Saturday, December 31, 2016

Movies: The Year 2016 - A View Into The Rear-View Mirror

(Drivebycuriosity) - 2016 was a relatively weak year in the world of cinema. Not many movies animated me to spend money on them. But - as always - there were some exceptions. I saw 4 films which will linger in my mind for a while.

Park Chan-wook - who created masterpieces like "Old Boy" & "Stoker" - delivered another cinematic milestone: The Handmaiden", another masterpiece by Park Chan-wook (imdb). The Korean director showed again that he belongs to the magicians of cinema. This time he used the novel "Fingersmith" by Sarah Waters and transferred the plot from the Victorian England into Korea under the Japanese occupation in the 1930s. A young woman gets a job as a handmaiden for a wealthy young lady as part of a scheme (this is a spoiler free blog).

I was fascinated by the twists & surprises of the plot and cared a lot about the characters. But what makes the movie really outstanding is its intoxicating visual power. In my opinion Park belongs into a league of visual masters like Kubrick, Lars von Trier & Paul Thomas Anderson. He - and his cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung - drove the intensity of Asian cinema to a new peak and cast a spell on the audience by a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of pictures. The film is highly erotic & esthetic.




Tom Ford, fashion designer, successful entrepreneur & Oscar awarded movie director, also delivered an outstanding film: "Nocturnal Animals" (imdb). There are two intermingled story lines: One track focuses on Susan, an ambitious owner of an upmarket art gallery in Los Angeles. This tale is mixed with the plot of a book, which Susan`s ex-husband had written and send to her, a horror novel set in Texas. So the movie connects two separate & very different worlds.

I got mesmerized by very sharp & frequent contrasts: Scenes with obnoxious ugliness are followed by sheer beauty, utter terror is replaced by classy leisure live, raw nature changes with impressions of the ritzy art world, repulsion mixes with awe, aesthetic with filth and so on. Ford creates a high tension which keeps the audience on the hook. The film certainly represents the director´ s sophisticated tastes & talents which he had cultivated as a fashion designer. You can spot amazing art works by Jeff Koons, John Currin,  Alexander Calder and others, which are partly owned by Ford himself (townandcountrymag). And even the rough landscape of Texas, where he grew up, fits well to the stylish looks of Susan`s sleek & artsy world.





Director Robert Eggert delivered a mesmerizing debut:  "The Witch" (imdb). The film allows a glance into a very different and dark world ruled by poverty, irrationality and superstition. The movie captures the myths and legends about the "evil witch in the wood". The plot is set in New England in the 17th century. A family of puritans got evicted from their village and starts a new life in a remote place in the wilderness where they get into trouble with a witch. Even that the film is just fantasy it looks almost authentic. The audience shares virtually the daily travails and fears of some involuntary eremites in an almost prehistoric world.  The plot develops very slowly, horror & gore effects - and some erotic scenes - are set economically. The director is more interested in creating a mysterious and gloomy atmosphere than in cheap effects.

"The Witch" is strongly influenced by the Brothers Grimm´s fairy tales, which are sinister, violent and gory. The film also could be seen as an allegory for the religious hysteria & fanaticism of some American pioneers and a reminder to the fact that America was partly founded by religious mavericks who sought there freedom for their believes.





Director Denis Villeneuve  - and screen writer Eric Heisserer - proved that Hollywood can turn ambitious hard science fiction into films for the mass market. Their movie "The Arrival" is based on a short story by Ted Chiang (imdb). The Chinese-American writer translates science into interesting stories in the tradition of Heinlein, Clark & Asimov (Chiang).  Here a scientist, a female linguist, is communicating with aliens in order to find out what they want from us.  The original story doesn´t have much action and focuses on the science of language & communication. The movie makers stayed close to the original. Both, story & movie have an important fictional & speculative implication (which I don´t spoil here). But neither Chiang nor the movie makers went too far into fairy tale land.

The aliens were plausible visualized. I believe that an encounter like this that could really happen sometimes in the future. The communication - which is the pivotal part of the plot - was done by writing, because the very different anatomies made acoustical understanding impossible. The movie makers invested a lot of money, energy & talent into the visualization of this communication (businessinsider). They consulted university scientists and employed artists & software developers to construct beautiful & elegant symbols which carried the alien`s messages  (no images here to avoid spoilers). So they created some highly intense & fascinating scenes comparable to the highlights of Kubrick`s "2001: A Space Odyssey".



What happened else?

Woody Allen delivered with "CafĂ© Society" one of his best movies (imdb). His philosophical comedy reflects the insights the director & screen writer has been collecting over the decades. The movie - set in the 1930s - tells the story of "Bobby", a young man who comes to Hollywood to get there a job with the help of his uncle, who is one of the great deal makers in the movie industry. Allen makes fun of the movie industry & Hollywood's glamour, of Jewish family relations, organized crime and more. Like in many other "Woody Allen flicks" the characters are complicated and trapped in  bitter/sweet romance.



Isabelle Huppert appeared on the big screen again. Even beyond 60 she`s still sexy and belongs to the best actresses of the world. The eclectic movie director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall & Turkish Delight) focused his new movie "Elle" on this great actress (imdb). Even that I adored her performance I had mixed feelings watching the film. "Elle" is a freak show, containing a horror movie, a thriller, a comedy, a family drama, a mystery, a social study and much more. Some of the characters & events are way too demented to be believable.  But still fascinating, thanks to its surprises, how ridiculous they may be. And the film is a must for Huppert fans.






The movie "The Girl on the Train" - based on the same named bestseller - wasn´t as strong as the book ( imdb driveby ). The film focuses on Rachel, a heavy alcoholic, who has huge problems with her memory - thanks to the alcohol. Rachel gets obsessed with the fate of Megan, a young woman, whom she doesn`t know but had frequently spotted by looking out of a commuter train window. Megan had disappeared and Rachel believes that she knows something about that, but she is spooked by her memory problems, which leads to .....(no spoilers). I think director Tate Taylor translated the dark mystery and the psychological thrills of the book nicely into a big Hollywood movie. The combination of suspense, Rachel´s mental issues and (some) action was well done. As in many Hollywood movies, "The Girl" benefits form the actors. I believe that Emily Blunt will earn an Oscar nomination for incarnating the troubled Rachel. Cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen translated the story into images which looked like a piece of art.





The "Jason Bourne" franchise had another incarnation (number five), just named "Jason Bourne" (imdb). Again the leading character, a former assassin for the CIA,  had to survive the pursuit of his former employers and their hired professional killers. Director Paul Greengrass, who also made "Bourne Supremacy" & "Bourne Ultimatum",  and his co-script writers created again a staccato of furious action scenes. Still cutting edge action cinema, fun to watch and shortening the waiting time for the next James Bond flick.


Stay tuned!


PS On top of this post you can see Edward Hopper`s "New York Movie" from 1939.


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