3.0, Japan

Norwegian Wood

2010 / Anh Hung Tran > In Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami crafted the college years of Holden Caulfield—a spirit of universal self-identification that made the novel a cult favorite for those who felt something was missing in their lives. It broke through traditional boundaries and expectations of love and set many of us upon a quest to find our own Midori. But I’ve not found her in Tran’s adaptation. In her portrayal, Kiko Mizuhara is too sweet. The bite that gave Midori her allure just isn’t here. And that, in itself, is a failure that I cannot look past.

Those who haven’t read the novel may like—and even love—Norwegian Wood. With elegant, graceful panning shots, the cinematography is exquisitely done by In the Mood for Love’s Mark Li. The score, by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, is haunting but lovely and works in-step with Li’s cameras. And Anh Hung Tran is still, by consensus, considered the best director to ever come out of Vietnam. The attention to detail Tran brought to the project is evident in nearly all aspects of the film, but ultimately, the issue is one of (mis)interpretation.

This is where it falls apart for those who cherish the book. The film simply fails to capture the wonder of Toru Watanabe, the way he’s an everyman. There’s simply too much focus on his relationship with Naoko wherein I’ve always considered his relationships with Midori as well as Nagasawa—who effectively works as a foil—to be more important. Lost amidst this is the most beautiful and tragic character of all: Hatsumi. What I’ve always considered my favorite passage (includes minor spoilers) is a passing narration. For some, this won’t matter, but for me, this was the ultimate dealbreaker. As far as I’m concerned, no adaptation of Norwegian Wood can succeed without Hatsumi’s poignance.

All in all, Norwegian Wood can be affecting, but it’s more of a rumination upon the book: A lot of set pieces and lingering looks while lacking the work’s full, transformative power. But for obsessive Murakami fans, it’s also possible that this is the best adaptation we’ll ever get.

3.5, Hong Kong/China


New York Asian Film Festival2011 / Peter Chan > Finally, something with flavor: After a series of bland, bloated martial arts/war epics from mainland China, Dragon (or Swordsmen, as it was called previously, or Wu Xia, as it was called at its Cannes premiere) arrives with just enough salt to tend the wound. Half-police procedural and half-actioner, Chan makes good in building depth so that we care about what’s behind the fighting. As Takeshi Kaneshiro’s detective unveils the mystery of Donnie Yen, a common villager with a dubious past, it’s hard not to think of this as a Chinese take on Out of the Past and A History of Violence. Then again, it’s not so much that the film does anything new, but rather that it succeeds in being poignant, focused and rarely tries to hide behind the melodrama that has plagued its peers. Brooding and often brutal, it’s a much-needed kick into an otherwise stagnating genre.

3.5, United States/Canada


1936 / Fritz Lang > In cinema, lynch mobs are so often associated with the treatment of blacks in the South that we forget how such mentality exists across all of society. From To Kill a Mockingbird to The Ox-Bow Incident, we can note that it’s just human nature to let our personal beliefs slide when coerced into a majority. Whether it’s right or not, that’s what ends up being for debate. Should one persecute only the leaders of a mob or everyone involved, no matter how little their contribution? In Lang’s first film in the United States after fleeing Nazi Germany, he embodies this metaphor for his homeland with Spencer Tracy at the forefront. Fury is straight-forward, book-ended by just enough sentimentality to give context to the proceedings. The moral preaching is kept to a minimum, which allows the film to breathe in the minds of viewers after it concludes. Ultimately, when held up against the backdrop of what happened during the Third Reich, the film goes beyond entertainment and caps a perfect beginning to Lang’s Hollywood career.

1.5, Korea


2011 / Huh Jong-ho > A family melodrama wrapped inside another melodrama about society’s inability to cope with mental disabilities sprinkled with some bloated action and uninteresting, stereotypical characters who are part-time criminals but generally okay-to-good people. Actually, one of them is a “bad” guy, though he’s kind enough to numb your legs before he breaks them. Novel, right? But let’s not kid ourselves: Countdown has basically no rhyme or reason to exist, and in the process, wastes a performance by the great Jeon Do-yeon (winner of Best Actress at Cannes in 2007 for Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine) and a stoic but relatively enjoyable Jeong Jae-yeong. This is, in many ways, the worst of Korean cinema: Mediocre, repetitive, unimaginative—the counterpart to Hollywood’s run-of-the-mill blockbusters.

3.0, Europe

The Skin I Live In

2011 / Pedro Almodóvar > Almodóvar revels in complex storytelling, and there’s also a kind of magic that emanates from his characters who generally make the journeys quite compelling. But The Skin I Live In fails on both fronts: Not only do we not care about anyone, the plot also feels flat, dated and reaches for an understanding that is too obvious, too easy and too cute. While we do get one of those subtle twists that the director is so keen on, it’s not one that really satisfies. Instead, it comes off awkward, lazy and arguably unnecessary. These combinations lead to what is, to date, the most unsatisfying experience from the acclaimed filmmaker. While 2009’s Broken Embraces was a very enjoyable homage to the classic telenovela, his overall quality of output has been decreasing since the excellent Talk to Her in 2002. One could even argue that, though he tries to show otherwise, he has become safe.

2.0, United States/Canada


2011 / Steven Soderbergh > In 1965, Peter Watkins’ The War Game faux-documented, in a brutally honest manner, a nuclear bombing and the fallout thereafter. It was timely and impacted people on a ground level, knowing that such an attack was entirely possible at the height of the Cold War. Soderbergh attempts to do the same with a deadly virus of unknown origin—as the term “biochemical weapon” is almost a mainstay in the paranoid media—but opts also to inject small subplots of great humanity into the the film’s creases. Therein lies the problem: These stories dilute Contagion’s effectiveness as a cold-blooded cautionary tale. While Cliff Martinez’ chilling score does wonders to bring us into this world that we hope never exists, the script’s near-black and white morality soon jilts our attention. After a while, everything becomes a happy-go-lucky caricature of who we should be as people instead of a deeper dissection of culture in the midst of a tragic outbreak.

3.0, United States/Canada


2011 / Martin Scorsese > As both an elegy and a celebration of cinema, Hugo is wonderful. But as a composition, the film meanders into side stories of no real consequence without ever fully realizing its promise to the audience: The adventure simply does not satisfy. Once again, Scorsese’s biggest weakness remains glaring: The man’s oeuvre is filled with by-the-numbers storytelling (often with stunning—and dependent—set pieces) that work because the stories themselves are very tightly constructed to begin with. This one isn’t. While the heart is warmed in the manner a family film ought to, the editing lacks a certain tightness to genuinely enthrall us all the way through.

Then there’s the 3D: Many have suggested Scorsese’s utilization of the technology is the best to date, including James Cameron himself. But aside from some of the glowing 1920s Parisian scenery and the gleeful finale that only the most hardcore of film enthusiasts will really appreciate, the additional dimension adds little to the experience. It is a technology that has once again failed to justify both its box office premium as well as the bulky, uncomfortable accessory it depends on.

2.5, United States/Canada

After Hours

1985 / Martin Scorsese > Dated and often purposefully silly, After Hours is effectively Scorsese’s love letter to 1980s New York, or as the film’s working title would aptly have declared it, A Night in SoHo. For those, like myself, who missed the grungy glamour that made the area south of Houston Street such a haven to artists, this is a way to travel back in time. It’s incredible to compare the grimy, scuzzy streets of yesteryear to the buzzing, higher-end commercial district it is now. But aside from that, it’s a bit ho-hum. Centered around a typical office worker’s overnight misadventures, the film has its fair share of characters, of which all but one work on the periphery. This is not the type of extraordinary journey we expect out of Scorsese, but rather a small detour where he’s able to create a work of art that’s filled with some small joys even if they’re short of a full circle in the end.

4.0, Europe, United States/Canada


1962 / Stanley Kubrick  > Say what you want about the Hays Code, but Lolita is a clear example of where it worked wonders: Kubrick was forced to adapt Nabokov’s classic for the screen with a level of creative subtlety that allowed its sexual proclivity to be hidden in plain sight. As the word “Lolita” itself has become part of our everyday vocabulary, it’s now nearly impossible to go into the film with any expectation of shock. Thus the film not doling around on the erotic and, instead, focusing on the madman-at-hand actually benefits the storytelling. Admittedly, it lacks the in-depth analysis of Humbert Humbert, played so tautly by James Mason, but what it leaves to our imagination is much more preferable. We’re allowed to fill in the gaps of what kind of background forces upon an older man the preference of younger, so-called “nymphettes” instead of women of similar age.

Unlike the novel, which is written from the viewpoint of a highly unreliable, subjective narrator, the film takes a couple of steps back but still keeps us within arms’ reach of the situation. Across from Mason, 16-year-old Sue Lyon’s performance as the titular character is astounding in its sophistication. It’s hard not to wonder if she’s an older actress playing the part of the 14-year-old, but such is the effectiveness of her “range” that has the feel of anywhere from 13 to 25. All the while, there’s something very contained in her sensibilities that makes us wonder how much of what we perceive in the film is morally apt. Nabokov was considerably more black and white about Humbert’s nature of obsession, but Kubrick’s not nearly as judgmental. And the film is better for it—even with Dr. Strangelove’s forceful and unnecessary cameo.

4.0, United States/Canada

Margin Call

2011 / J.C. Chandor > Actual Bloomberg terminals and financial terminology without explanations: Have we come this far in cinema? Can we actually approach Wall Street without caricaturing it? Chandor’s one-night-before-the-crisis take of a fictional Bear Stearns-wannabe is a giant step in filmmaking. Finally, we have a thoughtful, deliberate film about the crisis without condescension or a moral high-ground. Amidst the cries of crowds at Occupy Wherever, we are charmed with a thriller that allows us to track the moment of discovery to the impending fallout, all while focusing on the humanity of the situation. It doesn’t matter whether one is a socialist or a capitalist, the reality is that truth often gets pounded by hearsay as long as it serves a greater purpose. But every story has two sides, and Margin Call does its damnedest to tell both. Were it not for the gravely miscast Demi Moore and slightly heavy expository dialogue, this could really have been one for the books. Still, the film is a must-see for anyone trying to dig into the psyche of those who stood at the foundation of a crisis that some will never forgive.