The Lion in Winter (1968) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): One bumpy Christmas family meeting in 1183

There have been countless movies about Christmas family meeting with issues, but not many of them can top the sharp wit and sheer ferocity of “The Lion in Winter”, which revolves around the risky battles of wills among the royal family members of Britain during their bumpy Christmas family meeting in 1183. With the fate of their kingdom as well as their lives at stake, they are quite willing to win and survive by any means necessary, and your worst Christmas family meeting will not look that bad compared to all those intrigues, manipulations, and betrayals committed among them.

The head of this family is King Henry II of England (Peter O’Toole), who was the most powerful figure in Europe at that time as reigning over not only Britain but also Ireland and the half of France. Although he is still a virile man as shown from the opening scene, he is also well aware of getting older day by day as a 50-year-old guy (that is quite old considering how short average lifespan was in the 12th century Europe), and he is going to decide on who will succeed him while he holds a Christmas court at his castle located in Chinon, France. Besides his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), their three sons, Richard (Anthony Hopkins), Geoffrey (John Castle), and John (Nigel Terry), will come to the castle, and he also invites King Philip II of France (Timothy Dalton), with whom he is going to negotiate over an old deal involved with Philip’s sister Alais (Jane Merrow).

Henry’s three sons are all determined to be chosen as their father’s successor, but each of them has pros and cons. While Richard looks like the best choice with his growing reputation as a brave warrior, he is a bit too hot-tempered, and he is not loved much by his father. While John is Henry’s favourite son, he is a dim, spoiled boy who has been indulged by his father too much, and he is not favored a lot by his mother. While Geoffrey is the smartest one in the bunch, he is a cold, calculating schemer, and he is not so pleased about how he has usually been neglected by both of his parents.

And there is also a longtime issue between Henry and Eleanor. They were passionately in love with each other around the time when they married, but they subsequently became estranged to each other because of his frequent infidelity and her following rebellion against him, which led to her imprisonment for last 10 years. In addition, Henry has recently had an affair with Alais, and he does not even hide their intimate relationship at all from Eleanor and his sons although Alais is supposed to marry his successor.

Right from their reunion, Henry and Eleanor wryly greet each other (“How dear of you to let me out of jail” – “It’s only for the holidays.”). There may be some affection and respect left between them despite many years of mutual resentment, but they are also quite frank about their opposing positions, and both of them are certainly ready to strike each other at any moment, while their sons start to vie with each other for their father’s absolute power.

As its main characters try to outwit or manipulate each other under their complex political/personal circumstance, the movie gives us a series of compelling scenes packed with acerbic wit and brutal emotional power. The adapted screenplay by James Goldman, which is based on his play of the same name, deftly mixes dark humor and absurdity into its plot, and that aspect is particularly exemplified well by a certain crucial scene in Philip’s room. At first, it merely shows an impromptu private meeting between two characters, but then it is developed into a far more complicated situation as more characters come into the room where that happens, and Goldman’s screenplay masterfully swings back and forth between melodrama and black comedy until this scene eventually culminates to one of major dramatic points in the film.

While keeping things rolling along the increasingly tense narrative of his film, director Anthony Harvey, who initially worked as the editor of a number of notable films including “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964) and “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1965) and then moved onto the directing career with “Dutchman” (1966), did a commendable job of establishing an indelibly stark period atmosphere on the screen. While the costumes in the film are mostly plain and shabby, cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who was Oscar-nominated for his work here in this film, makes sure that Henry’s cavernous castle looks pretty dim and dirty inside with numerous ugly details to reflect the harsh, barbaric environment the characters in the film inhabit, and we cannot not help but a bit amused when Henry struts across the front yard strewn with mongrels and chickens for greeting Philip at one point. John Barry’s Oscar-winning score, which is probably the most menacing work in his whole career, brings extra intensity to the screen whenever the story takes a major plot turn, and its regal but ominous mix of chorus and orchestra is nothing short of stunning.

Above all, the movie has two legendary movie stars who were at the top of their game when it was made. While he played the young version of his character in “Becket” (1964) a few years ago, Peter O’Toole had no difficulty in immersing himself into his role, and he gave another grand performance to be added to his long, illustrious career filled with many larger-than-life characters including, yes, T.E. Lawrence. Never letting us forget the conniving side of his character, O’Toole is forcefully commanding whenever that is required, and he certainly relishes his several big moments in the film such as when his character furiously rouses up everyone in the castle later in the movie (“When the king is off his ass, nobody sleeps!”).

On the opposite, Katharine Hepburn, who deservedly won her third Oscar for this film (O’Toole was also Oscar-nominated but lost to Cliff Robertson, who won for “Charly” (1968)), is simply magnificent as an aging queen who is not only gracefully authoritative but also fiendishly manipulative. While dexterously handling her numerous juicy lines in the film with gusto (My favorite line: “I could peel you like a pear, and God himself would call it justice!”), Hepburn is also convincing when she reveals her character’s vulnerable sides, and it is devastating to watch when she delivers a bitter, reflective monologue after a quiet but aching moment of heartbreak for her character.

What goes back and forth between Hepburn and O’Toole during their scenes in the film is captivating to say the least. Despite their considerable age gap, they effortlessly play against each other on the screen, and it does not take much time for us to accept the lifelong history of love and hate between their characters, who are as inseparable as George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). They surely hate each other’s guts, but they cannot live without each other, though they cannot easily admit that to each other. They still care about each other despite all the mess they have caused for years, but they cannot live with each other, even after they come to realize in the end that they only have each other for the rest of their life.

Around O’Toole and Hepburn, Harvey assembled a group of good performers, some of whom would become more prominent after their appearance here in this film. While Anthony Hopkins, who would be a lot more famous thanks to his chilling Oscar-winning performance in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), is solid as a tough prince with some unexpected soft sides, Timothy Dalton, who would later play James Bond after Roger Moore, brings snaky charm to his young but wily character, and Nigel Terry, who would play King Arthur in “Excalibur” (1981), and John Castle are also effective in their respective supporting roles. As the only substantial female character in the film besides Eleanor, Jane Merrow holds her own small place well around O’Toole and Hepburn, and she and Hepburn have a poignant scene when their characters happen to have a chance for being more honest to each other than before.

While it feels dated at times due to recent medieval period films which look more realistically gritty and brutal in comparison, “The Lion in Winter” is still a smart, electrifying drama fueled by the powerful acting match between O’Toole and Hepburn. To be frank with you, this is one of my favorite Christmas family films, and I think some of you will probably feel a little better about your family after watching it. After all, as Eleanor says in the movie, what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?

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The Seagull (2018) ☆☆(2/4): The flat, disappointing adaptation of a Chekhov play

“The Seagull”, the latest film adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s classic play, initially made me have some expectation. As watching a bunch of talented performers in the movie, I thought I could be entertained by their presence on the screen at least, so I became a bit relaxed even though I was not that familiar with Chekhov’s play, but, unfortunately, the movie did not engage me much despite their admirable effort, and I walked out of the screening room with hollow impressions growing on my mind.

After the opening scene which feels more unnecessary as I think more about it, the movie slowly establishes its story and characters at a country mansion during the summer of 1904. The country mansion in question belongs to an aging man named Pjotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Brian Dennehy), and he is pleased to see that his actress sister Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening) and her current lover Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), a successful middlebrow writer, are going to spend several days at his mansion. While Irina and Boris leisurely go through their afternoon at Sorin’s mansion, Konstantin Treplyov (Billy Howle), Irina’s aspiring playwright son who has lived with Sorin for years, prepares for the outdoor stage performance of his latest play along with his girlfriend Nina Zarechnaya (Saoirse Ronan), and she is surely ready to put her game efforts into his play even though she does not fully grasp his artistic vision.

However, things do not go well when Konstantin and Nina present their play in front of others including Sorin and Irina, who cannot help but become sarcastic about how symbolic and abstract her son’s play is. Quite irritated by his mother’s frequent comments on his play, Konstantin eventually aborts the performance to everyone’s disappointment, and he becomes sullen and depressed while also coming to envy Boris’ success more than before.

In the meantime, we get to know about other characters in the story. Dr. Dorn (Jon Tenney) frequently comes to the mansion as Sorin’s doctor, and we later come to learn that he has been very close to Polina (Mare Winningham), the wife of Sorin’s business manager Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler). Polina and Shamrayev have a young daughter named Masha (Elisabeth Moss), and Masha has been constantly unhappy while not responding much to the sincere courtship of Mikhail (Michael Zegen), a local school teacher who keeps carrying a torch for her even after she confesses that she has been attracted to someone else.

As she becomes estranged from Konstantin after their failed stage performance, Nina finds herself somehow attracted to Boris, who may help her fulfill her dream of becoming a successful actress just like Irina. At one point, she and Boris spend some private time together on a nearby lake, and they come to feel more of the mutual attraction between them. When Konstantin senses what is going on between Boris and Nina, he naturally feels more hurt and conflicted, and that leads to a sudden shocking incident in the end.

While it is supposed to draw more attention from us around that point, the movie merely trudges along the plot without much narrative momentum. For instance, the crucial scenes during the second half of the movie are often deficient in emotional intensity, and director Michael Mayer’s plain storytelling approach only exacerbates this problem. As a result, we come to observe the characters in the film without much care or attention, and that is the main reason why the finale is not as devastating as intended.

As I became more bored and disappointed, I came to reflect more on the performers in the film. Annette Bening, who surely knows well how to play an aging but charming actress as shown from her Oscar-nominated performance in “Being Julia” (2004), naturally inhabits her role, and she occasionally shines as ably conveying her self-absorbed character’s humanity. While Corey Stoll, an engaging actor who has been more notable since his supporting role in the first season of TV series “House of Cards”, is effective in his smooth, debonair appearance, Elizabeth Moss, who has shown more of her talent since her supporting role in TV series “Mad Men”, and Saoirse Ronan, who recently impressed us again with her Oscar-nominated performance in “Lady Bird” (2017), are well-cast in their respective roles, and so is Billy Howle, who previously played the younger version of Jim Broadbent’s lead character in “The Sense of an Ending” (2017).

In case of the other substantial performers in the film, they are mostly under-utilized on the whole. While Glenn Fleshler, Joe Tenney and Michael Zegen dutifully fill their respective supporting roles, Brian Dennehy, a wonderful veteran actor who was always dependable in numerous films including “First Blood” (1982), does not have many things to do except looking old and fragile, and Mare Winningham, whom I still remember dearly for her gentle Oscar-nominated performance in “Georgia” (1995), is woefully wasted as only required to look perpetually worried.

Overall, “The Seagulls” is a flat, disappointing adaptation which could be better in many aspects, and I found myself frequently checking my watch during its 98-minute running time. Sure, it was often nice to see those good performers being together on the screen, but the movie sadly fails to generate enough interest among their performances, and now I am seriously considering watching a stage performance of Chekhov’s play someday.

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A Simple Favor (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A witty suburban comic thriller

“A Simple Favor” is a witty suburban comic thriller gliding with enough charm and spirit to engage and entertain you. While it will probably not surprise you much if you are familiar with its genre clichés and conventions, the movie constantly provides enjoyable moments to be savored, and, in my inconsequential opinion, that is more than enough for compensating for its few notable flaws including its rather overlong running time.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a single suburban mother who is also your typical overachiever. She is always ready to volunteer whenever her kid’s elementary school class needs help and support from kids’ parents, and she has also run a little online blog site, where she usually gives her followers useful tips on domestic matters including cooking and making accessories for kids.

One day, Stephanie happens to come across Emily (Blake Lively), the mother of a kid who has been her son’s close friend. Right from their first encounter in front of the elementary school building, Emily impresses Stephanie and other parents a lot with her cool confidence and chic business suit, and Stephanie soon finds herself befriending Emily after Emily suggests that they should go to her house for spending some time together as two mothers. While drinking gin martini along with Emily in her posh modern house, Stephanie becomes more fascinated with Emily, and she is certainly delighted as Emily comes to lean and depend more on her as days go by.

However, it seems there is something Emily is hiding behind her back. While she clearly loves her little son, her relationship with her writer husband Sean (Henry Golding) feels a bit strained even though they frankly admit the imperfect sides of their married life in front of Stephanie, and she is also quite sensitive about being photographed as shown from one brief scene.

Stephanie remains oblivious to these suspicious aspects of her new friend, but then something really serious happens. When Emily asks Stephanie to take care of her son for a few days, Stephanie initially does not suspect anything, but she is baffled as she cannot reach to Emily later, and Emily’s husband, who happens to be absent due to his family matter in London, does not know anything about where Emily is. They immediately call the police, and Stephanie subsequently visits a fashion design company where Emily works, but she does not get any useful information there at all – except a small piece of clue she manages to find in Emily’s office.

From this point, I will not dare to tell you more about the plot, but I can tell you instead how the adapted screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, which is based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell, deftly balances itself between comedy and thriller. While there are a number of small humorous moments which keep the movie on its lightweight mode, the movie eventually shifts itself on a little darker mode as Stephanie becomes determined to delve more into her friend’s mysterious missing, and I particularly like a hilariously morbid scene where Stephanie visits a rather disturbed New York City artist who once knew Stephanie’s vanished friend some time ago.

Around its third act, the movie loses a bit of its narrative momentum, but director Paul Feig, who has delighted us with several funny comedy films such as “Bridemaids” (2011) and “Spy” (2015), maintains well the bouncy comic spirit of his film, and Anna Kendrick, who has always been interesting to watch thanks to her undeniably plucky screen presence, ably carries the film via her engaging performance. While imbuing her character with some gravitas as required, Kendrick effortlessly handles small and big comic moments throughout the film, and I am still amused by an absurd scene where her character tries one of Emily’s dresses and then finds herself in a very awkward moment.

In case of Blake Lively, she shows an unexpected side of her acting talent here as she previously did in “The Shallows” (2016). With all those fancy business suits, Lively immediately draws our attention, and she and Kendrick click well together during their key scenes including the one where Stephanie comes to reveal her deep personal secret to Emily.

Compared to Kendrick and Lively, the rest of the main cast members do not have many things to do except filling their thankless supporting roles as much as they can. While Henry Golding, who recent drew our attention for his appearance in “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), is suitably cast in his functional role, Andrew Rannells, who has mainly been known for his Tony-nominated performance in Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon”, brings humor and personality to his stereotype character, and Jean Smart, Linda Cardellini, and Rupert Friend leave some impression during their respective single scenes.

Although it is relatively less uproarious compared to “Bridemaids” and “Spy”, “A Small Favor” is still funny and entertaining nonetheless, and I had a fairly fun time when I watched it at a local theater during this early Saturday morning. It could be more effective in a shorter running time, but I was amused enough during my viewing at least, and it is certainly one of better comedy films I saw during this year.

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Roma (2018) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): A simple but sublime slice of life from Alfonso Cuarón

It is not so easy to describe how Alfonso Cuarón’s new film “Roma”, which recently won the Golden Lion award at the Venice International Festival, exactly worked on me. During its first 30 minutes, I wondered why many critics are so enthusiastic about it, though I admired its top-notch technical aspects including impeccable period atmosphere and details. During its next 60 minutes, I somehow kept paying attention to a series of small moments unfolded on the screen, though I still had some reservation on it. During its last 45 minutes, I was surprised to realize how much I was absorbed in its plain but effortless narrative, and then I was completely knocked down by several strong emotional moments, which made me fully understand not only what it is about but also how it is about.

During the opening scene which will further resonate with two other scenes later in the film, we are introduced to Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), a young live-in housekeeper working for a middle-class family living in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, 1970. As she goes through her mundane daily life mainly consisting of numerous domestic works including cleaning and taking care of her employers’ children, we get to know a bit about others in the house including her co-worker Adela (Nancy García), and then we gradually come to sense the growing strain inside the house. While Cleo’s employers Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and Antonio (Fernando Grediaga) look fine on the surface at first, the deterioration of their marital relationship is evident from Antonio’s frequent absence, and there eventually comes a point where Antonio suddenly leaves while telling his children that he will be in Canada for a while due to his work.

Through Cleo’s viewpoint, we get some glimpses into how Sofia tries to protect her children from her painful situation. At one point, she has her children write letters to their father even though she knows well that he will not care much, and she later takes her children and Cleo to a rural ranch owned by one of her friends during the winter holiday season, but, not so surprisingly, her children eventually come to grasp what is going on between their parents just like Cleo and Adela, especially after one of her children happens to spot something undeniable on a street.

Meanwhile, Cleo finds herself in a very serious trouble. During her free time, she usually hangs around with a lad named Fermín (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), and, as shown from a humorous scene where he proudly demonstrates his physical ability in front of her as a sort of foreplay, their relationship has already gone to a certain stage, but then things get complicated when she notices a possible sign of pregnancy one day. As soon as she tells him about that, Fermín promptly walks away from her without any hesitation, and Cleo surely feels hurt a lot by her boyfriend’s irresponsibility while not knowing what to do about her circumstance, but, at least, she gets considerable sympathy and support from Sofia, who instantly takes Cleo to a local hospital for confirming her pregnancy after hearing her tearful confession.

Now it sounds like a typical domestic melodrama, but the movie calmly lets its story and characters roll along a series of episodic moments instead, which may feel trivial at first but come to contribute to the mood and narrative momentum of the film bit by bit. As we observe more of Cleo and other characters around her, they come to as real ordinary human characters with the vivid sense of life, and that is the main reason why the key sequences during its second half are emotionally striking to say the least.

This is all the more amazing considering that, on the surface, the movie does not seem to strive for any dramatic effect throughout its 135-minute running time. Cuarón, who not only wrote the screenplay but also worked as the cinematographer/co-editor of his movie, did a masterful job of establishing the palpable period background filled with authentic details and some autobiographical elements from his childhood years, and his stark black and white cinematography subtly shines with precise camera movement and careful scene composition. We usually watch the characters in the film from the distance, but, through its unobtrusive visual approach coupled with succinct editing, we slowly become immersed in their realistic world even before we notice that, and we often feel like an unseen observer hanging around them.

While two crucial sequences later in the story are surely its dramatic highpoint, there are other moments which have grown on my mind after I watched the movie yesterday. I liked a sequence revolving around the winter holiday party held at the ranch house, which unexpectedly culminates to a sudden urgent incident happening outside. I enjoyed a rather funny scene involved with a group of young trainees and a TV celebrity, which is subsequently developed into a chilling moment associated with a horrendous real-life incident which happened on June 10, 1971. And I appreciated the last shot of the film, which looks very simple but is one of the most sublime closing shots I have ever watched during recent years.

The main cast members of the film, most of whom are non-professional performers, thoroughly embody their respective characters without any single artificial moment. Although she has no previous acting experience, Yalitza Aparicio humbly and delicately carries the movie with her seemingly plain but complex performance full of human nuances, and it is surely one of the best movie performances of this year. In case of other substantial performers in the film, they appropriately revolve around Aparicio while never overshadowing her, and Marina de Tavira, Nancy García, and Verónica García deserve to be mentioned for their fine supporting performances.

Overall, “Roma”, which will be available on Netflix this Friday, another superb achievement from Cuarón who previously impressed and dazzled us with “Y tu mamá también” (2001), “Children of Men” (2006), and “Gravity” (2013), which was incidentally my No.1 movie of 2013. Although it demands considerable attention and patience from you especially during its first half, it will give you one of the most powerful movie experiences of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to watch it a movie theater for fully appreciating its greatness. As many movie critics already said, this is indeed the best film of 2018.

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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): More than just one Spider-Man

To be frank with you, I did not have much expectation on Sony animation feature film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”. Besides Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy in the 2000s, there were “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012) and its 2014 sequel, and then we recently saw Spider-Man becoming another figure to be added to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), so I could not help but skeptical about whether another Spider-Man film is really necessary when I heard about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” early in this year.

However, to my surprise, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is not only just entertaining but also one of the best superhero films during recent years. Via its colorful and exuberant animation style as well as its witty and intelligent storytelling, the film invigorates superhero genre just like “Black Panther” (2018) did early in this year, and what is superbly achieved here is certainly a lot more memorable than many other run-of-the-mill superhero films out there (Yes, I am pointing at you, “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018)).

After the opening scene which gives some nod to the previous Spider-Man movies, we are introduced to Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a smart black teenage boy living in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City. He is recently transferred to a prestigious high school which is better than his previous one, but he is not very happy about this as missing his schoolmates, and he feels quite awkward right from the first day at his new school mainly thanks to his policeman father Jefferson (voiced by Brian Tyree Henry), who sincerely wants his son to have better education but often does not communicate well with his son.

That is the main reason why Miles gets along well with his uncle Aaron (voiced by Mahershala Ali), who is usually ready to have a fun with his nephew as your average casual dude. When Miles comes to Aaron’s residence again, Aaron takes his nephew to an abandoned underground site hidden somewhere in Brooklyn, and Miles is happy to express his artistic side freely there under his uncle’s support and encouragement.

While he is about to leave that site along with his uncle, Miles happens to be bitten by a little spider, which is, as you have already guessed, not a normal spider at all. On the next day, Miles is surprised to find some notable changes in his body, and, after several hilarious happenings including the one involved with a female student he is attracted to, it does not take much time for him to realize that he has superpower due to that spider.

As trying to get accustomed to his changed status, Miles happens to discover a big secret science project financed by Wilson Fisk (voiced by Liev Schreiber), a rich, powerful criminal figure who is literally imposing in his appearance. Fisk has tried to open a portal to parallel universes out there, and now he is almost near his final goal, which later turns out to be quite personal and is the main reason why he is so blind to the possible consequence of his success.

Because of Fisk’s attempt to open the portal, Miles subsequently finds himself in a very weird circumstance. Various versions of Spider-Man were transferred respectively from several parallel universes at that time, and they are Peter Parker (voiced by Jake Johnson), who has been bitterly going through a melancholic personal crisis in his parallel universe; Gwendolyn “Gwen” Stacy (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld), who is called, of course, Spider-Woman; another version of Peter Parker who is called Spider-Noir (voiced by Nicholas Cage); Peni Parker (voiced by Kimiko Glenn), who is presented as your typical cute Japanese animation girl while accompanied with a big spider robot; and Peter Porker (voiced by John Mulaney), who is the cartoon pig version of Spider-man with some spirit a la Looney Tunes.

As Miles and his fellow superhero figures come to band together against Fisk and his several dangerous henchmen, the film deftly swings from one terrific moment to another under the skillful direction of directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. There are a number of masterful action sequences palpably vibrating with lots of energy and style, and I must tell you that they are more fluid, creative, and exciting compared to what I saw from countless live action superhero films. While the climax sequence is definitely as busy and massive as expected, it is the effective culmination of what has been steadily established in terms of visual and narrative, and I found myself absorbed a lot into what was going on the screen during this part.

Furthermore, the film is equipped with a pretty compelling story which smoothly moves around different emotional moods. While maintaining enough gravitas as required, the screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman has lots of fun with its hero and his fellow superheroes, and the lively interactions among these main characters are in fact far more engaging than whatever I observed from those Avenger members. While Shameik Moore, who previously drew our attention via his breakout performance in “Dope” (2015), holds the center with his likable voice acting, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Nicholas Cage, Kimiko Glenn, and John Mulaney are all equally enjoyable in their respective roles, and it is also delightful to see other colorful supporting roles in the film filled by a bunch of notable performers including Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine, Zoë Kravitz, Lake Bell, Oscar Isaac, and Kathryn Hahn, who plays the interestingly female version of a certain infamous villain with gusto.

Overall, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is an unexpectedly nice surprise at the end of this year, and, like “Incredibles 2” (2018) recently did, it shows us why animation is a more ideal territory for superhero genre as my critic friend Michael Mirasol once argued a few years ago. With its bold comic book style and approach, the movie surely swings and flies beyond its many live-action counterparts, and I am actually eager to see what will come next after this glorious genre rejuvenation.

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After Everything (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their shotgun romance prompted by cancer

“After Everything” is about two different people who happen to have a romantic relationship via sudden illness. When they talk with each other for the first time, something clicks between them, and then they come to closer to each other when one of them gets very sick, but they do not expect that their relationship will be tested by not only that illness but also other matters in their relationship. As watching them going up and down in their accidental relationship, the movie gives us several bittersweet moments to touch us, and the result is a little intimate drama too good to be overlooked.

In the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes the mundane daily life of Elliott (Jeremy Allen White), a young man who has tried to develop some application software but has instead been aimlessly stuck with working as a sandwich shop employee in New York City with his best friend/roommate Nico (DeRon Horton). During the opening scene, he and Nico are enjoying their another carefree evening outside, and that lively moment is soon followed by his incidental encounter with a woman with whom he subsequently come to have a little fun private time.

And that is when he feels that something is not right in his certain body part. While worrying not much, Elliott goes to a local hospital, but then he gets a bad news after medical examination. He turns out to have a rare type of cancer around his pelvis, and, though it seems his tumor has not advanced into malignant state yet, but he cannot help but nervous and depressed as becoming more aware of his mortality than before.

Meanwhile, he encounters a young woman named Mia (Maika Monroe) at a subway station, and he recognizes that she is one of regular customers of his sandwich shop. When he approaches to her, Mia does not seem particularly interested in getting to know Elliott at first, but they soon find themselves having a small interesting conversation, and they come to feel mutual attraction between them before Mia eventually leaves to get on a subway.

As thinking about this brief encounter between them later, Mia decides to see Elliott again, and they have their first date. As they spend more time together, they becomes more comfortable with each other, and Elliott eventually confides to Mia about his serious illness even though they are ‘semi-strangers’ to each other. While quite surprised by his revelation, Mia feels sorry for Elliott, and she comes to stand besides him because she sees that he really needs help and support.

She turns out to be a good supporter. When they visit Elliott’s parents together, Elliott still hesitates to talk about his illness in front of his parents, so Mia delivers that bad news to his parents instead, and Elliott surely appreciates her help. Once his chemotherapy session begins, he becomes quite more fragile physically and psychologically, and he later asks Mia to leave him after he is notified that his illness is worse than expected, but Mia does not give him up at all.

While never overlooking Elliott’s grim medical condition, the movie brings some humor and sensitivity to its story and characters. There is a humorous scene where Elliott imagines being with Mia when he needs sperms to be stored just in case, and there is also a sweet and cheerful sequence which shows Elliott and Mia doing many several things he wants to do before his important surgery. They have a threesome sex with some girl they happen to come across at a bar, and, right before the surgery, they have a shotgun wedding because, well, they love each other more than before as sticking together in front of his illness.

In the end, things get better to everyone’s relief. Elliott comes to enter remission stage, and he and Mia subsequently move together into a new place to live. Studying more on software coding, Elliott tries to get back on his normal life, and Mia becomes quite busy due to a new job which is more exciting and fulfilling than her previous one.

However, we soon observe how their relationship becomes more distant and estranged. As what once held them together is being gone, Mia and Elliott often conflict with each other, and there eventually comes a painful moment when they come to face a hard truth about their relationship, which is indeed special to each other but should have been based on more trust and understanding from the start.

Under the good direction of directors/writers Hannah Marks and Joey Power, two lead performers of the film give engaging performances which present their characters as flawed but likable human characters to watch. While Jeremy Allen White is believable in his character’s dramatic arc, Maika Monroe, who was memorable in “It Follows” (2014), effectively complements her co-performer, and they ably carry the film through their good chemistry on the screen.

Although it is entirely not without flaws and I am a bit disappointed with the under-utilization of its notable supporting cast members including DeRon Horton, Sasha Lane, Gina Gershon, Dean Winters, and Marisa Tomei, “After Everything”, which was originally titled as “Shotgun”, still works thanks to its strong emotional center held well by its two lead performers, and its last shot is particularly touching to me. They will never go back to where they were, but they do come to learn a bit about life and themselves at least, you know.

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Door Lock (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Somebody tries to unlock the door….

South Korean film “Door Lock” terrified me more than I expected. When I saw its poster and synopsis a few weeks ago, I thought it was just another woman-in-danger movie, but then I heard some good words from others, and now I am glad to report to you that it is a competent genre piece which is also one of better South Korean films of this year.

During the early part of the movie, we observe the mundane daily life of Kyeong-min (Gong Hyo-jin), a young woman who has worked as a bank employee somewhere in Seoul. We see her starting another usual day in her one-room apartment which is located inside a big building containing many other one-room apartments just like hers. We see her working at the bank along with other employees including her close friend Hyo-joo (Kim Ye-won). And we see her going back to her one-room apartment after her worktime is over.

So far, everything seems fine and normal on the surface, but Kyeong-min notices small but strange things happening around her. When she locks the door of her one-room apartment before going to the bank in the morning, she happens to spot something which suggests that somebody touched the door lock at last night. While not so alarmed by that, she changes the password of the door lock just in case, but she hears someone attempting to unlock and open the door outside when she is about to sleep at night, and that certainly scares her a lot.

Once she sees that there is not anyone behind the door, Kyeong-min calls the police like any sensible person would do under her situation, but the police officers coming to her one-room apartment casually disregard her because they think it is merely a trivial case of minor disturbance, and they do not even pay attention to what may be an important evidence. While getting quite frustrated about this, she tries to keep going on as usual at her workplace, but she often feels like not having a good sleep at night, and that bad feeling does not go away at all even when she receives a good news on her promotion.

Around that narrative point, the movie slowly begins to reveal more of a creepy and insidious menace approaching to Kyeong-min. If you are a seasoned moviegoer like me, you may easily discern the identity of the mysterious figure preying on Kyeong-min, but the movie keeps holding our attention via its taut, efficient storytelling and increasingly unnerving mood. While not hiding at all from the beginning that something terrible is going to happen to its heroine, it gradually dials up the level of suspense along its plot, and there are several effective moments including a certain scene which looks quite mundane at first but is later developed into one of the most disturbing moments in the film.

The movie also makes a sharp point on how vulnerable Kyeong-min is as a woman living in the South Korean society, which is usually not very kind to women to say the least. When she is verbally harassed by some rude guy at the bank, there is nothing she can do except maintaining her composure until her male boss intervenes and forcefully handles this difficult circumstance, and she subsequently has another unpleasant experience which will make you wince for a good reason. As things get worsened for her especially after a certain incident, she becomes more desperate than before, but she still does not get much help from the police, who finally start the investigation but still treat her unfairly as before. As a matter of fact, a cop assigned to her case regards her with doubt and suspicion from the start, and Kyeong-min cannot help but feel more exasperated than before while worrying more about that unseen menace lurking somewhere around her.

As Kyeong-min tries to deal with her disturbing situation as much as she can, the screenplay by director Lee Kwon and his co-writer Park Jeong-hee, which is based on Spanish thriller film “Sleep Tight” (2011), pushes its heroine into more fear and dread as demanded. There is a brief but tense scene where she cannot help but feel nervous as being alone with a male stranger in an elevator, and her growing panic feels palpable on the screen as the camera firmly focuses on her troubled face. In case of one sequence where she and Hyo-joo follow a certain person, the movie patiently accumulates the sense of danger step and step, and we come to brace ourselves for what may happen next.

As the center of the movie, Gong Hyo-jin, who was hysterically funny in “Crush and Blush” (2008), give a strong performance which functions as an emotional anchor we can hold onto. While Kyeong-min is indeed your average horror thriller heroine to be terrorized a lot throughout her story, the movie presents her as an engaging human character we can care about, and Gong did a good job of imbuing her character with considerable life and personality, while also supported well by the other notable performers in the film including Kim Sung-oh, Jo Bok-rea, Lee Ga-sub, Lee Chun-hee, and Kim Ye-won, who surely lightens the mood at times as Kyeong-min’s loyal friend.

On the whole, “Door Lock” did its job as well as intended, and it scared and entertained me enough when I watched it along with my father and a few other audiences during this Sunday morning. After I and my father walked out of the screening room, we talked a bit about the movie, and we agreed on how chillingly it often reflects the harsh reality of many South Korean women out there. If they see the movie, they will probably see themselves from its heroine, and they may be a lot more scared than me because of that.

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