Though remakes of beloved films are usually met with some degree of warranted skepticism, sometimes the combination of director and material is too enticing to ignore. News that Korean zombie hit Train to Busan would receive an American remake was received with expected derision, but that reaction ignores that the attached director, Timo Tjahjanto, is uniquely suited to packing an enclosed space with exuberantly bloody carnage. In other cases, like that of Guillermo Del Toro’s recent ill-conceived take on Nightmare Alley, it’s usually easy to see what drew the artist to the project in the first place, regardless of the final product’s quality. At first glance, then, it’s baffling that Michel Hazanavicius would remake Japanese comedy horror hit One Cut of the Dead, a film that on the surface is so unlike the director’s more recent output. But look deeper — okay, past the twist at the 40-minute mark — and see One Cut of the Dead as a tedious exercise in metafiction, a movie about the triumphs and pains of moviemaking, and it’s a perfect match for the phony behind The Artist and Godard, Mon Amour.
Final Cut is almost the same movie as its predecessor, only worse. It concerns a director tasked with making a zombie film — one about a director making a zombie film whose set is attacked by real zombies — and opens on that film in full before pulling back and exploring its making. There is one added wrinkle: the movie being made is explicitly a remake of the one made in One Cut of the Dead. This is an opportunity for Hazanavicius to take the material that already exists and add another layer to maybe say something about the act of cinematic reproduction. And in the opening section of the film, which plays like a glossier, shittier version of the original where the white French actors all have Japanese names like Higurashi, it seems like that might be what the filmmaker is moving towards. But then the second half is more or less a mechanical reconstruction of the original film and, aside from struggles with the Japanese producers in charge of the remake, there’s very little in the way of perspective. Besides, the repetition of jokes and sequences from the first film in this “real” half doesn’t just lay bare creative neglect but also pushes the film past the point of believability, as the conditions of the production of their movie match exactly those of the film they’re remaking.
Everything good about Final Cut was already good in One Cut of the Dead, and while plenty of what doesn’t work was never good to begin with, Hazanavicius has fattened the film by 20 minutes to include pretentious middlebrow attempts at elevating the material. The cast of characters and their relationships are the same, almost exactly, but the filmmakers have decided that what One Cut of the Dead needed was more blatant psychological and emotional motivation. To that end, the film expands on the relationship between the director and his daughter to an irritating, precious degree, going so far as to give what was a previously joyous final moment of homespun creativity in the original a weak, sentimental motivation.
But what’s really missing from Final Cut is an attitude. Even skeptics of the original, like this critic, would have a hard time denying that director Shinichiro Ueda’s celebration of the DIY ethos and the scrappiness of making a low-budget movie was genuine. There’s nothing genuine about Hazanavicius, a big-name director whose Oscar win has aged like milk, doing the same thing almost beat for beat in a creatively bankrupt act of cannibalization. Were Final Cut doing anything new as a metafiction, there might have been reason to approach it with generosity. Instead, it’s merely a repackaging of what already worked for someone else, and exactly the kind of movie that it would seek to criticize in its few moments of theoretical clarity.
Writer: Chris Mello
Three Thousand Years of Longing
In brief outline, the premise of Three Thousand Years of Longing, George Miller‘s long-awaited follow-up to Mad Max: Fury Road, sounds like the start of a bad joke: A narratologist (Tilda Swinton) and a Djinn (Idris Elba) walk into a hotel room… Adapted from A. S. Byatt’s short story “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” the film is easily described. While attending an academic conference in Istanbul, London-based academic Alithea Binnie (Swinton) picks up a memento in the city’s Grand Bazaar. Back in her hotel, she ends up releasing the Djinn contained within the object, who offers her the usual three wishes, after which he will finally be freed from his imprisonment. She, though, being an expert in narrative structure, knows that there is no story about wish-granting that doesn’t function as a cautionary tale. Accordingly, she chooses not to make any request, saying that she is, after all, perfectly content with her life. In an attempt to convince her to change her mind, or perhaps simply to pass the time, the Djinn tells her the stories associated with his imprisonment, recreated in CGI-heavy recreations, interpolated by running annotations from Alithea.
Three Thousand Years is transparently a reflection on the myths and stories which lurk beneath all human activity, and what happens when these are not complemented but crowded out by a worldview that sees scientific materialism as the most real thing: What happens when one refuses to keep alive a metaphorical and mythical way of using words and images, falling back only on a knowledge composed of stubborn “facts”? On this score, the film is fairly stimulating. Working essentially as a two-hander, the film is initially driven by the dialogue between Alithea and the Djinn, subordinating its dramatic interest to conceptual play — something like Arabian Nights enfolded into a humorous lecture in comparative mythology. When the two first meet, for instance, the Djinn does not know English — but fortunately, Alithea is able to speak in “the language of Homer,” and is able to holster the conversation until the Djinn learns English from absorbing the information contained in floating electromagnetic waves. But after a certain point, things shift, and this conceptual dimension slowly gives way to the relationship between Alithea and the Djinn. The former finally admits that there is in fact something that she wants — she is human after all, and to be human is to be finite, and to be finite is to desire — and what she wants is to be loved, to be recognized by another. So she wishes for one thing: to be loved by the Djinn.
Three Thousand Years is, in other words, meant to transform from a conceptually stimulating dialogue into an earnest romance. The problem is that the film remains largely on the conceptual level, its emotional pull remaining largely theoretical. (This would be less of an issue if Miller’s sensibility or facility for action direction were present in the individual stories themselves, but there is, likewise, little to hang onto there.) Despite its cosmic scale, Three Thousand Years does not quite match the conceptual giddiness conveyed by, say, Guy Maddin’s The Forbidden Room (2015), with its mise-en-abyme into stories and its literal “Book of Climaxes.” More crucially to its intentions, the film is unable to bridge the gap between its conceptual interest and its desired emotional impact. By the end, the film is transparently an allegory, with the Djinn and Alithea representing, respectively, myth and concept, creation and knowledge, perhaps even beauty and truth. But for all of the film’s attempts to reforge the broken links between the two, its appeal remains largely academic.
Writer: Lawrence Garcia
Hunt, the directorial debut feature of actor Lee Jung-jae, opens in the 1980s amid a period of social unrest in South Korea. A sequence of military coups has led to a series of military dictatorships, inspiring the people of Korea to take to the streets in protest. In Washington, D.C., during the Korean president’s meeting with America’s leader — symbolic of a consolidation of power against Communist forces in Asia — special agents Park (Lee himself, perhaps the most recognizable Korean actor in America thanks to Squid Game) and Kim (Jung Woo-sung) thwart an attempt on their leader’s life while butting heads in the process. In this bit of action and in its aftermath, Hunt appears to be a sort of politically-minded spy thriller, the kind defined by a flurry of arcane jargon and acronyms where part of the pleasure is in trying to puzzle together exactly what is going on in this clandestine world.
But soon the film settles into a less intriguing rhythm as it focuses on the hunt for a mole within South Korean intelligence, with Park and Kim once again at each other’s throats. From here, the film has basically two moves: mounting an action scene or throwing in an additional plot twist. There are many of both. The action scenes are roundly more successful as they’re choreographed by Train to Busan’s stunt coordinator Heo Myeong-haeng and directed convincingly by Lee. These are largely thrilling, dangerous shootouts that are coherent and pack a punch, but sometimes Lee will mount a more complicated, thrilling suspense piece, like a sequence in which a sniper is looking to pick off a hospitalized witness who is waking from a coma.
The twists, however, are what Lee mistakes for intelligent plotting. What you think you know is constantly thrown into disarray from some new piece of information that changes the entire course of the film. It never becomes convoluted enough to be hard to follow, but instead only casts the film as a more simplistic, disappointing thriller, even as it threatens to fly off the rails of coherence. And what at first appear to be intriguing political dimensions eventually reveal themselves to be factional interests in the plot, their politics just a thinly sketched moral position. Toward Hunt’s end, the twists get more and more illogical, Lee twisting himself into knots to portray his character as having some sort of inane moral compass despite everything that comes to light to the contrary.
While Lee usually takes pains to portray the government of the time and its agents as monsters, quick to torture anyone and given to distrust in one another, he doesn’t have much of a substantive political take besides some bland, simple moralism. Student protestors are one-dimensional, portrayed as more rowdy and fractious than particularly ideologically minded. And the political powers at play are only “political” insofar as it affects the aforementioned plot twists. The military dictatorship setting is mere window dressing, giving the film a look and a facade to hide its empty thrills behind. When those thrills are good, as in the bloody shootouts or nighttime acts of espionage, that’s maybe enough — it’s easy to briefly forget the shallow trappings that inform everything. But once the narrative pulls one 180-degree turn too many, it’s hard to reconcile what the film actually is with the far better spy thriller it promised at its outset.
Writer: Chris Mello
The Woodcutter Story
There’s no doubt that a certain flavor of slow-paced, static-master-shot style filmmaking has become a film festival staple. Reporting from any major international fest will comment upon it, usually ruefully, as symptomatic of a dearth of imagination, or worse, artistic copycatting. Less remarked upon are the dry, droll comedies, pitched somewhere on a Jim Jarmusch-to-Aki Kaurismaki-to-Wes Anderson pipeline. These films typically rely on simple, planimetric framing, minimalist decor, lots of stone-faced reaction shots, and brief outbursts of singing or dancing in an attempt to goose the audience. Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit is probably the best of this particular type, while more recent attempts like Ben Sharrock’s Limbo and Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s Yellow Cat represent other laborious versions of what we are attempting to describe here. From Finland (speaking of Kaurismaki) comes The Woodcutter Story, a sorta-comedic fable with a few surrealist touches that lodges itself firmly within this now overly-familiar and overlarge lineage. The writer of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Mikko Myllylahti here graduates to director, bringing the star of Olli Maki, Jarko Lahti, along with him. Lahti plays Pepe, a kind of holy innocent who bumbles through life in his small mountain town with inextinguishable good humor and boundless optimism. Like a modern-day Candide, Pepe finds himself put through the wringer, finally forced to stare into the abyss that is Myllyahti’s conception of modernity.
Arbitrarily divided into two chapters, part one finds Pepe going about his days working at the local sawmill and drinking with his buddies at the bar. He goes ice fishing with his son, and plays cards with his wife and another couple. But the sawmill is unexpectedly closed, making way for a new mine (mining is the way of the future, a bureaucrat informs the now unemployed men). Soon after, things take another turn, as Pepe’s best friend Tuoma discovers that their wives are sleeping with the local barber. Tuoma kills the man, then himself, causing the wives to flee town with their children to start their lives over in the big city. Part two becomes altogether more odd, as the men are now employed at the mine and bemoaning the end of their quaint village. Indeed, the mine is sketched in as a kind of hell, located just off-screen as an emanating red light. Pepe’s son has returned to him, but not unlike the biblical Job, more misfortune befalls Pepe. Their house has burned down (insurance was too expensive, Pepe says with a shrug), Pepe’s mother dies, and a traveling psychic who claims to speak to the dead has enthralled Pepe’s boy.
Myllylahti throws all manner of stuff at the screen — a glowing orb of light chases the workers around their breakroom, and while out with his boy a fish pokes its head up from the ice to inform Pepe that “hope is alive” (one can only hope that this is a direct reference to the “chaos reigns” fox in von Trier’s Antichrist). It all adds up to… not much. Some of the men question the meaning of life, to which Pepe, and by extension Myllylahti, can only shrug and carry on. The philosophical musings might go down a little easier if there was anything else to grab onto, but The Woodcutter Story is visually unexceptional, despite a few beautiful snowy vistas. Virtually every shot, every composition, looks roughly the same, flattening entire scenes into the same metronomic rhythm. At one point, Pepe scrapes ice off of his car windshield in what doesn’t seem to be anything more than a nod to William H. Macy in Fargo. If the Coens are yet another referent here, then The Woodcutter Story is essentially a remake of A Serious Man, just less interesting and not nearly as funny. By the time a flaming car begins following Pepe down the road, opening its door as if to invite him and his son in, you might be tempted to mutter “embrace the mystery” to yourself. The only problem is that we’ve seen all of this before. Existence may or may not be meaningful, but we certainly didn’t need another entry-level philosophical text to tell us that.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Continental Drift (South)
March, 2020. In the seaside city of Catania, Italy, a migrant camp prepares for a visit from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, part of a glorified press tour for the European Union to publicly demonstrate that those individuals seeking political asylum are treated with the utmost dignity and respect for human life. Those with any familiarity with the EU and its practices regarding migrants know that this is certainly not the case, as it has essentially closed its members’ borders to any foreigners, with Italy especially prone to the bodies of men, women, and children washing ashore on its pristine beaches, the result of hundreds of boats turned away and forced back into the rough seas, no home to return to. Lionel Baier’s Continental Drift (South) takes a fictional approach to the very real atrocities it documents, spinning a political allegory concerning EU liaison Nathalie Adler (Isabelle Carré) as she prepares for the upcoming arrival of the foreign dignitaries to her city’s humble migrant camp. As fate would have it, their visit coincides with the sudden arrival of Nathalie’s twenty-something son, Albert (Théodore Pellerin), an NGO activist seeking to shed light on the heinous acts of the EU. Nathalie is naturally estranged from her son, having abandoned both he and his father ten years prior upon her realization and acceptance of her homosexuality. Albert despises his mother for her prior actions as well as her willingness to work for an organization that strips away the rights of those individuals he seeks to uplift. Adding to the melodrama, Nathalie is also visited by former lover Ute (Ursina Lardi), who works for the German government and is in town for the fated meeting.
It isn’t hard to see what Baier and co-writers Julien Bouissoux and Laurent Larivière are up to here, the portrait of a fractured family forced to confront long-buried demons and feelings of resentment just as the Mom and Dad of the EU arrive to check in on one particularly troublesome family member. (Families… am I right?) But Continental Drift (South) isn’t focused enough to land its metaphor with any sort of impact. The early going plays like In the Loop as written by Bill Maher, with foreign officials left horrified by the living conditions of the migrants — get this, they’re too nice! Their solution: relocate everyone to a shithole so that Merkel can publicly demand improvements during her visit, after which they will just move everyone back two weeks later and present it as a news story. The joke is slyly funny in theory, but is executed with such half-assed commitment that it barely even registers as satire. At only 90 minutes, the film is far more concerned with the tired histrionics of Nathalie and Albert, standard-issue familial strife that hinges on cheap irony. In a speech she literally writes out for her son, Nathalie explains that she willingly took on the role of “bad mother” to accept the anger she felt she deserved for abandoning her son. But as Albert explains, she possesses the ability to change that narrative, to take on a different part. Can she not do the same in her professional life as well? That Baier and co. mistake this realization for profundity is fairly ludicrous.
Meanwhile, near film’s end, Continental Drift (South) stops dead in its tracks so that we can hear from the migrants themselves, who, up until this point, have been presented as silent spectators. Well, it’s actually just one migrant, who demands to know why they are exploited and asks if the EU understands that they both have the same color of blood. The only bit of relative subtlety the movie musters is that this scene doesn’t devolve into a performance of Shakespeare’s famed “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice. And then we proceed to end on a joke about the initiation of international Covid quarantine procedures, which obliterates any lingering thoughts of possible good intentions here. More to the point: if you need a film to tell you why the EU sucks, perhaps you should avoid moviegoing for a while and instead brush up on non-fictionalized current events. Films like Continental Drift (South) certainly aren’t doing anyone any favors, artistically or otherwise.
Writer: Steven Warner