Haven’t had much time to write reviews lately, but I guess it’s time to catch up with some of the movies I’ve been watching…
This is the newest film by director Park Chan-wook, who is most remembered for his violent and twisty film Oldboy, and is returning to his native Korea after his first American movie Stoker, didn’t quite meet expectations (although it’s still a very good movie if you ask me). The Handmaiden is an adaptation of the British novel Fingersmith, but transposes the plot from Victorian England to the Japanese-occupied Korea of the nineteen thirties. It’s the story of a young pickpocket (Kim Tae-ri) who, collaborating with a con artist, poses as a handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hadeko (Kim Min-hee). The plan is to fool the heiress into marrying the con artist (who is posing as a Japanese Count), throw her in the loony bin, and steal all her money. What nobody is expecting is that the handmaiden and her mistress are going to fall in love.
If you are familiar with the work of Park Chan-wook, you will have a pretty good idea of what to expect. There are twists and turns, moments of extreme violence, a couple of explicit and steamy sex scenes, and yes, there is also an octopus. What you might not expect is for Park to deliver a robust and deeply heroic love story between the two women. Park’s stylistic flourishes (and there are plenty) reveal themselves to be in service of a deeply feminist movie, culminating in a delightfully triumphant and subversive last scene. It is also one of the most entertaining and engaging movies of the year, an absolute (and twisted) delight.
Since its debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight has been received with nothing but raves, including a declaration as “best movie of the year” by no less a prestigious publication than the New York Times. It is only in the context of this rapturous reception that my opinion that the movie is merely really good and not quite the greatest thing to have hit cinema screens in twelve months could be considered negative. I offer this preamble because I feel a little lost in a vacuum when it comes to this movie. Not because I can’t see what others find to be magnificent about the movie, but because it’s been hard to find people who are willing to talk about and work through my reservations about the film. So I apologize if my thoughts don’t seem all that coherent.
The film is a triptych about the coming-of-age and sexual awakening of a young, poor, black man named Chiron. Each chapter focuses respectively on key moments in his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. For telling the story of a type of person who is rarely -if ever- seen on the big screen (let alone in a movie this celebrated), Moonlight deserves serious kudos. But even understanding how this fact makes the movie so unique, I still felt like the first two sequences were at moments revelatory and at moments disappointingly familiar. Even though there are many moments of surprising, complex, and rewardingly specific observations, they are often undercut by the movie’s insistence on making Chiron’s world as overwhelmingly oppressive as possible. Settling for perfectly fine archetypes and motifs can be disappointing when you are also getting tastes of an even richer movie waiting in the sidelines.
Who am I to judge? I’ve never been a gay black male growing up in the South, and perhaps the movie does a wonderful job of portraying the feeling of being trapped in a world that has no room for your deepest desires. On the other hand, I can say that the third act of the movie -in which we met a grown-up Chiron, who is truly a character that I have never seen on screen before, and is impeccably portrayed by Trevante Rhodes- overflows of the kind of specificity and depth that was only sometimes present in the previous two acts. This segment, which focuses basically on two men talking to each other, is so delicate, so beautiful, so well observed… Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to admire in those first two act, but the movie’s last third is on a whole other level.
Despite the controversy, the biggest draw this movie had for me was Tilda Swinton playing some sort of mystical kung fu master. Otherwise, I was not interested in watching another Marvel movie. At all. Well, I’ll be damned, because Doctor Strange is a very enjoyable movie. Some of your regular Marvel problems prevail: the villains are as lame as can be, the female characters are grossly underserved, and Benedict Cumberbatch is transparently (and annoyingly) being groomed to take over Robert Downey Jr.’s slot as the witty asshole of the group once he finally gets tired of putting on the Iron Man suit. But at the same time, Doctor Strange excels where many other Marvel properties have simply failed.
First of all, the movie looks really good. Thanks to moody and shadowy photography that serves as a much needed palate cleanser from the over-lit warehouses where Marvel movies usually take place. Second, and this is very important, the movie puts its visual effects to great use. You see, Doctor Strange is a sorcerer, and thus, we are spared the usual spaceships and explosions in favor of mind-bending action sequences like the one that takes Inception‘s idea of a city folding onto itself to a truly crazy extreme. These are the most visually inventive action sequences Marvel has done since the underrated battle at the end of Thor: The Dark World (give or take the bathtub scene in Ant-Man). Despite its dour promotional materials, the movie is surprisingly humorous. It’s probably the most consistently funny movie in the Marvel canon since Iron Man 3. Those are a lot of “best since blank” in a row, which means it’s probably time I end this review. Doctor Strange. It’s good.