Category Archives: ★★½

House of Hummingbird (2018, Kim Bora)

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is an average Seoul eighth grader circa 1994, which would be fine if being average weren’t a one-way ticket to nowhere. Park’s the youngest of three children; while presumably eldest sister Park Soo-yeon has already screwed up and is going to a crappy school across the bridge, son Son Sang-yeon is doing great. Studies hard, works hard; sure, he regularly beats the crap out of Park, but it’s actually just one of the things making her average. At least Son doesn’t hit her in the face—Park’s best friend, Park Seo-yoon, gets hit in the face and has to hide it.

The only thing Park’s got going for her at the start of the film is boyfriend Jung Yoon-seo. Except working class Park isn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. She’s not supposed to karaoke either. She also smokes. Her classmates think she’s a troublemaker and her parents—well, mom Lee Seung-yeon is worried about it. Dad Jung In-gi has long since decided all the hopes and dreams are on Son. Though we find out in the first act, when mom’s drunken brother Hyung Young-seon shows up and establishes she had the smarts as a kid and Hyung screwed it up for both of them as it turned out.

This visit from Hyung is one of the inciting actions. It kicks off the sibling comparison subplot—theme, theme seems more appropriate—while Park goes through her routines until something else interesting happens. She gets a new Chinese teacher. Instead of a boring straight-edge guy, it’s cigarette smoking—out the stairwell window no less—Kim Sae-byuk. Thanks to some drama in Park’s friendship with Park Seo-yoon, she unexpectedly has the opportunity to bond with follow flounderer Kim. Of course, Kim’s at least ten years older—or more, she’s on an extension of an already extended break from university—and she’s had some time to think about how damaging reality can be on eighth grade girls.

Except reality also doesn’t let Kim intervene. There’s this frangible quality to Kim and Park’s relationship and their scenes are probably the film’s best in terms of character development. The limited character development is generally fine—Park’s like fourteen, right? It’s a character study in how it’s studying how her character develops.

Because it’s a big year for Park. Six major events. Seven if you could a first kiss. One of them is national news and presumably the point of the precise 1994 setting. No spoilers but… turns out House is going to have deus ex machinas to its deus ex machinas. Kim’s script stays fairly loose given how much it’s got to lead the narrative–House’s lyricism is in Kim’s direction and maybe what the script skips, not the script itself. The story—in an epical sense—is anticlimactic; thanks to Kim’s direction, the film instead gets to be passively climatic. Or at least significantly cumulative.

Park’s performance is good. Very strong performance. Not… singular. You keep waiting for Kim to throw something at her she obviously can’t handle. There’s something askew about the narrative distance, just a bit, and it ends up hurting more than helping. Because all it helps with is some narrative shortcuts—Kim maintains the same narrative distance throughout, even when it means dropping entire plot lines in addition to an indifference to the passage of time. They’re things you can cover with some nice direction and Kim indeed makes it up with nice direction. Kang Guk-hyun’s photography is good, Zoe Sua Cho’s editing is good.

Matija Strnisa’s music is fine. It never really sweeps when it needs to sweep. Sound is really important in the film only there’s no precision in the score… it always feels vaguely like stock music. Good stock music. But stock music.

Most of House of Hummingbird is really good. Until Kim gets to the third act and panics. It’s not one of those things where the deus ex machina is necessarily bad—or even the second one—but the work from the first to the second isn’t there. Kim employs this combination of a twist and a bait and switch; it doesn’t seem craven but it does seem cravenly pragmatic. The film’s pace slows down in the second act then speeds up so much in the third—when calling a scene a scene (versus, say, a snapshot) is a stretch—it feels like they needed another fifteen minutes.

Lots of House of Hummingbird is excellent and the way it showcases Park’s performance is at times just the right coming-of-age picture exquisite. But the finish is a mess of a mess of a mess of a mess.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Bora; director of photography, Kang Guk-hyun; edited by Zoe Sua Cho; music by Matija Strnisa; production designer, Kim Geun-a; costume designer, Yang Hee-hwa; produced by Zoe Sua Cho and Kim Bora; released by At9 Film.

Starring Park Ji-hu (Eun-hee), Kim Sae-byeok (Young-ji), Jeong In-gi (Eun-hee’s father), Lee Seung-yun (Eun-hee’s mother), Park Soo-yeon (Soo-hee), Son Sang-yeon (Dae-hoon), Park Seo-yoon (Ji-suk), Jung Yoon-seo (Ji-wan), Seol Hye-in (Yo-ri), and Hyung Young-seon (Eun-hee’s uncle).


Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.

Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.

It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.

The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.

When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.

And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.

It’s a bummer.

Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg; screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on the novel by Pearce; director of photography, Conrad L. Hall; edited by Sam O’Steen; music by Lalo Schifrin; costume designer, Howard Shoup; produced by Gordon Carroll; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Paul Newman (Lucas Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta Jackson), Strother Martin (The Captain), Morgan Woodward (Walking Boss), Luke Askew (Boss Paul), Robert Donner (Boss Shorty), Clifton James (Carr, the floor walker), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Andre Trottier (Boss Popler), Charles Tyner (Boss Higgins), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio (Koko), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Marc Cavell (Rabbitt), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Warren Finnerty (Tattoo), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Dean Stanton (Tramp), Ralph Waite (Alibi), Buck Kartalian (Dynamite), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), James Gammon (Sleepy), Anthony Zerbe (Dog Boy), and Joy Harmon (Lucille).


A Safe Place (1971, Henry Jaglom)

A Safe Place tracks the relationship of apparently financially secure but listless hippie Tuesday Weld and her square of a new boyfriend, Phil Proctor. Weld spends her time presumably stoned—though we don’t see her smoke, her friends are always rolling a joint or smoking one—and dwelling on the past. She can’t get over the lack of magic in the world today (today being 1971); there’s a great segment on how exchange names on telephone numbers were special while numbers are not. At times it feels like Safe Place can’t possibly have been tightly scripted but then other times feels like it must’ve been. The actors do a great job drifting between the two feelings, particularly Weld, Jack Nicholson, and Gwen Welles. Though Nicholson it’s a little different; he always makes it feel spontaneous, in which case extra kudos to Weld for not reacting.

Nicholson shows up at near the beginning of the film but we don’t have any real context for him, though it’s clear he’s a romantic interest for Weld, presumably one in her past. Despite Proctor’s constant pursuit of Weld, they never spark, especially since Proctor can never shut up. Weld wants things quiet so she can drift into her imagined past, to when she was a kid and would watch the magician across the street in the park. Orson Welles plays the magician. He never feels scripted, which is fine, it’s Orson Welles doing a bountiful performance complete with an Eastern European accent. He goes so big, relishing in it so much, you can’t quibble with any of it. The one real trick he’s always wanted to be able to perform is making something disappear. He takes Weld to the zoo and tries it out on the animals, which leads to some amazing moments.

Both Welleses, Orson and Gwen, are establishing tone for Weld to later interact with; the Orson Welles at the zoo stuff is a fun, carefree tone, while Gwen Welles has a phenomenally despondent monologue about being objectified and dehumanized living in 1971 New York. That monologue, which director Jaglom gives a showcase like nothing else in the film gets, not even Nicholson when he shows up proper, needs to be there to fully establish Weld’s ground situation too. She’d never have a monologue like it, it’d be out of character, but her experiences are clearly similar.

Once it becomes clear how the film “works,” how it moves from Weld to her imagined past, when the film’s following Weld there in her mind and when the film’s just going there—Weld’s the lead but not the protagonist, she’s the subject, with Proctor ending up being somewhat closer to a traditional protagonist role but only because he’s takes a lot of action. Or threatens to take action. He’s kind of exhausting in how much action he takes, which gives the film this wonderful sense of empathy for Weld even as she’s (ostensibly) inexplicable. Proctor’s a lot. Clearly he’s a lot.

Jaglom establishes the ebb and flow of the timeline visually, through editing, composition, and direction. Weld frequently looks directly into the camera, watching the world around her unfold. Jaglom also will shoot the Welleses straight on, but for different effect. With Gwen Welles, the eyes mesmerize against her story, offering the viewer a chance to examine her in this bare moment. Orson Welles it’s sometimes for humor, sometimes for magic. Except we already know it’s not real magic but is it something nefarious or just mirthful chicanery. It’s always hard to tell because while everyone exists in the same spaces—mostly around Central Park Lake, or at Weld’s apartment (or on its roof), Orson Welles doesn’t interact with anyone but Weld. The first act has a lot of cuts establishing how he’s been there but isn’t there but is there. He’s there when Weld needs him, but he’s not entirely dependent on her.

Gwen Welles, Proctor, Nicholson, they all interact in one way or another. Proctor’s in the room during the Gwen Welles monologue; his attendance of it is apparently around the time Weld gives up and just lets him in. Some time later, when Nicholson enters the action proper, it’s after Proctor has moved himself into Weld’s apartment and has assumed a male authority figure role, but not one Weld or anyone else takes seriously.

It’s all very intricate, very complex, entirely established and explored through anti-sensical conversations, camera movement, and editing, everything tied together with selections from the Columbia Records songbook playing in the background—Weld’s got a jukebox in her apartment, presumably filled with them, including some fantastic French language cover versions.

Phenomenal photography from Richard C. Kratina—even if you can’t get onboard Safe Place’s jumbled narrative (which still ends up being way too epical), the photography alone can keep interest. Then there’s Pieter Bergema’s editing, which is somehow even more exquisite than the photography.

Weld’s good, Nicholson’s good, Proctor’s okay. The Welleses are good, though Gwen’s better and has a lot more work to do. Jaglom’s direction is aces.

A Safe Place is a qualified success—the third act is way too obvious and Proctor, both in terms of performance and character in the film, isn’t enough—and some absolutely exquisite filmmaking.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Henry Jaglom; director of photography, Richard C. Kratina; edited by Pieter Bergema; production designer, Harold Schneider; costume designer, Barbara Flood; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Susan), Phil Proctor (Fred), Jack Nicholson (Mitch), Gwen Welles (Bari), Dov Lawrence (Larry), and Orson Welles (The Magician).