Blue Story (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Ghetto Gangs of London

“Blue Story” is a brutal British crime drama about two African British lads who happen to be driven into a series of violent and tragic happenings. To be frank with you, I really have no idea on how much the movie reflects the harsh reality out there in those African ghetto neighborhoods of London, but I must say that the movie grabbed my attention via its raw energy and palpable realism, and that is more than enough for compensating for a number of glaring weak points I observed during my viewing.

During the opening part, we see how its two heroes, Timmy (Stephen Odubola) and Marco (Michael Ward), became each other’s best friend during their childhood years. When young Timmy and his mother moved from Deptford to Peckham for getting him a better school education, young Timmy was understandably nervous at first, but then he quickly befriended young Marco at his new school, and that was the beginning of their long friendship.

Several years later, Timmy and Marco still attend the same school together along with their mutual male friends. Like many adolescent boys around their age, they all are quite interested in getting closer to those female students in their school, and one particular girl has attracted Timmy’s attention. Her name is Leah (Karla-Simone Spence), and Timmy is certainly excited when he hears that she will also go to a night party he and his friends are going to attend.

In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to what is going on between the gang organization in Peckham and the rival counterpart in Deptford. As these two gang organization keep clashing with each other day by day, the tension around the two ghetto neighborhoods of London is gradually accumulated on streets and alleys, and that eventually leads to the tragic death of a certain key member of one of these two gang organizations, which accordingly leads to more hostility between these two criminal groups.

To Marco and Timmy, this increasingly violent circumstance in their neighborhood does not look that dangerous to them, though they are actually connected with these gang organizations in one way or another. While Marco is the younger brother of a key member of the gang organization in Peckham, an old childhood friend of Timmy is a member of the gang organization in Deptford, and he is certainly not so pleased to see his old childhood friend hanging around with the brother of one of the main enemies of his gang organization.

Of course, Timmy and Marco fatefully get themselves involved more in this situation, and, due to a series of unfortunate events, they soon find themselves opposing to each other with newfound hate and resentment toward each other. While Marco joins his brother’s gang organization, Timmy subsequently joins his old childhood friend’s gang organization, and both of them are quite eager to kill each other now.

As they and their gang organizations continue their vengeful turf war, the movie strikes us hard with numerous moments of shocking violence. Driven by their tribal mentality, Timmy, Marco, and many other gang organization members are quite determined to do anything with no consideration on the consequences of their actions, and the vicious cycle of violence is continued as before even while some of them eventually get killed or arrested by the police.

The movie has been compared to its American counterparts such as late John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” (1991) and the Hughes brothers’ “Menace II Society” (1993), because director/writer Rapman’s screenplay is based on his own personal experiences of growing up in Deptford and then Peckham. The two gang organizations depicted in the film really exist in real life, and I came to learn later that some portions of the movie are actually inspired by true events.

Rapman, whose real name is Andrew Onwubolu, brings some stylish touches to his film, which complement well the gritty realism felt from several key scenes in the movie. As the omnipresent narrator of the story, he explains or summarizes his main characters’ situations via his rap song, and that certainly helps you a bit if you often have difficulty in understanding those local slangs frequently uttered by the characters throughout the film (To be frank with you, I had to check Google to learn what the hell ‘peng’ means).

The main weak point of the movie lies in its rather clumsy handling of plot and characters. As juggling many different characters besides Timmy and Marco, the story sometimes becomes too unfocused, and many of characters in the film are not developed that well, though this and other notable flaws in the film are thankfully not very distracting due to the strong performances from its good main cast members. While Stephen Odubola and Michael Ward give engaging lead performances at the center of the film, the other main performers including Khali Best, Eric Kofi-Abrefa, and Junior Afolabi Salokun are solid in their respective supporting roles, and Karla-Simone Spence brings some warmth and sensitive to her substantial female character in the story.

Overall, “Blue Story” is flawed to some degree, but its considerable raw energy is something you cannot easily ignore, and you will admire its director’s rough but undeniably passionate filmmaking. Some of you may still hesitate mainly because the movie was partially banned in British theaters in last year due to an unfortunate incident which allegedly happened during its theater screening, but this is inarguably another interesting debut work of this year, and I urge you to check it out and then evaluate it for yourself.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Clementine (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Two women in a lake house

“Clementine” is a slow and opaque psychological drama mainly revolving around two different female characters who happen to get involved with each other by coincidence. Putting them together in a remote spot during most of its running time, the movie phlegmatically but fascinatingly observes the growing emotional tension between them, and it is rather a shame that the movie only comes to scratch the surface in the end after constantly toying with what may happen between them.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Karen (Otmara Marrero), an adult woman who has recently broken up with her older lesbian lover who is simply called “D” (Sonya Walger) in the film. Although the movie is adamantly vague about how she and D came to end their relationship, it is apparent that Karen has not overcome the aftermath of their breakup, and she is now occupied with getting back her pet dog from D, but she cannot enter D’s house now as D has already changed the lock of the front door of the house.

Quite frustrated with this matter, Karen decides to go to a lake house belonging to D instead, which is located at a remote spot of some rural forest area. Not so surprisingly, D has also changed the lock of the front door of her house, but Karen eventually manages to go inside the house, and the empty silence of the house reminds her again of how much she feels barren and isolated due to her breakup with D.

And then there comes an unexpected encounter. As she walks around the house a bit, Karen comes across an adolescent girl who simply seems to be spending her free time on the lake, and then she meets her again not long after that. The girl’s name is Lana (Sydney Sweeney), and she says she has been looking for her pet dog. Although Karen does not believe Lana’s words much, she decides to help this girl finding the dog because she sympathizes with Lana as a fellow dog owner, and they soon look for the dog together for a while.

Anyway, Lana’s words turn out to be true, and Karen subsequently takes Lana and her dog to where Lana is supposed to live. On the next day, Lana comes to the lake again, and, as she and Karen spend more time together around the house and the lake, something mutual seems to be developed between them. While Karen cannot help but attracted to Lana’s youth and beauty, Lana looks rather oblivious to that as casually talking about her aspiration of being a Hollywood actress, but then it is gradually revealed that she is quite interested in Karen, who is older than her indeed but may lead her to something new and exciting for her.

In the meantime, the situation becomes a bit complicated due to the expected interference from D, who already knows Karen is in her lake house and accordingly has a young local handyman named Beau (Will Brittain) hang around her and Lana just in case. It looks like Beau has some interest in Lana, and Lana lets him flirt a bit with her, but she still seems to be more drawn to Karen than this hunky dude.

Although this generates some tension among these three main characters as they come to spend some time together around the lake house, the movie continues to maintain the ambiguous psychological situation among them. While he later becomes not so pleased about how Lana is flirting with him, Beau mostly does not cross the boundary. While she becomes more willing to cross the line between her and Karen, Lana simply looks like enjoying tiptoeing on the line. While she clearly desires for carnal intimacy, Karen keeps hesitating because, well, her mind is still coping with her messy status after the breakup with D.

During its last act, the screenplay by director/writer Lara Gallaher takes a left turn, and that is where the movie begins to stumble as trying to accumulate some dramatic tension. While a key private scene between Karen and Lana is thoughtfully and sensitively handled, what follows next is clumsily executed in contrast, and you will probably not be surprised by what is inevitably revealed around the ending of the film.

Anyway, Gallaher and her cast and crew members did their best to hold our attention at least during the first hour of the film. While cinematographer Andres Karu did a commendable job of establishing the palpable sense of isolation around the main characters in the movie, the unconventional score by Katy Jarzebowski often makes us nervous and uneasy, and it is particularly effective when the main characters in the film happen to wander aimlessly around in the forest. Ably complementing each other from the beginning to the end, Otmara Marrero and Sydney Sweeney are particularly convincing when their characters seem to show more of themselves to each other later in the story, and Will Brittain and Sonya Walger are also effective in their small but substantial roles.

In conclusion, “Clementine” holds its cards behind its back a little too much, and I must confess that I often myself becoming impatient and frustrated during viewing, though it is evident that Gallaher, who makes a feature film debut here after making several short film, is a competent filmmaker who knows how to handle mood and performance. I wish she added more flesh and bone to her story and characters, but the overall result shows considerable potential at least, and I am certainly interested in watching what will come next from her during next several years.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

2049 (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Hoping for a better future

These days, I often find myself worrying over the future of human civilization. While the signs of global climate change are increasing here and there all over the world, we are still not doing enough to stop this alarming trend which may ultimately lead to the end of human civilization during this century, and we have even been accelerating the rate of global climate change further while mostly oblivious to the heavy consequences to come within next several decades.

Especially after observing how this summer has been quite hot, wet, and humid with the record-breaking amount of rain in South Korea, I am reminded more of that inconvenient but undeniable fact that we are indeed passing the point of no return, and that is why I initially had some skepticism on the hopeful attitude of documentary film “2049”, but it eventually brightened up my mood a little as showing me how much we can still do even at this point. Yes, the current situation is irreversible to say the least, but the documentary makes a convincing argument on how we should change our way of life in more than one aspect, and it made me reflect more on why we should try and hope more for not only ourselves but also the future generations to succeed us.

At the beginning, director/writer/co-producer Damon Gameau tells us how he came to be motivated to make the documentary. As watching his little daughter growing up along with his wife, he becomes more concerned about the future of his daughter and her generation, and so he came to decide to make a documentary which dares to envision how things can be better for her and her generation via a number of significant social and technological changes which can actually be possible at present.

After a mandatory visual presentation on how global climate change has been boosted by the enormous emission of carbon dioxide due to the rapid industrial development around the world during the 19-20th century, Gameau promptly focuses on one very interesting way to produce electricity without any air pollution in contrast to fossil fuel. As many of you know, solar energy has drawn lots of attention as one of clean alternative sources, and, thanks to the rapid technology development during last several decades, it is now actually possible to provide electricity to several slum neighborhoods in Bangladesh through one solar panel on each household. Besides providing each household enough electricity for daily life, it is also possible to store electricity or trade it among those households, and the ongoing success of this social/economic experiment may lead to a vast change in energy industry someday in the future.

After seeing how much human life can be improved by solar energy and its flexible storage/trade network, Gameau envisions how things will be different for his daughter and her generation in 2040, and he presents this bright vision on the screen with some sense of humor. Around that time, we may not depend on fossil fuel any more, and that will certainly contribute to the decrease of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases such as methane in the atmosphere of the Earth.

Because there are millions of vehicles depending on fossil fuel at present, Gameau naturally comes to pay attention to what can be possible alternatives in the future. While electric cars surely come to your mind, the documentary boldly suggests that we can do more far than that as making those electric vehicles into 100% public properties. After all, we will probably soon enter the era of automatic driving, and it is probably the best for us to walk away from our current concept of car ownership. Imagine how much space we may save as reducing the number of private vehicles – and how much we may utilize those remaining spaces for our common good.

Another significant cause of carbon dioxide emission is agriculture industry, and the documentary shows us several possible ways which not only decrease carbon dioxide emission but also remove carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One farmer shows us a certain traditional way of agriculture which is beneficial in more than one way in addition to removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that certainly reminds me again of that inarguable importance of healthy soil environment. In case of one scientist, he talks a lot about how we can take care of the environmental damage to the oceans caused by the global climate change, and, as a guy who has been quite alarmed by what is presented in Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral” (2017), I certainly welcome his proposals.

While clearly recognizing many social obstacles on our road including those deplorable public tactics of fossil fuel industry corporations, Gameau remains hopeful nonetheless as keeping hoping for a better world for his daughter and many other young girls out there. As pointed out at the around the end of the documentary, women’s rights for education and birth control are also actually quite crucial for reducing carbon dioxide emission because they will contribute a lot to the decrease of human population, which will then lead to less consumption of energy and resource. Unfortunately, there are still millions of women stuck in poverty, ignorance, and exploitation out there in the world, and that is why we should listen more to those passionate human rights activists such as Malala Yousafzai.

Overall, “2049” is a reasonably optimistic letter to our future generation which is also entertaining and enlightening enough to engage us, and it reminds me that we really need hope and optimism even though it is a bit too late for us now. We may totally have screwed up our planet, but there are still ways to remedy what has been broken and damaged, and we really should step forward right now for lessening whatever our future generation will have to endure – and helping them survive and prevail, of course.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Special Actors (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Not so special this time

I was merely amused from time to time as watching Japanese comedy film “Special Actors”, which does not push its outrageous comic promise much beyond a number of mildly whimsical moments. Maybe because I am your average seasoned moviegoer, I could instantly see through most of those supposedly funny moments to be sprung here and there along its silly plot, and I only found myself dissatisfied more and more even though I was not totally bored during my viewing thanks to the diligent efforts from its cast and crew members.

During the opening part, we get acquainted with a rather amusing mental problem of Kazuto (Kazuto Osawa), a young actor who has struggled to get employed without much success. Whenever he faces anything aggressive or stressful, he cannot help but faint instantly, and that is certainly a serious handicap for him when he attempts to get a role in some TV drama series. To be frank with you, I once thought Joaquin Phoenix is sometimes too anxious in his acting approach, but now I have to admit that he is just a mild case compared to this neurotic lad, who even cannot act well as being so afraid of fainting again.

After another disastrous failure, Kazuto forlornly returns to his small and shabby one-room apartment. While he has already been behind one month’s rent, there is not anyone to give him some pep talk, and the only consolation for him comes from the VHS copy of an old corny B-movie called “Rescueman”, which he has often watched since his childhood. While this flick is quite ludicrous to say the least for many reasons including its extremely cheap production quality and bad dubbing, Kazuto feels a little happy for a while, and he keeps aspiring for any big break to come.

And then there comes an unexpected opportunity to Kazuto during one evening. Right in front of his eyes, some guy, who seems quite drunk, has a quarrel with a man he happens to come across, and, after this quarrel is over, it turns out that this seemingly drunken guy turns out to be none other than Hiroki (Hiroki Kono), who is Kazuto’s younger brother. Because they have not seen each other for last several years, Hiroki is glad to see his older brother again, and he soon reveals to Kazuto that he was actually pretending to be drunk and aggressive as requested by his latest client, who is, yes, the very man with whom he fought in front of Kazuto.

Hiroki subsequently takes Kazuto to a special actor agency which has handled him and many other performers ready to act under various situations. While they are usually hired to express fake emotions at funerals or movie screenings, they have also provided customized services to clients coming to them for many different personal problems, and we get a couple of cheerful scenes which show us how they help their clients through their carefully scripted situations.

Well aware of his mental problem, Kazuto is initially reluctant to join this agency, but Hiroko does not let him leave at all, and Kazuto soon finds himself acting a lot more than before because, well, he really needs the money right now for paying his rent. Although his mental problem remains an obstacle to overcome, he gets improved a bit as playing more along with Hiroko and his new colleagues, and they are all willing to assist and help Kazuto.

Meanwhile, one high school girl visits the agency with a rather challenging task. Her parents died due to an accident not so long ago, and her older sister accordingly inherited their family inn, but, alas, her older sister subsequently happened to join a cult, whose leading members are clearly determined to use the inn for another stepping stone for expanding their power and influence. For stopping this cult from taking over the inn, somebody needs to infiltrate into the cult first, and, of course, Kazuto is selected for that job along with several other performers including Hiroki.

The second half of the movie mostly revolves around Kazuto and his merry colleagues’ attempt to expose the scheme of several leading cult members, who have somehow made their numerous followers believe very outrageous things including an ancient cosmic entity which is supposed to communicate with their supposedly mute leader. This certainly looks stupid and preposterous, but there are many idiotic people out there in real life who think the Earth is flat, so this is not as outrageous as you may think.

It goes without saying that most of comic tension in the movie comes from that mental problem of our insecure hero, and the screenplay by director/writer/editor Shin’ichirô Ueda naturally gives us a series of silly situations where he must holds himself well for maintaining his disguise, but the movie fails to accumulate enough hilarity to engage us while also deficient in terms of characterization. While Kazuto remains to be a colorless one-note joke, the other characters surrounding him are also more or less than plot elements, and that is why the finale does not work as well as intended.

Although it is not a total misfire, “Special Actors” is not so special compared to Ueda’s previous film “One Cut of the Dead” (2017), a hysterically funny film about one nutty case of filmmaking. As I became more disappointed with “Special Actors”, I felt more urge to revisit “One Cut of the Dead”, and I recommend you to watch it instead of “Special Actors” especially if you have not seen it yet.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Black Is King (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An interesting visual album from Beyoncé

I am not much of an American pop music aficionado, but I certainly know how popular Beyoncé has been during last two decades. To be frank with you, I usually regarded her as a merely famous singer who appeared in movies from time to time, but then I came to admire her undeniable star quality and presence quite more than before after watching her Netflix concert film “Homecoming” (2019), which is one of the best concert films of the last decade in my inconsequential opinion. As mesmerized by her indisputable beauty, charisma, talent, I had some second thoughts on her artistic quality, and I even lamented on how the hell she has not yet gotten a chance for fully utilizing her beauty and charisma on the screen (Remember how she was somehow overshadowed by Jennifer Hudson during the first half of “Dreamgirls” (2006)?)

Anyway, when I heard about Beyoncé’s musical film/visual album “Black Is King” being released on Disney+ on last Friday, I did not even know that it is actually a video companion to her 2019 album “The Lion King: The Gift”, which is, yes, a tie-in album for the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”. Because I skipped a chance to watch that feature film simply because my expectation was quickly shrunk after watching its bland trailer, I cannot possibly comment on that feature film where she gave a voice performance as one of the main characters, but I can tell you instead that “Black Is King” is another interesting achievement from Beyoncé, and she surely shines again under her full artistic control.

The film is basically a series of music video clips strung together via a number of common cultural/ethnical themes, and you could actually enjoy them even without the occasional insertions of the dialogues from the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”, though it goes without saying that the African cultural elements in that film are a part of the source of inspiration for the songs and the accompanying visual moments in “Black Is King”. Deliberately emphasizing these distinctive moments and then mixing them along with modern American pop elements on the screen, Beyoncé apparently attempts to deliver messages of African American heritage and empowerment here, which are alternatively subtle and blatant as effortlessly mingled with strikingly beautiful visual moments.

Above all, Beyoncé, who also serves as co-director/co-producer of the film, surely knows how to grab the attention of her audiences right from the beginning. The first song of her album is accompanied with a gorgeous sequence consisting of various landscapes including a wide sea beach on which she and several other figures wander, and I was particularly amused by a seemingly biblical object floating along a big river at one point.

After this part, the film gradually builds up a sort of narrative around a little young African boy who will succeed his father just like the young hero of “The Lion King”. At first, we see this boy being designated as his father’s heir apparent, and then there comes a nightmarish moment when their village is suddenly intruded by a bunch of bikers wearing crimson red outfits. I have no idea on how to interpret this particular moment, but then things get more interesting as the boy subsequently blunders into a slum neighborhood of some modern African city, and that is followed by a sort of twisted coming-of-age process for him.

Beyoncé keeps delivering more impressive visual moments to behold for their bold cultural beauty. In case of one music video clip, it shows a rich African guy enjoying and flaunting his wealth in his big mansion where he is served by Caucasian butler and servants, and we later see the boy roaming around in the mansion. I wonder whether he is simply dreaming for success, power, fame as reflected by a certain subsequent moment, but Beyoncé lets this sequence open to interpretation just like she did in that iconic music video of hers in 2016.

Meanwhile, the elements from the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” keep appearing as demanded, but they are soon overshadowed by the continuing stream of artistic creativity envisioned by Beyoncé and her artistic collaborators. Around the second half of the film, she lets several other famous artists including Pharrell Williams and her young daughter Blue Ivy Carter take the spotlight for a while at times, and Williams has a terrific scene where he sings and dances alone in front of a stack of blue plastic water containers on a remote field.

Despite many excellent visual moments to be cherished, the film feels less special compared to “Homecoming”. Sure, many songs appearing in the film are performed well on the whole, and Beyoncé constantly exudes her star presence as usual while deftly handling the lyrics of the songs in the film, but I must confess that none of them was particularly catchy to me. Personally, I wonder whether that is because I do not have much affinity toward American contemporary pop music.

Nevertheless, “Black Is King” still worked well on me in terms of visual aspects. No, I remain unwilling to see the 2019 remake of “The Lion King” (I still remember pretty well when I was rather repulsed by the supposedly realistic presentation of digital animal figures in that film, by the way), and I also do not have much will to buy and listen to “The Lion King: The Gift” at present, but I admire the creative efforts from Beyoncé and her artistic collaborators at least. It is indeed inherently derivative from the start, but I bet that it is more enjoyable and entertaining than the 2019 remake of “The Lion King”.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Go-Go’s (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): When they got the beat

I like good documentaries which illuminate things beyond my current knowledge, and documentary film “The Go-Go’s” is one of such cases. Following the short but impressive history of a famous all-female American punk rock band during the early 1980s, the documentary takes us into that exciting period as listening to its several former members, and it will bring some nostalgia to you if you are familiar with this band and its discography.

At first, the documentary shows and tells us how this band, named “The Go-Go’s”, was formed in California, 1978 and then refined step by step. Around that time, punk rock had been quite popular among many different people in California, and that prompted the four initial members of the Go-Gos to form the band together, though most of them did not have much musical skill or knowledge from the very beginning.

However, it did not take much time for them to distinguish themselves more than expected with considerable potential. Yes, as they all admit in front of the camera, they were really terrible during their first public performances, but you could get away with many inadequacies via those loud and aggressive notes of punk rock music during that time, and they came to improve themselves gradually as practicing and performing more and more.

The major improvement for the band came from the recruitment of three new members. Not long after Charlotte Caffey joined the band as someone to play keyboard and lead guitar, Gina Schock came as a substitute drummer, and her good drumming skill soon became a key factor behind the increasing popularity of the Go-Go’s. In case of Kathy Valentine, she was later hired as a new bassist even though she did not know much about how to play bass guitar, but she also came to function as another key part of the band, and she and the other two new members clicked pretty well with the two original members Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin.

Through several other interviewees, the documentary explains to us more on the singular presence of the Go-Go’s during that period. While there had already been a number of prominent all-female bands such as The Shangri-Las and the Runaways, the Go-Go’s was the first all-female band which not only wrote their songs but also played their own instruments, and this aspect surely brought considerable novelty to the band. In addition, their songs including “We Got the Beat” were pretty good ones, and the serial success of their songs eventually led to their first major album in 1981.

While being on the road to success, the principal members of the Go-Go’s experienced small and big things to remember. When they happened to go to Britain for their opening performance for the concerts of a popular local band, they were certainly pressured a lot, but they did their job as well as demanded, though they were sometimes verbally threatened by some of more aggressive punk rock fans. When they later came to do the opening performance for the concerts of Sting and his band, Sting courteously congratulated them for their first album being on the top of the Billboard album Charts, and that was surely a high point for everyone in the band (Even at present, the Go-Go’s is the only all-female band which achieved that remarkable record, by the way).

Of course, like many other successful bands, the Go-Go’s subsequently came to face that heavy price of sudden big artistic success. After signing a contract with a major record studio, the band began to enter the realm of pop music for more appeal to millions of potential fans out there, and some of the members understandably were not so pleased about that. When they were about to produce the second album, they were all more pressured and nervous as feeling more strains among them, but they somehow produced a fairly good album at least.

In addition, there were several personal problems. In case of one member, she happened to descend into a serious case of drug addiction, and nobody around her knew about that for a while because she managed to hide her problem well from the other members, who did not help her much because they also abused alcohol and drug from time to time as pushing themselves into more concerts and recording sessions.

In the end, there came a major rift among the members due to a petty argument on who had to be paid more, and the Go-Gos eventually broke up in 1985 shortly after releasing their third album. The mood was quite bad among them during that time, but then they had to perform together more as demanded by their contract, and they all remember well how much they endured as waiting for their upcoming breakup and release.

Although it is a shame that “The Go-Go’s” does not delve much into their next 35 years, director Alison Ellwood did a plain but commendable job of presenting her human subjects with care and respect, and it is certainly touching to see the members of the Go-Go’s gathering together again for their future musical project. I did not know much about their music before watching the documentary, but now I think they do deserve a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I am sure you will agree to my opinion after watching the documentary.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Way Back (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An alcoholic basketball coach with issues

“The Way Back” is a surprisingly low-key mix of two different genres. As a story about one former basketball athlete’s struggle for a new start in his messy life, it surely has a number of basketball game scenes as required, but it stoically stays focused on the ups and downs in its flawed hero’s personal journey instead of relying on expected genre conventions, and it ultimately works as an earnest character study to be appreciated for several good reasons including the strong lead performance at its center.

When we are introduced to Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) at the beginning, he has been slowly going down toward the bottom of his alcoholism. While he looks mostly fine on the surface when he works at a construction site or when he attends a Thanksgiving family meeting at his sister’s affluent suburban house, he frequently drinks, and he has usually spent night along with several other barflies in a local bar.

And then there comes an unexpected change via the principle of his old high school where he was once quite promising as a talented basketball player. The principle wants Cunningham to work as the new basketball team coach to replace the former one who had to retire due to a sudden health problem, and Cunningham cannot possibly say no – even while trying to figure out how to reject the request with lots of cold beer during the following night.

His first day of coaching is rather uneventful, but it does not take much time for him to discern each own team player’s strong and weak points, and he soon finds himself doing a lot more than expected for these players. In case of one particular player, Cunningham sees a lot of himself from him, and he naturally comes to give this player more encouragement and guidance.

Above all, it looks like Cunningham finally reaches to a certain point where many other alcoholics come to hit before taking on the road to recovery. At first, he sometimes drinks whenever no one is watching, but he cannot fool his assistant coach Dan (Al Madrigal), and he comes to realize that he must get things in his personal life under control for helping and improving his players. Although this turning point of his may feel a bit too easy and convenient on the surface, Ben Affleck, who has also struggled with alcoholism in real life, brings unadorned gravitas to this moment, and that is why this seemingly modest moment works with considerable dramatic effect.

Once he embarks on the road to sobriety, Cunningham becomes more concentrated on improving his team than before, and his team gradually rises above its rather miserable status thanks to Cunningham’s good coaching skills. While the basketball game scenes in the movie are mostly perfunctory to say the least, the score by Rob Simonsen tentatively suggests the growing hope and optimism as Cunningham and his team advance further and further, and we cannot help but feel anxious around the time when they face a very important game, where, as many of you have already expected, Cunningham delivers a terse but effective speech in front of his players.

In the meantime, we get to know more about Cunningham’s person demons. As he confides to his favourite player at one point later in the story, he made several bad decisions in the past including quitting basketball just because of his spite toward his unloving father, and then he was fortunately helped by his wife Angela (Janina Gavankar), but, alas, the stability and happiness of their domestic life did not last long due to a sad tragedy, which still hurt them a lot as shown from a few key scenes involved with the son of their two close acquaintances.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our problematic hero subsequently finds himself tumbling down from his seemingly stable status, but the movie takes a couple of unexpected steps during that part. After letting down not only himself and others around him as driven by his personal demons again, he surely regrets a lot, but there is an irreversible consequence from his wrongful action, and he has to accept that along with his growing problem with alcohol.

The screenplay by Brad Ingelsby is often a little too predictable, but it is smoothly handled under the competent direction of director Gavin O’Connor, and Affleck, who previously collaborated with O’Connor in “The Accountant” (2016), carries the film well in addition to reminding us that he is still a good actor despite being criticized for his rather pedestrian acting in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) and “Justice League” (2017). As shown from his acclaimed performance in “Hollywood” (2006), he is capable of embodying desperation and frustration without showing them off, and he is also supported well by several solid supporting performers including Janina Gavanka and Al Madrigal, who holds his own small place well besides Affleck.

In conclusion, “The Way Back” will not probably surprise you much if you are a seasoned audience like me, but it succeeds as much as intended even while mostly staying in its genre territory, and it is certainly worthwhile to watch for Affleck’s admirable effort. To be frank with you, I really have no idea on his current health status, but I sincerely hope that the movie may help him bounce further from the latest bottom of his life and career.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Wild Goose Lake (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): He’s going nowhere…

Chinese film “The Wild Goose Lake” is a slow but stylish crime drama packed with tangible atmosphere and palpable seedy realism. Although I felt rather distant to its story and characters throughout its 110-minute running time, I also could not help but admire a number of impressive visual moments in the film, and it is certainly another notable work from one of the interesting filmmakers working in China at present

The movie opens with a meeting between two different people at a train station in Wuhan (The original Chinese title of the movie is “Meeting at the South Train Station”, by the way). When Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for someone in front of the concrete station building during one hot and humid summer night, a young woman named Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) approaches to him for telling him something, though she is not the one for whom he is waiting.

As they talk more with each other, Zhou reminisces about how he happens to be pursued by the police at present. A few days ago, there was a local feud between a small criminal organization led by him and one of many other local gang organizations in Wuhan when they all gathered together for deciding on how to divide their areas among themselves, and that eventually led to a petty showdown between Zhou’s organization and that organization in question, which unfortunately culminated to a gruesome case of beheading.

While he managed to survive despite getting shot by one of his enemies, Zhou inadvertently killed a police officer during his following desperate escape, and he quickly became a wanted man with a considerable amount of bounty put upon him. As a result, he has to evade not only those numerous cops and police officers eager to catch him alive or dead but also many untrustworthy figures in his underworld.

The police search team led by Captain Liu (Liao Fan) has particularly focused on the area surrounding the Wild Goose Lake, where Liu and many other poor women earn their living as ‘bathing beauties’. Under the management of a pimp who is incidentally Zhou’s old friend, Liu and these women often wander around in the lake beaches for attracting their latest clients, and we later see Liu and several other fellow bathing beauties spending some time with their drunken clients on a small motorboat belonging to their pimp.

Although the movie does not emphasize directly to us, the economic hardships in the world of them and many other poor people are evident on the screen, and their seedy environment is often accentuated by the drab texture of concrete buildings, which are usually lighted by colorful neon and fluorescent lights. Thanks to cinematographer Dong Jinsong, who previously collaborated with director/writer Diao Yinan in “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), the movie is constantly filled with visual prowess, and I was especially mesmerized by a calm but increasingly tense sequence which memorably shows a bunch of figures dancing on the ground while wearing fluorescent shoes.

The story slowly becomes bitterly ironic as Zhou comes to reveal the reason why he wants to see a certain person right now. Probably because of his lifelong regret for not having done much for that person, he concocts a plan which will probably benefit that person a lot, but he is still reluctant to follow his plan, even though he is well aware that there is only one way out for him if he does not give himself up to the police.

As its hero becomes more desperate hour by hour, the movie exudes more of that fatalistic mood of film noir while throwing some twists into his complicated situation. While the police search team is still one or two steps behind Zhou, Zhou finds himself more cornered due to some of his criminal associates, and, not so surprisingly, Liu turns out to be not as innocent as she seemed at first. She shows some compassion and kindness to Zhou, and there is a tender moment when she and Zhou happen to spend a night together alone on the lake, but the following moment harshly breaks up our impression on whatever has been developed between them.

In the end, the movie arrives at an inevitable narrative point as expected, and Diao and his crew members deliver a superlative climactic sequence mainly unfolded within a big shabby concrete apartment building. While still sticking to its detached attitude, the movie continues to dazzle us with small and big details observed from here and there in and around the building, and I assure you that you will not forget easily a certain shocking moment involved with an umbrella.

Compared to the icy and stark atmosphere of his previous film “Black Coal, Thin Ice”, “The Wild Goose Lake” is surely an interesting change of direction for Diao, and he succeeds as well as intended while still maintaining his own austere handling of story, mood, and performance. The movie a commendable genre exercise on the whole, and the main cast members of the film including Hu Ge, Gwei Lun-mei, Lio Fan, and Wan Qian seamlessly inhabit its seedy noirish background as filling their archetype roles as much as demanded. Yes, this is your average slow arthouse flick, but you may be satisfied as much as I was – if you keep in mind what and how it is about.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Hater (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A cold, detached character study on online sociopathy

Polish film “The Hater”, which won the Best International Narrative Feature Award at Tribeca Film Festival in this year but then was released on Netlix without much publicity a few days ago, is a cold, detached character study revolving around a sociopath who willingly causes lots of harm and damage inside and outside the Internet as ruthlessly reaching for his ultimate personal goal. While this is certainly not something easy to watch from the very start, the movie gradually holds our attention thanks to its skillful handling of story and characters, and you will come to reflect a lot on the darker sides of social media tools with the growing gut-chilling feeling generated from its disturbing ending.

When we are introduced to Tomasz Giemaza (Maciej Musiałowski) at the beginning of the story, this young law school student is in a serious trouble due to the blatant plagiarism in his homework essay. He tries to persuade his two professors to change their mind, but they remain adamantine in their decision, and they duly notify to him that he will be promptly expelled for his serious academic offense.

When Tomasz subsequently visits his affluent liberal uncle Robert (Jacek Koman) and his wife Zofia (Danuta Stenka) for a dinner, he does not say anything about his current status mainly because he wants to look good enough in front of them and their daughter Gabriela (Vanessa Aleksander). Although Robert and Zofia do not expect much from Tomasz, they have supplied the tuition to him anyway, and it is quite apparent that Tomasz has secretly envied their luxurious lifestyle in addition to being attracted to Gabriela.

As painfully reminded again of the social and economic gap between him and his rich relatives, Tomasz becomes quite determined to take care of his problematic situation as soon as possible. After leaving the school dormitory, he moves to a small apartment, and he also begins to search for a job which may earn him more money than before.

He soon snatches an opportunity via a digital public relations firm run by Beata (Agata Kulesza), a sassy no-nonsense businesswoman who instantly senses that Tomasz has considerable potential which may benefit her company a lot. While her company looks like a plain public relations firm on the surface, it is actually a troll farm packed with many employees ready to hurl anything into the Internet for negative online promotion and campaign, and, as your typical amoral sociopath equipped with quick intelligence, Tomasz surely begins to show more potential day by day after destroying some popular online celebrity once for all with one clever online meme.

Quite satisfied with his good job, Beata hands Tomasz another famous figure to be smeared and destroyed, and that turns out to be a popular liberal politician running for the upcoming election for the mayor of Warsaw. Not so surprisingly, Robert and Zofia have been the devoted supporters of that politician in question, and Tomasz becomes obsessed with ruining that politician – especially after Robert and Zofia decide to distance themselves from Tomasz for not so being honest to them.

His latest job seems to be pretty easy at first, but Tomasz later finds himself in an increasingly tricky circumstance. While he diligently tries to gain the new trust and confidence from Robert and Zofia, he also gets himself indirectly associated with a bunch of right-wing nuts on the Internet, and he particularly focuses on one particular unstable loser who may be manipulated and pushed enough to commit something horrible. If he is not careful, he may lose everything in the worst situation, but he willfully crosses several lines which even his deeply cynical boss does not dare to cross.

Phlegmatically following its increasingly unlikable hero’s toxic quest, the screenplay by Mateusz Pacewicz often examines his twisted human aspects from the distance, and the result is alternatively alienating and fascinating. While we are certainly quite horrified and repulsed by his sheer opportunistic amorality, we cannot help but observe him with more curiosity and fascination mainly because he is so good at his virulent jobs, and the movie thankfully avoids getting too excited about his almost unstoppable advance as bitterly and sharply reminding us of the small and big ramifications of his online actions from time to time.

As the dark center of the movie, Maciej Musiałowski is insidiously intense in his deceptive appearance, and several main cast members of the film function well as his character’s mostly helpless counterpoints. While Vanessa Aleksander, Danuta Stenka, and Jacek Koman are solid as Tomasz’s unsuspecting relatives, Maciej Stuhr and Adam Gradowski are well-cast in their respective crucial supporting parts, and Agata Kulesza, who has been mainly known to us via her acclaimed supporting performance in Oscar-winning film “Ida” (2013), steals the show whenever she appears on the screen.

Overall, “The Hater” is another engaging work from director Jan Komasa, who previously drew our attention for his Oscar-nominated film “Corpus Christi” (2019). Not long after he and his cast and crew members finished the shooting of the film in 2019, Poland was struck by a terrible incident not so far from what is chillingly depicted in the climactic part of the movie, and that surely shows us how close our reality is to what is depicted in the film. We have already been experiencing many dark sides of social media tools during last ten years, but, as implied by the very last shot of the movie, we may be merely going through the prelude for whatever will come next.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

1BR (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Trapped in a deadly neighborhood

“1BR” is a little devious horror thriller film which pushes its modest story idea a bit more than I expected. While initially reminiscent of several other similar horror films including Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” (1976), the movie gives us a series of disturbing moments once its trap is sprung on its unfortunate heroine, and it will certainly make you chilled a lot around the time when it arrives at its logical conclusion.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom), a young woman who recently moved to LA not long after her dear mother’s death. Her father is sincerely concerned about whether she will be all right while living alone in the city, and she has not planned yet much on what to do next, but she does not care much about her father’s concern mainly because some uncomfortable thing between her and her father.

Sarah wants to be a costume designer, so she is going to apply for some special education program while working as an intern in a local law firm, but she is not particularly eager to do those menial jobs handed from her direct boss everyday. At least, she happens to befriend the other intern working right next to her, and Lisa (Celeste Sully) is willing to be more than a helpful colleague to Sarah.

Meanwhile, Sarah has been searching for any suitable residence for her, and then there comes an unexpected chance. On one day, she encounters an apartment building which happens to have a currently vacant apartment, and she decides to look around that vacant spot just in case. At first, it looks like many other people have already been interested in the apartment, but she decides to try anyway even though her pet cat will not be allowed into the apartment, and, what do you know, she gets a call from the manager guy of the building, who gladly notifies her that she is chosen as the new resident of the apartment.

Shortly after moving into her new place along with her pet cat hidden in a cage, Sarah gets to know her new neighbors, who happen to be about to hold an evening barbecue party on that day. Mainly through Brian (Giles Matthey), a nice lad living at the apartment not so far from Sarah’s, she is formally introduced to several other neighbors besides the manager and his quirky wife, and she quickly befriends Miss Stanhope (Susan Davis), a fragile but spirited old lady who was once a pretty B-movie actress long time ago.

So far, everything looks fine to Sarah on the surface, but the movie slowly dials up the level of anxiety behind the screen. While there is something odd about the bland cheerfulness of her new neighbors, there is also a creepy one-eyed dude who blatantly recommends Sarah a sort of self-help guidebook which clearly emphasizes on the importance of community as reflected by its very title, and Sarah becomes more nervous as she frequently hears strange sounds every night. It looks like the building simply needs to be repaired a bit, but she soon comes to have a frequent sleeping problem due to these strange nocturnal noises, and that makes her daily life a lot more disorganized than before.

Instead of dangling itself among several different possibilities, the movie promptly enters its middle act as quickly revealing to us what is really going on around Sarah. I do not dare to describe that in details for not spoiling your entertainment, but I guess I can tell you that our heroine’s situation suddenly becomes quite more desperate and isolated than before. No matter how much she tries, it seems she will inevitably succumb to the cruel demand forced upon her, and the villains of the story will surely not stop at nothing for achieving their common goal.

As intensely focusing on our heroine’s accumulating ordeal, the screenplay by director/writer/co-editor David Marmor gradually adds more mood and details to its preposterous but undeniably chilling premise, and it accordingly serves us a number of unnerving scenes while firmly sticking to our heroine’s increasingly isolated viewpoint. There is a gruesome moment of physical mutilation which will make you wince more than once, and then there comes a brief but disturbing moment which shows another darker side of the building, which turns out to be pretty much like your average maximum-security prison.

And we begin to wonder about our heroine’s mental status, which seems to be gradually bent and then broken down along her continuing ordeal. Around the last act, she fatefully finds herself on the opposite end of the process she has gone through, but we are not so sure about her mental status despite her completely compliant attitude, and Nicole Brydon Bloom is particularly good when her character must be very discreet in front of a certain figure whom she may care about more than she seems on the surface. In case of the other cast members in the film, Giles Matthey and Taylor Nichols are gently sinister as the main villains of the story, and Susan Davis, Alan Blumenfeld, and Celeste Sully are also effective in their small but crucial supporting roles.

In conclusion, “1BR” is a humble but skillful genre piece, and Marmor, who previously made several short films before making feature film debut here, did a commendable job of holding our attention through good mood and efficient storytelling. To be frank with you, as a guy who moved into a new apartment building a few months ago, I could not help but unnerved during my viewing, and now I wonder whether I really have to be a little more watchful of the neighbors around me.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | Leave a comment