Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Romancefest 2018: The Handmaiden

Let's finish off Romancefest 2018 with a twisty and turny 2016 romantic thriller from South Korea, THE HANDMAIDEN, directed by Park Chan-wook. As I rounded out the month I realized most of these films have been comedies and a few of them have been dramas but there hasn't really been any thrillers. So this was a nice diversion.

It's the early 20th century. Kim Tae-ri stars as the titular handmaiden, hired by a con man (Ha Jung-woo) to infiltrate the house of an abusive pornographic book collector/salesman (Cho Jin-woong) and pose as his niece's (Kim Min-hee) handmaiden. The idea is that Jung-woo will romance Min-hee with the help of Tae-ri, steal her away from her uncle, commit her to a mental hospital, and run off with her fortune.

Like HE SAID, SHE SAID and DEFINITELY, MAYBE earlier in Romancefest 2018, this flick tells the same story from a couple different points of view, but unlike those earlier flicks this one does it well. You're hooked from the very beginning, and the twists and turns don't end until the credits roll. It's hard to talk about this movie without spoilers, so spoiler warning:

First the story is told with the con man and handmaiden conspiring against the royal niece. This ends with a twist -- instead of the niece being committed, the handmaiden is in her place. So, we flashback to find out how this happened and follow things more from the niece's point of view. That was the plan all along, we learn, until the handmaiden and niece team up with each other to overthrow the uncle and con man. So begins the third version.

I had no idea what to expect coming into this movie, despite having seen the trailer, and couldn't guess where it was going to go as it unfolded. To quote Stefon from SNL, this movie has everything -- romance, intrigue, betrayels, sex, torture, you name it, this movie has it.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Romancefest 2018: Only Lovers Left Alive

It's always exciting when it's time to see a Jim Jarmusch movie I've never seen before, so I was pumped to see ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton star as a couple long undead vampires who, instead of feeding on humans, rely on getting blood from suppliers, like drug dealers. As the movie starts, they've been living apart, but the soon reunite in Detroit.

Hiddleston, a musician, is depressed and ready to check out, so Swinton attempts to bring some joy back into his life, before her sister (Mia Wasikowska) shows up and ruins everything by roping one of Hiddleston's fans (Anton Yelchin) into things.

Like most Jarmusch movies, the strength here is the tone. Things unfold slowly and languidly, but that's perfect for a story about bored vampires who've been alive too long. Also, as usual, Jarmusch nails a perfectly dry and sarcastic tone, with Hiddleston, in particular, giving great line readings that drip with so much contempt they can't help but be funny.

Romancefest 2018: Blue is the Warmest Color

Now we've finally caught up to this decade with BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR, a  French/Belgian/Spanish co-production directed by Abdellatif Kechiche and based on a comic book of the same name by Julie Maroh.

When this movie hit the indie/arthouse circuit in 2013, it made headlines for its graphic sex scenes, epic running length and its success at Cannes. The film stars Adele Exarchopoulos and follows her character's coming of age from high school to her life as an elementary school teacher, focusing on her first love and first real relationship, with an older and more experienced art student (Lea Seydoux).

There were some troubling stories at the time about how rough the director was with his actresses and I read some interesting pieces about how prevalent the male gaze is in this movie even though its intention is to be about a relationship between two women. So, parts of it are problematic.

Still, a lot of it is great, specifically the lead performances. Lea Seydoux seems to get most of the attention, but I thought Adele Exarchopoulos was particularly great, doing so much with just the expressions on her face. Aside from a few of the sex scenes, the movie is very naturalistic and works as an intimate slice of life, with the camera lingering on facial closeups, not shying away from little things like the way people eat, or the way they look without makeup. All of that works together to show just how real and immediate (and messy) adolescence and young adulthood is, especially when it comes to relationships.

Romancefest 2018: Definitely, Maybe

Here's another one where the premise seems promising but then you wonder what the point was in the end. I hate to say that because it bugs me when people go, "What was the point of that movie?" Well, what's the point of any movie? They're just movies. But still – seriously, what's the point here?

But I'm getting ahead of myself! DEFINITELY, MAYBE stars Ryan Reynolds as a divorced single father who works in advertising. As the movie begins, Reynolds is picking up his elementary-school-aged daughter (Abigail Breslin) from school, where they're just had a sex education class. This leads Breslin to question Reynolds on how he and her mother got together.

Reynolds agrees to tell the story, but says he's going to keep the identity of which of his early flames turned out to be Breslin's mother a secret until the end. What purpose this serves in the world of the movie, I don't know, but as an audience member it's kind of an intriguing premise – at least it's a different approach to the usual formula, right? But it never really pays off in any meaningful way, other than being an excuse to keep watching until the end instead of giving up halfway through.

So, most of the movie is flashbacks to Reynolds back before his advertising days when he was working on the Clinton campaign. There are three potential moms for Breslin: Elizabeth Banks as the girlfriend Reynolds leaves behind in his move to New York, Rachel Weisz as her artsy-fartsy free spirit friend and Isla Fisher as the one Reynolds actually seems to have chemistry with, but who he keeps on not hooking up with.

So, interesting premise, poorly executed, with a very nice cast. It's also fun that most of the movie is a 90s period piece since you don't see many of those (yet), though I find it hard to believe a guy in his early 20s wouldn't know who Nirvana is in 1992. Get up on that, Reynolds.

Romancefest 2018: Bride Wars

Continuing with the "The Wedding Itself is More Important than Who I Marry" genre, we have BRIDE WARS in which Kate Hudson and Anne Hatheway play childhood friends who have dreamed of getting married at New York's Plaza Hotel their entire lives. When the time comes, however, the screenwriter contrives to make them accidentally book the same day, and the wars begin.

Both women go from best friends to selfish monsters as they attempt to destroy each other's upcoming weddings. Hudson plays a high powered attorney who conspires to make Hatheway's fake tan go awry, and Hatheway's an elementary school teacher who conspires to dye Hudson's hair blue and also contribute to her eating problem in the hopes that she will gain weight.

It's sad because these are likable actresses who deserve better movies to be in. Sometimes that happens, but not here. Last year I saw Kate Hudson play a similar monster in HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS, but oddly I think I may have enjoyed that movie more than this one, because at least it was offensively awful and this one's mostly just bland awful.

Spoiler warning: There's a weird subplot that kind of comes out of nowhere where it turns out Hatheway's intended (Chris Pratt before he was a super hero) is not her intended after all, and they break up. Meanwhile, they seemed perfectly fine together and although they had a couple little arguments, it wasn't anything any normal couple couldn't overcome. In fact, if Pratt didn't balk at Hatheway's terrible behavior in this movie, I'd be concerned. Instead, it's a sign he's not the man for Anne.

Romancefest 2018: The Wedding Planner

Moving into the 21st century for THE WEDDING PLANNER, directed by Adam Shankman, I noticed a disturbing trend. Lots of movies are sexist, including the romantic ones, and lots of the older ones involve women resigned to catch the “right man,” whether it’s for love or money. But as I moved into the 2000s, I noticed more of these movies aren’t even about finding the right man anymore: they’re just about having an awesome wedding.

Jennifer Lopez stars as the titular WEDDING PLANNER, who wants to become a partner in the wedding planning firm she works for, and plans to do so by snagging a high profile client (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras). She finds this client in the pages of Yahoo magazine which had me saying, “There used to be a Yahoo magazine?” Early 2000s movies are weird because they exist along with the internet, but they’re kinda before people knew how to use it right.

Although Lopez has super powers when it comes to wedding planning (she has abbreviations for everything and wears a vest full of emergency implements and even married Whitney Houston to the notoriously abusive Bobbie Brown!), she is lonely in her personal life. All that changes when she has one of the dumbest meet-cutes ever with Matthew McConaughey, who rescues her from a dumpster that’s about to run her over (don’t ask). Turns out the dude’s a doctor! Yum.

In a twist I didn’t see coming it turns out he’s also the dude the afore-mentioned high profile client is getting ready to marry. Oops! I guess Lopez will have to settle for the Italian dude she knew as a kid (Justin Chambers) who has been unleashed upon her by her meddling father (Alex Rocco).

It’s hard to put into words how bad this movie sucks. It wants us to think McConaughey is quirky for throwing out all the M&Ms except brown ones, and then think it’s cute when Lopez catches this habit as well. But I don’t have time to think about how cute this is because I’m too busy being annoyed that both of these people simply litter unwanted M&Ms all over the ground instead of throwing them into a trash can. Or, it wants me to think it’s cute these people break a dick off of a statue and then bond while they’re trying to put the dick back on, but I’m too busy being like “I can’t believe two adults just broke a fucking statue that doesn’t belong to them and they think it’s funny.”

Well, at least one thing can be said for this movie. A pathological liar I used to work with once claimed the wedding Lopez plans at the end of this film was actually just he and his wife’s wedding, and they used it in the movie because it was so good. So, at least a borderline illiterate, homophobic, racist hayseed thinks Lopez’s weddings are well-planned. That’s a feather in the cap for the production designer.

Romancefest 2018: He Said, She Said

1991’s HE SAID, SHE SAID, directed by Ken Kwapis and Marisa Silver has an interesting premise: what if we saw a romantic comedy from both the male’s point of view and the female’s point of view, comparing and contrasting how the two view the story differently as it unfolds. Rumor has it, the duo of directors even directed their gender’s sequences, with Kwapis handling the story from Kevin Bacon’s point of view and Silver handling it from Elizabeth Perkins’.

Bacon and Perkins star as journalists competing for a coveted spot writing editorials for a Blatimore paper. The editor of the paper (Nathan Lane) hits on the idea of simply publishing both columns, as Bacon and Perkins have a knack for arguing opposite sides of a point of view, and eventually this becomes a TV show, where the two hosts duke it out with their opinions in prime time.

Of course the two fall in love, and that complicates things. Bacon’s a conservative ladies’ man and Perkins is a more liberal Modern Woman. Baco also has a hot ex-lover (Sharon Stone) waiting in the wings to swoop in at any given moment. The middle section of the movie is supposed to be sparks flying while two smart, ambitious people attempt to avoid giving in to each other’s affections, but instead it kind of falls flat. It’s not Bacon and Perkins’ fault, though.

Ironically, the fault lies with the seemingly promising premise. The way the premise is exploited in this movie is all wrong. Instead of cutting back and forth between the two characters’ differing points of view, the movie plays about half of its two hour running time from Bacon’s point of view, then after an hour switches to Perkins’ point of view, and we get to sit through it all over again. So, if you didn’t read a synopsis that explains this premise to you, you’d have a big let down at the half way point as you suddenly realize you have to sit through the movie again.

Adding to this problem is the fact that their two points of view aren’t that different, and in the moments that they are, they differ in ways that don’t really say anything about women’s and men’s differing experiences in relationships. They just differ in ways that make you wonder, “How come?” instead of saying, “Ah, ha!”