Movie Review – All the President’s Men

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All the President’s Men (1976)
Written by William Goldman
Directed Alan J. Pakula

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On June 17, 1972, a security guard at the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. reported a break-in. Police arrived and found five men who had burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters there with the intent to wiretap the phones and offices. Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward is covering the early morning arraignment of the burglars and learns they already had counsel on retainer with signs pointing to a more powerful organization behind them. Fellow reporter Carl Bernstein is put on the story with Woodward, and they unravel a conspiracy that seems to trace back to the Committee to Re-Elect President Nixon. Millions of dollars have traded hands, and employees of the campaign are afraid to talk, alluding to threats against them. What have Woodward & Bernstein uncovered and how will it affect the nation going forward?

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Movie Review – The Manchurian Candidate

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Written by George Axelrod
Directed by John Frankenheimer

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A platoon of U.S. soldiers fighting in Korea is abducted by Soviets and taken across the border into China. Then months later they are returning to the States with Sgt. Raymond Shaw receiving the Medal of Honor for bravery under fire. However, the surviving members of his platoon are having strange nightmares of sitting among a ladies auxiliary meeting on flowers. The commanding officer, Captain Marco believes these dreams hide a secret about what really happened in Korea and truth behind Shaw’s heroism. Meanwhile, Shaw is pulled into the political ambitions of his mother, Eleanor and his stepfather, Senator Iselin. Shaw is also receiving strange phone calls that trigger weird behaviors. This rabbit hole will pull Marco and Shaw to ending neither of them can avoid.

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Movie Review – The Handmaiden

The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook)

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In the 1920s, Korea was under the control of Japan as part of its expanding empire. In this state of affairs lives Tamako, a pickpocket raised by a Fagin-esque house mother. Tamako is chosen by the art forger “Count Fujiwara” to be his accomplice in collecting the fortune of a young Japanese noble lady. This involves Tamako posing as her new handmaiden and traveling to live with the woman on her uncle’s rural estate. Tamako feels an almost immediate bond with her new mistress, Lady Hideko when they first meet. However, she begins to learn the relationship between Lady Hideko and Uncle Kouzuki is much more complicated and darker than she first expected. When Fujiwara arrives at the estate, Tamako finds herself forced to carry out a plan she is no longer comfortable with. But there is more going on here than our protagonist realizes.

I haven’t devoured the work of Park Chan-wook, but what I have seen I’ve loved. Oldboy is the title most film fans would recognize, but I enjoyed his vampire film Thirst more. His first English-language film Stoker was an engaging moody art house flick. But The Handmaiden feels like a pinnacle film. Much like, Moonlight which I just watched and reviewed, The Handmaiden is made by a filmmaker who is very confident in his work. Every technical, structural, and character element is finely crafted and presented. The story elements are woven with a subtext that speaks to colonialism, identity, and sexuality. What you end up with is a film that misses no marks and is near perfection.

The film is presented in three chapters, the first is focused on Tamako, the second on Lady Hideko, and the third acts as the denouement of the story. From the opening frames, Tamako is presented as a very captivating character. She is an incredibly confident young woman who quickly switches between her own personality and the submissive handmaiden, Sook-lee. Without giving away the second act reveal, our presentation of Tamako is colored in a very biased way and in the second chapter we see her in a very different light, the same is said for Lady Hideko.

Lady Hideko, the co-protagonist of the film, is an incredibly complicated character. She was raised by her Uncle and late Aunt, and the dark history she has in the estate is truly disturbing. Her Uncle treasures his vast book collection many than any human, his late wife included, and this obsession has ties to what led her to be found hanging from the cherry blossom tree in the yard. Hideko is a character who provokes emotions and reactions from everyone around her, a trait that is important as men come from Japan to hear her do dramatic readings from her Uncle’s collection. What she does to Tamako can at times seem cruel, but there is a dark secret behind her motives.

The Handmaiden is a very difficult film to talk about without giving away secrets. The film borrows heavily from the tone of classic Gothic literature (Rebecca, Jane Eyre) but also feels indebted to Noir like Double Indemnity. The estate itself is a fusion of Japanese and English architecture (the film is based on a British novel). Beyond the story is a commentary on the complicated history between Japan and Korea. Hideko’s Uncle is a Korean who desperately wishes to be Japanese. So much so he married a Japanese noblewoman and took her family name over his. He comments at one point that everything about Korea is filth and he wants to wash it away. Moments like that elevate a film that could be a simple thriller to a piece of filmmaking that has something to say about it’s creator’s cultural history. This is a film that once you see it, you’ll have frames frozen in your mind for a long time after.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016, dir. Dan Trachtenberg)

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Out of nowhere, in March of 2016, J.J. Abrams announced a sequel to Cloverfield had been made in secret. Cloverfield was a found footage movie released in 2008 under similar secretive methods. And I hated the original, mainly because it was yet another found footage movie. It had characters who made stupid decisions that merely happened so that the next plot point was possible. It lacked a meaningful resolution and didn’t even leave things ambiguous enough to think about after the film was over. So, you could say I was cautious about 10 Cloverfield Lane.

10 Cloverfield Lane has incredibly loose ties to the original, and I wouldn’t even call it a sequel, more of a distant relative. It’s not found footage (thank god!). It has characters making intelligent decisions. It has themes and layers of plots and even an ending with some ambiguity. Its story is clearly focused on Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young woman running from her fear about a relationship who ends up, after a car accident,  trapped in a survival bunker. She’s told by the owner of the bunker, Howard (John Goodman) that he rescued her and that outside the bunker there’s been an attack on the entire nation. These claims are backed up by Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.), a contractor who helped build the bunker, that yes, something bad did go down. Claims are made that the air is toxic and everyone is kept locked up inside. But there’s more going on here below the surface.

The film was the first major feature from Dan Trachtenberg. I’ve been following Trachtenberg since way back in 2007 t0 2012 when he was a part of the Totally Rad Show, a web series that reviewed popular media of all kinds and was a sort of inspiration to me. I was very happy with the work our director delivers. Every actor delivers a believable and nuanced performance. The film is full of clever camerawork and pacing, that never comes across as showing off. Everything here is a completely solid piece of tense thrilling film making.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the big star of the show. One thing I look for in actors, to really see how good their performances are, is to watch them when they are not the one talking in a scene, when their job is to react. Winstead gives a perfect emotional performance and has a quite a few scenes, the majority of the third act for instance, where she only gets to emote and react. It reads as very real and honest. John Goodman was given a tricky role, he has to play someone we need to trust and believe while simultaneously being unhinged. Up until the final moments of the film it is impossible not to have an internal debate about what is really going on with his character.

The plot has three very clear levels: what is going with Winstead’s character emotionally, the interpersonal conflicts between the three characters in the bunker, and the larger global situation outside the bunker. All three are developed wonderfully, given just enough that each deserves. Where the original Cloverfield came across as a glorified amusement park ride, this picture knows character development is key so that when the bigger, spectacular elements start happening we actually give a damn what happens to the people on screen. In an age where we have films that end in citywide killfests, it’s refreshing to have a movie approaching the same world ending subject matter in such an isolated, quiet way.

Tom at the Farm (2015, dir. Xavier Dolan)

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Frenetic strings screaming. The sound of cornstalks furiously rustling. The blur of figure bursting through them. He enters a clearing in the field. We cut to a tight shot of his face. His bleach blond hair is a tangled mess. A thin line of blood travels from the corner of his lip diagonally down to his chin. He is suddenly thrown to the ground by a man exploding from the corn.

This sort of explosive moment is what Tom at the Farm is all about. It spend the majority of its run time letting tension crank up until the rope is tightly wound. When the tension is allowed to release we’re met with moments of raw brutality that are confusing and upsetting.

Brought to us by Quebecois director, Xavier Dolan, Tom at the Farm follows a young man (Dolan as the lead) as he journeys into the Canadian version of the Midwest. He’s headed there to attend the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he quickly learns that Guillaume was keeping a lot of secrets from him and his own family. He meets Agathe, the matriarch, who was lied to about her youngest having a fiance and Francis, the psychotic older brother who believes he can beat Tom into submission about keeping these lies going.

The first time Francis assaults Tom it is shocking and unexpected. But as their aggressive relationship continues it begins to take on a twisted psychosexual tone. At moments, Tom seems to become submissive and seeks out this continued violent treatment from Francis. And even Francis seems to desire Tom despite his protestations. When Tom finally attempts to leave he finds his car dismantled in the barn, stranding him in this desolate farm country. However, he finds himself comforted by the pastoral lifestyle, helping the birth of a calf, and then finding a moment to break down with emotion of what he participated in. In the midst of this tense psychological battle, Tom and Francis end up in an embrace after the latter reveals he took ballroom dancing lessons for a long lost ex.

The tone of the film is balanced somewhere between a lesser Hitchcock picture and The Talented Mr. Ripley. As the film nears its conclusion we discover a secret about Francis that illuminates his virulent anger and rage over Guillaume’s sexuality. The final shot of the film lets up contemplate the consequences of a moment when that rage overflowed. We don’t know what Tom believes about this revelation but we know it will inevitably shake up his world. While as unreal and absurd as the choices are that Tom makes when we, the audience, are likely shouting at him to just leave, these quiet final moments bring the film back to some semblance of a grounded reality.

Wild Card Tuesdays – Three Days of the Condor



Three Days of the Condor (1975, dir. Sydney Pollack)
Starring Robert Reford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow, John Houseman

In the wake of Watergate in the early 1970s, a trend began in films made by younger directors towards anti-government conspiracy thrillers. You had the “based on a true story” variety like All The President’s Men, the naturalist conspiracy like The Candidate, and the more Hitchcock-ian conspiracy in The Conversation. Here Sydney Pollack takes a crack at adapting a novel to the screen about a man on the more paperwork side of the CIA. It begins with some intriguing moments, but slowly devolves into a formulaic studio picture, only to deliver a very prescient twist.

Joe Turner (Redford) works for the American Literary Society, a front for a group of translators who spend their days literally reading everything and looking for any oddities that could be a way of encoding messages. Turner has discovered such an oddity, a book that was only published in Arabic, Dutch, and Spanish with no logically reason why. He receives a message from his superior telling him the Agency believes it is not of importance. Later that same day a group of men show up and kill all of Turner’s coworkers, while he escapes, now on the run. As he delves further into the conspiracy he learns that there is possible a subgroup within the CIA and that he has stumbled upon some vitally important secrets. He uses his technical knowledge and book smarts to stay ahead of his pursuers and eventually learns the reason why his coworkers were murdered.

The conspiracy part of the film is spot on and kept me very engaged. The part of the film that I zoned out during was the very forced love story between Redford and Dunaway. Dunaway was a woman he simply kidnaps to use her car and stay in her apartment. For some reason they inexplicably have sex the first night they meet and she helps me out, despite the implausibility of a person in this situation would do such a thing. Other than the forced romantic subplot (methinks I smell studio intervention), Dunaway has some interesting things to do and is able to move the conspiracy plot along by helping Redford identify the man behind his misery.

Max Von Sydow’s German mercenary is a character interesting enough to have his own film, and delivers an interesting speech near the end of the film about the peacefulness of his life, and how his job has a sort of meditative quality. Robertson does a great job as Redford’s callous superior and gets to deliver a chilling warning to Redford in the film’s final scene. Redford has uncovered the truth of the book translation and why his colleagues were murdered at this point, and Robertson talks about the coming decades in America, and how the unscrupulous actions of the CIA in the present won’t be judge by the citizens in the future. Definitely worth a view and will make you think about the state of the world in comparison.