, lush greenery of this film, embracing beautifully cut old and new Japanese architecture and landscape patterns, at times seeming to swallow them up, instills hope and a peaceful, serene mood without seeming fantastic. The second floor apartment where the girls in our film live, and lived, is reached by descending a large stone staircase which ends at the front door of the building. It's not clear how one reaches the apartment from that front door, but no matter. When loved ones leave the building, they ascend the stairs and arrive at the same level as the window to the apartment making them seem far away and close at the same time; cries of love and farewell are given increased dramatic score.

Hope and love and dreams. Heartbreak and ambition. They're all here, given voice by the school teacher whose diary our mandolin playing pen store clerk reads. It's a little tough at times to attach yourself to the way these matters of the heart are gleaned from interactions with her 4th grade students, but Yuko Takeuchi, as the school teacher, performs with such heart-tapping sincerity (you'll see), I played along willingly. There's a little girl who can no longer attend class because she doesn't feel she has the strength in her heart to live up to the teacher's plea to all be "children of the sun" and "live like a family" which she illustrates by example of someone farting in class. "Not that I'm advocating casual farting in class, but it doesn't matter who farted." Oops. Take a deep breathe. Move on.

Although I think she could use a new hair stylist, Erika Sawajiri, as the diary reader, is as pretty and engaging as an angel; her performance is unimpeachable except for a couple boo-boos during the mandolin recital. Some of her facial expressions made me forget I was watching a movie and was instead reminiscing with videotapes of my own true love.

Yusuke Iseya as the emotionally unavailable, or emotionally naive love object and artist is also good. When he comes into the pen store to try out pens, he waves them around, mumbles pen-love adjectives, scribbles a bit, and returns them to the clerk without looking at her. It's obvious he means business.

Speaking of obvious, when the plot finally revealed itself completely I smacked my head and cried "Doh!" But the beauty of a good film with good performances, cinematography, and direction (performances, mostly) is staying inside the characters, not getting outside of them and thinking about things they are not thinking about. When the curtain is pulled back, we see what they see, as they see it, when they see it. Despite a few over-the-top moments and a couple inexplicable plot holes, Closed Note kept me engaged, inside its characters until the final page before the tacked on epilogue I could have done without because it kind of ruined the film. But no matter.


The Chaser (Chugyeogja) (2008) • South Korea

This film is so Korean. The way it is shot and the way the story is told don't conform to the way many Americans think genre clues should be presented and adhered to. At it's heart, The Chaser is a crime drama about a serial killer and the guy who's chasing him, but it evolves from many different angles. It's a comedy of errors in the way the police and politicians are portrayed; a melodrama with its inclusion of the precocious little girl who belongs to the woman serving as the film's primary "chase" and investigative point; a psychological thriller in the way the serial killer messes with the minds of the police; a mildly gory film in the way the bad guy uses a hammer and chisel; a bit of a tragedy in the way it ends. The only thing missing from this film is romance. Thank god they didn't make one of the missing girls a love interest of the pimp—he's only after the money they owe him. That's where the brilliance of the chase begins.

There's a fight scene early on where our protagonist, an ex-detective gone bad turned pimp, is beating the crap out of some guy he thinks has kidnapped and sold some of his girls. A long uphill foot chase precedes the brawl so both combatants are extremely winded when the fighting begins—punches don't land and there's a girly incompetence to the whole thing, which is to say, it's realistic. After finally landing a few punches that subdue his opponent momentarily, the pimp gets up and starts kicking him in disgust. He's very angry, still a bit winded and out of control. One of his kicks only grazes its target causing him to lose his balance and fall on his butt, and because of momentum he begins to roll and his feet fly up in the air. It seems funny, but it's not. You have to sneak in your chuckle as he gets up and continues kicking the guy. When he's finally pummeled his adversary into unconsciousness, he uses his foot to roll him onto his side so he can get to the wallet in his back pocket and ID him. He attempts to sit on him, not to keep him down, but because he's bone tired from all the fighting. He doesn't land squarely which causes the bad guy to shift a bit, and consequently he lands on his butt again. It seems funny but it's not.

After the fight scene both men are brought to the police station for questioning. Because the pimp is an ex-detective with a reputation, the cops initially sympathize with the other guy, thinking the pimp over-reacted—not to mention the causal fender-bender that brought the two men together in the first place. The pimp doesn't know that the other guy just took a hammer and chisel to the head of the girl he is trying to get back, he thinks she's just freshly been sold, making his sense of urgency misplaced, where it remains throughout most of the film. It's kind of awkward for the police to find much urgency in one pimp accusing another of stealing one of his girls. The bad guy insists he didn't sell the girl and then mumbles under his breathe "I killed her", and confesses in great detail how he killed her and several other girls. The pimp screams at the cops, "Can't you see he's just pretending to be crazy now?"

And so it goes. We know there's been killing going on and we know who's been doing it from very early on in the film but it manages to remain suspenseful throughout. The Chaser is a gripping thriller from the beginning until a few minutes from the end. The two main characters are portrayed with impeccable nuance. It's Yun-seok Kim's performance as the bewildered pimp that takes this film to great heights. There are so many things that don't go the way he wants them to, like people hanging up on him when he's talking to them on the phone, a little girl who startles him and asks too many smart questions, the cops can't do anything right; and every time, his subdued response of confused disbelief made me laugh. He brings a Kang-ho Song-ish melancholy humor to the film, (I can't think of an American actor to compare him to), while Jung-woo Ha as the impotent serial killer is so normal and unmoved it's creepy.

There are a handful of groan out loud plot moves in The Chaser, but so what. There are also more than a handful of plot moves this film doesn't do, moves that most people will be guessing it will do, that it more than makes up for it. This is a film I know I'll watch again just for the performance of it. The plot won't matter. It's that good.


Beautiful (Arumdabda) (2008) • South Korea

I am a Kim Ki-duk fan. This film is based on an original story and co-produced by Kim. I'm not psychic but I'm pretty sure that when Kim was shooting Shi gan (Time), a film about a woman who gets extensive plastic surgery in order to become beautiful, he thought to himself: hmmm, how about a film where a beautiful woman is so bothered by her good looks she tries to make herself ugly. Gosh I'm clever. Let's do it. But he gave it up to somebody else to write the screenplay and direct it.

The film begins with scene after annoying scene of a woman being disrespected because she is beautiful. That's not fun to watch. Little girls want her autograph, hair stylists want to do her hair for free, and of course every man in Korea acts like a complete tool. She is raped and the scene in the police station afterward is about as repugnant as one could imagine in a plot like this. One cop says things to her like "I can see where the rapist is coming from, with a body like that who wouldn't want to score it." Another cop, a young patrolman, treats her with respect and tries to help her. His intentions are good so he'll keep an eye on her and be ready at a moment's notice to rescue her from whatever pops up.

He stalks her in scene after annoying scene as she stuffs her face unattractively with junk food trying to make herself fat. She eats too much and throws up and ends up in the hospital. Then she tries to starve herself into looking gaunt. When she passes out in the park, the young patrolman runs out from behind a tree with a plate of dumplings. "This time it's going to cost you" he says. She gets up from the puddle of puke she's been working on and gives him the evil eye. "Only kidding", he says. Ha ha ha. Then she puts on makeup to look like a "bar girl." These are the steps on the ladder of despair she climbs.

I kept waiting for some signature Kim Ki-duk extreme move to happen, like she takes a blowtorch to her face or something. Of course, the nice young patrolman turns out to be suspect. He buys a coffee pot just like the one he saw in her apartment, and you know what that means. The rapist starts appearing everywhere she goes (in a very ineffectual male J-Horror-Goth-Chick sort of way) and it drives her crazy. But not crazy enough to do something really Kim Ki-duky. Nah. She kills, she dies, and they continue to disrespect her. I think. I dunno, they turned out the lights.

Sorry Kim Ki-duk fans, this is a stupid, implausibly written and acted, big zero. Su-yeon Cha is pretty but she couldn't bring any creditability to such an empty script.