VIFF 2012 Dispatch: NAMELESS GANGSTER, TWO JACKS, and STARLET

I would pretty much watch any film starring Choi Min-sik at this point, and his towering performance as a befuddled civil worker who weasels and networks his way to the top of the crime underworld in Busan is reason enough to check out Nameless Gangster (the full title of which contains the awkward subtitle "Rules of the Time"). Happily, the movie offers further incentives in the form of an equally good performance from Ha Jung-woo as a brutally violent gangster with trust issues, competent if Scorsese-indebted direction, and an endless parade of stylish locales. 

At 134 minutes, though, the shenanigans -- entertaining as they may be -- take time finding focus or narrative thrust, and the ending becomes a bit convoluted. The movie shines brightest when it plays off of the standard bromance formula, lovingly rendering these rough, chauvinistic men as bickering buddies bent on realizing a shared dream (and the falling outs that happen along the way). As far as popcorn movies go, Nameless Gangster is smarter, better acted, and more exhilarating than most, so it's hard to complain too much.


viff-2012-two-jacks-still-350.jpgEach year I attend VIFF, I follow the same hierarchy for choosing what to see. First, I have the movies I know I want to check out, typically based on hype and critical praise (for example, Holy Motors and Leviathan). Next, I flip through the guide and bookmark anything I see that looks up my alley or has a director I've enjoyed other work from. Once I've fit as many from those two categories in as I can, I look at the time table and whenever I have an open spot, I pick a random movie that happens to be showing then and sounds decent / intriguing / not horrible.

Two Jacks, a film by Bernard Rose (who directed, among many other things, Candyman) was one such "slot-filler," and decent / intriguing / not horrible describes it quite succinctly. Divided into two halves, the movie tells the stories of Jack Hussar Sr., a pre-internet age old school Hollywood director (the wonderful Danny Huston) and later his Jr., also a director but a contemporary one, in our world of oppressively present iPhones, paparazzi, and short attention spans. Jack Sr.'s story is funnier, more approachable and boasts a great performance, but Jack Jr.'s strange, menacing and absurd night-in-L.A.-gone-wrong vignette is weirdly magnetic in its own way, too. Both would benefit from being their own full-length features, if it wouldn't negate the whole premise and the Tolstoy short story it's based on.


viff-2012-starlet-still-350.jpgSean Baker's Starlet mirrors the sunny, lazy San Fernando Valley lifestyle it depicts with dreamy shots and a slow-and-steady, somewhat aimless pace. Dree Hemingway (Ernest's granddaughter) plays porn starlet Jane, whose occupation is little more than an aside in the film.

As she forms an unlikely friendship with a cantankerous, lonely old lady named Sadie, the movie's sense of meaningless drifting takes on a poignant, haunting quality, echoing the desire for meaningful human connection in both characters.

Thematically, Starlet calls to mind other excellent films like Ghost World, Young Adult, and Magic Mike -- but it's also its own entity, a quietly moving, funny, heartbreaking work and a great showcase for the promising lead actress.


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