Bluebeard [2017] – A Psychological Thriller Swamped with Logically Strained Twists




Korean film-maker Soo-youn Lee’s slow-burn psychological thriller Bluebeard (2017) opens with a radio broadcast of weather report ominously announcing the possibility of warmer winters, further adding how ‘once Han River used to unfreeze completely only by April’. Interlaced with this audio broadcast, the camera broodingly moves through an underside of a bridge before resting on the derelict river’s shore as a headless corpse bubbles up through the melting ice. The camera then gracefully pans up to reveal the bustling highway traffic and cuts to the distressed face of Dr. Seung-hoon (a terrific Jo Jin-woong who played the sleazy uncle character in ‘Handmaiden’), traveling in a bus that’s cruising through treeless lands of huge construction sites. It’s an introductory scene that reaches beneath the elegantly structured metropolis objects to gaze at its darkness lying within. It deftly makes a commentary on the turbulent urban societies, in a sort of Lynchian fashion, without making much fuss. Bolstered by Uhm Hye-jung’s cinematography, director Soo-youn builds upon this fascinatingly odd premise, promising to deliver a subliminally creepy moody piece. The brilliant stylistic composition, at least in the earliest parts, generates intensity that makes us clutch for the word ‘Hitchcockian’. Alas, with the predictable, if not inane, onslaught of twists in the third act, the narrative implodes, leaving us with strong dissatisfaction.

Director Soo-youn Lee made her directorial debut with the flawed yet strikingly visualized psychological horror The Uninvited (2003). After a thirteen year gap she has made her second film, which shares her debut feature’s themes of discounted truths and personal trauma. Despite the bizarre and annoying twists in the later-half, Bluebeard is watchable for its persistently effective first 70 minutes and for not following the typical thriller blue-print which we often witness in American works. Over the last decade, Korean screenwriters & directors have concocted some intriguing on-screen sadistic killers. While films like Memories of Murder (2003), I Saw the Devil (2010), and The Chaser (2008) occupies the top-tier in this unique sub-genre, there has also been less impressive, nonetheless greatly entertaining second-tier of killers’ movies like Midnight FM (2010), Confessions of a Murder (2012), No Mercy (2010), Tell Me Something (1999), etc. Bluebeard naturally falls under the second-tier.


Recently divorced and financially broken Seung-hoon, whom we first see in the bus, is a colonoscopy specialist moving from the busy Gangnam district to a clinic in a small town, situated alongside Han River. Despite the menacing atmospheric tone, the narrative sporadically breaks into trademark Korean brand of black humor. First of all, we see patients, under the effects of the sedative used during colonoscopy procedure, babble out their awkward, dirty secrets. Seung-hoon has rented a cramped apartment, which is filled with medical text books and plenty of mystery novels (the doctor’s only pastime), and is situated above a family-run butcher shop. The family’s creepy old patriarch (Goo Shin) is seen consuming raw pork meat and his oddly cheerful son Sung-geun (Dae-myung Kim) tries to establish camaraderie with the visibly distressed doctor. The other members of the butcher’s family are Sung-geun’s chirpy second wife and the reticent teenage son. Dr. Seung-hoon mostly desires to be alone, fending off the amorous advances of his young nursing assistant Mi-yeon (Lee Chung-ah). He takes his 9 or 10 year old son to a restaurant in the weekend, and the boy is glued to his smart phone than indulge his father with a meaningful conversation.


The doctor’s unease escalates when people in his hospital and news reports repeatedly talk of unsolved serial murders in the area that seems to have resumed after a long period. One day, the old man from the butcher shop has an appointment with the doctor. Under the clutches of the anesthetic, the old man whispers about scattering human parts across the river and other dumping sites; “Fingerprints? If you’re worried, cut off the fingers…” the old man offhandedly remarks as if he’s been doing this for decades. The paranoia that grips the doctor after this drugged confession provokes him to put the pieces of puzzle together and get to the bottom of the truth. Consequently, a mysterious retired cop (Young-chang Song) starts surveilling the doctor. Seung-hoon drinks with the old man’s son and in drunken stupor he slips into the shop’s freezer and finds an important evidence to support his claims: a human head packed inside a black, plastic bag. Soon, the narrative spirals off in different directions and the conflict between butcher and the doctor seems to get more personal. It all culminates with the predictable first layer of twists, over-explained with flashbacks. Later, we witness the purposefully convoluted and kitschy second layer of twists which totally robs the narrative off psychological profundity.

Director Soo-youn Lee abruptly cuts the scene, employs fade out and the diabolically framed scenes are often revealed to be the protagonist’s vivid nightmares. The nightmare episodes increasingly used to insist upon the blurring of boundaries between reality and imagination for Seung-hoon. The repetition of ‘it’s all a dream’ reveals, after a time gradually lessens our interest in the narrative (cheating the viewers too much). All the earlier disjointed cuts and nightmare episodes easily make us to guess Seung-hoon to be the text-book definition of unreliable narrator or beholder. Although the director unnecessarily prolongs these earlier scenes, adding more and more subplots, there are some memorable and deeply unsettling visual flourishes (for example the surrealistic scene where the butchers sharpen their knives as a naked headless body hangs from the hook). The other interesting aspect, from visual standpoint, is Soo-youn’s observation of these freshly popped-up cities. It’s as if she is representing such urban sprawls as the hideous facet of a society (of course, a great no. of outstanding serial-killer films has deftly associated industrialization and rampant expansion of urban spaces with serial killing). Nevertheless, the unconvincing and ill-advised point-of-view shifts in the last half of the film basically undo certain intriguing narrative threads. These insanely prolonged flashbacks and ‘story’s not yet over’ twists suffer from severe lapses in logic and pacing issues. In the end, the film becomes a mess rather than being a puzzle. 

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Even though Bluebeard (118 minutes) isn’t a path-breaking Korean thriller, it’s good for half of its running time, exuding a palpably menacing mood. And, those who love thrillers wrapped inside insane amount of twists (no matter how absurd it is) may find it alluring. 


Good Time [2017] – A Viscerally Entertaining Quasi-Genre Movie




It’s not often we see a high-wire American crime/thriller without a single shot of a gun. Josh and Ben Safdie’s Good Time (2017) is bathed with frenzied energy and profanity-ridden paranoia, relentlessly generated by a reckless blonde-haired protagonist. It’s definitely a violent film that exposes a part of New York’s crime underbelly in a gritty and authentic manner. Yet the Safdie brothers smartly subverts from the usage of typical gun violence and still succeeds in showcasing the unconscionable brutality of one man with questionable morals. Good Time possesses the mad-cap energy of Martin Scorsese Michael Mann’s early movies. From incorporating guerilla-style film-making for observing the unforeseeably volatile street life to unveiling raw emotions of the characters, it owes a lot to those film-makers' idiosyncratic crime flicks.

Irrational behavior and self-destruction is pretty much the origination point of the Safdie Brothers’ New York based pieces. Their semi-auto-biographical first feature Daddy Longlegs (aka Go Get Some Rosemary, 2010) is about a disorderly father figure. Heroin-addiction drama Heaven Knows What (2015) is a sensational blend of fiction and raw documentary which was based on the unpublished memoir of Arielle Holmes who plays a lightly fictionalized version of herself. With Ronald Bronstein once again taking up the co-writer & co-editor duties, Good Time becomes a perfect canvas for the brothers’ oddly visceral character study: this time a feckless conman mad scrambling over the course of a long New York night. The narrative is uncomfortably contrived and disjointed at times, failing to replicate the staying power of the aforementioned film-makers’ works. Nevertheless, the film keeps us totally occupied throughout its running time and moreover Robert Pattinson’s pitch-perfect metamorphosis as a frazzled small-time crook is a marvel to behold.


The narrative that runs over the course of two days and one night opens at the office of a social services psychiatrist. He interviews the mentally challenged Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) and gradually motivates him to not just give monosyllabic answers. There’s a sense that the psychiatrist is breaking through Nick to address his problems when Constantine Nikas aka Connie (Robert Pattinson) barges in and takes out his younger sibling. The chaos that starts there with Connie’s intrusion never relents from then on. Connie is fiercely protective of Nick whom it is early implied that suffered at the hands of their grandmother. Nevertheless, it becomes evident that Connie’s love for Nick can destroy things as we see them entering a bank with a rubber mask which disguises themselves as black men. Connie silently passes out a note to the teller and receives the money in a tightrope sequence. The Safdie brothers shackle us to the claustrophobic, tunnel vision shots of its characters throughout the narrative (similar to dazzling, single-take crime thriller Victoria) that we repeatedly fret over the dangers lurking outside the frames. The bank robbery plan is botched by the teller’s smartness and Nick’s ineptitude. On hindsight, the bank robbery seems to be the least preposterous of Connie’s schemes. What follows is a helter skelter chase through the grim alleys and neon-lights of New York, where our self-centered, belligerent protagonist makes a great mess of things.


Ben and Josh Safdie perfectly channel their peculiar, particular style into many of the typical genre scenarios. This tactic of putting a fresh-spin on familiar things brings forth certain fascinating visual designs and staging. For example, the scene towards the end, when the tunnel vision suddenly breaks into an agoraphobic shot in order to showcase an entirely different perspective, or the creepily-lit chase sequence at the fun-house. The other strong aspect of Safdies’ direction is how they hint at the inherent ugliness of the protagonist or his penchant for cruel decisions without often resorting to in-your-face violence outbursts. Sean Price Williams’ (Queen of Earth, Heaven Knows What) anxiety-ridden cinematography applies a lot of vivacious primary colors and perpetually suggests ominousness through extended & effective close-up shots. Daniel Lopatin’s pulse-pounding synth score (the musician is credited under a weird pseudonym ‘Oneohtrix Point Never’) finely attunes to the deliriously vibrant visuals.

As I mentioned earlier, Good Time doesn’t have much depth to it. It’s designed as an immersive visual experience. Whatever subtext or meaning it poses beneath is few and far between. Although the sheer unpredictability and bat-shit craziness of the narrative attracts comparison to less-seen masterpieces like After Hours (1985), it never reaches that level of thematic profundity [the kind of existential hell dreamed up by Sartre’, says the Sense of Cinema article about After Hours]. The one memorable, if not overt, social commentary in Good Time is its depiction of casual systemic racism. We are left wondering why the cops attending the alarm at Amusment Park immediately believe Connie’s words and assume the black guy as the perpetrator. In fact, the two people arrested in that scene are innocent ones, yet cuffed on the basis of their color [the white guys wearing African-American masks to rob a bank is taken from a real scenario]. The brothers’ also makes a slight commentary on the mental health industry, painting the fate of Nick with an ambiguity in the unexpected final sequence. Robert Pattinson takes a big leap forward with the role of Connie. But it would simply be myopic and unnecessarily hyped-up to draw parallels with the antihero protagonists of Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver. The inherent problem with Connie is that he is neither likable nor his antics relatable on some level. The downward spiral of the character only stays amusing at times (never wholly disturbing) that the title doesn’t feel totally ironic. If not for Pattinson’s undeniably intense presence, the self-destructive journey of Connie wouldn’t have engrossed us this much. Apart from the vibrant performance of Buddy Duress as the gaunt knucklehead Ray, the supporting performers like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Barkhad Abdi are just recruited to play stock character types. 

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The young film-making brothers from New York – Ben and Josh Safdie – repeat their talent for constructing atmosphere of chaos and mayhem in their well-received, third feature-film Good Time (100 minutes). Bolstered by Robert Pattinson’s electrifying performance and the brothers’ singular creative energy, the film makes up for what it lacks in emotional depth. 


Manifesto [2017] – Strikingly Versatile Cate Blanchett Recites Absolutely Esoteric Notions




German gallery artist Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto (2017) originated as a multi-screen video art installation at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (Melbourne) in 2015. The installation consisted of 13 giant screen spaces, where actress Cate Blanchett’s diversely accented voices recited extracts (in 10-minute video) from the seminal, incendiary texts that largely shaped artistic, cultural, and political ideologies of the Western nations in the 20th century. From Karl Marx and Fredriech Engels’ 1848 Communist Manifesto to Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 at least 50-60 significant manifestos or declarations are clubbed together under 12 distinct scenarios or themes. Cate Blanchett ptakes a different, extremely challenging avatar in each scenario. The actress’ tour-de-force performance along with Rosefeldt’s meticulous and contemplative observation of each man-made environment keeps the experimental feature vibrant and highly fluid. 

Shot over 12 days, the 100-minute 12-segment movie stages each of the proclamations in an idiosyncratic, if not slightly absurd, setting. In the opening sequence, there’s a gorgeous drone aerial shot of a dilapidated industrial premise. The camera moves slowly, accompanied by a voice-over, before focusing on Blanchett who plays a homeless man ranting the words of Karl Marx. A mourner at a funeral quotes from Dadaism (the subversive ‘No More’ declaration); a tattooed & cynical British rocker throws around ideas of Creationism; a CEO at private cocktail party reciting excerpts from Abstract Expressionism; a master puppeteer pulling the strings of a puppet to patter on Surrealism and so on. Apart from the funeral speaker scenario, my most favorite one is the ‘Conservative mother’ scenario [Pop Art]. A housewife, her husband and three children sit at a dinning table, spread with a sumptuous feast. She starts saying grace which happens to be ‘I Am for an Art’ manifesto by American sculptor Claes Oldenburg. The ‘grace’ is inter-cut couple of times with other scenarios since it’s a very lengthy one, and the sheer absurdity of the situation is absolutely exciting. As the grace comes to an end, the camera roves through the opulent house revealing the bizarre collection of stuffed animals with a live crow cawing. 


Cate Blanchett brilliantly maintains the perfect cadence in each scenario, despite the incongruous nature of her proclamations. It’s most amusing to see Cate as the newscaster and reporter (hence 12 scenarios, 13 performances) in a segment discussing about conceptual art. If we press mute and watch the scene, it would seem to be just seem like typical news weather report. As a cinephile, I was naturally intrigued by the staging of film manifestos. In this one, Cate plays an elementary school teacher and her eyes dilate with wonder while explaining the different cinematic school of thoughts to the pupils.  She starts with Jim Jarmusch’s ‘Nothing Is Original’ statement (from his ‘Golden Rules of Filmmaking’) and switches to Stan Brakhage’s evocation of ‘the untutored eye’ to Godard’s ’It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to!’, and then to the ‘ecstatic truth’ idea of Werner Herzog (which talks of creating or stylizing realities). Eventually as the teacher monitors the student’s work, she recites Lars Von Trier’s Dogme 95 film movement rules, which actually stands as the perfect contradiction to Herzog’s notion. In the incredibly hopeful ending, the camera pans across a school playground in slow-motion, encapsulating the illuminated faces of the children, and the slow fluttering of a pigeon towards the sky signaling the new generations’ elated spirits (which may spawn more artistic strategies).  


Blanchett’s impeccably staged readings are finely complimented by Rosefeldt’s keen eye for architecture (vividly elegant cinematography by Christoph Krauss). From the abandoned industrial campus to the colossal garbage incinerator plant to intricately aligned financial trading floor to the surrealistic chamber (the scientist in protective-suit enters into it) to the luxurious retreat of the one-percenters, the places and the expressed thoughts sublimely showcases our extremely polarized world (in terms of economical, artistic, cultural, sociological levels). Some of the cryptic, talk-heavy philosophies that are heaped upon one do endanger in watering-down the effectiveness of the polemical and contemplative words (and most of these are super-complex art theories). But the passion with which the director and actress addresses the ground-breaking artistic statements, offers quite a lot of sensory and visceral pleasures. The consistent stream of wit and subtle ironies inculcates the message of how this motley of celebrated edicts are capricious in nature, despite having been narrated in a definitive voice. 

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Powered by Cate Blanchett’s brilliantly transformative avatars, Manifesto (100 minutes) is a bold, visually magnificent experimental feature that pays fine tribute to different, incendiary artistic movements and its much-heralded contributors. 


Brigsby Bear [2017] – A Compelling Indie Dramedy Weighed Down by Cutesy Crowd-Pleasing Moments




It would be better to watch Dave McCary’s directorial debut Brigsby Bear (2017) without reading the plot-line or reviews (like this one): not because it contains spine-tingling twists; but to just have an unadulterated experience of observing the opening scene. In fact, the slightly disorienting opening sequence stands superior to the narrative’s sporadic descent into fuzzy sentimentality in the later parts. We see a grown man, may be in late 20s, named James (Kyle Mooney) watching VHS tapes of a kids TV show called ‘Brigsby Adventures’. The big, furry space bear Brigsby goes on adventures around the universe to win over the evil Suncatcher with the help of Smile Sisters. In the process, the bear dispenses some math equations among other [‘If you have romantic feelings, touch your penis twice a day’, it quips] simple philosophies of life. It’s evident that the man-child James is obsessed with Brigsby enough to fill his room with Brigsby bedspreads, lampshades, huge library of all the episodes in VHS-tapes, and other variety of merchandises. He discusses about the show in an online forum he has specially created.

Over dinner, he talks with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) about the odd convoluted plot development and we also see a weird bedroom poster that reads ‘Curiosity is an unnatural emotion’. In the night, father and son emerge from their underground bunker to see strange, dangerous creatures around their abode. In the morning, the father goes outside to work wearing a gas-mask. It’s probably a post-apocalyptic scenario or the family members are colonizers of a planet. But, that’s not the truth because the creatures we observe are made of cardboard. So the world James inhabits is entirely an illusion. Of course, Brigsby Bear isn’t a dark chamber drama, in the vein of The Castle of Purity, Dogtooth or Room to showcase the deep trauma of being confined to small space and strict rules. It’s a tragicomedy sprinkled with light-hearted moments. The ‘why’ is revealed sooner as FBI agents storm into the bunker and arrest James’ parents. James meets his real mom and dad and learns that the old ones are his abductors and the air isn’t actually toxic. Most disturbing of the revelations is that Brigsby is the creation of his abductor father and he is its entire audience [sort of opposite to Truman Show].


Despite learning the truth, James isn’t angry over his kidnappers and remarks ‘it’s cool’ to have a show for himself. The good thing about these initial portions is that James’ character is well-realized. We can understand his decision to not hate his old parents and the strange feelings in facing the real world and real parents (Michaela Watkins, Matt Walsh). James now also has a younger sister Aubrey (Ryan Simpkins), a high-schooler who often frowns at him. However, he makes friends with Aubrey’s pals Spencer (Jorge Lendeborg Jr) and Meredith (Alexie Demi). The detective Vogel (Greg Kinnear), the one who rescued him, steals some of Brigsby things from evidence room out of kindness. With the help of his new friends James wants to make one Brigsby Bear movie – the final showdown between the bear and Suncatcher – to seek some closure and move on with life.

The writers Kyle Mooney, Kevin Costello and director Dave McCary were all part of Saturday Night Live (SNL) show. Writer & performer Mooney and McCary have carried their childhood friendship and mutual interest by making videos for comedy group Good Neighbor. Later McCary has directed few segments featuring Mooney in SNL. The trio as expected has a fine understanding to balance the delicate emotions with goofiness. James was well-written, capturing his tragic predicament and vulnerability. And Mooney performs the role with good comic timing without turning him into an idiot. Mooney’s deadpan dialogue delivery, while facing the harsh reality or his bout of enthusiasm when talking about the beloved bear is fascinating to watch. McCary’s craftiness clearly brings to mind the works of Michel Gondry.


Brigsby Bear mostly celebrates the joy of creativity and imagination. Similar to coming-of-age movies like Son of Rambow, It’s a Kind of Funny Story, and Me, Earl and the Dying Girl, the film depicts the triumph of imaginative mind over deep trauma or depression; the socially awkward youths choosing the comfort of creation over the tiring societal interaction. Naturally, the script contains the pool of schmaltzy elements those films also had. Brigsby Bear definitely keeps us engaged for its running time but there’s also feeling that it has failed to address some deep layers in the narrative and simply settled for predictable pathos. Once after the ‘explosion’ scene, it begins to run out of steam with scenarios that’s either under-written or far-fetched. The questions about James’ mental health and wealth of psychological material are brushed off for the sake of a feel-good ending. The only interesting scene which deals with James’ psychological state is when he meets the waitress/smile sisters (Kate Lyn Sheil) at a diner. In the end, the conceits in the plot overpower the wonderful peculiarity of the opening scenes. Still, Brigsby Bear (97 minutes) is a watchable gentle comedy, which eschews narrative depth for light-hearted fun and sentimentality. Those looking for a gripping commentary on the pop-culture obsession can look elsewhere. 

 Trailer