Category Archives: 2016

Train to Busan (2016, Yeon Sang-ho)

The middle of Train to Busan is excellent. The first act is iffy, the ending is forced, but the middle is where the film excels. It’s where director Yeon just gets to do action, not getting slowed down with the humanity of it all (which he’s uneven on), and just executes these breathtaking action suspense sequences. Not just Yeon, editor Yang Jin-mo, photographer Lee Hyung-deok, composer Jang Young-gyu—and of course the actors. During the action suspense stuff, everyone does really well. Even lead Gong Yoo is good during these sequences and doesn’t have the overwhelmed look he gets the rest of the movie. Gong’s the only character with a real character arc—he goes from being a selfish hedge fund manager and bad dad to a hero in the fight against a zombie horde; he even becomes a better dad and reals everything he’s been missing in daughter Kim Su-an’s life. It’s ought to be emotionally devastating.

But Gong can’t do it. Being fair, it’s not like he gets any help from Yeon on it either, who doesn’t do a good job with directing the character stuff. Outside the action sequences, Yeon’s best directing is all on Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi, who play an expecting married couple caught up in the afore implied zombie apocalypse. Worse, Yeon’s adequate directing on Kim—as she experiences having this bad dad—falls apart as the film progresses. It’s like Yeon can’t pretend Busan’s about Gong and Kim patching things up thanks to a crisis situation and just sleepwalks the film through the series where they act like it’s working. Maybe it’s just a bad combination; the way Yeon directs the actors, the script, Gong’s flimsy performance. Because a lot of things do come together just right in other ways during Busan. Ma and Jung are wonderful. They’re both excellent—he’s a loving tough guy and she’s, well, okay, she’s just the loving tough guy’s pregnant wife, but she’s really good. And Ma’s able to carry the film when Gong can’t and the film acknowledges it, Gong acknowledges it. Yeon just doesn’t use it to further anything along. Top-billed Gong goes into the third act a better person but a thinner character; everyone else has more depth than him, with the possible exception of daughter Kim, just because she’s a plot device to keep him moving through the picture. Not in a craven way, just a very pragmatic one. Gong and Kim might be the A plot in the film, but all the other plots are more interesting, which becomes real obvious in the third act.

First there’s teen paramours Sohee and Choi Woo-sik, who barely get introduced during the film’s rapid-free introduction of the disaster movie cast—I mean, it’s zombies on a bullet train—have a little do at the beginning of the second act, but then get this layered C plot leading up to a heart-wrenching, loving conclusion. Very nice work from Choi and Sohee and from Yeon. He takes their C plot seriously. He also takes the out of nowhere and completely awesome conductor turns action hero subplot seriously. Jeong Seok-yong is fantastic in that part. Total surprise, but great pay-offs.

The supporting characters’ arcs always pay off (save businessman worm villain Kim Eui-sung’s arc, which goes on too long and gets too important) and always a with a little more enthusiasm than Gong and Kim get. Their family drama is basically red herring and not particularly tasty red herring because Gong’s so wanting at the dad stuff.

When Yeon makes it work—like with Gong, Ma, and Choi unintentionally becoming three musketeers and having to save people and get past zombies on the train and figure out how not to get bit doing it… great stuff. Great chemistry between the actors. It’s not just smooth, it’s easy. It feels like Yeon’s found the film’s vibe and he couldn’t possibility screw it up. He burns through all that newfound goodwill slow then fast; when he hits the third act, it’s a bunch of wide swings. They’d be fine, if they could just hit anything.

Train to Busan probably ends on its lowest point. It’s not bad, it’s got some strong performances, some great special effects—the “choreography” on the running, scary but silly zombies, is breathtaking—but Busan’s got problems pulling into the proverbial station. The third act’s just way too pat.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Yeon Sang-ho; written by Park Joo-suk; director of photography, Lee Hyung-deok; edited by Yang Jin-mo; music by Jang Young-gyu; production designer, Lee Mok-won; costume designers, Gweon Yu-jin and Im Seung-hee; produced by Lee Dong-ha; released by Next World Entertainment.

Starring Gong Yoo (Seok-woo), Ma Dong-seok (Sang-hwa), Choi Woo-sik (Yong-guk), Kim Su-an (Soo-an), Jung Yu-mi (Seong-kyeong), Sohee (Jin-hee), Kim Eui-sung (Yon-suk), Ye Soo-jung (In-gil), Park Myung-shin (Jong-gil), Choi Gwi-hwa (Homeless Man), Jeong Seok-yong (Captain of KTX), and Lee Joo-sil (Seok-woo’s Mother).


Crystal Lake (2016, Jennifer Reeder)

Crystal Lake opens with lead Marcela Okeke packing a suitcase; based on some of what she packs–Aliens and Purple Rain on VHS, the LPs to Tea for the Tillerman and the Muppet Movie soundtrack—the short immediately establishes Okeke as one of the cooler people to ever exist. And then comes the final item—a broken skateboard. Okeke is going to live with relatives because, we soon find out, her father is dying. We also find out her mom died some years before—when Okeke’s character was seven (she’s a teenager now)—and Okeke’s married older sister booted her out. So not a great situation for Okeke.

And not a soft-landing spot either. Her older cousin, Sebastian Summers, is presented a little mysterious and does indeed seem to have some stuff going on but it’s just an insert. Same-ish aged, cool cousin Shea Vaughan-Gabor takes a while to size Okeke up and takes a tough (but real) love approach. But Vaughan-Gabor doesn’t get even the hint of a subplot. She’s got some personality (through wardrobe as well; both Okeke and Vaughan-Gabor wear hijab, but Vaughan-Gabor with a lot of bling). But no story. Other than the tough (but real) love personality trait. It’s not even clear why Vaughan-Gabor is living with Summers, who’s just another cousin.

Okeke’s got this insert subplot about intentional self-preservation, which is really cool but it’s just an insert. As a director, even with the inserts, Reeder has every good idea. Crystal Lake is phenomenally well-made. As a writer, Reeder’s got good intentions for her scenes, but they often sputter out once the exposition gets unnaturally heavy. It doesn’t help neither Okeke or Vaughan-Gabor can do the exposition. There are plenty of natural moments in Lake but zero hint of them—or even memory of them—when there’s exposition. And drama. Reeder, writing, has a problem with the dramatic turns. They’re peculiar disconnects because the filmmaking never wavers; it’s great during the exposition, it’s great during the drama, it’s great during the action, it’s great during the natural moments. Just the writing (and then the acting) go wobbly.

Vaughan-Gabor’s the most impressive performance in the film (she and Okeke are the only two contenders really; Summers’s insert doesn’t have him doing much acting), which is great—when it clicks, it clicks—but the short ends feeling lopsided. After the set up, Okeke becomes second (and even temporarily third) fiddle. It’s still her story, Reeder just doesn’t stick with her to tell it.

Even with wonky exposition dumps, lopsided pacing, and unexplored inserts, Crystal Lake is still more than worth a look. Reeder’s direction is outstanding, the plot is good, the cast is good (often better than good).

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder; director of photography, Christopher Rejano; edited by Mike Olenick; produced by Penelope Bartlett and Steven Hudosh for Forevering Films.

Starring Marcela Okeke (Ladan), Shea Vaughan-Gabor (Samiyah), Sebastian Summers (Samer), and Kristyn Zoe Wilkerson (Toni).


RECENTLY

Lights Out (2016, Savannah Bloch)

Lights Out gets obvious way too fast given it’s a five minute short. The film opens with Alixzandra Dove in a mostly dark house, folding clothes while she talks to a friend on the phone. There’s a little exposition from the phone call—Dove’s kid has outgrown some clothes, Dove’s partner has been away two weeks but is coming home that night—while Dove tries to find something to do. She turns out the kid’s light, heads into the bedroom to read a book (while still on the phone call), only for the kid to turn the light back on. He’s goofing off instead of going to bed, which frustrates Dove.

The short’s a morose affair, with Dove alternating between yelling at the kid and being exasperated with the phone call. Writer Kelly Peters carefully puts some clues throughout the short as to the eventual twist, but they’re all painfully obvious because they’re the only time there’s anything interesting in the conversation. Peters is way too obvious when she’s trying to misdirect. Or maybe Dove’s performance is too flat. Or not flat enough.

Because Dove’s not bad. There’s only so far to take Lights Out and Dove gets about as much mileage out of the five minutes as she can, especially since the phone call conversation isn’t anything special. Bloch’s direction is okay. Technically, with some great photography by Cooper Ulrich, Bloch does an excellent job. Her composition, how she directs Dove, how she and Bret Allen cut the thing together… eh.

That technical excellence, particularly how well Ulrich can light the mostly dark house, it sets a high bar for Lights Out. And the short doesn’t even begin to reach it.

It all starts to fall apart at the end—which is concerning as they only had to keep the momentum going for five minutes—but it does end before it gets too bad.

Out is kind of a disappointment, kind of a shrug.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Savannah Bloch; written by Kelly Peters; director of photography, Cooper Ulrich; edited by Bret Allen; music by Lars Hempel; production designer, Daniel S. James Jr.; produced by Alixzandra Dove and Linda Rothschild.

Starring Alixzandra Dove (Joanne).


RECENTLY

Sensitivity Training (2016, Melissa Finell)

Sensitivity Training is… an easy (but not in a pejorative way) comedy with winning (but not in a sarcastic way) lead performances. It’s never daring, but it has some good laughs. It’s better than middle of the road but it there’s not much exciting about it. Director Finell does a great job with a low budget as far as the filmmaking goes–Finell and cinematographer Paul Cannon have nice widescreen shots, Finell and editor David Egan keep a brisk pace (the film’s eighty-six minutes or so). And Paul Chihara’s music is a great. Very energetic and emotive. It’s impressively executed, given its scale.

Which makes some of the script choices annoying, actually. Like, Finell writes way too broadly even in scenes where she could afford precision. The script’s too conservative for what the film can do. But the script’s still perfectly fine and often really funny. It gives leads Anna Lise Phillips and Jill E. Alexander decent showcase material. Gives them great parts, not great roles. Like, there’s a whole “everyone is a caricature” thing going on even though it’s all about Phillips having to learn empathy after she maybe causes a tragedy at work due to her personality.

Phillips is a very abrasive scientist who appears to be the only scientist in the world aware of an imminent bacterial infection. Sensitivity Training’s sunny world–where Alexander’s daughter, Courtney Fansler, would never actually get teased for having two moms–also appears to have cured childhood leukemia or something. There’s a lot of science going on in Sensitivity Training and it ostensibly means a lot to Phillips, but it doesn’t mean anything to Finell’s script.

Meanwhile Alexander is a sexual harassment counselor who makes sexually harassing men sign apology statements. It’s not until she starts trying to make Phillips empathetic she realizes it’s a terrible job–the sexual harassment thing–and bad. Alexander doesn’t get much character stuff to herself. Finell usually uses it for a joke, which is funny about–say, kids’ birthday parties–but less funny when about sexual harassment.

So most of the movie is Alexander trying to get Phillips to treat people nicer, mostly her lab workers–quietly essential Quinn Marcus (who doesn’t get enough to do) and background filler Amy Vorpahl and Andy Gala–but also her younger half-brother, Finnegan Haid. The stuff with Haid makes no sense in the narrative, but it’s fine. They play well off each other. Everyone works well with each other in their scenes, no crowding.

Eventually, of course, there’s crisis and drama and big-time introspective character development for Phillips, who’s otherwise had zero self-awareness in the film (to an absurd degree but still fine given the film’s soft take on reality), and a somewhat perfunctory wrap-up where Finell reveals she wasted like six of the eighty-six minutes on a total MacGuffin just for a couple smiles not even laughs. So. When the film’s really funny, those laughs have a lot of weight on them. And they hold up.

Phillips and Alexander are both good. But they don’t get anything too tough. Quinn gets the internal subplot but almost no time for it and she’s real good. Amy Madigan’s great as Phillips and Haid’s mom. She should’ve been in it more, especially how she and Phillips play off each other. Charles Haid’s fine as the dad, though just fine. He executive produced the film so if it’s a stunt cameo, it’s not a good one.

Finell’s a good director. Sensitivity Training is a good comedy. It doesn’t try to do anything but amuse, even when it’s got potential to do more.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Melissa Finell; director of photography, Paul Cannon; edited by David Egan; music by Paul Chihara; production designer, Richard H. Perry; produced by Finell and Megha Kohli; released by Random Media.

Starring Anna Lise Phillips (Serena), Jill E. Alexander (Caroline), Quinn Marcus (Ellen), Finnegan Haid (Ethan), Amy Vorpahl (Joan), Andy Gala (Dr. Hamilton), Michael Laskin (Dr. Donald Pierson), Gregory Itzin (Barry), Amy Madigan (Nancy), Charles Haid (Glenn), Courtney Fansler (Maggie), and Challen Cates (Dr. Laura Stern).


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