The One I Love (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4): A couple’s weird weekend

theonelive02 Playing well with its intriguing surreal premise, “The One I Love” throws us a number of intriguing questions on love and relationship. Do we love our life partners as who they really are or as whom we think they are? And what can possibly happen if the difference between reality and wish suddenly become more visible than ever to both sides?

The movie begins with a seemingly mundane couple therapy between Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss), who are recently going through a difficult time due to the increasing distance between them. While there was a time when they felt lots of passion, excitement, and happiness between them, but now they look, well, accustomed to each other without much heat, and they flatly recall when they once attempted to energize their relationship through the recreation of their old adventure during one night.

After reminding them of the existence of mutual disharmony between them, their kind therapist (Ten Danson) recommends Ethan and Sophie a special place for problematic couples like them. Located somewhere outside the city, this remote place is where they can stay totally alone while having a nice private time of their own during weekend, and it seems this place did help many other couples, as reflected by several positive comments they wrote before leaving.

While not expecting a lot from their weekend retreat, Ethan and Sophie become a little more relaxed than before after they arrive in a big house which also has a guest house placed next to it for no apparent reason. They enjoy dinner together, and they also have a little fun with marijuana later, and it really feels like they can finally bring some sparks to their relationship as solving whatever problems they are struggling with.

theonelive03 Now I really have to be more tactful in describing how they come to sense something weird and then realize that they are indeed in a very strange situation. I had enough fun with the movie although I was partially informed about its plot beforehand, but one of its main pleasures comes from how it lets its surreal premise gradually emerge from ordinary realistic environment, so, though I will try as much as I can for avoiding potential spoilers in the next paragraphs of my review, I recommend you to watch the movie for yourself right now instead if you are interested enough at this point.

I will not go into details on a couple of incidents which baffle both Sophie and Ethan or what they eventually discover on the next day as trying to understand what is really going on between them. All I can tell you is that they are understandably disturbed and scared by their discovery at first but then they cannot help but be intrigued by this. It is true that they do not entirely understand the whole situation, but, as having some time to think straight at the diner in a nearby town, they agree with each other that this can be a good opportunity for their relationship. They are still not comfortable with what they have found, but Sophie is willing to try an experiment with it, and Ethan follows her decision despite his reluctance. After all, it is surely something new they have not tried before, isn’t it?

As they dig deeper into their situation with caution and curiosity, more strange things happen in front of them and us, the first-time director Charlie McDowell, who is the son of Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, did a smooth job in building up the uneasy sense of ambiguity inside the limited main background of his film. Justic Ladder’s screenplay is smart and witty as generating equal amounts of humor and tension from its main character’s extraordinary circumstance, and it wisely does not try to explain everything in the story as suggesting some sinister intention lurking around the background. Later in the story, Ethan is more disturbed to learn that someone made calls to his family and others close to him for some questions, and then he discovers a mysterious place whose purpose is not very clear – but it become more apparent to him and us that this weekend may be the last one for his relationship with Sophie.

small_theonelive04 The movie basically revolves around its two actors, and Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss give multi-faceted performances to be appreciated for subtleties and nuances. Their respective roles put them into a number of scenes tricky to handle for good reasons, but Duplass and Moss are believable in every step of theirs. We instantly accept them as a couple who has been accustomed to each other for years, and both actors have lots of fun with their challenging but interesting tasks, and their dynamic chemistry gets constantly shifted along the plot to our amusement. Duplass, who also participated in the production of the film, shows here again that he is a fun actor to watch besides his several good directorial efforts, and Moss, who was wonderful in TV series “Mad Men” as well as TV miniseries “Top of the Lake”, is particularly impressive at a certain moment of choice around the finale of the movie.

“The One I Love” is a small thriller drama worthwhile to watch for its odd mood and engaging main performances, and it also has one or two insightful things to tell you about marriage. As one of my acquaintances once pointed out, marriage needs something more than romance and heat, and sometimes you need to find a way to live with imperfections if you really want to preserve your marriage. Does our couple in the movie really find such a way in the end? Well, you figure it out for yourself.

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Coming Home (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Forgotten From Her

small_cominghome04  Restrained in its somber attitude, “Coming Home” is a sentimental drama reticent on its historical subject. While not saying a lot about the horror behind a key historical event which still haunts everyone in the story, the movie instead focuses on their difficulties in dealing with what has been left to them in the aftermath, and its quiet but touching moments compensate for its loose plot with predicable turns and underdeveloped elements.

The movie is based on the novel by Yan Geling, whose another work “13 Flowers of Nanjing” was adapted into “The Flowers of War” (2011) by the director Zhang Yimou. It begins right in the middle of the original story, and you can clearly see that from the start even if you did not read Yan’s novel. After the opening shot showing a man on the run, we meet Feng Wanuy (Gong Li) and her ballerina daughter Dan Dan (Zhang Huvian), and they are notified by a local official that Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming), Feng’s intellectual husband, has escaped from a labor camp.

It was the time when China was going through the pick of the Cultural Revolution, and it goes without saying that Yanshi was punished along with many other intellectuals by the Red Guards during that violent, destructive period. The movie never directly shows the madness of that time, but it indirectly depicts the oppression put upon Wanuy and Dan Dan, who have been labeled as the family of a reactionary figure since Yanshi’s arrest. After their home is visited by local cops looking for any information about Yanshi’s whereabouts, there is always a guy watching on an apartment building Wanuy and Dan Dan reside in, and they must be more careful about their behaviors.

cominghome05 As expected, Yanshi comes back to his home while managing to avoid the police in his shabby appearance, and we get a suspenseful sequence as he tries to get into the apartment building and make a contact with his dear wife while not being noticed by others. They are only separated by a door between them at one point, but both Yanshi and Wanuy are paralyzed in each own anxious state; they somehow sense each other’s presence, but they know too well what may possibly happen under this uncertain situation in which they cannot sure about anything.

Yanshi eventually decides to leave a note to his wife instead of seeing her, but he happens to be noticed by Dan Dan, who then reports to the police about this mainly because she was not chosen as the lead dancer of an upcoming public ballet performance due to his father’s social status. While she notices her daughter’s betrayal, Wanuy is still determined to meet her husband again, and that leads to a heart-wrenching moment at the train station as both mother and daughter feel helpless in front of what is going on in front of them.

The Cultural Revolution is ended with Mao Zedong’s death not long after that, and Dan Dan, who is now working as a factory worker, is notified that her father will finally return after his official release. While looking frazzled after long years of injustice inflicted on him, Yanshi is eager to meet his wife again, but, to his dismay, Wanuy cannot recognize him at all, and she even confuses him with a guy she is still scared of (the movie never goes deep into what she had to endure during those years, except implying that some local official sexually abused her before being sent to somewhere in the end).

While devastated by the fact that his wife has been suffering from some sort of amnesia, Yanshi decides to stay around Wanuy while being helped by Dan Dan, who is willing to do anything for her parents as atonement. He approaches to his wife as a new neighbor, and he tries several attempts which may bring back her memories of him, but he is reminded again and again of how much he is forgotten by her. He is certainly happy to be allowed to be near her, but it is also painful for him to watch his wife eagerly waiting for his return even while he is right in front of her.

cominghome06 In contrast to his recent epic period films such as “Hero” (2002), “Curse of the Golden Flower” (2006), and “The Flowers of War” (2011), Zhang Yimou tries a small intimate drama here, and that naturally takes us back to his early films including “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991), “The Story of Qui Ju” (1992), and “To Live” (1994). While looking polished in its period setting thanks to its nice cinematography and production design, the movie sticks to its realistic mood as observing its downtrodden characters, and its actors are convincing in their unforced performances as the people living in that harsh era.

This is the first collaboration between Zhang and his usual leading actress Gong Li since “Curse of the Golden Flower”, and this beautiful talented actress shows us that she is approaching to her middle age with grace and beauty. While the movie is not exactly her best moment compared to her memorably diverse performances in Zhang’s previous films, Gong did a solid job as a tragic woman who may be damaged beyond repair, and she is supported well by veteran actor Chen Daoming and newcomer Zhang Huivan, whose characters respectively represent two estranged generations with a wide guilt-ridden generation gap resulted from one of the darkest chapters of modern Chinese history.

While reminding me of other similar films such as “The Notebook” (2004) and “Away From Her” (2006), “Coming Home” feels sincere in its low-key melodramatic plot, and its wordless ending is poignant with a glimmer of small tentative hope. The damage is irrevocably done, and they can never go back to where they were, but at least they can do something to heal themselves.

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Tom at the Farm (2013) ☆☆☆(3/4) : His lover, His brother, and His mother

small_tomatthefarm01 It just looked like a simple visit at first – but then it is gradually turned into something which is very twisted to say the least. Xavier Dolan’s “Tom at the Farm” is a darkly fascinating psychological thriller with quiet but disturbing moments to makes us uneasy, and it keeps us on the edge as watching its deeply troubled characters who happen to be stuck with each other under the same roof. While we do not know everything about them even in the end, the dark aspects of their warped relationships are compelling to watch, and we can help but observe them while fearing for the worst.

At the beginning, we meet a young gay lad named Tom, played by the director/co-screenplay writer Xaiver Dolan, a 25-year-old director who has quickly established himself as a new exciting talent to watch since his acclaimed debut film “I Killed My Mother” (2009). Although the movie does not give much information on Tom or Tom’s relationship with his dead lover Guillaume in the past, the opening scene succinctly sets his melancholic mental state as showing his mournful words being written on cloth; he tells us he cannot even cry over his lover’s death, and we only can guess how much he is sad and distraught because of his personal loss.

For attending Guillaume’s upcoming funeral, he goes to Guillaume’s rural hometown where he has never visited before, and he naturally feels like a stranger right from when he arrives at Guillaume’s family house. Although Guillaume’s aging mother Agathe (Lisa Roy) seems to be glad to meet the close friend of her dead son and lets Tom stay in Guillaume’s bedroom she has always kept clean and intact for years, she has never heard about Tom from Guillaume, and she does not even know about her son’s sexuality either. She was only told that Guillaume had a girlfriend, and she wonders why his girlfriend does not come to attend his funeral.

small_tomatthefarm02 That lie came from Guillaume’s older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who has been running the family farm as the man of the house. He literally swoops upon Tom during Tom’s first night at the house, and this aggressive guy makes it very clear to Tom during their uncomfortably close confrontation on Guillaume’s bed that he must go along with the deception Francis has maintained for his mother during many years. All Tom will have to do on the next day looks simple; he will say something nice during the funeral as Guillaume’s good friend, and then he will never come back to this town.

Still remaining vulnerable in his mind, Tom tries to do things as demanded by Francis on the next day, but then his situation gets more complicated. He fails to read what he wrote for the funeral, and that certainly displeases Francis, who makes another moment of his bullying aggression on Tom right after the service is over. Tom wants to leave as soon as possible after such a humiliating experience, but he somehow gets himself stuck in the house along with Francis and Agathe.

He soon finds himself gripped by the cruel and manipulative tactics of Francis, who reveals more of his dark, violent, twisted sides in front of his increasingly nervous prey. Tom notices at one point that there is something between Francis and other people in the town, but neither Francis nor town people tells Tom the reason behind that awkwardness, and it is only implied that Francis’ reputation is not that good around his town.

And we see more of a morbid daily life led by Francis and Agathe, which may eventually engulf and transform Tom in the end if he is not careful. While Francis harasses Tom like an abusive husband as pushing him into more farm works, it turns out that his seemingly fragile mother has a tight grip on her son, who has been dreaming of the escape from his boring home but does not dare to resist against his mom. There is a question on whether Agathe has chosen to turn a blind eye on the truths about her dead son, and the way she obliviously clings to the memories of her dead son looks as grotesque as what Francis may feel about Tom. Did he dominate over his brother just like he did to Tom? And does he expect Tom to fill the role left empty by his brother?

small_tomatthefarm03 While throwing some moments of black humor, Dolan, who also produced and edited the film while filling the role of costume designer as usual, keeps the tension accumulated along his story which is based on his co-screenplay writer Michel Marc Bouchard’s stage play with the same name. While his previous film “Lawrence Anyways” (2012) was full of light, colorful touches as following an offbeat story of its transsexual hero and his long-suffering wife, “Tom at the Farm” is moody and nervous under its cold, gray atmosphere accompanied with wide, barren landscapes, and it is further accentuated by Gabiel Yared’s ominous score which functions like the bad omens of something terrible to happen. Dolan sometimes modulates the screen ratio to emphasize tension during the key moments in the film, and this interesting approach is effective on the emotional level rather than being a mere stylish touch to be added to the screen.

As the lead actor, Dolan also gives a good performance, and he draws equally engaging performances from his co-performers. Pierre-Yves Cardinal and Lise Roy are impressive as suggesting far more disturbing things behind their twisted characters on the verge of insanity, and Evelyne Brochu, who appears later in the film as the sole voice of sanity, holds her place well as her crucial supporting character belatedly realizes what kind of sick situation she is brought into.

“Tom at the Farm” is a confident work made with evident skills, and it confirms that there will be more interesting things to come from Xavier Dolan. I must confess that I had some reservation on “Lawrence Anyways” while praising it, but I was impressed by Dolan’s talent none the less, and I admire how willingly he puts himself into a different territory in this following film. It has considerable control and energy on the whole, and that is why I eagerly wait for the next film from this Canadian enfant terrible.

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An elegant Japanese folk tale

The-Tale-of-Princess-Kaguya  Japanese animation film “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” dazzles us with elegant style to enjoy and haunting tale to reflect on. Based on the 10th century Japanese folk tale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, this simple but superlative animation film entertains us with lots of lovely moments, and then it touches us with its poignant story about a good-natured heroine who simply wants to be happy and live as herself.

The first act of the film is about how she was found and raised by her foster parents. When an old bamboo cutter (voiced by Takeo Chii, who died not long after finishing his work on this film) is working in a bamboo forest near his country village as usual on one day, he encounters a strange incident; a bamboo suddenly glows, and then a bamboo sprout quickly grows near that bamboo, and he discovers a miniature girl inside that bamboo sprout. Enchanted by this little girl who looks fragile in his hand, the Bamboo Cutter brings her to his home to show her to his wife (voiced by Nobuko Miyamoto), and then, to their surprise, this little girl is suddenly transformed into a baby they can hold more easily.

It becomes pretty clear to everyone that she is not an ordinary girl at all. She grows so rapidly like a bamboo that it does not take much time for her to walk for herself, and she soon gets her nickname: Little Bamboo. Although there is something odd about Little Bamboo (voiceed by Aki Asakura), she and other kids in the village hang around together well thanks to her spirited innocence, and then she comes across a village boy named Sutemaru (voiced by Kengo Kora) during another pleasant day of her life. She was like a little sister to him at first, but, as watching them having more time together, we can see that their mutual attachment may grow into something more matured someday.

thetaleofprincesskaguya02 Meanwhile, the Bamboo Cutter gets a sort of messages that Little Bamboo is indeed a special girl he must take care of well. Some mysterious force sends him a considerable amount of gold along with heaps of priceless dress material, so he buys a huge mansion in the Capital, and everything is rapidly changed for Little Bamboo as soon as she leaves the village with her foster parents. Now she and her parents live in a far more affluent environment while served by many maids and servants in their big mansion, and she also begins her education as a future noblewoman under the tutelage of her fastidious teacher Lady Sagami (voiced by Atsuko Takahata).

Of course, that does not go very well with a spirited girl like Little Bamboo, who does not have much interest in becoming some nobleman’s wife. She succeeds in relieving her teacher and her father through her natural grace and talent, and she gets her formal name ‘Princess Kaguya’ when she grows enough to be recognized as an adult woman, but then there is a heartbreaking moment when she happens to eavesdrop on several male guests’ rude comments on her during a big party celebrating her christening. In one of the most memorable moments in the film, we see her painful feelings virtually erupting with wild, bold animation style; her inner conflict feels palpable to us through raw, dynamic motions of character and background on the screen, and then the movie finds a way to regain its gentle composure in a way both surprising and effortless.

For her father, Princess Kaguya decides to accept her situation while finding a loophole. As the words about her beauty and elegance are spread around the Capital, a bunch of potential suitors gather in front of the front gate of her house everyday, and she is soon visited by a group of powerful noblemen eager to marry her. In a very funny moment, she shrewdly uses their own flattering words against them, and that leads to more hilarious moments later in the story.

One particular scene is simply masterful in its execution. As listening to a man attempting to appeal to her emotionally, Princess Kaguya begins to have a doubt on whether she really should stick to her position, and we comes to see a growing certain possibility as she listens more to this guy. I will not go into details about how this scene will end, but let’s say that its dramatic payoff is very funny and then becomes very sad with our increasing sympathy on Princess Kaguya, who might have been happier if she had just been allowed to be herself with no pretension as living in her old home.

thetaleofprincesskaguya07  The movie is directed by Isao Takahata, who has been a prominent figure in Studio Ghibli like his fellow director Hayao Miyazaki. Takahata’s most famous work is “Grave of the Fireflies” (1988), and it is probably the saddest animation film I have ever seen in my life. That film is very powerful as a harrowing war drama about two young siblings gradually pushed into the deep bottom of despair by the harsh reality of war, and, though I only watched it twice a long time ago, I still vividly remember many of its sad, tragic moments which make its depressing opening scene look more like a happy ending whenever I reflect on it.

Takahata has been relatively silent for more than 10 years since his last major work “My Neighbors the Yamadas” (1999), but “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” shows that Takahata, who will be 80 in the next year, is still at his prime. Its fabulous hand-drawn animation evokes the texture of Chinese watercolor paintings while amusing our eyes with small and big details to notice on the screen, and I also like some nice visual touches on its broad supporting characters including Princess Kaguya’s maid, who becomes more lovable as we see more of her.

The story and characters in the film are also handled with care as remained simple and direct. While he loves Princess Kaguya as much as his wife, the Bamboo Cutter is not sharp enough to see how he comes to push his precious daughter into unhappiness, and we understand how he comes to confuse his social success with his daughter’s happiness. His wife knows better as a wise woman, and she provides her daughter a private place where they can relax themselves in their former lifestyle for a while. The Japanese cast for the original version did an excellent job in their voice performances, and notable Hollywood actors including Chloë Grace Moretz. James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Lucy Liu, Beau Bridges, James Marsden, Oliver Platt, and George Segal provided character voices in case of the English version of the film.

While the future of Studio Ghibli recently becomes rather uncertain especially after Miyazaki’s retirement followed by his last work “The Wind Rises” (2013), “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” reminds us that there are still magic and wonder to watch from this legendary animation film studio. Considering its finale coming with fateful inevitability, I wonder now whether “The Tale of Princess Kaguya” will be Takahata’s Swan song in the end, but I guess we should be happy for now at least to see such a terrific work from an old master who has not lost none of his skills yet.

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) ☆☆(2/4) : Is he back yet?

thehobbit304 Now we finally arrive at “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies”, the final chapter of a bloated trilogy which just went on and on in the previous films and then gets sunken into one very, very, very long climax packed with countless CGI spectacles and numerous fight scenes we are not so excited about. While there are indeed good moments reminding us of the wonder of the Middle-earth vividly imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien, it feels so jumbled and unbalanced as riddled with unnecessary story elements, and my mind kept being distracted by how to describe to you on 1) who are the major players and 2) what their motives are and 3) where their positions are in their fateful battle where some of them may not survive.

The movie starts straight after the cliffhanger scene of “The Hobbit: the Desolation of Smaug” (2013). Enraged by the unwelcomed visit of our lovable hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and 13 dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage), Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a greedy giant dragon who has occupied the grand hall inside the Mountain Erebor since his invasion, wrecks a havoc on a nearby lake town using his fiery power, so we get a long CGI action sequence in which lots of town people desperately try to flee from Smaug’s wrathful air raid as their town is being burned down.

Fortunately, Bard (Luke Evans), a decent boatman with natural nobility inherited from his ancestor, finds Smaug’ one fatal weakness during the last minute of his lone stand against this seemingly unstoppable monster. While being regarded as the hero of his town after Smaug’s death, Bard reluctantly takes the role of the leader, and he soon leads his people to a ruined city near the Mountain Erebor for securing their temporary shelter and having a negotiation with Thorin, who previously promised them a portion of the treasures stored inside the mountain.

But Thorin has no intention to keep his promise, and Bilbo and the other dwarves are disturbed by his changed attitude. Due to ‘dragon sickness’, Thorin becomes increasingly greedy and obsessive as holding himself more to the enormous wealth inside their former home, and, as watching Thorin’s hostile attitude toward Bard, Bilbo sees that he really should do something about this troubling circumstance.

thehobbit305  And the situation becomes more complicated as the elves led by Thranduil (Lee Pace) arrive at the scene. While still coldly pissed about the escape of Bilbo and the dwarves from his place, Thranduil also wants some treasures inside the Mountain Erebor, so Bard makes an alliance with Thranduil to pressure Thorin, though a battle is the last thing he wants at this point. Maintaining his adamant position, Thorin still does not change his mind despite being cornered by Thranduil and Bard, and it does not take much time for us to see that Thorin also has a plan he and others can depend on for a good reason.

M eanwhile, we also see a big danger approaching to the Mountain Erebor. There is a massive army of Orcs led by vengeful Azog (Manu Bennett) who has been chasing after Thorin and his comrades, and Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) belatedly discover that there is another army of darkness being ready to make an attack along with Azog’s Orcs.

In case of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), he is still held as a helpless prisoner of the dark force which has been believed to be destroyed a long time ago. Fortunately, he is rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and others at the last minute, but it becomes quite clear to everyone that their old enemy will rise again someday, so Gandalf hurriedly leaves for the Mountain Erebor for persuading men, elves, and dwarves to stick together against their common enemy.

thehobbit301  The battle begins not long after his arrival, and we get the usual wide shots showing lots of various CGI soldiers to clash with each other, and the movie also provides a plenty of nasty creatures including big giant worms which may be the cousins of those sandworms in “Dune”(1984) and a flock of freakish bats which might have been imported from Transylvania. We continue to see the characters fighting and fighting and fighting on the screen while getting a little sense of direction or scale, and the movie sometimes feels far more dragged as it clumsily tries several serious moments of character development.

The actors in the movie mostly go through motions as demanded while doing whatever they can do with their respective roles. Martin Freeman, who has grown on us through his engaging performance, is especially good when Bilbo has no choice but to rise to the occasions even though he rather prefers to enjoy a nice cup of afternoon tea at his dear home in Hobbiton, but his performance is unfortunately overshadowed by the endless stream of fights scenes, and the same thing can be said about Ian McKellen, who is more busier with wielding his wooden staff in front of enemies. While Richard Armitage gives a more intense and brooding performance as a guy finding himself literally engulfed by his greed and obsession, his co-actors playing the other dwarves are not so distinguishable from each other (I admire Gandalf’s ability to tell them apart from each other even when he happens to spot them from the distance), and a passable romantic subplot between Kili (Aidan Turner) and Tuariel does not help much either.

“The Hobbit: the Battle of the Five Armies” is not a total disaster, but it is instead a total misfire with many miscalculations made by the director Peter Jackson, who should have stuck to an original two-movie plan at least. Although it goes without saying that he and his crew tried to stuff their bloated production with lots of efforts, the movie still feels like something which easily could have been compressed into the last act of a single feature film, and the result becomes quickly tiresome for us as it drones on and on during its running time more than 2 hours. I was bored and depressed as watching it with decreasing enthusiasm during last evening, and I begin to think about how much I was excited with The Lord of the Rings Trilogy during the early 2000s. As its obligatory final scene suggests, you can simply go back to that trilogy, and you will probably have a better quality time as appreciating more of Tolkien’s beloved fantasy world which will be cherished as much as before.

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Stranger by the Lake (2013) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Lust, Sex, and….

stranger-by-the-lake05 Right from its first act, “Stranger by the Lake” strikes us with its frank, direct presentation of nudity and sex. While naked male bodies are usual sights as required by its story and background, the movie never pulls its punches in case of sex scenes, and I must tell you that it has many steamy moments in which its gay characters hurl themselves into carnal passion as summer days idly go by at their idyllic cruising spot.

Now you know that it is a queer film, so you are probably not interested in watching it, but “Stranger by the Lake” is a mesmerizing thriller film too good to be missed. While being daring and blatant in the matter of lust and love, the movie grabs and toys you with its sly, sensitive handling of its mood and characters, and then it becomes more gripping as its plot gets thickens with increasing uneasiness below its bright façade.

As its hero looks for another excitement during one sunny summer day, the movie shows us the usual activities around a cruising spot by some rural lake. While the time and location are not specified, we can only infer from dialogues that it is probably around the time when gay people have become more aware of AIDS and other venereal diseases. When Franck (Pierre Deladonchamps) and his latest sex partner are about to have an intercourse, their situation becomes a little amusing because it turns out that neither of them has a condom, and Frank has no choice but to go with a safer alternative which is surely less satisfying to him.

As the movie sticks its viewpoint inside this cruising spot with its austere approach exemplified by the absence of music on its soundtrack, we come to know more about many secret things happening everyday around this private place. While naked or half-naked guys are idling around the beach, some of them go swimming in the lake (swimsuit is an option, by the way) or go inside a nearby forest where many men are eagerly looking for any chance of sex. There are always nice spots in the bushes where they can enjoy themselves in private, and we even meet a naughty guy who frequently watches on others in action (do I have to tell you that his right hand is right on his certain male body part?).

stranger-by-the-lake03 And we also get to know a bit about Henri (Patrick D’Assumçao), a plump lumberjack guy who seems to want to spend daytime alone unlike others. Probably because he cannot possibly look attractive compared to those young, good-looking guys on the beach, he just stays on the far corner of the beach as looking around those tranquil sceneries of the lake, and he prefers to be clothed in his casual attire, though he does take off his shirts at times. Out of curiosity, Franck approaches to Henri, and these two different guys quickly become close as having more conversation with each other, but we see nothing getting heated between Franck and Henri, who always looks like musing on something inside his head as fretfully folding his arms.

Anyway, Franck’s attention is currently headed to a hunky guy named Michel (Christophe Paou). When Michel comes out of the lake after his swimming during one scene, the movie makes it pretty clear us that he is no less than an irresistible object of lust to Franck, and his thick mustache a la Tom Selleck certainly adds extra sexiness to his masculine charm which quickly has Franck in thrall.

Franck is discouraged to know that Michel already has a partner, but he still feels attracted to Michel, and then he happens to witness something serious when the day is being over. As the camera calmly observes what is happening on the lake during one voyeuristic longtake shot to be admired for the precision in its visual storytelling, the movie smoothly switches itself to Hitchcockian mode, and it is turned into a tantalizing dance between lust and danger as Franck faces a very uncomfortable situation. He may just look away as gladly getting what he wishes for, but he is constantly reminded of lethal possibility – especially when Inspector Damroder (Jérôme Chappatte) begins to snoop around the cruising spot for any possible clue for his case.

stranger-by-the-lake04 But he cannot possibly say no to what follows after that incident, and the movie maintains its frank attitude toward its carnal business as Franck is helplessly tumbled toward whatever might be waiting for him in the end. While the movie sometimes approaches to the level of hardcore in a couple of shots (of course, body doubles were hired for these shots), the gay sex scenes in the film are shown with a considerable amount of heat and intimacy while imbued with a delicate touch of mystery and lyricism at times, and Pierre Deladonchamps and Christophe Paou are as daring as Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux in Abdellatif Kechiche’s “Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013), which also drew lots of attention for its no-hold-barred depiction of lesbian sex scenes.

As implied by its title, the movie is influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller masterpiece “Strangers on a Train” (1951), and the director/writer Alain Guiraudie, who received the Directing Prize for this film in the Un Certain Regard category of the Cannes Film Festival in last year, did a masterful job of modulating suspense along his story which literally gets darker in the end. While the lake and its surrounding areas in the film are fabulous to watch for their leisurely beauty which further emphasizes the tension growing around the characters, the movie also shows a sense of humor with its several colorful supporting characters such as that amusing voyeur or Henri, whose feeling toward Franck may be a little more than friendship (It must be mentioned that Patrick D’Assumçao holds his place well in his wry supporting performance).

It goes without saying that “Stranger by the Lake” is something which is not for everyone, but it is an excellent work made with skills and eroticism, and I came to enjoy its mood and story while shocked, amused, and impressed by its honest handling of sexuality. Although its stark, ambiguous finale is a little frustrating to some of you, this finale feels more like an inevitable destination rather than an easy cop-out, and it will probably take you back to that old proverb: Be careful of what you wish for – you may get it.

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The Theory of Everything (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4): The Theory of Love, so to speak.

theoryofeverything01Needless to say, the life of Dr. Stephen Hawking is an inspiring story to tell. When he was about to begin his promising academic career, he was diagnosed to have Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and it was assumed that he had only two years to live at most. However, he has not only continued to live despite his gradually deteriorating physical condition but also established himself as one of the leading theoretical physicists in the world, and his struggle of long years has inspired many people especially since he came into public consciousness with the publication of “A Brief History of Time”, which is still waiting to be read in my bookshelf.

While it does have emotionally strong moments to touch our lacrimal glands, “The Theory of Everything” remains as a standard biopic film which deals its subject in a soft, respectable way as focusing more on emotion than reason, and you may be disappointed if you want to know more than what has already been known about Dr. Hawking and his dramatic life story. Its second half is weaker than the first half mainly because it gives us a superficial (and sanitized) version of how the relationship between Hawking and his first wife was eventually eroded in the end, and I came to wonder whether the filmmakers had a little too much respect toward them to show everything including warts and all about them. Despite all these flaws, the movie is supported well by its two commedable Oscar season performances, and they make it a little more special than an average biopic.

The movie begins its story around 1963, when young Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) was a graduate student at Cambridge. His immense talent as a future scientist is quickly recognized by his professor and colleagues, and Professor Dennis Sciama (David Thewlis) gladly encourages his bright pupil to set his first step toward the academia. Although it takes some time for Hawking to decide on the subject of his doctoral thesis, he quickly starts his research once he decided his subject, and we see him fully concentrating on those complex mathematical equations written on his blackboard.

theoryofeverything06 Meanwhile, he happens to meet Jane Wilde (Felicity Jone) at a campus pub. As an awkward atheist lad majoring in cosmology and a perky Christian girl majoring in medieval Spanish poetry, they cannot possibly be more different from each other, but something clicks between them, so they come to spend more time with each other as recognizing their difference worldviews. This is surely something we have seen from many romance films, but Jones and Redmayne have a good chemistry as our lovely couple, so we do not mind about watching them in their blissful courtship coupled with a bit of intelligent discussion on the universe and the existence of God.

However, as it has been implied through a few minor moments, it turns out that Hawking’s body has been weakening due to ALS, and he is utterly devastated by this bad news. He becomes more isolated and depressed, and, as his body condition gets only worse day by day,  he finds it more difficult to move his body, and more despair and frustration follow.  Redmayne, who is guaranteed to be Oscar-nominated for his fully committed performance here in this film, is captivating to watch in his heartbreaking portrayal of this terrible degenerative disease, and we get the glimpses of the darkest time in Hawking’s life as he locks himself from the world outside in his deep desperation.

Hawking eventually becomes more determined to pursue his academic career, and Jane, who reached to him even when he did not want her to be around him, stands by him with admirable dedication. They marry not long after finding that their bond is still strong despite Hawking’s illness, and they even manage to have children (as Hawking jockingly tells to his friend at one point, his certain body part is still “automatic”). Jones, who also deserves an Oscar nomination for her good performance, fills her character with strong personality to match Redmyane’s, and she and Redmayne create a firm emotional center of the film as their characters struggling with the difficulties of their married life.

theoryofeverything02 The rest of the story follows Hawking’s academic success as we know. As continuing to live longer than expected, he graduates with a doctoral degree, and then he keeps moving on with his new scientific theories on the universe. This is not a very exciting part in the film because it only gives us bits of information about his research, and I must point out that the depiction of his intriguing study on black hole feels too brief, though I was certainly amused by one short scene in which Hawking mentions Dr. Kip Thorne, who recently worked as the scientific adviser for the depiction of that giant black hole in “Interstellar” (2014).

The movie also feels lackluster in its flat depiction of the eventual separation of Hawking and his wife. Jane later finds herself drawn to a handsome church choir director, and their relationship before her divorce in 1995 is mostly kept on the level of soapy platonic love in the film. In case of Hawking, he also finds himself attracted to his nurse, and the movie does not tell a lot about their relationship, which, as some of you may remember, would not last long.

Considering that the director James Marsh did a terrific job on presenting an exceptional real-life story in Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), “The Theory of Everything” feels less distinctive in comparison as a safe product, but Redmayne and Jones are praiseworthy in their heartfelt performances, and they are good enough to recommend the movie. Maybe it should have been called “The Theory of Love” instead considering its rather maudlin attitude, but its sappy heart is all right at least.

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