Day one brings us the latest films from Denis Villenueve and Chan-Wook Park, and more!
United States, 2016. Directed by Denis Villenueve. Starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forrest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien. 115 minutes. ★★★★
In the latest effort from director Denis Villenueve (Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario), aliens come and it’s up to a dozen world governments who can barely stand each other at the best of times to figure out how to talk to them.
I recall something I wrote a long time ago about The Eye (the original Korean–I think–version): the story felt like the universe had engineered this exact sequence of events specifically to teach the protagonist a life lession. Arrival skates uncomfortably towards this at times, and how you feel about the film overall may very well ride on whether you accept the philosophical principles its third act relies upon.
For myself, I bought it because I felt that Villenueve, supported by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (adapting a novella by Ted Chiangmai), lead Amy Adams, and composer Johan Johansson, did an amazing job of conveying the sheer awesomeness of such an experience. To misquote John Allison, we’ve diluted the meaning of the word “awesome” by using it to describe how it feels when the toaster works perfectly, but this is the truest sense of the term: simultaneously delightful and britches-soilingly terrifying.
It may not live up to the “cerebral cinematic SF” standard set by Primer and Under the Skin, but what other movie is going to put the task of saving the world in the hands of a linguist?
South Korea, 2016. Directed by Chan-Wook Park. Starring Min-Hee Kim, Tae Ri Kim, Ha Jung-Woo, Jo Jin-Woong. 145 minutes. ★★★
The Handmaiden has earned a lot of acclaim for its director, Oldboy provocateur Chan-Wook Park, and I can understand why: it’s a sumptuous period piece set in Japan-occupied wartime Korea, about a young thief enlisted in a long con to steal a wealthy heiress’s money–only to find herself falling in love with her mark, with a twisty plot and suspense worthy of Hitchcock.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t have enough story to fill out its nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time, and it compensates by revisiting plot developments we’ve already seen and indulging in gratuitous explicit lesbian sex. While I’m not a prude, I also find I’m not particularly interested in the sex lives of people who aren’t me, especially when they’re fictional. Erotica/erotic thrillers/erotic horror doesn’t do a lot for me, I’m afraid.
So I didn’t like The Handmaiden as much as I probably should have. Oh well.
Canada, 2016. Directed by Jeremy Gillespie & Steven Kostanski. Starring Aaron Poole, Kathleen Munroe, Ellen Wong, Kenneth Welsh, Art Hindle. 90 minutes. ★★
Do you like throwback horror? The Void‘s writer/director team of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (probably best known as members of the Astron 6 posse) sure do, judging from The Void. They’ve stuffed it chock full of what I can only assume are deliberate references to Alien, Hellraiser, The Thing, and probably a lot more that I was too tired to notice, and they top it off with a pulsy-analog-synth score that’s been de rigeur since The Guest and will probably only become more ubiquitous thanks to the success of Stranger Things.
When The Void works, it really, really works, and that’s mostly when the filmmakers put the focus on the awesome design, creeping dread, Kenneth Welsh’s chilling vocal performance, and Bottin-worthy practical effects. But by the beginning of the second act, it becomes glaringly obvious that they haven’t bothered crafting much of a story, or for that matter, the characters to populate one.
That’s not as much of a problem as it might initially seem. Last year’s The Mind’s Eye, had similar strengths and weaknesses, but largely failed by putting too much emphasis on its idiot plot. Plus, I counted two explicit references to The Beyond here, and Fulci’s best films work by leveraging the weakness of their plots into strengths.
Gillespie and Kostanski aren’t quite that skilled, not yet. But at least they manage to give us two-thirds of a pretty good film, and I’m willing to cut them some slack for the film’s soggy middle.