A Hard Day (Kim Seonghun, 2014) & Unexpected (Kris Swanberg, 2015)

Opening this week on Seattle Screens are two fine features that played at this past Seattle International Film Festival. I reviewed them briefly when they played then, and here are some expanded versions of those short reviews.

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A Hard Day – Somewhere the dominant strain of the crime movie genre morphed from Woovian tales of moral codes in unjust societies (ala A Better Tomorrow) to Rube Goldberg narratives driven by slapstick escalations of violence. I suspect it was somewhere around the time of Infernal Affairs, as Alan Mak and Andrew Lau’s crime thriller adopted the speed and rhythm of Johnnie To’s Milkyway thrillers, matched it with Lau’s bright, digitally slick blues, grays and blacks, and neglected to add To and his vast team of writers’ depth of purpose to their ingeniously wicked plot schematics. Thus suspense and drama comes not from characters or ideals, but from complications in plot, driving the protagonists into ever more desperate and implausible actions and unlikely camera angles. A world of shifting, impenetrable surfaces, as superficial as it is mutable. Laurel & Hardy, Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Big Clock are the reference points for Kim Seonghun’s thriller, about a cop who accidentally runs over a man on an empty street at night and goes to great lengths to cover it up. And when it turns out that he wasn’t alone on that street, and that maybe the guy he thought he killed was already dead, he finds himself lost in an ever escalating spiral of darkly comic suspense sequences, moving from mere moral corruption to unbelievably, but no less thrillingly, wild cacophonies of destruction.

A Hard Day opens Friday, July 24 at the Grand Illusion.

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Unexpected – The second-best Cobie Smulders film of the year so far, falling well behind Andrew Bujalski’s romantic comedy Results. Director Kris Swanberg’s story is about a high school teacher (Smulders) who becomes pregnant and bonds with one of her students, an African-American girl with dreams of going to college and who is just-as-surprisingly knocked-up. Swanberg is mostly successful at navigating a minefield of problematicism, as the two leads are developed and performed with just enough nuance that neither ends up as the source of lesson-learning for the other. The dangers in such a scenario should be obvious – this is as eyeroll-inducing a premise for an American indie film as I’ve seen in a while (and that includes Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). Still, despite exceeding expectations, there isn’t enough depth to the characters (everyone outside the two leads is broadly painted and either inexplicable or pointless) to overcome cheap plot contrivances (a key point in the film requires both women to demonstrate a complete lack of understanding of the geography of Chicago-area colleges, which is pretty much unforgivable). It’s an OK movie with a couple of fine performances. Its success lies in eliciting a shrug rather than a wince.

Unexpected open Friday July 24 at the Sundance Cinemas.

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SIFF 2015 Report #3: Overheard 3, Dreams Rewired, The Apu Trilogy, Mistress America, Unexpected, A Matter of Interpretation, Dearest

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Overheard 3 – The third in a series of thrillers from Hong Kong, directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong and starring the powerhouse trio of Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu. Each film follows a new set of characters in a crime story involving eavesdropping technology of some kind and nefarious financial transactions. Each one is overwritten, the kind of film in which characters speak in long monologues of exposition, explaining things to the audience that all the characters in the scene should already know. Each movie weaves a financial crime  (insider trading, real estate fraud) into traditional cop melodrama (read: problems with the wife/girlfriend), lending well-trod territory the shiny patina of contemporary relevance. Each movie delights in maiming Louis Koo in some horrible way. This is easily the worst entry in the series thus far, the plot overcomplicated (and not, as you’d expect, because Western audiences get confused by the nature of real estate deals in the New Territories, but rather just because the various schemes and revenge plots are far too complex to have ever been enacted by any actual humans), the characters thin and prone to radically irrational behavior. The first two managed to mitigate that with some clever suspense and action sequences, but there is hardly any of that here either. All of these people have done vastly superior work. It looks slick, like a lot of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong films (Mak was a co-director on that one as well), but it doesn’t have any depth, any soul.

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