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Monday, 1 August 2011

Norwegian Wood

Hello friends.

(Just gonna say up front that this post is pretty much dominated by my thoughts on the "Norwegian Wood" movie as it is very long.)

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Went back to uni this week which was ever so exciting (sarcasm if you weren't aware). Classes this year consist of me writing for documentary/non-fiction stories and radio. I also have a class in screen criticism as well. The way I see it, I kinda wanna get as many skills as I can in all sorts of mediums (not just limited to film, or in this case fictional storytelling with film) whilst refining my writing.

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But that's it really. Nothing much exciting happening. I've been out and stuff but nothing about it seems good enough to report back so I'll suppose I'll just end it there. I had plans to finish off "The Killing" and watch "All About Lily Chou-Chou" but things got in the way, unfortunately. We'll see how it goes next week, perhaps?
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WHAT I'VE BEEN WATCHING

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An internationally renowned director whose made a name for himself on the festival circuit; a cast of talented Japanese actors and source material that's both highly evocative of the era it's set in as well as being rich in narrative. What could possibly go wrong? Well apparently quite a bit as Tran Anh Hung's ("Cyclo", "The Scent of the Green Papaya") latest feature, "Norwegian Wood" - adapted from the famous Haruki Murakami novel of the same name - isn't quite as enamouring as one may think it to be. It's no secret that I've been anticipating this feature for a long time now (around about the time I began this blog too!) and to say that it underwhelmed me is to put it quite lightly.

One of the biggest mistakes of the film is the fact that the name of the film really loses all meaning within the context of the narrative. It seems that every plot outline for the film in any piece of promotion or review begins with the idea that upon hearing the song "Norwegian Wood" by The Beatles, our protagonist, Toru (Kenichi Matsuyama) begins to reminisce about his early years in high school and college, dealing with the death of his best friend and tumultuous relationship with his best friend's girlfriend at the time, Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi). The song is used twice within the film - once during a nice moment in the film and again during the closing credits -but it seems more like an era-appropriate piece inserted just to remind people that they're watching a film that's set during the early 60s in Japan. Of course, audiences aren't meant to know this and those that haven't read the novel may not have a problem with the title and its context within the film. However, those who have may feel like the film doesn't do right by the novel.

Most novel to film adaptations are tricky to work around - you're not guaranteed a 100% success when adaptating works of literature to film since they have a strict production value placed on them (as well as considering the running time that would suit audiences). Liberties must be taken in order to make the film work which is very understandable. Tran does as best he can to adapt the novel for screen and basically captures most of the core story - that is the strained relationship between Toru and Naoko. For that, I commend Tran's efforts for trying to do as much as he can for them. And to be honest, I would have preferred if the film focused entirely on just those two characters as Tran does a nice job of directing the action around them. But unfortuantely, the product that was displayed before me wasn't that. Tran's choice to include unnecessary supporting characters that the audience may not care about altogether is one that hampers the progression of the film. Just when you think the film picks up and moves along, in comes a subplot that doesn't add to the overall story nor build upon character development which is sad as a lot of the supporting characters within the novel are woefully underused within the film.

The biggest of these supporting characters to get the shaft is Midori - a fun, vibrant girl whose personality is practically the complete opposite of Naoko's. She is seen as the "alternate" for Toru, someone who exists to show Toru that there is life after his best friend's death and that he can move on. The character of Midori (who just so happened to be my favourite character within the novel) is perhaps the biggest waste in the film as her existance within the film not only hampers the pace of an already slow film but also adds little to the already interesting main story of the film. As much as I like the character within the novel, for the film, she might have been written off entirely as I was much more invested with Toru and Naoko than I was with Toru and Midori.

This critique of Midori can also be attributed to the presentation of the character. Model-turned-actor Kiko Mizuhara is a blank slate throughout the film, making her character uninteresting and painfully boring. The usually consistent Kenichi Matsuyama doesn't fare too well in the film either, often seeming rather detached from the script and never truly tapping into the core essence of his character - that of a lonesome young man trying to move on in his life but feeling like everyone around him is weighing him down. The only standout of the cast is Rinko Kikuchi as the mentally fractured and emotionally damaged, Naoko. Kikuchi is no stranger to playing fragile characters - having recieved a nomination for Best Supporting Actress at the 79th Academy Awards) and does a fantastic job here.

Tran's history with the band Radiohead has been documented, having used music from the band several times throughout some of his films. This time around, Tran does not use any songs from the band but does however acquire one of the members of Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood, to score the film. Greenwood's score is breathtaking and adds much flavour to the film. The score is able to capture the themes that permeate throughout the film - sorrow, regret, loneliness - in awe-inspiring and dizzying fashion. It would have been nice, however, if Tran had decided to incorporate a few songs from that era (as Murakami as huge on music in his novels) but that's just a minor complaint that doesn't necisarrily effect the outcome of the film.

The only other director that I would imagine to have perfectly nailed the novel - and one that would be number one in most people's minds - would be Wong Kar-wai but Tran's approach to the film is admirable to say the least. Visually, the film is enamouring and coupled with Greenwood's score, the combination of sight and sound make for some dazzling scenes. It's just unfortunate that the film's story is hampered by ordinary performances, save for Kikuchi, slow pacing and unneccessary characters that both the audience and fans of the novel wouldn't care about. This adaptation of Murakami's beloved novel might not hit all the right notes but it does come across as being somewhat faithful to the source material.

P.S. The film does stay with you for a while. At first, I didn't like it as much as I wanted to and while I still maintain those feelings about the film, I found myself thinking about it a lot more in the days after I watched it. Perhaps there's a part of me that secretly enjoyed the film? Did Naoko and Toru's story on screen affect me more than I thought it would? I can't say for sure but I've had the same feelings towards "Happy Together" as well. Food for thought, Hieu.



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Probably the most interesting of all the comic book movies to have come out this year is "Captain America: The First Avenger". Here we have a costumed hero straight from the 1940s who's recognised as an icon of hope and fortitude for an entire country - a symbol that makes you want to aspire to greatness and overcome adversady. In some ways, "Captain America" is similar to "X-Men: First Class" in that they're both period films that deal with super-powered beings who alter or have some kind of effect over the course of human history. Whether Captain America had a major part in winning World War 2 within the context of the film and comics is up to debate but its still an interesting concept that I hope other filmmakers explore in the future.

The film follows Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a scrawny kid full of heart who wants to enlist and help out his fellow American in war but is unfortunately unable to due to his physical stature. His heart and good nature gets noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working with the military to implement a Super Soldier program. Rogers is chosen as the candidate due to his qualities, despite his enfeebled appearance, and emerges from the program as the superhero, Captain America.

Let it be noted that this film is rather long, a lot longer than it probably should've been. It takes a while for the film to find it's footing but once it gets through to the point where Captain America actually accepts his role, takes up the mantle and becomes the inspiring hero that America's soldiers need - the film becomes mostly enjoyable and fun throughout.

Some action set pieces seem awkwardly directed, however, making you never truly "feel" the intensity and excitement of a particular stunt-filled sequence. There's none of that shaky camera stuff but there's sometihng about the way in which the cameras tracked movement and what not that bewildered me a little.

Chris Evans has really come of age as an actor and does a nice job of portraying those wholesome and quality aspects not just of America's ideal citizen but of any good natured person. Captain America is basically Marvel's answer to Superman (at least that's how I see it). Everyone else in the film is okay at best. Hugo Weaving's Red Skull character teeters on cheese every now and again and doesn't seem nearly as scary as one would hope; Tommy Lee Jones plays straight and narrow and Hayley Atwell just plays the regular uninspired love interest role that these films usually concoct for their females (though that's not her fault of course).

And as far as production design goes, you can tell that they've invested a lot into the film and did a great job of partially recreating the 1940s. The costumes are spot on, as are the set designs. It's something that not many people comment on a lot of the time but every little thing counts, especially in a period film.

"Captain America: The First Avenger" fares a bit better than Marvel's other Avenger film, "Thor", in my opinion and that's probably due to the fact that the Captain is quite the interesting character with a story that inspires and leads as much as the Captain himself. It's a film about the underdog and how, when given the chance, the underdog can overcome any amount of adversadey thrown his or her way. An enjoyable time at the cinema, yes, but one that can otherwise be reserved for a showing on DVD.


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I can't be bothered putting up the film news of the week so I'll end it here. And to properly send you off, here's a silly Taiwanese animation of the "The Dark Knight Rises" trailer... or at least their version of it. Seriously crazy stuff going on here, folks. Try to spot the references to Christopher Nolan's other films.


1 comment:

  1. I was really disappointed with Norwegian Wood, hoping it'll do the book some justice but.... :(
    I felt like Midori has more personality in the book opposed to the movie.

    I saw Captain America yesterday and I agree it was too long but also rushed in some scenes. I heard "the avengers movie" is coming out in 2012 fingers crossed that it is not a rumor, haha. I actually really like Thor but more so Locki the antagonist.

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