Movie Review – Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake (2013)
Written & Directed by Alain Guiraudie

Franck frequents a nude beach that doubles as a favorite spot for gay men to cruise and hook up. He befriends Henri, an older man recently broken up with his girlfriend. The two chat for a while every time Franck arrives, and he learns Henri appreciates the quiet of this side of the lake. Later, Franck sets his eyes on Michel, an incredibly handsome man who already appears to be attached. On his way home, after a late afternoon tryst with another beachgoer, Franck stumbles upon a strange scene. From his vantage point, he witnesses what appears to be a murder and Franck believes he knows the murderer. The police begin asking questions as Franck and Michel’s relationship blossoms and the beach starts to lose the splendor it once possessed for our protagonist.

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Movie Review – Hold the Dark

Hold the Dark (2018)
Written by Macon Blair
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier

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Russell Core is a retired naturalist who specialized in wolves. He even wrote a book about them. It’s his book that gets the attention of Alaskan Medora Slone, a woman whose son has been taken by the wolves in her rural community. Her husband, Vernon, is serving in Iraq utterly unaware of what has happened to his son. Medora insists she wants something to show she took revenge for their child. Vernon is injured though and shipped back home. Russell discovers that he’s been lied to and there is more the child’s disappearance than just the wolves. A strange bond exists between Medora and Russell that seems connected to the desolate haunting landscape.

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Movie Review – Mojave

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Mojave (2016)
Written & Directed by William Monahan

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Tom is an incredibly famous and successful Hollywood director who is drowning the sorrows of his personal life in alcohol and partying. After a particularly draining bender, he drives his jeep off into the Mojave Desert for some solace. Tom is in an accident that flips his vehicle over, and he continues on foot only to encounter a malevolent stranger who is stalking the sands. Jack is a grizzled and articulate man wandering the desert armed with a hunting rifle. Tom suspects no good can come of this and a physical struggle ensues that leaves Tom with the gun and on the run from Jack. Tom’s paranoia leads to a tragic mistake that Jack intends to use against him even after the director escapes the desert.

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Movie Review – Unsane

Unsane (2018)
Written by Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

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Sawyer Valentini has recently made a big move away from her home in Boston. The circumstances that led her to this decision was the persistent stalking by an acquaintance. The trauma of this experience leads Sawyer into seeing this man everywhere she turns. It reaches such a point of distress that she books an appointment to visit a counselor at the Highland Creek Behavior Center. After a brief and productive meeting with a therapist, Sawyer is saddled with filling out some extra paperwork. Before she realizes, Sawyer has voluntarily checked herself into the center for a 24 hour period. This causes her to get physical with fellow patients and staff leading to an extension of a week. And then she begins seeing her stalker around the mental hospital. Is this her mind genuinely fracturing or something much more insidious?

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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.