Les Girls Encore: Movie Reviews of The Handmaiden, Certain Women, Aquarius, Denial and Christine by Howard Casner

For questions: hcasner@aol.com

First, a word from our sponsors: I wanted to say thank you to everyone who contributed to our Indiegogo campaign for 15 Conversations in 10 Minutes. We did very well due to you folks. For those who weren’t able to give, keep us in your thoughts. And if you are able to contribute in the future, contact me and I’ll tell you how. I will even honor the perks on the original campaign.

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rev-3In my last review, I mentioned that a number of films opened with women as the central character. This week, this trend continues with five more. And now that fall is upon us and productions companies and distributors are going to begin release of films to qualify for the Academy Awards, we should see a number more as everyone races for a Best Actress nod.

The lesson I suppose is don’t look for female driven movies from Hollywood and the studios, but from independent and art films and the prestige pictures at year’s end.

The Handmaiden is a new import from South Korea, one of the two countries that, along with Romania, are producing the most interesting films internationally. It is based on Fingersmith, a thriller by Welsh (and lesbian) writer Sarah Waters that in the novel takes place in Victorian era Britain, but has been switch to 1930’s Japanese occupied Korea because, well, little is more universal than murder and other nasty deeds.

To show how pretentious moi can be, The Handmaiden is as if James Cain wrote Victorian pornography using a Rashomon type structure.


rev-1Take that film studies 101.


In pre WWII Korea, a Japanese conman pretending to be a nobleman down on his luck contrives to have a young pickpocket become the handmaiden to a Japanese heiress whose fortune is controlled by her degenerate Uncle.  The heiress lives at a remote mansion that is half Asian in architecture and half Western. When the new handmaid is chauffeured to her new place of employment, she wakes up from having fallen asleep at the entrance gate. The driver tells her to go back to sleep, they are nowhere near their destination.


His plan is for the handmaiden to convince the heiress to fall in love with him so they can elope and get married. The heiress doesn’t know it, but the conman then plans to take control of his wife’s fortune and place her in an insane asylum, rewarding the handmaiden and keeping the fortune for himself.


But, of course, this being a post-noir Asian thriller, it’s the best laid plans all over again.


The film clocks in at 144 minutes, but it’s doubtful you will notice. It’s too riveting, too rapturously beautiful, and even a bit too over the top to let go once it sinks its decadent teeth into you.


The screenplay, by the director Chan-wok Park and Soto-Kyung Chung, a first film for the latter, is told in three parts. The first is from the viewpoint of the handmaiden. The second from the heiress’s. The third is an objective viewpoint to wrap up the story.


It’s a clever jigsaw of a movie that completely gobsmacks you when, in the second part, it is revealed just how little you know as to what is really going on. And it does it fairly.


The Handmaiden is definitely one of the year’s finest films. It’s breathtaking, brutal, ravishing, decadent, luscious, heartless and redemptive all at the same time.


rev-2There are some issues here and there. The tone may wobble a fraction at times and the sex might be a bit too much of a straight male’s fantasy. But with this film, Park is now back to the brilliance of such early films as Old Boy and Thirst after the completely unredeemable Stoker. Hopefully he has learned his lesson when it comes to Hollywood.


With Min-hee Kim as the heiress; Kim Tae-ri as the handmaiden; Jin-woong Jo as the uncle; and Jung-woo Ha (of The Chaser and Yellow Sea) as the conman.


A quartet with nary a false note.


rev-4At the end of writer/director Kelly (Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) Reinhardt’s Certain Women, a few people behind me were more than a bit upset, taking, almost as a personal insult, the seeming pointlessness of the movie.


I won’t quote everything these good people said, but I understood why they felt cheated. The movie isn’t anywhere near as bad as the patrons claimed. In fact, it was never boring and had a certain quality to it that kept you watching.


But it also wasn’t particularly satisfactory and in the end, something of a letdown.


The movie consists of three stories, all centered on women who live in a smallish Montana town. In one, a lawyer is frustrated by an ex-client who refuses to believe his lawsuit doesn’t have merit. The second is about a woman trying to buy sandstone from an elderly man so she can build an authentic home made of already used material. The third is about a woman who takes care of horses and is so lonely, she wanders into an adult education class and is smitten by the teacher.


All three are extremely low key character sketches of their subjects. And there is a certain vibrancy to them. But only the first and third feel rounded, resolved and complete. The second feels like a character searching for a plot.


And as a whole, they never really become a full portrait, but stubbornly remain sketchy.


The film has a nice cast with Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, Kristen Stewart, newcomer Lily Gladstone, James Le Gros, Rene Auberjonois, and Jared Harris. All are fine, though Williams has nothing on which to build a character and thereby doesn’t. But in the end, it’s Harris as a man trying desperately to hold on to his sanity that one remembers.


rev-5Brazilian Writer/director Kleber Mendoza Filho’s new film Aquarius stars the great Sonia Braga (Dona Flora and Her Two Husbands, Kiss of the Spider Woman) as Clara, a sort of aging flower child who refuses to sell her apartment where she’s lived for most of her life (the movie title comes from the name of the building where her home is located).  A construction company wants to pull it down in order to build a huge high-rise in her steroid driven gentrified neighborhood.


In some ways, it’s an odd film. Though the conflict with the builders is the main through line driving the story, this aspect of the film feels as if it only appears intermittently, as if the filmmakers couldn’t be bothered.


Much of the time, the movies simply tends to leisurely follow Clara around as she lives and remembers her life.


Even so, there is still something hypnotic about it all. It’s easy to get caught up in the laid back energy as the story takes its time in unfolding.


Braga is the one who really holds the movie together. Though at times a little annoying (she’s the only one who cares enough about the apartment to want to keep it), there is also a quality about this character who has lived life and is at peace with it that captivates you.


The ending feels a bit too good to be true. Clara has resources most people in her circumstances wouldn’t have to fight back. It’s a bit too neat, so the resolution feels more wishful thinking than anything else.


The whole look of the film feels very retro, as if it’s caught up in the 1970’s, the time period when the movie begins. It’s as laid back as everything else on the screen.


rev-6The last two films, Denial and Christine, are both based on true stories.


In Denial, Rachel Weiss plays Deborah Lipstadt, the author of several books on the Holocaust. In one, she berates David Irving, a popular, at least in his own mind, Holocaust denier. He sues Deborah for libel in England, where the libel laws tend to favor the plaintiff.


The film is basically the story of this trial. As such, it would be difficult to make the tale boring. And the screenplay, by celebrated playwright David Hare, is anything but.


At the same time, it’s not particularly exciting either. Its main issue is that it feels incredibly underdramatized such that you think how much better it would have been as a limited series on television. And I never felt it had the same wit or cleverness of the usual Hare fair.


The acting is solid. Weisz employs her usual flat American accent in the part, but she’s good. Tom Wilkinson and Andrew Scott play her stiff upper lip attorneys. They’re also good, but their characters aren’t particularly interesting.


It’s only Timothy Spall, who seems to be having a simply ravishing good time playing the villain. But as they say, the devil gets all the best parts.


rev7And last, but hardly least, we have Christine, which is not about a haunted car. It’s about Christine Chubbuck, a 1970’s TV reporter who shot herself on the air.


For those of you who think this should be a spoiler alert, I agree with a friend who said that that’s like claiming that telling people that the boat sinks in Titanic is a spoiler.


Christine worked for a minor news station in Florida. Having high standards, she is constantly at odds with her station manager who is of the, if it bleeds, it leads camp. But more pertinent, perhaps, is that she suffers from some sort of bi-polar, manic depressive illness. And as her hope for an ambitious future slowly eludes her, she finds her life overwhelming her.


To the filmmakers credit (screenwriter Craig Shilowich, a first film, director, Antonio Campos, best known perhaps for Simon Killer), they don’t come close to making Christine a victim of a woman in a man’s world, which, I think, would be a disservice to others who suffer from the same condition. Christine’s issues are purely emotional and psychological, something that would be a driving force in her life no matter her circumstances.


At the same time there is an irony here. The filmmakers give sympathy to Christine’s views that news should not be “juicier”, as the manger wants. But I’m not sure the movie does little more than do just that to their subject: make a movie that is “juicier” with little beyond that.


But it’s a fascinating movie, the you can’t look away from a car crash sort. Rebecca Hall, in the title role, is ferocious in her portrayal. She plays the character as someone drowning, flailing, desperate to save herself, while around her no one realizes she’s going down for the third time.


She gets solid support from Michael C. Hall, as the main newscaster, and Tracy Letts as the station manager. But it’s John Cullum, one of our most prestigious stage actors, who rises above the material as the station owner.


Like Aquarius, the movie has that same retro look of a film made during the 1970’s.



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