REVIEW: A Touch of Sin

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A Touch of Sin
Directed by: Jia Zhangke
Written by: Jia Zhangke
Starring: Jiang Wu, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan and Wang Bao

Tiger, ox, snake and rooster- these four animals, symbols on the Chinese Zodiac calender, are key to understanding the central character in each of the four chapters in Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.  It illustrates the clashes and cohesion of tradition and modernism as it applies to those people, who operate in four distinct areas of that industrial and economic superpower.

It’s thrilling that a movie as confrontational and abrasive as A Touch of Sin could even be made in China, where the film industry, like many other things, is regulated by the government.  The movie’s bloody genre trappings aren’t subtle, and they enhance the overt political statements rather than mask them. Each character is confronted by different, uncensored truths about their country, and each of their stories erupts with violence and death.

The first is the story of Dahai (Jiang Wu), a disgruntled miner.  Confronted with poverty after corruption and greed privatizes his mine, he becomes a working-class avenging angel, wielding a shotgun and a pitiless dead-eyed gaze.  That gun is wrapped in a tiger-imprinted cloth, and a loud growl precedes his rampage.  Wu is a commanding, ferocious screen presence.

Next is the ox, a gun-loving migrant worker who returns to his family in the southwestern city of Chongqing.  His act of violence is the murder of a wealthy couple so he can snatch the woman’s purse.  In fact, nearly all of the carnage in A Touch of Sin is spawned by economic injustice.  There is the snake, a spa receptionist bullied to brutality by a rich man looking to use her for sex.  And, finally, there is a young man searching for economic opportunity, unaware of endless dead ends and vast corruption.

This is my first encounter with Zhangke’s work, and the boldness and skill he executes each chapter is astounding.  His characters are not defined by their respective zodiac animals or by their violence.  Both of those are overt contrasts with their attempts at normalcy in modern China.  There are glimpses of labor factories, train crashes and ruthless economic disparity; things that do not make headlines in state-run newspapers but that Zhangke clearly wants to the world to see.

Grade: B+

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CANNES REVIEW: Mud

Mud
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols (screenplay)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon

American swamplands were a preoccupation of several films at Cannes this year, including The PaperboyBeasts of the Southern Wild and Mud, the latest film from up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols.  Mud is the story of children who discover an outlaw living on a small island off the coast of their town.  They decide to help him reunite with his girlfriend and escape from the hired thugs who are after him.

The movie follows a fairly straightforward premise and is nothing really new in terms of structure.  Then again, neither was Nichols’ first feature, last year’s Take Shelter, which debuted to much critical praise and gave him the momentum to make this film.  He is a director of atmosphere and off-beat execution.  

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CANNES REVIEW: Cosmopolis

Cosmopolis
Directed by: David Cronenberg
Written by: David Cronenberg (screenplay), Don DeLillo (novel)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon and Paul Giamatti

All this modern billionaire ever wanted was a haircut, though in Cosmopolis it becomes quite clear that he pretty much has everything else a person could desire.  David Cronenberg brings his typical visual menace to this deeply intellectual examination of the one percent, staging what amounts to little more than a series of conversations as increasingly intense verbal battles.

When Eric (Robert Pattinson) untints the windows of his hyper-modern limousine, we see an outside world that is coming closer and closer to collapse.  He of course is numb to everything but his own concerns, a simple haircut used to exaggerate how miniscule they are in relation to everything else.  As he talks (and talks and talks) to his girlfriend, his prostitute, his financial adviser and a myriad of others, it becomes clear that there is a pent-up frustration that is slowly being unraveled as the economy and his fortune near demise.

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CANNES REVIEW: On the Road

On the Road
Directed by: Walter Salles
Written by: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)
Starring: Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Viggo Mortensen

Too much goes wrong in the movie adaptation of On the Road that what it does get right  is overshadowed almost completely.  In adapting Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat Generation novel, the time period is completely lost amid a cast of venerable modern actors who are cluttered together on the screen as if it would be a felony to exclude someone who was in the book.

At almost two-and-a-half hours, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera do with this story what many other bad book adaptations do: they drag things on for too long.  I haven’t read Kerouac’s book, but as many people I know who’ve read it feared, his stream-of-consciousness writing style does not translate very well.  Much of the screenplay is very well-written, to be sure, but the complete lack of atmosphere drains them of much of their power.

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CANNES REVIEW: In Another Country

In Another Country
Directed by: Hong Sang-soo
Written by: Hong Sang-soo (screenplay)
Starring: Isabelle Huppert and Yu Jun-Sang

With all the serious, morbid narratives taking root of the festival imagination in places like Cannes, it’s refreshing to see an exceptional movie with a light touch and a very warm sense of humor.  In Another Country, from Korean director Hong Sang-soo, is exactly that.  It is the story of stories, an examination of how a narrative takes form and is altered and rearranged until it is the most effective.

A barely-seen Korean woman dictates these stories into a notepad.  All of them star roughly the same cast of characters, though their roles and importance often change.  Isabelle Huppert plays the main woman in all of them, always a wayward traveler in Korea looking around for a lighthouse and meaning.  There is also the woman she is staying with, an attractive young lifeguard and various other acquaintances along the way.

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CANNES REVIEW: Amour

Amour
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke (screenplay)
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert and William Shimmell

Michael Haneke’s latest film is a good poster child for why mainstream movie audiences fear and avoid many foreign films; it is quiet, slow and relentlessly depressing.  After winning the Palme d’Or in 2009 for The White Ribbon, Haneke officially established himself as a “Cannes auteur,” a director whose latest work would forever and always have a place in the festival’s cannon.

Amour is wondrously, deliberately hopeless.  Its depiction of an elderly woman’s slow, painful crawl toward death after suffering a series of strokes is not peppered with melodrama or any sort of dramatic flourish.  Haneke seems to think this would make the situation too comfortable, too much like a movie.  The goal of this film is to show the situation in as realistic light as possible, but from a removed distance.

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CANNES REVIEW: Rust & Bone

Rust & Bone
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
Written by: Jacques Audiard & Thomas Bidegain  (screenplay), Craig Davidson (story)
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts, Céline Sallette and Bouli Lanners

The French drama Rust & Bone, from equally French director Jacques Audiard, assembles some of the most talented people in all filmmaking departments together to tell an emotionally and physically violent story about love and survival.  It could’ve so easily been Oscar bait if the writing and the performances weren’t so emotionally uncompromising.

Audiard made a huge splash in many film circles  in 2009 and 2010 with A Prophet, a  violent and uncompromising vision set at the genre crossroads of organized crime and prison films.  Rust & Bone, while still concerned with the loss of humanity and the repression of violent impulses, tells a decidedly weirder story about a homeless father and son and a whale trainer.

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