Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

08 October 2014

Catching up on More 2014 Films

Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる) is Hirokuza Kore-eda's exploration of childhood, genetics, parenthood, and the big nature/culture discussion that we always have. Like Father, Like Son poses the question: What do you do if you find that your six-year-old son, whom you love more than anything, was switched at birth with another boy? If the other family agrees, do you switch them back so that you can begin raising the son that is genetically yours? What if – and this is where Hirokuza's film gets really brilliant – you have always wished that your son could be braver, stronger, smarter, and now you feel like this is an explanation for your son's failings?

Hirokuza's film is a Japanese movie, so it isn't filled with histrionic scenes and yelling and fistfights between the two fathers. And the dynamics of raising in children in Japan and raising children in the U.S. are (obviously) slightly different, as well, but Like Father, Like Son gets at the real heart of the matter. Hirokuza slowly complicates things until they are as difficult as you can imagine them being. (Rather like a Asghar Farhadi film, without the tragedy.) By the time we reached the third act, I cared for these people so much that I was emotional about any decision they might have made. This is a superb film, with excellent performances, especially from the lead actor, Masaharu Fukuyama. The performances of the children are also beautiful, their wide-eyed confusion works as a mirror for the alleged knowledge that the experts, the parents, and the audience are supposed to possess. Be sure to see Like Father, Like Son before you see whatever USAmerican remake that (you can be sure) they are cooking up.

I hated Calvary, John Michael McDonagh's (alleged) comedy about an Irish priest who is threatened with death during confession and then given a week to get his affairs in order. The film stars a bevy of excellent actors, including Brendan Gleeson, Isaach de Bankolé, M. Emmet Walsh, Aiden Gillen, Domhnall Gleeson, Chris O'Dowd, and Kelly Reilly. (Killian Scott gave my favorite performance in the film, for the record.) I've been told, too, that the film makes more sense if I've seen JMMcD's earlier film The Guard and perhaps a television show or short film of his? Whatever they are, I missed them, and apparently missed the point of this film as well.

Films about religion have never been very interesting to me, in truth, and Calvary is about the way that the Catholic church, once so important to Irish nationhood and Irish daily life, has faded in importance, rejected by the people it was intended to serve. The church, too, has been guilty of horrible crimes, not just over the centuries, but in our own century, and so the film is about parishoners and their complicated relationship with their local priest. The thing is, the film is not funny, and is not intended to be. Amusing or quirky scenes between the priest and the parishoners are broken up by gratuitous helicopter shots of Irish hills and these are overlaid with slow, operatic (or more specifically) sacred music. This slows the film down considerably, and gives it a ponderous mood.

Even more vexed is Calvary's use of violence. John Michael McDonagh is the brother to the writer/director Martin McDonagh, who has written hyperviolent plays such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore and A Behanding in Spokane. His films include In Bruges. Now, I will admit to never truly understanding McDonagh's approach to violence. Why is this supposed to be funny? Do you enjoy the violence? Are you interested in pain? Are you making a statement about it? His work always makes me ask these questions, not least because violence is treated in a cavalier way. To give just one example, in In Bruges, a body falls from a high tower and lands with a crunch and a splash on the cobblestones of Belgium. The effect is decidedly comic. Why? With McDonagh, his fascination with the flesh-ness of the human body, its fragility, always seems to be what he's exploring – an intriguing exploration, to be sure – but his point of view about this always seems to be silly. Isn't it funny that we're just, after all, meat – with bones that go crunch when you smack 'em? I'm mostly alone here, of course: McDonagh's work is very popular.

But his brother John Michael McDonagh takes even more pleasure in the violence he shows us. His camera positively enjoys watching suffering, and he asks us to enjoy it, too. He slows down one particular sequence so that we can, Tarantino-like, watch a bullet rip through a man's head in slow-motion and spatter blood across a beach. Why? The effect is cruel and grotesque, and this clashes markedly with the emotional valence the scene appears to be trying to achieve. Calvary is, honestly, a total mess, and I had begun to hate it long before the slow-motion bullet.

...And then there's Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (설국열차). We're on a train. In the future. We need to fight the bad guys. And we need to get to the front of the train. The whole thing is as simple as that – at least to begin with. Now this is a violent movie that has no pretentions about how its violence works. This is an action film about meat, about bodies crunching against metal, about weakness and fear and real pain. But these are Bong's acknowledged subjects. That is, Snowpiercer is a movie about who gets to live and who gets to die, and the different types of violence that attend decisions about who lives and who dies. And this exploration all takes place on a train that is speeding through a frozen wasteland.

Snowpiercer stars Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Song Kang-ho, Jamie Bell, and Octavia Spencer. And it is fun (at least it was for me) from start to finish. In fact, I think the movie is worth seeing simply for the art direction – the train cars are crafted beautifully, and they are so different from one another, and so cleverly arranged, that the simple walk from the back of the train to the front, through the world of the cars, is fascinating. And Tilda! Tilda is ridiculous and so much fun. (Hilarious that she and John Hurt were also both in the ponderously boring Only Lovers Left Alive in such a different style.) I do wish Chris Evans were a better actor. His range strikes me as fairly limited. I think he's a really fun performer, but there's an act three monologue in the film that (aside from interrupting the action-packed thrust of the film) really doesn't achieve what it ought to because Evans can't really connect emotionally with what he's saying. A more actor-focused director may be able to solve this problem for him, eventually. I will hope so, because I like him.

I should note that I thought that Snowpiercer was totally incoherent, and the presence of the writer was so palpable that by the end I felt that literally anything could've happened and then been explained away by some trick. The film's ending didn't make one bit of sense to me. (There's an explosion and there's a polar bear: I have no idea.) And I didn't care about any of that. This is a brutal, violent, fun ride, filled with the awesome fight sequences and suspense we have come to expect from the new wave of Korean directors. I really, really liked it. But don't spend too much time thinking about it.