The Handmaiden ***½|****

Ha Jung-woo and Kim Min-hee in The Handmaiden

South Korean director Park Chan-wook, perhaps best known for his blood-spattered revenge opus Oldboy, is back with another wickedly entertaining piece of pulpy perfection. The Handmaiden is an engaging love story, a constantly revolving mystery and an intense psychological thriller all in one but above all, it’s a bold shot of uncompromised vivacity into the often lifeless landscape of world cinema. It’s possible that its 1930s setting paired with the two foreign languages that comprise the spoken material along with its lengthy runtime may cause some to view the film as a “challenge” to watch but thankfully, I found the total opposite to be the case instead.

We are introduced to a young Korean pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) as she meets another con artist who goes by the name Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) and has a potentially profitable proposal in mind. He schemes to bring Sook-hee on as a maid for the wealthy and withdrawn Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) as a part of his plot to marry and then institutionalize the heiress to subsequently inherit her fortune. Plans go awry, however, when Sook-hee’s time with Hideko eventually manifests a passionate romance between the two and the roots of Sook-hee’s ruse slowly rot away.

The story, an adaptation of the Victorian Era-set novel Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, is split into three distinct sections that each encapsulate the mindset of one of the film’s three main characters. This cleverly allows the audience to experience an event from an individual’s limited perspective and then reveal greater context to that same event later on through the eyes of a different character, which is even more integral to a movie that revolves around deception and romantic intrigue. Where Oldboy hinged its story on one central mystery and its eventual reveal, The Handmaiden is steeped in more nuanced storytelling that embeds bits of meaning throughout instead of pulling the rug out from under us with one fell swoop.

Chan-wook serves up his twisted and twisty narrative with a verve and vigor that’s equal parts playful and perverse, as bits of lighthearted physical comedy and shocking scenes of bold eroticism are interspersed with little advance warning. His high attention to detail is carried out at every level of production, from each ornate prop that’s utilized to the dazzling selection of vibrant costumes to the sumptuous sets that draw you in more at every turn. This meticulousness even applies to the performances as well: the manner in which a character eats her rice in one sequence, for instance, speaks to her exacting nature and with just that gesture, suggests that their may be even more to learn about her later in the story.

Late in the film, one of the characters — himself a storyteller of sorts — facetiously remarks “the story is all about the journey” but no one has a greater affinity for this concept than Park Chan-wook. He crafts his films with layers and details that may not always be detectable within a first viewing but multiple visits tend to reveal greater depths and thus become more impressive over time. I have little doubt that The Handmaiden will perfectly fit within his pantheon of expertly crafted works that richly reward those who take the time to seek them out.

Silence **½|****

Andrew Garfield and Yōsuke Kubozuka in Silence

The new religious epic Silence, based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, has reportedly been a passion project of Martin Scorsese’s since the early 1990s and after viewing the film, it’s easy to see why he’s been so eager to adapt it after all these years. The thematic territory is right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse: the concepts of doubt, guilt, suffering and sin have been explored in countless iterations throughout his prolific career. His work here has many positive elements, especially from a technical perspective, but the story is just too thin and comes off as repetitive and monotonous over a runtime that feels punishingly long by design.

The year is 1633 and we’re introduced to two Portuguese Jesuits named Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) as they journey to Japan to rescue their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) after they receive distressing letters detailing his capture. Upon their arrival, they find a land ruled harshly by the shogunate who terrorize villages to weed out suspected Christians and force them to denounce their religion under punishment of death. As the priests fight for survival in the treacherous countryside, they also struggle to avoid a personal crisis of faith and to maintain their own personal beliefs when being surrounded by near-constant apostasy.

Perhaps atoning for the unhinged debauchery that pervaded 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese has crafted a movie that is reverent and staid with the patience that only a masterful filmmaker like he can exhibit. Furthermore, he has assembled a production team that is absolutely first-rate in every regard; each technical aspect from the lighting to the sound design to the editing is carried out with breathtaking precision. I particularly want to praise Rodrigo Prieto’s jaw-dropping work on the gorgeous cinematography, which is the best I’ve seen in all of 2016 and reason enough to see Silence on the big screen.

Where the film began to lose me was during the second act, after the tension of the missionaries’ presence subsides and Scorsese falls into a curious cycle of sidelining his main characters while they quietly observe the torture and execution of secret Christians. One of these instances, in which three prisoners contend with a slowly persistent rising tide, is captivating and full of pitch-perfect dread but after about four or five variations of this scene play out, the routine seems needlessly cruel. Things pick up again in the third act, even if the storytelling gets heavy-handed at times, but it’s the punishing middle section that makes Silence a more sluggish affair than it should have been.

More misjudgments occur with the central casting too, as I was never fully convinced that talented actors like Driver and especially Garfield were a good fit in their lead roles. Neither give a bad performance but it felt like there was something out of place or just fundamentally incompatible with their acting sensibilities and this particular material (it also doesn’t help that Garfield frequently looks like he walked out of a shampoo commercial with his carefully managed man bun). Silence isn’t the masterpiece that it could have been but it has enough thought-provoking questions and individually powerful sequences to warrant a viewing from the more philosophically restless among us.

Elle **|****

Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The new French film Elle from Paul Verhoeven, his first in ten years, opens in the aftermath of a sexual assault committed against middle-aged businesswoman Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert) in her home. Instead of cutting to the next scene in a hospital or police station, Verhoeven chooses to stay with her as she picks herself up and cleans up the broken debris from the floor, almost as if she is unfazed by the attack. While there are some minor signs of emotional trauma, life generally seems to move on for Michèle as she proceeds to order takeout food moments later on her phone.

Over the next two hours, we discover more about the machinations of her busy life: her executive role at a well-regarded video game company, the strained relationship with her meek son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) and his bossy girlfriend, along with the affair that she pursues with the husband of her co-worker and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny). While out to dinner one night, she opens up to her friends about the details of the shocking event that happened to her days previous but she does so in such a blasé and matter-of-fact way that they’re unsure just how to react to the information. As she continues her daily routine, Michèle methodically makes strides towards unveiling her assailant and presumably confronting him for his role in the attack.

By my estimation, Verhoeven has crafted this story as a sort of subversion to the traditional rape revenge tale that we’ve been told before but the result is a distracting mishmash of office politics and turgid family drama that muddles what it seems the film wants to achieve. The core material is provocative and problematic enough to carry along undisturbed but just when there seems to be a breakthrough, we’re introduced to more uninteresting characters or more subplots that ultimately don’t add up to much. It’s a shame that the film is so overstuffed because it does have some salient points to make about consent and sexual politics but the storytelling is too unfocused to make the themes resonant.

Despite the aimless direction, the central performance by Huppert (recently deemed the Best Actress in a Drama by the Golden Globes) almost makes the movie worth seeing on its own terms and gives it a spark that it would otherwise be lacking. Most actresses wouldn’t even think about approaching material this brazen or have the bravery to pull off some of the trickier scenes but she casts an indelible mark on the film with her eccentric work. It’s a sly and sophisticated turn that underlines a character who is fundamentally enigmatic and still vulnerable and empathetic at the same time.

But she doesn’t have the support system that she needs from other aspects of the film to pull it all together. Beyond some of the more bizarre story elements that come out of left field (a serial killer past, various bouts of vandalism and voyeurism), other technical aspects like the rote musical score by Anne Dudley and the dismal visual effects in the scenes that depict the video game being developed by Michèle’s company seek to undermine any progress that Huppert commands on her own. Elle made me leave the theater scratching my head in bewilderment rather than consider the implications of its troubling story and I doubt that’s the effect Verhoeven intended for his film to have.

La La Land ****|****

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land

Musicals have long been a cherished mainstay of American cinema and like any other genre of film, the trends that define it change as time progresses. However, even fans of the genre would admit that the glut of recent stage-to-screen adaptations have lost something in translation and left more to be desired. Writer/director Damien Chazelle must have been privy to this when he began developing his original musical La La Land in 2010 but despite his perseverance with the project, I doubt he had any idea that the result would be as stunning and downright delightful as it ended up being.

La La Land wisely reunites Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone for their third time on screen together and as their chemistry was the highlight of those previous works (Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad), it is the glue which holds this movie together. The two play a pair of relentless dreamers: Gosling an accomplished pianist named Sebastian who aspires to opening his own jazz club and Stone a struggling actress named Mia striving to break through the monotony of failed auditions to find her starring role. Through a series of chance encounters across modern-day Los Angeles, Sebastian and Mia begin to develop an affection for one another but their ambitions threaten to get in the way of their relationship.

From a breathtaking opening number that already feels iconic to an ending that lives at the intersection of bittersweet and heartbreak, this is a film filled with so many consecutive creative choices that stack up in such a fulfilling way. Like any great musical, each new song and development of the score enriches the one prior to it and creates a breathless momentum that doesn’t seem sustainable but somehow makes the spell last the entire runtime. The experience of watching it was akin to watching a talented pitcher throw a perfect game: the possibility for error is so high that the ability to avoid it makes the experience that much more exciting.

If I had to pick one aspect of La La Land that made it such an overwhelming hit for me, I would credit Chazelle’s knack for balancing the fantastical elements of classic musical fare with the more grounded insights into how young people navigate their way through modern relationships. There are countless influences on the style of this movie, the most obvious being the grandiose MGM musicals of the 1950s and the vivacious work of Jacques Demy in the 1960s, but Chazelle puts these touchstones through his own filter of longing and wistfulness to create something that feels a bit wiser and perhaps more timeless as well. Following a studio session, one of Sebastian’s band mates asks of him “how are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” and the push-pull creative impulses of nostalgia vs. innovation pervade every inch of this film.

Chazelle is working with quite a bit conceptually here but I don’t want to undersell just how effortlessly charming Gosling and Stone are in their lead roles and how utterly enchanting the original music is from composer Justin Hurwitz. Other technical aspects from the gorgeous lighting choices to the dazzling, dreamy camerawork from Linus Sandgren add pitch-perfect notes of sophistication to the wonderful affair. We haven’t seen a musical quite as grand as La La Land on the screen in quite some time and even those who aren’t partial to the genre owe it to themselves to discover what’s so special and unforgettable about it.

Fences ***|****

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in Fences

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis reprise their roles from the 2010 Broadway production of August Wilson’s Fences in this new film adaptation, which credits Wilson as its sole screenwriter and also features Washington for his third time in the director’s chair. With an economical use of locations and focus on long passages of dialogue with stage-ready blocking from its players, it’s clear from the first scene that this material was developed from a play and Washington doesn’t add too many stylistic flourishes that could give things a bit more flavor. Instead, he clearly trusts the strong writing from the source enough to let it speak for itself and that, along with some excellent performances, make this a worthy substitute for those who haven’t seen the theater version.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences follows the life of garbage collector and former baseball player Troy Maxson (Washington) as he works tirelessly to support his resilient wife Rose (Davis) and his determined teenaged son Cory (Jovan Adepo). Maxson is often visited at his house by his mentally challenged brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson) and drinking buddy and oldest friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who commiserates with him about the hard times and reminiscences on their old glory days playing ball. As we learn more about the details of Troy’s mired past, we also learn of a secret that he has been keeping from Rose which may threaten their marriage and their entire family as well.

Though not often a likeable character, Maxson is a fascinating figure and Washington plays him with the kind of moral complexity that constants tests your allegiance to him as a protagonist. He has plenty of charm and charisma to get through the gate but reveals ugly degrees of selfishness and stubbornness that begin to paint him in a much less flattering light over time. Washington plays Troy as a man constantly at odds with his circumstances but ultimately as someone at odds with himself, trying desperately not to repeat the mistakes of his father before him but perhaps failing even harder as a result.

As good as Washington is, Viola Davis is the biggest standout of this actor’s showcase in a performance that should land her a third Oscar nomination and hopefully her first win as well. As Troy’s long-suffering wife, she bravely wears the early triumphs and persistent failures of her life with him all on her world-weary face. In a spellbinding monologue towards the film’s conclusion, Davis wrings heartache from every single line as she reflects on the compromises that she made to be with Troy and dwells on the impact that he had on Cory as a less-than-ideal father figure.

With a 2 hour and 20 minute run time, Fences can drag a bit during some sections and the lack of conventional “action” (most scenes are simply two or three characters sitting around and talking) may be a bit tedious for those expecting dramatic fireworks in every scene. As it’s mainly a meditation on fatherhood and failure, it can be emotionally bruising as a family drama but intellectually engaging as a character study of a man raging quietly against the world that he’s built for himself. To keep with the various baseball analogies used in the film, Fences may not be the grand slam that it could have been but at the very least, it’s a solid base hit.