Brief notes, recent viewings, listed alphabetically (because they're all good).

The Host
Much-discussed, and for good reason, Bong Joon-ho's follow-up to his solid policier Memories of Murder is a scathing piece of social criticism cannily disguised as a creature feature. What makes The Host a vital addition in the canon of trojan horse-style filmic cherry bombs is that it deftly succeeds as first-rate horror; the titular McGuffin is a legitimately scary movie monster, and the subsequent, Kafka-esque frenzy is creepier yet. To make matters more impressive, it's also a remarkably sensitive family drama and a mordantly funny dark comedy.

The central conceit--that an American military officer orders large quantities of formaldehyde dumped in South Korea's Han River, spawning a huge, carnivorous sea creature--isn't shy to the point. But Bong takes his polemic one brave step further, as the U.S. military steps in. Claiming that the creature is spreading a lethal virus, they propose a controversial, potentially hazardous solution. The kicker: we later discover that there is no virus, that it was merely the result of "misinformation." Sounds familiar, no?

The term "nightmarish" is tossed around a lot in describing horror movies, but Masayuki Ochiai's 2004 effort--in which, once again, a mysteriously spreading virus is a major narrative point--eerily echoes the trance-like rhythms and strange turns of an actual nightmare. The plot here might initially appear unnecessarily convoluted and, at times, illogical. That's a significant part of the film's surreal, unsettling charm, especially taken in contrast with its minimal set-up (there's virtually no exposition) and minimal locations (a hospital interior).

Lo Chi-Leung's masterpiece is, in its way, the Hong Kong Mulholland Drive. The tone is entirely liquid, relationship dynamics in perpetual flux, with the darker nooks and crannies of the female psyche navigated by a male auteur who should probably know better.

Okay, the Lynch reference is a stretch, but Koma is hardly an easy film to get your critical footing in. Maybe Persona would've made for a better point of comparison? Either way, co-stars Angelica Lee and Karena Lam admirably hold their own against the historic pairings of Watts/Harring and Andersson/Ullman. That much I'm sure of; the rest is grey--but brilliantly so.

Mr. Socrates
This one's easier to parse than Koma, but no less bizarre in terms of sudden tonal shifts--from camp ne'er-do-well comedy to camp gangster flick to camp going-back-to-school pic to camp tearjerker. Right, there's a reoccurring theme here. When I said above that all six of these are good that didn't preclude less edifying pleasures. Mr. Socrates is pretty funny when it's trying to be (hence "good"), but it's hysterical when it's not (hence golden).

Another look at the love/hate nature of female relationships--except here, the "hate" part quickly, and quite extremely, takes center stage. Yukihiko Tsutsumi's movie seems very directly inspired by "Living Conditions," the season four Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode wherein SMG suspects her annoying roommate is evil. Turns out the roommate (who blasts Cher's "Believe" 24/7) is, in fact, a demon. Here, they're both just bitches.

Woman Is the Future of Man After finally investigating Hong Sang-soo, I'm duly impressed though not totally convinced the heaps of hyperbole are justified. This, in a nutshell, is Y Tu Mama Tambien by way of Woody Allen, but set in Seoul as opposed to Manhattan or Mexico. Hong's touch is certainly singular, making expert comic use of a narrative rhyme scheme that moves in teasing fits and starts. And then, once the film really starts gaining steam and focus: cut to black, roll credits. A very shrewd move in a very good movie.

I'm not done investigating yet either. With the level of wit and stylistic maturity on display here, it's not hard to imagine that Hong's already made his Annie Hall. This one's more a Hannah and Her Sisters. Jeong Yong-jin's playful score is the best part.


Must Love Dogs

Must-see movies: 2007


01. Ballon Rouge
Now is the time to freak out.

02. Syndromes and a Century Apichatpong Weerasethakul is on a roll, too. Word is his latest doesn't disappoint.

03. Black Book I'm not sure whether the fact that people who typically turn their nose up at Verhoeven apparently really like this one is a good sign or not--I mean, I liked Hollow Man--but I'm certainly curious to find out.

04. Into Great Silence
I've been dying to see this fascinating-sounding film for what feels like a very long time. My anticipation hasn't faded, but at this point, I may have to wait for the DVD.

05. The Unforeseen This Terrence Malick-exec produced doc seems to be the one to see from this year's Sundance crop.


06. Offside (Jafar Panahi)
07. I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang)
08. Summer Palace (Lou Ye)
09. Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira)
10. The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk/Norman Cohn)


01. Retribution It's bad enough that I still haven't tracked down K. Kurosawa's '05 effort, Loft. I'll be damned if I miss this one, which looks even better.

02. Sakuran
I was sold when I heard that Shiina Ringo scored this movie, but the glowing reviews and mouth-watering trailers don't hurt, either.

03. Southland Tales This is one, not being too huge a fan of Richard Kelly, that sucked me in on premise/oddness/subject matter/divisive buzz alone. Oh, and SMG.

04. Nightmare Detective I don't know much at all about Shinya Tsukamoto's latest, but he's getting better and better with each film, and I hope that climb continues.

05. Paprika Another newest-by-director-I-like pick, with the stunning previews pushing it into my top 5.

The rest:

06. Black Book (Paul Verhoeven)
07. Dark Matter (Shi-Zheng Chen)
08. Breath (Kim Ki-duk)
09. Ballon Rouge (Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
10. Tekkon Kinkreet (Michael Arias)


Love is Trouble

Proclaiming itself a “fairy tale tragedy,” Memories of Matsuko is one of the more morally ambiguous flights of musical fancy I’ve come across. Director Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls) imbues this novel adaptation of a hapless girl’s decade-spanning existence with flourishing colors, show-stopping tunes, and a flawless cast—but the position the film holds, the message it’s trying to give, is hard to read.

The title character begins the film as a box of ashes, in possession of her formerly estranged brother, after being beaten to death near a river. Said brother hands the task of emptying Matsuko’s apartment to his son Sho, her nephew. As Sho fishes through his late aunt’s filthy, unlivable apartment, he unravels the details of her life after leaving home and being disowned by her family. Nakashima does a bang-up job with the visuals, the music, and the way both fit into their respective time periods. For the first half of the 130 minute runtime, it’s an utter delight.

Unfortunately, as Godlike figure Matsuko, the incredibly impressive Miki Nakatani is screwed over by nearly everyone she meets, while drifting from one abusive relationship to the next. She remains loyal, loving, and forgiving to the men who treat her like trash—an unpleasant trait that seems meant to provoke admiration. Too often her suffering is accompanied by zany music and comedy-scene camera angles. It’s a shame, because there are genuinely hilarious, touching moments here that are cheapened because of it.

Oddly enough, the film is nearly redeemed entirely by Asuka Kurosawa as a tough, smart, sexy pornstar/business woman friend of Matsuko’s—one of the few characters who never hurts her, physically or otherwise, and encourages her to leave her current Yakuza-member boyfriend. She breezes into the movie just as it’s starting to feel icky from the barrage of black eyes and Stepford Wife mannerisms our heroine displays, and steals the show, without even having a musical number.


The South Will Rise Again

It's harder to watch Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life, set in Fengjie, China, without thinking of Hurricane Katrina than it is Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan, set in the American South.

In fact, Jia's latest (and possibly his greatest, which is really saying something) feels more in tune with the Katrina disaster and its aftermath than any other film produced in its wake. The specifics vary, of course--Still Life takes place in the Southern region of China that was artificially flooded to make way for the U.S.-backed Three Gorges dam. The theme of displacement, however, with ordinary people swept by the wayside, hits eerily close to home.

Oddly enough, the yin to Still Life's yang might well be Michael Almereyda's underappreciated Happy Here and Now, a messy sci-fi tone poem set in the near future but shot in a pre-Katrina New Orleans. Both films capture, painfully and poetically, the calm before the storm; while Still Life awaits North American distribution, the village where it was shot is now completely submerged in water.

Where Jia's first three films registered the influence of Italian Neorealism, Still Life feels more discernibly indebted to Antonioni's architectural mise-en-scene, a trend that first seemed present in his fourth feature, 2004's The World. Without sacrificing a shred of empathy for his cautiously optimistic, mostly working class characters, Jia has progressively heightened the formalist nature of his aesthetic, balanced with a few sly surrealist touches. To be sure, the film's lush, almost tropical locale provides a welcome opportunity for Jia's career-long DP Nelson Yu Lik-wai to shine. The high-def DV master lends Still Life a Malick-like view of natural wonder, of ephemeral beauty in peril. The result is a profoundly sad movie--a masterful meditation on loss.

Black Snake Moan is an altogether stranger animal. Craig Brewer's follow-up to the good-if-not-especially-interesting Hustle and Flow is an unexpectedly audacious and uncommonly passionate film (especially for a wide studio release). It's a fucked-up fairy tale, if you will--a skewed Pygmalion relocated to a small, nondescript Tennessee town populated by downwardly mobile folks. The heroine? A drug-abusing, sex-addicted piece of rebel trash (well-played by Christina Ricci), nursed back to physical--and "spiritual"--health by a kindly, Bible-thumping black guitarist (a never-better Samuel L. Jackson).

It's easy to accuse this movie of misogyny, racism, yankee snobbery, and even puritanism--too easy. Inevitably divisive, the film succeeds on the strength of its performances (Justin Timberlake is terrific, too, as Ricci's character's fiance) and its convictions. Brewer's vantage point is far from nonjudgmental, but it's never mean-spirited. Remarkably, in its willingness to tackle social issues without shying away from moral ones, Black Snake Moan feels something like a Dardenne brothers film.

Okay, fine: A Dardenne brothers film by way of Larry Clark and Lynyrd Skynyrd.


The More I See the Less I Know

The '07 list, now up here, consists thus far exclusively of singles: Diddy's best (and strangest) offering since the (unfairly maligned) Police rip (if not ever); a binoculars all-star remix of a so-so Fat Joe track about throwing money on women; a minimalist statement of intent that tours the U.S. of A.--slyly sampling Dre, E-40, and Kanye along the way--in attempt to "prove" that Mims is, in fact, hot; one of the more remarkably lovely entries in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' generally samey catalogue; M.I.A.'s sophomore LP lead-off, which I'm still not quite sure about, though I'm pleased at any rate to see that she hasn't shied away from the third-world militant angle; and one of the highlights from the second Game CD.

As always, the list will be updated throughout the year.