Special Delivery (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): She must deliver this kid to the end

South Korean film “Special Delivery”, whose theatrical release in South Korea was incidentally delayed for around 2 years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is a competent genre product to be appreciated for its taut and efficient handling of story and action. While it is clearly influenced by a number of well-known seniors ranging from Walter Hill’s “The Driver” (1978) to John Cassavetes’ “Gloria” (1980), the movie has enough style and substance to engage and entertain us, and it also confirms again to us the considerable talent and presence of its lead performer.

Park So-dam, who has been more prominent these days thanks to her delightfully saucy performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), plays Eun-ha, a tough young woman who has earned her living via her particular set of skills. On the surface, she is just a mere employee working at one shabby garage in Busan, but she is actually a very skillful driver who can “deliver everything that the post office service does not handle”, and the opening sequence, which is reminiscent a bit of the opening part of Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011), shows us how deftly and swiftly she handles her latest delivery job without any misstep.

Not long after this job is done, another delivery job is suddenly handed to Eun-ha, and she and her boss, who has virtually been like a good uncle to her, promptly embark on making their delivery plan. Although she has to go to Seoul in this time, all she has to do is waiting at a certain spot before picking up and then delivering whoever will come according to the plan, and she will certainly be paid well once this job is done.

However, not so surprisingly, this delivery job turns out to be much riskier than expected. When Eun-ha is waiting for the client at that certain spot, a young boy is frantically running toward her car, and she instinctively senses that something is terribly going wrong. At first, she considers leaving the spot as soon as possible without looking back at all, but, probably out of pity and compassion, she decides to let the boy get into her car, and then they soon find themselves chased by a bunch of thugs.

Around that point, the movie lets us have a pretty clear idea of what is going on around Eun-ha and the boy. He is the only son of the client, and, before he gets killed in the end, the client gave his son an incriminating piece of evidence against someone with whom he has been associated for years. Of course, that criminal figure in question and those thugs are quite willing to retrieve this evidence by any means necessary, and the situation later becomes more complicated as we get to know more about how dangerous and powerful this criminal organization really is.

As instructed by her boss, Eun-ha could just let the boy handled by one of her boss’ criminal associates, but she eventually decides to take a much harder way for the boy’s safety, and the movie accordingly gives us a series of well-executed moments including a suspenseful scene where our heroine must outwit her opponents as soon as possible. Although her driving skill is utilized less than expected, you will not grumble at all as watching a gritty vehicle action sequence which will grab you hard from the beginning to the end, and director/co-writer Park Dae-min and his crew members did a commendable job of vividly conveying to us many physical impacts during this impressive sequence.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays a lot of attention to the growing relationship between Eun-ha and the boy, who is not just a story element to be wielded in one way or another. Although she simply follows what should be done in her view, Eun-ha comes to care about the boy much more than she admits on the surface, and the boy also comes to depend a lot on Eun-ha as being reminded more that there is no one to help him except her.

It surely helps that Park and young performer Jeong Hyeon-jun, who also appeared as one of the main characters in “Parasite”, click well with each other on the screen. While confidently embodying her character’s toughness and resourcefulness, Park ably demonstrates another side of her talent here in this film, and her terse but undeniably strong acting is complemented well by Jeong’s unadulterated natural performance.

In addition, the movie assembles a group of colorful performers around Park and Jeong. I will not go into details for not spoiling any of your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that Kim Eui-sung, Song Sae-byeok, Han Hyun-min, Yeon Woo-jin, and Yeom Hye-ran are well-cast in their respective supporting roles, and, as a longtime cat lover, I will not deny that I smiled during a few tender scenes between Eun-ha and her grumpy pet cat, who cannot help but steal the scene a bit from Park whenever the camera looks at it.

On the whole, “Special Delivery” did its job as splendidly as expected, and I and a friend of mine had a fairly thrilling time as watching it at a local movie theater during last evening. As a dude who knows a lot about vehicles, he pointed out some unrealistic moments in the film after we came out of the screening room, but both of us agreed that the movie is still entertaining enough nonetheless, and I am sure that you will agree to that after watching it.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A sparse but striking version of that Scottish play

Joel Coen’s first solo film “The Tragedy of Macbeth”, which was released on Apple TV+ a few days ago, is a sparse but striking version of that ‘Scottish Play’ which is incidentally one of the best works of William Shakespeare. While it is mostly faithful to the overall plot of Shakespeare’s play besides some noticeable narrative condensation, the movie is often quite impressive in terms of mood, storytelling, and performance, and it is certainly another interesting movie adaptation to be mentioned along with several notable previous ones including Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (1957) and Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” (1971).

After the opening scene which succinctly establishes the ominously gloomy tone of the film, we see how Lord Macbeth (Denzel Washington) happens to be tempted by a sudden possibility of attaining more power in the near future. He has been a royal and brave general serving under King Duncan (Brendan Gleeson), and he recently demonstrated his considerable royalty and valor for his king during the latest battle in Scotland, but then he comes across a trio of witches when he is returning to his king along with his close comrade/friend Banquo (Bertie Carvel). These three witches insidiously prophesy that Macbeth is going to be the Thane of Cawdor and then the King of Scotland, and they also give a small but significant prophesy for Banquo.

Macbeth is initially skeptical about the prophecy on his upcoming future, but, what do you know, he soon does become the new Thane of Cawdor as ordered by his king, and that naturally makes him much more ambitious than before. Mainly because he is not that young, he becomes more obsessed with that possibility of becoming the king before his death, and his cunning wife does not hesitate at all to boost his ambition more once she comes to learn of that prophecy from her husband.

And the chance comes to them sooner than expected as King Duncan later visits Macbeth’s castle. Although he is still hesitating over whether he can actually kill his king for becoming the next king, Macbeth eventually lets himself driven further by his ambition as well as his wife, and that consequently leads to a brief but shocking moment of violence.

Once he succeeds in eliminating King Duncan, there is no other obstacle in Macbeth’s subsequent rise to the throne, but, as many of you already know well, Macbeth becomes more paranoid in addition to struggling with the consequences of his horrible crime, and his wife also gradually finds herself being driven into madness as watching how cruel and ruthless her husband can be for maintaining their power as long as he can. While she is pretty good at pushing her husband into killing, she turns out to be much weaker than she thought at first, and we accordingly get that famous scene revealing what has been eating her day by day.

For emphasizing these two main characters’ increasingly unhinged and desperate status, the movie is packed with nightmarish qualities to be noticed. Shot in the black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, the movie is constantly shrouded in the dry and bleak sense of doom, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who previously collaborated with Coen and his brother in “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) and “The Ballard of Buster Scruggs” (2018), provides a number of terrific shots to be admired for the skillful utilization of lights and shadows. The production design by Stefan Dechant and the costume design by Mary Zophres are austerely impressive under the stylized ambiance of the film, and I particularly appreciate how the deliberately claustrophobic aspects of Macbeth’s castle convey to us more of Macbeth and his wife’s accumulating desperation and madness.

Above all, the movie is firmly supported by two great American movie performers of our time. Denzel Washington, who is no stranger to Shakespeare plays considering his humorous supporting turn in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), gives another superlative performance which will surely garner him another Oscar nomination, and he deftly handles several big monologue scenes in the film including that well-known one which begins with “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow”. As his equal acting partner, Frances McDormand, who incidentally played Lady Macbeth on stage before, is convincing in her character’s fateful psychological downfall along the story, and she does not disappoint us at all when her character finally reaches to the bottom of her madness around the end of the story.

Coen assembles a number of interesting performers around Washington and McDormand, and many of them have each own moment to shine. While Brendan Gleeson leaves an indelible impression despite his rather brief appearance, Alex Hassell, Henry Melling, Bertie Carvel, Moses Ingram, Sean Patrick Thomas, Ralph Ineson, Stephen Root, and Corey Hawkins are also solid in their respective supporting roles, and the special mention goes to Kathryn Hunter, who is quite spooky as playing all of the three witches in the story (She also plays another small supporting role in the film, by the way).

Overall, “The Tragedy of Macbeth” may feel a bit too dry for some of you, but it is still a very interesting experience to be savored for its many strong elements including the excellent performances from Washington and McDormand. In short, this is another highlight of last year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.

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The Tender Bar (2021) ☆☆(2/4): So he grew up to be a writer…

George Clooney’s new film “The Tender Bar”, which was released on Amazon Prime early in this month, often bored me without leaving much impression on the whole. It is supposed to be a warm, tender, and intimate coming-of-age drama, but the movie only comes to us as a bland and tedious misfire instead, and it also seriously wastes two fairly good performances which deserve better in my inconsequential opinion.

The story, which is based on the memoir of the same name by J.R. Moehrigner, is about Moehringer’s childhood and adulthood memories during the 1970-80s. In 1973, young J.R. (Daniel Ranieri) moved to his grandfather’s house along with his mother Dorothy (Lily Rabe) shortly after her divorce, and he is glad about coming back to his grandfather’s house even though he misses his absent father a bit. The house is never boring for him as being usually full of many other family members besides his grandparents, and his favorite family member is an uncle named Charlie (Ben Affleck), who has run a small local car in the neighborhood.

Young J.R. often comes to Charlie’s bar, and, though he is surely not allowed to drink any booze, he enjoys being around his dear uncle, who willingly encourages his nephew’s interest in reading and writing. After all, the name of his bar came from the author of several books placed in the bar, and he turns out to be quite more perceptive and intelligent than he looks on the surface. At one point, he makes a sincere but sharp comment on his nephew’s little family newspaper, and that certainly makes young J.R. have more confidence about his writing talent.

Meanwhile, young J.R. still misses his father although he knows well how much his mother is sick of her ex-husband. He can only listen to his father’s voice via his father’s radio show, and his father only lets him down after he promises his son to take him to a big baseball game. At least, his father later visits him, but then there is not much conversation between them, and his father soon leaves after having some clash with Charlie, who surely hates his guts for many reasons including the one involved with a little debt between them.

The screenplay by William Monahan could delve deeper into the relationship development between young J.R. and Charlie, but it instead moves onto several years later. J.R., who is played by Tye Sheridan from this point, is now an adolescent boy who is about to apply for the enrollment in Yale University, and he is certainly anxious about whether he will be accepted or not. Even if he is accepted in the end, he really needs the scholarship for studying there, and there is not much possibility for that, but, of course, he eventually receives a letter of acceptance from Yale which also confirms that he will get the scholarship.

What follows next is your typical campus drama. Our young hero studies a lot on literature along with many other students, and then he finds himself hopelessly falling in love with a pretty female student. While she seems to be willing to have a serious relationship with him, it gradually turns out that she is not so particularly serious about him, and J.R. only comes to find himself stuck in his on-and-off relationship with her during next several years. Although his close friends as well as Charlie advise him to get over that girl, he cannot do that at all even when he eventually graduates four years later, and he is certainly heartbroken when he later comes to learn that he cannot meet her anymore.

Unfortunately, the movie does not give us any sense of growth and maturation from its rather colorless hero in the meantime. While I was amused a bit by a brief lecture scene involved with two certain old literature works, I was disappointed as the movie did not go further than that, and I was also dissatisfied with its superficial handling of its young hero’s problematic relationship with that girl. She is pretty and charming indeed, but we can never fully discern why he cannot easily quit her, and this weak problem is further accentuated by the rather weak presence of Tye Sheridan, who can actually give solid performances as recently shown from Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” (2021) but is sadly stuck with his mediocre character here in this film.

While the movie disappointingly under-utilizes many of its various cast members ranging from Lily Rabe to Christopher Lloyd, its two certain cast members manage to acquit themselves well at least. Ben Affleck, who has become a bit more interesting thanks to several recent good performances including his amusing supporting turn in “The Last Duel” (2021), effortlessly slips into his role from the beginning, and it is a shame that the movie does not focus more on his colorful character’s loving relationship with young J.R. In case of young performer Daniel Ranieri, he does more than holding his own place well among Affleck and several adult performers around him, and he virtually steals the scene from Sheridan at one point later in the story.

On the whole, “The Tender Bar” is another disappointment from its director, and that reminds me of how promising Clooney was as a new filmmaker in the early 2000s. After making a debut with “The Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (2003), he advanced with two Oscar-nominated films “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) and “The Ides of March” (2011), but he subsequently went downhill with “The Monument Men” (2014) and “Suburbicon” (2017), and “The Tender Bar” only throws more doubt on the current status of his filmmaking career. I do not know what may come next from him, but I can only hope that “The Tender Bar” will be just another low point before he can be back in his element.

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West Side Story (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An exhilarating musical film by Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg’s latest film “West Side Story” is an exhilarating musical film which I gladly watched after one particularly exhausting day. I must confess that my physical condition was not that good when I watched the movie during last evening, but it did not take much time for me to be galvanized by all those terrific moments in the film, and I really enjoyed and admired how Spielberg and his cast and crew members bring a considerable amount of fresh energy and spirit into their very familiar materials.

As many of you know, the movie is the adaptation of the classic Broadway musical of the same name, which came out in 1957 and then made into the successful Oscar-winning film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins in 1961. Although it was not entirely without flaws, the 1961 film, which won no less than 10 Oscars including the one for Best Picture, is still packed with a number of awesome things besides Leonard Bernstein’s terrific music, Stephen Sondheim’s dexterous lyrics, and Robbins’ electrifying choreography, and these timeless elements compensate a lot for its several notable weak aspects including the serious lack of chemistry between its two leading performers Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer.

Mainly because of the weak aspects of the 1961 film, there has always been the possibility of improvement and modification via the remake version, and I am happy to report that Spielberg did a fantastic job of presenting those musical moments with sheer technical confidence and prowess. While the 1961 version will certainly come first as usual, the 2021 version often does its own things with more realism and verisimilitude, and it helps that it is constantly buoyed by the strong performances from many of its relatively unknown cast members, who ably imbue the movie with a heap of youthful vigor and emotional intensity.

Although the story, which is basically the modern reworking of that certain romantic tragedy of William Shakespeare, is not exactly the strongest aspect of the film, the adapted screenplay by Tony Kushner improves the original story to some degree while also accentuating its social/historical aspects more than the 1961 version. As reflected by the very first scene of the film where the camera hovers over the gentrification process on the shabby neighborhood of the West Side area of Manhattan, the mood becomes more serious and realistic, and some timeless social issues including race, immigration, and gun control are organically incorporated into the story. In addition, the conflict between the Zets, a Caucasian gang group, and the Sharks, a Latino gang group, is depicted with a lot more menace and danger even though it is accompanied with Bernstein’s music and Robbins’ choreography, and we also come to sense some despair and desperation from both sides as reflecting more on how the world inhabited by these two groups will be gone sooner or later due to the ongoing gentrification.

Above all, the movie soars whenever it presents a musical scene as expected. Thanks to Spielberg and his top-notch crew members including cinematographer Janusz Kamiński and editors Michael Kahn and Sarah Broshar, we surely get a more visually interesting and effective presentation of several famous songs including “Tonight”, and I especially enjoyed how they present the “America” with much more cinematic touches compared to the 1961 version. The movie also surprises us as using a few other songs including “Cool” under curiously different contexts, and that certainly brings more fresh air to the film.

During its second half, the movie loses its narrative pacing a bit as heading toward its predictable finale, but it still engages us as before with some interesting modern touches involved with gender sensitivity. For example, the tomboy character in the 1961 film is now presented as a tougher transgender character, and a certain key scene later in the story is coupled with more sexual brutality and some female perspective.

Amidst these and many other rich stuffs in the film, the couple at the center of the story feels rather generic, but its two leading performers do their respective tasks fairly well on the whole. Although Ansel Elgort is one of the weakest elements in the film for being as banal and colorless as he was in “Baby Driver” (2017), he and his co-star Rachel Zegler, who actually sing their songs in contrast to Wood and Beymer in the 1961 film, click better with each other than their counterparts in the 1961 film, and Zegler constantly outshines her rather bland co-star as being on a par with Wood’s natural warmth and beauty.

In case of the other main cast members in the film, most of them are not so familiar to us, but I am sure that their respective careers will be boosted a lot by their spectacular works here in this movie. While Ariana DeBose, who will definitely receive an Oscar nomination for her colorfully ferocious supporting performance, is the most memorable one in the bunch, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Josh Andrés Rivera, and Iris Menas are also quite good, and Rita Moreno, who incidentally won an Oscar for playing DeBose’s character in the 1961 film, has her own little poignant musical moment later in the movie.

In conclusion, “West Side Story” is a commendable remake equipped with its own style and mood to distinguish itself from the 1961 version, and it is definitely another superb work in Spielberg’s long and illustrious filmmaking career. Although it has been more than 45 years since his first theatrical feature film “The Sugarland Express” (1974), he is still a great filmmaker willing to try new things, and we can only hope that he will keep going on as usual during this decade. In short, this is the best musical film of last year, and it will surely remind you of what cinema really is.

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House of Gucci (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A brand to kill for

Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci”, which is another new film from Scott in last year after “The Last Duel” (2021), is neither classy nor pulpy to my disappointment. While it is too superficial to be a serious drama about ambition and deterioration, it is also not trashy enough to be an enjoyable camp about greed and folly, and we accordingly come to observe its uneven and sprawling narrative without much care or attention despite all the hard works done by its leading actress.

The story mainly revolves around Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), and the early part of the movie shows us how she came to marry Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) in Milan, 1978. When she happens to come across Maurizio at one evening party, she does not hesitate to get closer to him mainly because he is an heir to the Gucci fashion house, and it does not take much time for her to win his heart, but there is one problem. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who owns the half of the family business, does not approve much of Patrizia because she is just the daughter of some middle-class family man running a small local trucking company, and he even threatens to disinherit his only son, but Maurizio and Patrizia come to marry in the end once Maurizio makes it clear to his father that he is not so interested in running or inheriting their family business.

After disinherited by his father, Maurizio comes to depend a lot on Patrizia and her family due to his penniless status, and he does not mind at all working in his father-in-law’s company, but there comes a chance for both him and his wife a few years later. His uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who owns the other half of the Gucci fashion house, is willing to let Maurizio join the family business mainly because he has been quite disappointed with his incompetent son Paolo (Jared Leto), and, despite his initial reluctance, Maurizio comes to accept his uncle’s offer as being urged by Patrizia, who is certainly delighted about going higher along with her husband at last.

After that point, things go fairly well for Patrizia and her husband for a while as they enjoy some glamour and luxury inside and outside Italy, but, of course, there comes a very complicated circumstance in their family business. As pushed more by his wife, Maurizio comes to clash a lot with Aldo over how to run and maintain their family business, and Patrizia is willing to do anything for making her husband have the total control over the Gucci fashion house. As a result, the situation becomes quite messy for everyone, and that also affects Mauricio and Patricia’s marriage, which becomes more deteriorated as he becomes more distant to her due to a number of personal and business matters.

As the story is eventually heading to what happened on March 27th, 1995, we are supposed to be more engaged around this narrative point, but the movie somehow fails to generate much interest or fascination for us. It surely tries to dazzle us as using many showy stuffs ranging from a bunch of fashionable attires to a number of recognizable pop songs from its period background, but the movie keeps fizzling just like Paolo’s disastrous fashion show at one point, and it only gets enlivened to some degree when a certain famous fashion designer enters the picture for saving the Gucci fashion house later in the story.

Above all, the main characters of the movie are not particularly interesting figures to observe. The screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, which is based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed”, does not provide much insight or depth to Patrizia and the other main characters in the story, and they all come to us nothing more than broad caricatures destined to failure or disgrace from the beginning. While we come to understand Patrizia’s ambition to some degree at least, the movie does not delve much into what makes her tick, and the same thing can be said about the other main characters including her husband, who remains a vapid and blank figure even at the very end of the story.

Anyway, Lady Gaga, who already demonstrated her considerable acting talent in her recent Oscar-nominated turn in “A Star Is Born” (2018), tries really hard in her admirably committed performance which more fluidly oscillates between drama and camp than the movie itself. While her rather exaggerated Italian accent is initially distracting, Gaga fully embodies her character’s ambition and ferocity, and that is why her performance is entertaining to watch even when she deliberately goes for overacting.

Unfortunately, the movie does not support Gaga’s diligent efforts much, and neither do many of the main cast members, who are only demanded to fill each own spot without many things to do. It is certainly nice to see Al Pacino and Jeremy Iron sharing the screen during one brief scene, but these two great actors are just required to look tired and hammy, and that is all for us to see here. While Adam Driver is hopelessly stuck in his flat thankless role, Jared Leto, who is barely recognizable in his heavy makeup, gives another worst acting in his career after “Little Things” (2020), and Salma Hayek and Jack Huston manage to acquit themselves well despite being thoroughly under-utilized.

In conclusion, “House of Gucci” is quite disappointing for not going all the way with its sensational story materials, and I found myself becoming more bored and disaffected during its second half after trying to enjoy it during its first half. At least, Scott gave us “The Last Duel” right before this misfire, and I think you should watch that fairly good film instead.

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France (2021) ☆☆(2/4): An inane satire on media and journalism

Bruno Dumont’s latest film “France” works best whenever the camera focuses on its leading actress’ undeniably beautiful face. I must point out that the movie itself is limp and hollow as a satire on media and journalism, but its leading actress does try her best to sell whatever her increasingly distant character is going through, and it is a shame that the movie does not support her diligent efforts enough on the whole.

Léa Seydoux, who has been one of the most interesting French actresses since she drew our attention for the first time via her supporting turn in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011), plays France de Meurs, a TV reporter who has been quite famous for years thanks to her popular TV news show. At the beginning, we see her entering a very important press conference along with her close friend/colleague Lou (Blanche Gardin), and the movie gives us a little amusing moment as she boldly throws a supposedly important question to the current president of France, whose archival footage is seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

We subsequently see how France works inside and outside her TV studio. Whenever she is not doing her TV show, she often goes to anywhere to draw the attention of millions of viewers out there, and we observe how she and her crew do some manipulation when they are their work at some remote spot of Northern African region. It seems that all she cares about is how to present her report clip more, uh, entertaining, but that will not probably surprise you much if you are already well aware of how unreliable media has become during last several years.

At her TV studio, France does some discussion with invited figures on TV, but none of them seems to know well what they are talking about. At one point, a certain invited guest tries to make his point with lots of words, and he fails to make his argument more convincing in the end, but then he throws a vicious sexist comment at France after the show is over.

That surely hurt France’s feelings, but there is no one for her to lean on except Lou, who just provides some banal pep talk whenever France feels bad. In her big and expensive apartment which looks like a museum instead of a residence, France does not interact much with her write husband or their young son, and we sense more of the distance between her and her husband when they are having a dinner with a few friends of theirs.

And tgeb another thing happens to cause more turmoil in France’s private life. On one day, her car clashes with a young motorcyclist, and that consequently causes lots of public fuss around her as she and Lou try to get things under control. She subsequently visits that young motorcyclist, and he and his family willingly accept her apology and some compensation from her, but we cannot help but wonder about what she actually thinks and feels. She indeed looks troubled, but, in my humble opinion, she seems to care more about her life and career as wallowing in self-pity.

Anyway, she eventually decides to have a break. Shortly after announcing that on TV, France goes to a sanatorium located in the Alps, and we accordingly get some lovely snowy landscape shots as she tries to bring some calmness to her mind. Although she is still not totally free from her fame and reputation, she comes to befriend some handsome lad, and it does not take much time for them to get closer to each other than before.

The movie subsequently takes a left turn just for bringing its heroine back in action, but it simply meanders as before without enough satiric edge. In case of the sequence involved with a bunch of refugees fleeing from some war zone, it feels shallow without any comic or dramatic effect, and we are only served with a small absurd moment of cheap laugh when France is showing her viewers what she and her crew shot at that time. While there comes a sudden moment of shock later in the story, it is contrived in addition to looking gratuitous for a good reason, and we do not sense any emotional devastation from that because the movie seriously lacks depth in terms of story and characters. As a result, we come to observe its heroine from the distance more than before, and that is one of the main reasons why the finale does not work at all as merely being one more scene to be added to the movie.

Anyway, Seydoux is sometimes engaging to watch as usual. She is particularly good whenever we get the glimpses of her character’s superficial personality, and she certainly looks good whenever her character has to present herself well in front of the camara. In case of several other main cast members surrounding Seydoux, they are unfortunately stuck in bland supporting roles, and Blanche Gardin does not have many things to do besides throwing some banal sarcastic lines drenched in cynicism.

In conclusion, “France” is a dull and blunt misfire which bores us as not having anything new to say about its familiar subject besides failing to work as an edgy satire, and this is a major letdown compared to Dumont’s previous notable works including “Camille Claudel 1915” (2013). That film can be quite dry for some of you, but it is much more interesting in comparison, and I would rather recommend you to watch it instead of this disappointing dud.

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That Day, on the Beach (1983) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Edward Yang’s first feature film

During last several years, I and South Korean audiences were lucky to watch several works of Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang including “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), which I belatedly watched in December 2017. Although I initially braced myself for the 4-hour long running time of that great film, it did not take much time for me to get absorbed into the vivid and palpable sense of time and life felt from the screen, and I came to appreciate more of what a great filmmaker Yang really is as subsequently watching his several other works including “Yi Yi” (2000).

In case of “That Day, on the Beach”, I did not expect much mainly because it was just his debut feature film preceding “The Taipei Story” (1985) and “The Terrorizers” (1986), but, what do you know, the movie turned out to be much more interesting than expected. Although he just started his filmmaking career with a segment in the seminal Taiwanese New Wave omnibus film “In Our Time” (1982) at that time, the movie is as distinctive and recognizable as Yang’s next films in terms of mood and storytelling, and I am happy to report to you that I found myself gladly following Yang’s masterful narrative during its 166-minute running time.

The movie begins with the arrival of a renowned pianist named Tan Weiqing (Terry Hu) in Taipei, who has been mostly lived abroad for more than 10 years. After hearing about the news about her visit to Taipei, her old friend Jiali (Syvia Chang) instantly tries to contact with Weiqing, and Weiqing promptly meets Jiali for getting to know how she has been during all those years.

As Jiali starts to talk about that, the movie shows us how Jiali happened to befriend Weiqing in the past. They met each other via Jiali’s older brother who was incidentally Weiqing’s boyfriend, and they soon became close to each other, but then there came a sudden change into their life. Although Jiali’s older brother was really serious about his relationship with Weiqing, his doctor father had already expected him to marry the daughter of one of his old colleagues in addition to following his footsteps, and he eventually came to conform to his father’s order despite some protest.   

After showing us how this rather unpleasant change consequently put the distance between Jiali and Weiqing, the movie moves onto how Jiali finds herself in a similar situation several years later. While going through her college years, she comes to fall in love with a male student named Cheng Dewei (David Mao), but then her father makes it very clear to her that she is supposed to marry someone else instead. When she becomes quite conflicted about this circumstance, her older brother, who has been not so happy with his married life as reflected by one brief scene, gives an indirect advice on what she should do, and she eventually goes for what she wants without any hesitation.

When Jiali subsequently marries Dewei without her parents’ permission, the future does not look that bright for both of them, but then, what do you know, things get a lot better for them mainly thanks to one of Dewei’s college friends, who later has Dewei work in his lucrative company along with many college friends of theirs. As a result, Jiali does not have to work anymore, and she tries to get accustomed to her changed environment full of affluence, but she cannot help but feel discontent and dissatisfied day by day mainly because of her husband’s frequent absence due to his company work. 

Although there eventually comes a moment of emotional outburst between Jiali and her husband, the movie still maintains its calm and leisurely narrative flow as slowly revolving around a certain incident associated with its very title. The more we get to know about Jiali’s hard and difficult struggle with her increasingly crumbling married life, the more important this incident becomes in the story, and I will let you feel for yourself the considerable dramatic effect waiting for you at the end of her emotional journey. 

In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to a number of different figures in Jiali’s life, and I particularly like a modest but poignant scene which serenely conveys to us how much Jiali’s mother tolerated her husband for many years – and how she is totally in peace with whatever she suffered and endured during all those years. In case of Jiali’s old college friend who also has a fair share of life issues, she provides Jiali some relief and consolation as they often spend time together, and Jilali later finds herself tempted to have an affair with some guy introduced to her via her friend.

As all these and other elements in the story are thoughtfully presented on the screen one by one, the movie effortlessly immerse us into its realistic atmosphere, and Yang and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who incidentally made a debut here thanks to Yang’s persistent insistence to hire him despite the objection from the production company of the film, did a commendable job of vividly capturing the urban ambiance of Taipei in the early 1980s. As a matter of fact, the movie often feels like a living time capsule packed with considerable sense of time and life, and that is why it still engages us just like “The Taipei Story” and “The Terrorizers”, which also function quite well as the vivid windows into the life and people in Taipei in the 1980s.

In conclusion, “That Day, on the Beach” is much more than being the mere opening chapter of Yang’s admirable filmmaking career. Although he made only seven feature films before he died in 2007, he is still influencing many other filmmakers out there as shown from two recent great South Korean films “House of Hummingbird” (2018) and “Moving on” (2019), and I will be certainly delighted if “A Confucian Confusion” (1994) and “Mahjong” (1996) are also released for me and other South Korean audiences later.

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Sing 2 (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): They’re back with a bigger task…

Animation film “Sing 2”, which is incidentally released as “Sing 2gether” in South Korean theaters, is as effective as its predecessor, and that is all I could say in this review. Just like “Sing” (2016), the film is simply all about musical performances to be embraced by its target audiences, and you may forgive its weak narrative and broad characterization more than me, if you are just fine with these fairly enjoyable musical moments in the film.

The story begins not long after where the story of the previous film ends. Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a koala who is the owner of the New Moon Theater, and those various animal musicians working with him have had a fairly good success in their local theater since their bumpy adventure in “Sing”, but, as your typical ambitious showman, Moon has wanted more success for him and his musicians. As shown from the opening sequence, he is eager to impress a talent scout from some bigger town who may give a big opportunity for him and his musicians, but that talent scout in question does not seem to be that impressed by their latest show, and Moon is certainly daunted by this.

However, of course, Moon soon becomes more determined to get what he wants for himself and his musicians, and he subsequently persuades them to join his journey to that bigger city, which looks as big and flashy as Las Vegas in many aspects as being full of many prominent stage shows to dazzle numerous audiences. At the center of the city, there is a big and powerful entertainment business company run by an arctic wolf dude named Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), and Moon and his musicians must find a way to sneak into Crystal’s office at the top of the high-rise company building.

Anyway, Moon and his musicians eventually succeed in approaching to Crystal when Crystal happens to be looking for any possible fresh chance to draw more audiences out there, but, not so surprisingly, there is a big catch. While Crystal allows Moon to have the full control over whatever Moon is planning to present during the upcoming show, he insists that Moon should bring Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), a legendary rock star lion who has been leading a reclusive life since a tragic personal incident which occurred many years ago. Due to his lack of knowledge on Calloway, Moon is initially confident that he can accomplish this mission, but, of course, Calloway turns out to be someone who cannot be easily approached or persuaded at all.

Meanwhile, Moon and his musicians keep focusing on what they can do right now, though that also turns out to be not as easy as expected. Although Moon manages to concoct the main concept of the show in the last minute, his musicians are not so sure about whether they can handle many challenging aspects of their new show. While Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a teenage gorilla who can sing as well as we can expect from the star of “Rocketman” (2019), must learn some complex dance moves, Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a pig who has been enjoying her entertainment career along with a dancer named Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), must overcome her fear of height for a certain crucial action in her part, and Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly) must know more about love before performing a romantic song well along with some popular but self-absorbed singer.

And things become more complicated when Porsha (voiced by Halsey), Crystal’s spoiled daughter, later enters the picture. Although she is not terrible at all in case of singing and dancing at least, Buster has no choice but to have Porsha cast as the lead performer of the show just because he must make Crystal pleased as much as possible, and that leads to more doubt among Buster and his musicians.

All these and other plotlines in the screenplay by director/writer Garth Jennings, who also provided the voice performance for one of the supporting characters in the film as before, eventually culminates to the climactic part which is packed with lots of songs and dances in a very predictable fashion. Sure, Buster and his musicians certainly come to rise to the occasion despite Crystal’s bullying tactics, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Calloway is persuaded to end his hiatus at last and then will come to realize that he is still good enough despite all those many years of his absence. While his character’s dramatic arc is not exactly effective, Bono does not disappoint us at all during his character’s eventual big moment later in the story, and that certainly makes his casting one of a few inspired things in the film.

In case of the other main cast members, Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlet Johansson, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, and Tori Kelly simply fill their familiar roles as they did before, but they still have some fun with their respective roles as before. Bobby Cannavale, Eric André, Letitia Wright, Halsey, and Pharrell Williams are mostly okay in their supporting parts, and I was a bit surprised to learn later that a certain comic supporting character in the story is performed by a certain well-known Oscar-winning director.

On the whole, “Sing 2” has some enjoyable parts, but I also could help but notice its many shortcomings popping here and there, so I am still hesitating to recommend to some degree. Although this is not a bad animation film at all thanks to all those nice musical moments in the film, it looks a rather passable and colorless product compared to several notable animation films of 2021 such as “Flee” (2021), “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (2021), “Luca” (2021), “Encanto” (2021), and “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), and I especially recommend you to watch “Flee” right now, which is a seemingly plain but undeniably extraordinary work in my humble opinion. Believe me, this exceptional animation film will haunt your mind a lot longer than “Sing 2”, and you will thank me for my inconsequential recommendation.

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Sing (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): It surely serves you lots of familiar songs

It is hard to be cranky about animation film “Sing”, which uses a bunch of various good songs like linoleum to cover up lots of its notable shortcomings on the floor. Sure, I could see through its many clichéd and predictable aspects right from the beginning, and my interest was always considerably decreased whenever the movie stops singing, but why should I grumble if it does eventually deliver what it promises to its audience?

The story, which is set in a city full of many small and big animal characters ranging from snail to whale, is mainly about one desperate attempt of a koala dude named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McCounaughey). Many years ago, he opened a big local theater with full of hope, but, alas, his theater business has been going down and down during last several years, and his beloved theater will be soon foreclosed by a local bank unless he can find any possible way to boost his business right now. In the end, he decides to hold a big singing competition, and he promptly has this event advertised all over the town, but there is one serious problem. Due to a little accident, the prize of the competition in the advertisement is changed from one thousand dollar to one hundred thousand dollar, and that surely draws lots of attention before he belatedly comes to realize that serious typo.

Anyway, lots of different animal figures come to the following audition, but we already know which one will be selected by Buster. They are 1) Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a teenage mountain gorilla more interested in singing than participating his father’s criminal activities; 2) Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a frustrated housewife pig willing to pursue her old dream of being a singer; 3) Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a teenage crested porcupine punk rocker eager to go her own way instead of being the second banana to her rocker boyfriend; 4) Mike (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), a cocky white mouse white singer quite confident about winning the prize; and 5) Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), a shy teenage Indian elephant in the serious need of overcoming her stage fright for demonstrating her considerable singing talent.

After a series of amusing musical moments during Buster’s audition, these animal characters and a few selected others including a group of young Japanese vixens quite enthusiastic about singing and dancing go through the following rehearsal period, but, of course, things do not go that well for them and Buster right from the first day. While Johnny has to balance himself between the rehearsal and his, uh, family business, Rosita also must find a way to handle her domestic matters associated with her 25 piglets, and this smart lady soon concocts a rather ingenious solution for that. In case of Ash, she feels awkward about performing the songs selected by Buster, and her situation later becomes more complicated when she later finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her behind his back.

Meanwhile, Meena, who managed to be hired as a stagehand instead despite disappointingly failing in the audition, becomes more nervous when she subsequently becomes a replacement singer during the late stage of the rehearsal period. She surely wants to sing as getting all the encouragement from Buster, but she still has to overcome her emotional obstacle, and she naturally hesitates when Buster and others attempt to give a preview performance for a certain wealthy figure who may provide the necessary financial support for the song competition.

Around that narrative point, you can clearly see through where the screenplay by director/writer Garth Jennings, who also provided the voice performance for one of the supporting characters in the film, is heading. Yes, Johnny certainly comes to disappoint his father as focusing more on the rehearsal. Yes, Ash shows that she is much more fantastic when she sings her own song. Yes, Rosita discovers that she can dance quite well along with her flamboyant partner Gunter (voice by Nick Kroll). Yes, Meena eventually finds enough inner strength to overcome her fear. Yes, Buster comes to let down others a lot when everyone finally comes to learn of how poor he is.

Nevertheless, you will probably forget all these and other flaws of the film once Buster and his singers successfully put their shown on the stage in the end (Is this a spoiler?), and the songs selected for this part are performed fairly well on the whole. I particularly enjoyed Mike’s very committed performance of a certain classic song immortalized by Frank Sinatra, and I also appreciated some genuine poignancy in Meena’s expected showstopper moment.

In addition, the voice cast members of the film bring some extra colorfulness via their game efforts. While Matthew McConaughey dutifully holds the ground, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, and Tori Kelly have each moment to shine, and John C. Riley, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, and Jennifer Saunders also have some little fun at the fringe of the story.

In conclusion, “Sing” is not that impressive compared to several notable animation films of 2016 including “Zootopia” (2016), “Moana” (2016), and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), but it is not a total waste of time thanks to its lively voice performances and a number of nice musical moments. This is a passable product which is not good enough for recommendation, but it is not entirely without fun and entertainment at least, so I will not complain for now.

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Mogul Mowgli (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Pakistani British rapper in double crisis

“Mogul Mowgli” is a curious piece of work which alternatively baffled and intrigued me. While this is essentially a familiar tale of personal/artistic crisis, it dynamically swings around many different elements including professional integrity and cultural identity, and the result is not entirely satisfying in my humble opinion, but it is still anchored on the ground fairly well thanks to another strong performance from one of the best movie performers in our time.

Riz Ahmed, who has been more prominent thanks to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in “Sound of Metal” (2019), plays a Pakistani British rapper named Zed, and the opening part of the film shows his latest public performance in front of many audiences. Although he starts his rap song rather quietly, it does not take much time for him to galvanize his audiences, and we later see him enthusiastically promoting himself more via social media.

Nevertheless, Zed has not been that famous or successful for more than 10 years, and that has certainly frustrated him at lot, but then there comes a big opportunity thanks to Vaseem (Anjana Vasan), who is a close friend of his besides having worked as his manager for a long time. He is requested to do the opening for the upcoming European tour of some popular rapper, and it looks like he is finally going to get a big break he has yearned for many years.

However, his personal life is not that fine in contrast. After having a rather petty argument with them, Zed and his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) come to see that there is not much affection left between them, and that inevitably leads to their eventual breakup. As they sleep together for the last time, Zed comes to do an impromptu rap performance for himself, and we observe how much he is determined to reach for success while sacrificing many other things in his life including love.

Because his girlfriend reminded him of how much he has been estranged from his parents during last several years, Zed decides to drop by his parents’ residence in London, and the mood between him and his parents is awkward to say the least. While certainly proud of how her son has been doing fairly well outside these days, his mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) does not ask much about his career, and she is rather hesitant about using a new dishwasher bought by him just because she is still fine with her old kitchen equipments. In case of his father Bashir (Alyy Khan), he does not approve much of his son’s rapper career, but he does not say anything bad mainly because he is not a very admirable patriarch for failing in a series of small businesses in the past.

During the following Ramadan dinner among Zed and his family members, the movie delves a bit into Zed’s mixed viewpoint on his ethnic/cultural background when he and one of his family members happen to argue with each other about that. While he has not hidden his racial identity at all throughout his career, he still prefers to use his English stage name instead of his real name, and his ambiguous position on his ethnic/cultural background is further amplified when he and his father are later praying along with many other Muslims at a local mosque. Not long after that, he comes across a Muslim lad on an alley, and their following conversation becomes rather amusing when it turns out that this lad mistook Zed for a certain other Pakistani British rapper who has incidentally been despised by Zed for good reasons.

When he is subsequently taken to a local hospital for suddenly becoming ill for no apparent reason, Zed is not particularly concerned at first as believing that he will recover within a few days before that European tour, but then there comes a very bad news. It turns out that he has been suffering from a degenerative muscular autoimmune disease, and, to his shock and devastation, his doctor tells him that this will only get worse and worse day by day.

As Zed tries to cope with his worsening physical condition, his mind dives into the realm of unconsciousness at times, and the movie freely moves back and forth between reality and dream. We often see the fragments of his past memories including the one involved with his father’s disastrous restaurant business, and we are also served with a series of recurring images involved with a certain painfully important historical fact in his parents’ past. While his mind and body become more confused and exhausted due to the following experimental medical therapy which may cure him in the end, Zed frequently confronts a mysterious man wearing a sehra (It is a traditional flower headdress worn by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi men at their weddings, by the way), and we come to sense more of whatever he has been looking away from for many years as focusing more on his career success.

Although the movie does not clarify or explain to us much of these and many other things in the story, Ahmed’s harrowing performance keeps us engaged from the beginning to the end. Yes, he already played another musician character struggling with a sudden serious medical circumstance in “Sound of Metal”, but Ahmed, who also wrote the screenplay with director Bassam Tariq besides co-producing the film, is an actor too intelligent to recycle his previous work, and his electrifying acting keeps holding everything together even when the movie seems to stray a bit too much from time to time. In addition, he is also supported well by several other main cast members in the film including Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Aiysha Hart, and Anjana Vasan, and Khan is particularly touching when his character comes to bond more with Zed around the end of the film.

Overall, “Mogul Mowgli” will certainly require you to have some background knowledge first on many cultural/historical things ranging from the Partition of India in 1947 to Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story “Toba Tek Singh”, but its raw emotional moments will linger on your mind for a while thanks to Tariq’s competent direction and Ahmed’s good performance. I still do not think I understand everything in the film, but it intrigued me enough to do some online research on its cultural background, and that says a lot about how it worked for me on the whole.

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