Sidney (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A respectful tribute to Sidney Poitier

Documentary film “Sidney”, which was released on Apple TV+ in last month, looks into the life and career of late Sidney Poitier, who was one of a few major black Hollywood stars during his prime in the 1950-60s. Although it simply enumerates a number of key points in Poitier’s life and career one by one, the documentary still works as a respectful tribute on the whole, and it surely reminds us again of what an exceptional figure Poitier really was in many aspects.

During its early part, the documentary gives a succinct summary of Poitier’s early years. He was the youngest son of a poor black family in the Bahamas, and he tells us how fortunate he was right from the beginning. When he was prematurely born, it seemed that there was not much possibility of survival for him, so his father actually prepared for his death, but his mother did not give him up at all, and Poitier remained grateful to his parents’ eventual decision for the rest of his life.

In the middle of his following adolescent period in the 1940s, Poitier was sent to Miami in US for living with one of his older brothers, and that was when he came to have the first experiences of racism. In the Bahamas, his racial identity did not matter much as he was surrounded by many other black people living there, but it did matter a lot in US for the prevalent racial discrimination in the American society. His several painful experiences with those racist white folks eventually drove him to New York City, where he could be a lot more comfortable with his racial identity.

During his first days in New York City, Poitier just focused on earning his meager living day by day via a number of menial jobs which did not pay much, but then there came an unexpected life-changing moment for him. After noticing an advertisement in a local black newspaper, he decided to try on the audition held for a local black theater group, and, though the result was not that satisfying to say the least, he came to find that he really wanted to be an actor.

Once his goal was set, Poitier prepared himself a lot. He tried to read more in addition to learning how to speak well in English, and he subsequently made his debut on the stage while also befriending several other black artist figures such as Quincy Jones and Harry Belafonte. As a matter of fact, he was Belafonte’s understudy at one point, and that accidentally gave him a chance to enter Hollywood when he had to appear on the stage instead of Belanfonte during one performance. After making his film debut via Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “No Way Out” (1950), he appeared in several notable films including Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” (1958), which incidentally garnered him the first Oscar nomination, and his growing status in Hollywood was solidified further by the following critical/commercial success of Ralph Nelson’s “Lilies of the Field” (1963), which made him the first black Best Actor Oscar winner. 

Next several years was another high point in Poitier’s movie career. In 1967, he appeared in “To Sir, with Love” (1967), “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967), and “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), and he became quite popular among not only black people but also white people in US. With his considerable talent and exemplary star presence, he surely changed the image of black people in American movies, and that is the main reason why he has been respected a lot by many black actors and actresses for years. 

In the meantime, Poitier was also well aware of the ongoing civil rights movements led by many black American figures including Martin Luther King Jr., and we hear about how active he was along with Belanfonte and a number of prominent black American figures during that turbulent period. On one day, he and Belanfonte came into Mississippi for a certain important mission, and they were surely reminded again of how things could be quite risky for them and other black people because of those deplorable racists in the South.

During the 1970s, Poitier saw the end of his clean-cut stardom due to many reasons including the rise of Blaxploitation films such as “Shaft” (1971), but then he found another opportunity via a little black western film “Buck and the Preacher”. When its original director was let go after the first week of the shooting, Belafonte, who happened to Poitier’s co-star, suggested that Poitier try to handle the shooting at least for a while, and, what do you know, it turned out that he was actually competent enough to satisfy those producers. After this successful directorial debut of his, Poitier directed several comedy films including “Stir Crazy” (1980), and I must point out that the documentary somehow overlooks that his directorial career unfortunately did not end that well with “Ghost Dad” (1989), which remains one of a few embarrassing things in his whole career even at present for many reasons besides its recently disgraced lead actor.

In my inconsequential opinion, “Sidney” could delve more into its main subject (Its presentation of Poitier’s private life feels rather shallow and perfunctory, for instance), but director Reginald Hudlin did a fairly good job of juggling archival and new interview clips on the whole, and you may also enjoy an impressive array of famous interviewees ranging from Halle Berry and Denzel Washington to Babra Streisand and Robert Redford. Above all, it is certainly poignant to watch Poitier himself frankly talking about his life and career not long before he died early in this year, and that compensates for the weak aspects of the documentary to some degree. He was indeed a great Hollywood actor besides being a decent man of principle and integrity, and he will surely be missed more than before.

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

Entergalactic (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A charming television special with lots of style

I must confess that it is a bit hard to categorize “Entergalactic”, which was released on Netflix a few days ago. According to Wikipedia, it was originally planned as a TV adult animation series which serves as a companion piece to the eighth solo album of the same name by Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, but it is eventually presented now as a TV special which may be followed by more episodes in the future. To be frank with you, I do not know whether I can regard it as a single animation feature film or not, but I can tell you right now that it is one of the better animation works I saw during this year because of many good reasons besides those fairly nice songs by Mescudi.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young African American man named Jabari (voiced by Scott Mescudi). He is a promising artist who has just been hired by some big comic book company in New York City thanks to his bold and striking graffiti works on streets, but he is not so sure about how to develop his own original comic book series from the recurring figure in many of his graffiti works, and he instead finds himself aimlessly spending time along with his two close friends Ky (voiced by Tyrone Griffi Jr.) and Jimmy (voiced by Timothée Chalamet).

When he moves into his new apartment in Manhattan, Jabari happens to come across a young African American female photographer named Meadow (voiced by Jessica Williams), who incidentally lives right next to his new apartment. Their Meet Cute moment is pretty brief in addition to being rather awkward, but Jabari comes to meet Meadow again when he cannot sleep due to the loud noises from a night party held in Meadow’s apartment, and, what do you know, she looks quite different to him this time. As he looks at her, the whole universe seems to swirl around her right in front of his eyes, and he comes to desire and yearn for her a lot as shown from a humorously embarrassing private moment of his in the very next morning.

Anyway, Meadow comes to him in that morning for apologizing for disrupting his sleep at last night, and, what do you know, it turns out that she is also quite interested in getting close to him. As they talk more with each other at a favorite hamburger shop of hers, both of them find themselves more attracted to each other, and we soon see them seriously consulting with their respective close friends on their immediate matter of heart. They understandably hesitate a lot about whether they should take the next step, but then they instantly go for each other when they meet again, and that is the beginning of their lovely romantic relationship.

As our two young main characters fall in love with each other more and more along the story, the film often delights us with a series of stylish moments to be savored for considerable style and spirit. Clearly influenced by that bold and colorful animation style of Oscar-winning animation film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse” (2018), the film constantly fills the screen with vivid colors and details, and it also tries a bit of several different animation styles at one point to our amusement. In addition, it has some naughty fun in its broad depiction of the art industry in New York City, and I was certainly amused by one particular scene full of sexual stuffs which will tickle you for good reasons.

In case of the soundtrack of the film, several songs from Mescudi’s aforementioned album are mostly effective as organically accompanying a number of key moments in the film. In one certain scene where our two young main characters ride a bicycle together, their romantic mood is enhanced further by sensitive music as well as lively animation, and the following lovemaking scenes feel frank and tender without showing too much of, uh, their carnal details.

Of course, like many other romance flicks out there, the film becomes a bit too predictable when its two young main characters’ romance happens to be interrupted by a problem associated with Jabari’s ex-girlfriend, but it thankfully does not dwell too much on that. Yes, once our two main characters come to realize that they really love and care about each other, we surely get what was expected right from the beginning, but the eventual finale is handled well with enough wit and humor at least, and it surely helps that Mescudi and his co-star click well with each other throughout the film. I am not that familiar with his musical career, but I can tell you at least that Mescudi is fairly good in his likable voice performance, and he is complemented well by Jessica Williams, who is warm and spirited in her charming voice acting.

In case of several other main cast members of the film, they bring some extra life and personality around Mescudi and Williams. While Timothée Chalamet and Tyrone Griffin Jr. are constantly amusing as Jabari’s two dopey friends, Vanessa Hudgens has her own little fun as Meadow’s best female friend, and a number of notable performers including Christopher Abbott, Keith David, Macaulay Culkin, and Luis Guzmán are also solid in their small but colorful supporting parts.

Overall, “Entergalactic”, directed by Fletcher Moules, did a good job of imbuing its rather familiar romance tale with enough charm and personality. Although it looks rather modest on the surface, it is definitely worthwhile to watch if you are looking for something more distinctive than those passable Hollywood blockbuster animations films, and, like me, you may end up hoping for more after enjoying its many impressive moments.

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

Fanatic (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Of being a fan

I could not help but become quite amused from time to time while watching South Korean documentary film “Fanatic”. Yes, as shown from the documentary, director Oh Se-yeon was really a big fan of a certain local male idol singer, and the documentary is often darkly and painfully humorous as she attempts to examine and reflect on her shock, anger, and disillusionment caused by that local male idol singer’s serious criminal deeds.

At first, Oh, who was incidentally born in 1999, shows us what a huge fan of that local male idol singer she had been for several years. For example, she collected various pricey items associated with that local male idol singer, and she even met him more than once as shown from one old archival TV show clip. She unabashedly expressed her adoration to him in front of the camera, and she surely felt pretty good as enjoying what was regarded as the most fantastic moment in her life at that time.

However, in 2019, there came a notorious incident which shocked many fans of that local male idol singer. It turned out that he actually committed several serious sex crimes, and Oh and many other fans were all the more confused and disillusioned as his case was eventually brought to the court. While it was undeniable that he was guilty as charged, that certainly clashed with his supposedly wholesome public image, and some of his fans even came to insist that he was not guilty at all.

While trying to cope with her anger and confusion coupled with lots of disillusionment, Oh approaches to several other former fans of his including her assistant director, who incidentally has one of the most humorous moments in the documentary. She and Oh gather a bunch of collectible items associated with him, and it is rather amusing to observe them discussing on how to handle all these completely valueless items. They cannot help but feel bitter as remembering how much they paid for these items as your average big fans, and their talk eventually culminates to a little funeral for these items, which is a gesture of farewell to their little adoration toward him.

In case of several other former fans interviewed in the documentary, they provide each own perspective and insight, and the documentary deftly balances itself between seriousness and some self-deprecating humor. They all were once proud to be ‘seongdeok’ (successful fan), but all of them are now bitter and disillusioned in each own way, and they surely have something to tell as casually talking with Oh. Although they all initially did not believe what he did, they eventually came to accept that inarguable truth about him as growing up a bit more, and that certainly makes them look a lot more reasonable and matured than those toxic online fans of a certain recently disgraced Hollywood star.

Nevertheless, they also cannot help but wonder about how the hell they did not see or sense what was hidden behind his nice public image, and they feel ashamed of their rather blind adoration and passion toward him. As a matter of fact, one of them points out that they and many other fans of his did lots of considerable harm in public as they tried to disbelieve what he allegedly did at first, and she still feels guilty about that.

As listening to Oh and several other former fans in the documentary, my mind was often taken back to several similar experiences of mine. As your average self-serious moviegoer, I usually put some distance between myself and those wonderful filmmakers and performers out there, but I admire many of them with considerable affection nonetheless, and that was why I was quite shocked when some of them turned out to be not good persons at all. In case of a certain Oscar-winning American actor, I had actually rooted for him a lot as observing how he steadily advanced with more impressive results, but I and others belatedly came to learn of the allegations on his sexual misconduct right before the 2017 Academy Awards, and that completely eradicated my accumulating admiration toward him. As a matter of fact, I frowned a lot when he eventually won an Oscar as predicted, even though he gave one of the best performances of 2016.

Oh also comes to reflect more on herself as listening to her fellow former fans, and that leads to some embarrassing discoveries. At one point, she comes across a personal diary of hers which shows that she did not believe the first allegation against that local male singer in 2016, and she is certainly embarrassed to discover that she wrote some very nasty things about a female newspaper reporter who wrote about that first allegation. She later approaches to that female newspaper reporter for personal apology, and their following discussion culminates to one of the most hilarious moments in the documentary. I will not go into details here for not spoiling any of your entertainment, and I assure you that you will have a big laugh as observing how Oh comes to experience the overlap between her former fan activity and a certain kind of deplorable political activity.

In conclusion, “Fanatic” is probably the funniest South Korean documentary film of this year, and I appreciate how Oh handles her personal subject with considerable care and thoughtfulness. In addition to succeeding in exorcizing all the confusion and disillusionment of hers on the screen, she also demonstrates here that she is a good filmmaker to watch, and it will be interesting to see what she will do next in the future, though she has moved onto another kind of fan activity now. After all, we all need something to be personally passionate about, don’t we?

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

The 2nd Repatriation (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Still waiting for repatriation

South Korean documentary film “The 2nd Repatriation”, which is the sequel to director Kim Dong-won’s acclaimed 2003 documentary “Repatriation” (It won the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, by the way), covers last two decades of a bunch of converted North Koreans still stuck in South Korea even after many years of incarceration. As they desperately hoped for returning to their country, the situation unfortunately got worsen between North and South Korea despite a brief respite in the early 2000s, and it is really sad to observe that they may be never sent back to North Korea even after their impending death.

The documentary begins its story at the point not long after the ending of its predecessor. Since the cease-fire of the Korean War in 1953, there had been many North Koreans who were captured and then imprisoned due to their military/espionage operations in South Korea, but they were not allowed to go back to their country even after they were eventually released due to their old age. In 2000, when the political mood between South and North Korea became quite mild mainly thanks to President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy”, 63 North Koreans who had been politically “unconverted” were repatriated to North Korea in the end, but their fellow “converted” North Koreans were excluded from that, and the circumstance did not change much for them even after they made a “declaration that the conversion by torture was invalid” in the following year.

The main focus of the documentary is one of such North Koreans, who incidentally gave one of the most poignant moments in the previous film. His name is Kim Yeong-sik, and he was just a crew member of one North Korean boat to contact with some North Korean agent in South Korea. Due to that agent’s betrayal, he and all of his crew members were captured, and that was the beginning of many years of plight and torment for him. Tortured and harassed for next several years, he eventually surrendered and let himself “converted” on record in exchange for his earlier release, and it is clear that he still feels hurt and ashamed about that.

Anyway, Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans defiantly launched a movement for their repatriation in the early 2000s, and the documentary closely observes how they continue to live and struggle day by day while never giving up their hope despite their very old age. In case of Kim, he often attempts to make some statement about his political status to South Korean citizens out there, and he is not daunted at all even though he is usually ignored by many of them and also insulted by some rude right-wing guys at times.

When President Kim Dae-jung was succeeded by President Roh Moo-hyun in 2003, the situation remained frustratingly same as before for Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans. After a certain famous tourist spot in North Korea was opened to South Korean civilians, Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans were certainly ready to go there for seeing their country again just for a few days, but the South Korean government did not allow some of them to go there for a rather insignificant bureaucratic reason, and that certainly dampened their mood to say the least.

Meanwhile, they kept trying to continue their little political movement for repatriation. When “Repatriation” was eventually completed and then released in South Korean theaters with considerable praises, Kim was certainly willing to go to a number of special screenings, but he later said to the director that he was not particularly satisfied with the documentary itself for a number of understandable reasons.

As listening to Kim, the director felt again the considerable gap between his viewpoint and Kim and other converted North Koreans’. As the son of a couple who fled from North Korea before the war, the director later came to reflect more on his deeply anti-communist family background, and he even came to learn later that there was even a sibling behind whom his mother left in North Korea at that time.

That made the director more motivated about getting a permission to enter North Korea for his documentary, but, sadly, the relationship between the South and North Korean government was soon reversed to that old hostile mood due to several unfortunate factors. Besides President George W. Bush in US (Remember “the axis of evil”?), two conservative South Korean presidents after President Roh, both of whom are incidentally big disgraces to South Korean democracy, were not so friendly to the North Korean government to say the least, and the possibility of the second repatriation was accordingly disappeared to Kim and his fellow converted North Koreans’ despair and frustration.

Nevertheless, they kept trying to live another day. As years hopelessly went by, many of them died one by one mainly because of their deteriorating health condition, but they do not still give up their hope entirely, and there is a touching moment as Kim celebrating his 88th birthday along with his friends and supporters in early 2021. He is still alive at present, and I can only hope that things will soon get better for him, though the political situation between South and North Korean recently becomes much more troubling thanks to the current president of South Korea, who is incidentally your typical right-wing nut just like Donald J. Trump or Jair Bolsonaro.

On the whole, “The 2nd Repatriation” is more or less than the continuation of its predecessor, but it is still a powerful documentary on the whole, and I also appreciate how the director often pays some attention to many other different people to observe besides his main human subjects. While it focuses on several female converted North Koreans at times, the documentary also listens to the angry members of the association of the family members of those South Korean taken to North Korea, and, regardless of their political differences, all these and other people in the documentary come to us the victim of the ongoing historical tragedy in the Korean peninsula. To be frank with you, I cannot help but doubt whether there will actually be the eventual closure for all of them before the end of the current decade, but I sincerely wish for the best anyway.

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

Repatriation (2003) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Waiting for repatriation

South Korean documentary film “Repatriation” simply follows the lives of a bunch of unconverted North Korean people who could not go back to their country even after being imprisoned in South Korea for many years. As observing their long struggle for repatriation during several years, the documentary gradually lets us have some empathy and understanding on these old but defiant people, and it is surely the powerful presentation of rather unknown human tales behind the ongoing political situation between South and North Korea.

It must be pointed out that these North Korean people were once an active part of a long military/espionage war which still does not completely end even at this point. Although the Korean War eventually reached to the cease-fire in 1953, South and North Korea constantly clashed with each other behind their back, and both sides attempted numerous covert military/espionage operations on each other during next 20 years, though none of these operations was successful at all except making them all the more hostile to each other.

According to existing records, more than 7,000 North Korean agents were sent to South Korea, and many of those captured North Korean agents were subsequently incarcerated in prisons for many years. During their incarceration periods, all of them were brutally pushed toward political conversion in one way or another, and most of them were eventually coerced to go through political conversion on record, while rest of them defiantly stuck to their political belief to the end.

After managing to survive for more than two or three decades, some of those defiant North Korean political prisoners were eventually released mainly due to their old age, but they were still not allowed to be sent back to North Korea, which did not recognize their existence officially. While being stuck in South Korea, they had no choice but to continue to live in a society alien to them in many aspects, and, not so surprisingly, their living condition was not so good at all because they were not technically South Korean citizens.

The documentary mainly revolves around two of these unconverted North Koreans: Jo Chang-soon and Kim Suk-hyung. In 1991, Director/writer/co-producer Kim Dong-wan happened to come across these two very old North Koreans when they came to reside in Kim’s shabby neighborhood in Seoul thanks to some little help from a local civilian support group, and that was the beginning of his accidental friendship with these two old North Koreans. Like many of South Koreans accustomed to anti-communist propaganda stuffs, Kim surely felt some distance between him and these two old North Koreans, but he came to like and care about them more than expected as recording some slices of their ongoing lives, and that was the starting point of his personal project which came to took more than 10 years before its eventual completion in 2003.

Through his two unlikely North Korean friends, Kim was allowed to approach to many other similar North Korean folks in South Korea. In case of Kim Yeong-sik, this old North Korean guy was just a crew member of one North Korean boat which was supposed to contact with some North Korean agent hiding in South Korea, but he happened to be captured along with his crew members due to that agent’s betrayal, and he subsequently became ‘converted’ after being tortured and harassed for next several years. Still feeling ashamed of what he was forced to do, he cannot help but become emotional when he is visited by one of his living colleagues, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the documentary.

Regardless of being converted or unconverted, many of these North Korean folks really hoped to go back to their country, and there fortunately came a big chance for them when the political conflict between South and North Korea became less tense than before in 1998. Right after getting elected as the new President of South Korea, Kim Dae-jung embarked on his “sunshine policy” on North Korea for bringing peace to the Korean peninsula, and everyone in South Korean became quite hopeful about the possibility of unification in the near future as watching that historical moment between their president and Kim Jung-il, who was the leader of North Korea at that time.

In the end, the South Korean government allowed the repatriation of a small group of unconverted North Koreans in 2000, but things did not go as well as they hoped. Their repatriation was objected by not only those right-wing organizations but also the association of the family members of those numerous South Korean people taken to North Korea, and the documentary sharply recognizes how complicated the circumstance surrounding the eventual repatriation process. While it is certainly nice to see those North Koreans finally getting their wish, they were eventually used as a propaganda tool for the North Korean government, and I personally wonder whether they were really happier to be there, considering how grim the life in North Korea can be.

Anyway, “Repatriation”, which deservedly received the Freedom of Expression Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, is still a valuable documentary for many reasons, and it is also a bitter reminder of how things looked a bit more optimistic during that period. Unfortunately, the situation between South and North Korea has worsened during next two decades, and the hope for repatriation was accordingly disappeared while many of old North Korean folks in the documentary passed away one by one in the meantime. While you may disagree with them a lot on many political subjects, you will come to have more compassion on them after watching this exceptional documentary – and you may also reflect more on their undeniable tragedy in the last chapter of the Cold War.

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

Athena (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three brothers in the middle of an intense urban conflict

French film “Athena”, which was released on Netflix in last week, is quite gritty and intense in the presentation of one increasingly chaotic conflict in a slum neighborhood. While it takes some time for you to grasp what is exactly going on around its several main characters, the movie steadily and tightly holds your attention in its grip to the end, and its impressive overall technical achievement is more than enough to compensate for its rather weak storytelling.

During the striking opening sequence which plainly begins at a local police station and then electrifies us with considerable technical prowess, the movie quickly establishes the ongoing situation surrounding Abdel (Dali Benssalah) and his two brothers Karim (Sami Slimane) and Moktar (Ouassini Embarek). A few days ago, their youngest brother was brutally murdered, and it seemed that he was killed by several unidentified local police officers. Not so surprisingly, many people in their neighborhood including Karim became quite angry about this ghastly injustice, and that eventually led to the ongoing clash between the local police and a bunch of young protesters led by Karim.

Abdel, who happens to be a decorated soldier of the French Army, tries to calm down others as much as possible. While helping many of his neighbors leave their apartment buildings for their safety, he also tries to persuade Karim and Karim’s protesters to be reasonable about their situation, but Karim is not so willing to listen to his older brother from the beginning. As a matter of fact, he and a bunch of protesters steal a big safe from the aforementioned police station during their ambush, and they are eager to open it even though they do not know what is actually in the safe.

Meanwhile, Moktar, who is incidentally a local drug lord, is more occupied with protecting his drug business from the conflict as much as he can. When the neighborhood is surrounded more by the police, he naturally feels more nervous than before, and that accordingly generates more conflict between him and his two brothers, who share the common contempt toward Moktar despite their very different viewpoints.

While shuffling among its three main characters, the movie also focuses a bit on several substantial supporting figures. We get to know a bit about a young married police officer who is understandably worried about his latest mission, and then we are also introduced to another police officer who seems to care a lot about getting things under control just like Abdel, and then there we later meet a certain disturbingly quiet man who turns out to be more experienced than Karim and his fellow protesters.

As the movie urgently hops from one narrative point to another, we get confused a bit from time to time, but the movie deftly immerses us into the chaotic circumstance surrounding its main characters and many other figures in the background. While I wish it could provide more background information for more understanding, the movie adamantly pays more attention to generating more verisimilitude along the story instead, and we often feel like being in the middle of the chaos along with its characters as a result.

Director/co-producer/co-writer Romain Gavras, who is incidentally the son of Costa-Gavras, and his crew members including cinematographer Matias Boucard and editor Benjamin Weill deserve to be praised for their technical efforts. As Boucard’s camera usually moves along with characters in fluid camerawork, Weill’s editing is succinctly precise without never interrupting the relentless narrative flow of the film, and that is further amplified by the effective score by GENER8ION. Besides its superlative opening sequence, there are also a number of excellent sequences which will dazzle any serious moviegoer, and, when I was watching the film early in this morning. I actually kept wondering how they shot these terrific sequences.

However, I also recognized some notable weak aspects in the screenplay written by Gavras and his co-writers Ladj Ly and Elias Belkeddar. Like Ly’s Oscar-nominated film “Les Misérables” (2019), the movie is surely angry and passionate about several social/political issues including racism and police brutality, but it sometimes stumbles as trying to balance itself between family melodrama and political drama. In addition, I think its inevitable ending could be more impactful without its very final scene, which is rather redundant in my inconsequential opinion.

Anyway, the movie remains to be a compelling piece of work thanks to Gavras’ commendable direction, and he also draws solid performances from his main cast members. While Dali Benssalah dutifully occupies the center, Sami Slimane often galvanizes the screen with his character’s righteous anger, and Anthony Bajon, Ouassini Embarek, and Alexis Manenti are also suitably cast in their respective roles.

In conclusion, “Athena” may not go further than what was shown in “La Haine” (1995) and “Les Misérables”, but it will give you a vivid cinematic experience you will not easily forget, and that may make you reflect more on its main subjects after it is over. Considering the current political circumstance of France as well as many other countries in Europe, the movie surely needs to be watched by more audiences out there, and that is just one of many good reasons for recommendation.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Jazzman’s Blues (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Tyler Perry comes to Netflix

Here is my inconsequential confession: I did not watch any film directed by Tyler Perry during last two decades. Sure, like many of you, I do know that he has made a bunch of notable films since his first commercial hit film “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” (2005), but many of his movies failed to draw my attention more because, as far as I gathered from the reviews on his movies, I am not exactly one of the target audiences of his films and, above all, they do not particularly look like good movies worthwhile to watch.

Anyway, my trivial personal opinion on Perry has been improved a bit since I enjoyed his delightfully no-nonsense supporting role in David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” (2014), and now he becomes more respectable especially after receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy Awards. It is undeniable that he is a major Hollywood filmmaker you cannot possibly ignore, and that is why it is not so surprising that he recently made “A Jazzman’s Blues” for Netflix, which was incidentally released in last week.

Because I have no experience with Perry’s films at all, I cannot tell you whether “A Jazzman’s Blues” is better than his previous works, but I can tell you instead that the movie is a fairly competent Netflix product on the whole. Although the screenplay, which Tyler actually wrote more than 25 years ago, is rather uneven due to many reasons including contrived narrative and blatant melodramatic tactics, the movie has some heart on its sleeve at least, and it certainly does not lack mood and spirit as your average Southern racial melodrama.

After the opening part set in a rural town of Georgia in the late 1980s, the movie immediately goes back to around 40 years ago, and we are introduced to a rather problematic African American family. Hattie Mae (Amirah Vann), a strong-willed woman who also has a considerable singing talent, is proud of her younger son Bayou (Joshua Boone) because he happens to be a very good singer just like his mother, but her musician husband usually bullies Bayou without showing any care or affection for a certain reason revealed later in the story. As a matter of fact, her husband has more expectation on their older son Willie Earl (Austin Scott), who has some potential as a trumpet player as shown from the scene where he confidently performs a bit in front of neighbors.

Anyway, Bayou does not care this much even when his father eventually leaves for Chicago along with Willie Earl, because his heart has been occupied with a young pretty girl named by Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer). As they spend more time together, their mutual attraction becomes more evident to each other, and Bayou, who comes to learn how to read and write thanks to her encouragement, begins to consider marrying her someday.

Of course, like many star-crossed lovers, Bayou and Leanne soon find themselves getting separated from each other against their will. During next several years, they try to contact with each other while never ceasing to love each other, but they are blocked by a number of obstacles including Leanne’s self-serving mother, who once left her when Leanne was young but now returns with some plan for her and her daughter’s future.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Bayou and Leanne come across each other at last by coincidence, but I will not go into details on a very tricky racial circumstance surrounding them, though you can quickly guess right from when you notice Leanne’s certain features. Now she should be very careful and discreet, but Leanne still cannot help but drawn to Bayou, and Bayou also cannot resist her either even though he is well aware of the big risks she is taking everyday.

And then the movie takes a left turn when Bayou has no choice but to leave his hometown as quickly as possible via Willie Earl, who happens to return along with his Jewish manager Ira (Ryan Eggold). At first, Bayou is just an accidental companion to Willie Earl and Ira, but Ira already saw considerable potential from Bayou, and, what do you know, Bayou finds himself becoming a big star blues singer not long after arriving in Chicago.

Nevertheless, Bayou still cannot forget Leanne in addition to being more concerned about his mother’s welfare, and that is the point where the story becomes more blatant and predictable than before. What inevitably happens during the expected finale is indeed tragic to say the least, but it does not feel as impactful as intended mainly because many of its main characters remain to be broad stereotypes merely functioning as plot elements. At least, the main cast members including Joshua Boone, Amira Vann, Solea Pfeiffer, Austin Scott, Ryan Eggold, and Milauna Jemai Jackson try their best with materials given to them, and Boone generates enough romantic heat with Pfeiffer in addition to being convincing in his several performance scenes in the film.

In conclusion, “A Jazzman’s Blues” is not a waste of time at all, and I also enjoyed its good several technical aspects including Brett Pawlak’s cinematography and Aaron Zigman’s score (The songs in the film are arranged by Terence Blanchard, by the way), but Perry could polish his story and characters more for some improvement. He is surely sincere about his story and its main subjects, but he still needs to get better, and, considering how competent he is as a filmmaker at present, I am sure that he will get to that higher level soon.

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

Honest Candidate 2 (2022) ☆☆(2/4): She is back – with less laugh

Surprise is always crucial for comedy, but there is not much surprise for me in South Korean comedy film “Honest Candidate 2”, a sequel to the 2020 South Korean remake of Brazilian comedy film “The Honest Candidate” (2014). I could see how much its good main cast members try to sell their comic materials on the screen, but, alas, they are not helped much by the tediously repetitive screenplay which simply resorts to predictable laughs, and I soon got tired and bored with lots of disappointment while watching the film during this evening.

The story begins at the point not long after what happened at the end of the previous film. After her political career was seriously ruined mainly thanks to her sudden inability to tell lies, Joo Sang-sook (Ra Mi-ran) returned to a seaside town in Gangwon-do where she once lived with her grandmother, and it looks like she will spend the rest of life there as working in a fish market, but then something unbelievable happens on one day. When some local lad is suddenly thrown into a serious danger, she boldly comes to rescue him, and that incident soon puts her back in spotlight as she is showered with lots of public attention.

As a result, Sang-sook swiftly makes a successful comeback as getting elected as the new governor of Gangwong-do, and she is quite determined to be more honest and trustful than before, but, not so surprisingly, her determination does not last that long as she is reminded again of how complicated it is to run the state government. In the end, she decides to step back a little for the benefit of the people of the state, and, not so surprisingly, that leads to more compromise and cynicism she comes to accept without much hesitation.

And then another unexpected thing occurs to Sang-sook. When she is doing her latest public event for making her all the more popular, she comes to experience something mysterious involved with her grandmother, and, what do you know, she subsequently finds herself incapable of lying just like she was in the previous film. To make matters worse, one of several figures closely associated with her also happens to have the same problem for some reason, and that certainly makes the situation more complicated for her and that figure in question.

This may look like a fun variation of the story promise of the previous film, but the movie only goes for easy laughs without fully developing its supposedly funnier comic circumstance. For example, we certainly expect something outrageous to happen when Sang-sook is going to make a speech in the middle of a very important wedding ceremony, and the movie surely attempts to generate some laughs as Sang-sook struggles not to say anything inappropriate, but the delivery of these laughs are so perfunctory and unsurprising that we are just mildly amused by what is supposed to be the punchline of the scene.

In addition, it seems that the movie often does not seem to know how to build up its heroine’s absurd comic situation. When Sang-sook inadvertently causes a diplomatic crisis between South and North Korea at one point, the movie looks like going for edgier laughs, but this subplot eventually gets fizzled, and the movie comes to focus more on how Sang-sook subsequently tries to clean up her public image in addition to fighting against certain greedy figures ready to get rid of her as soon as possible. Again, our heroine comes to have another important awakening on what is really important for her, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that she will triumphantly overcome her obstacles as usual.

However, the movie does not provide much fun or excitement even during that part. The main villains of its story are so broad and cartoonish that it is a shame that their eventual comeuppance comes too easily during the finale, and several supporting characters surrounding Sang-sook are also more or less than silly caricatures who do not show much of recognizable human behaviors. As many of you know, recognizable human behaviors are always an excellent source for good comedy, and I think director Chang You-jeong, who also directed the previous film, unfortunately overlooks this important thing here in this film.

Anyway, I still admire the diligent efforts from Ra Mi-ran, who has quickly risen as one of the leading actresses in South Korean cinema thanks to her good comic performance in the previous film. While she is mostly stuck with clumsy gags and trite jokes, Ra goes all the way like a trouper, and she actually makes a few big scenes in the film look a bit funnier than expected. She can surely handle any comic moment with deft timing, and I will not deny that I chuckled a bit when her character tries a rather ingenious way to tell lies in front of a bunch of international reporters.

In case of several other main cast members in the film, they try as much as they can do with their cardboard roles, and they manage to acquit themselves to varying degrees. While Kim Mu-yeol clicks fairly well with Ra during their several big scenes in the movie, Yoon Kyung-ho and Park Jin-joo are sadly demanded to do lots of clownish stuffs throughout the film, and you may find their characters rather annoying instead of endearing.

Overall, “Honest Candidate 2” does not surpass the comic highlights of its predecessor. Yes, I did not like “Honest Candidate” enough for recommendation, but it did make me chuckle more than once during its first half, and I think you will be more entertained if you see “Honest Candidate” again instead of enduring this middling sequel.

Sidenote: After watching “Honest Candidate 2”, I immediately watched “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), which happens to be re-released in South Korea in this week. Believe me, you will have a lot more laugh and entertainment from this great Hollywood musical comedy film.

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

Cow (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The daily life of two cows

Andrea Arnold’s documentary film “Cow” directly looks into an inconvenient fact of dairy business. It is undeniable that our human society has exploited millions of cows to get lots of milk produced from their bodies everyday, and the documentary gives us a series of sobering moments as calmly observing how its two bovine subjects are exploited in one way or another at one rural dairy farm in England.

The film opens with one of its two bovine subjects giving birth to the other one. After its female calf is successfully delivered, the cow is allowed to mother the calf for some time, but then it is eventually separated from the calf, and then we see it being subjected to the following milking process along with many other cows in the farm. As the camera is simply watching it mooing helplessly toward its calf, we cannot help but feel sorry for it, and we are all the more horrified as observing how it and other cows are systemically used for producing tons of milk secreted from their big nipples.

Although the documentary does not provide any comment or narration, we slowly come to gather how these numerous cows in the farm go through one day after another as constantly handled and monitored by those farm employees. At one point, the cow gets its uterus examined for being checked for whether it is well enough for another pregnancy, and this is certainly not a pleasant sight at all. Just imagine how you would possibly feel if you were frequently forced to get pregnant and then milked again and again while being stuck in a stuffy and muddy place along with many other cows.

Meanwhile, the documentary also focuses on how that calf is handled after being separated from its mother. At first, it is taken to a small cage where it can be raised alone for some time, but, once it grows up a bit more during next several weeks, it soon gets thrown into the system along with many other calves. At one point, a farm employee cauterizes two certain spots of its head for preventing the growth of its two horns, and you may wince as observing how this rather cruel job is casually done step by step.

Nevertheless, the documentary keeps holding our attention thanks to its considerable verisimilitude. As the camera constantly stays around its two bovien subjects and many other cows in the farm, the documentary gradually immerses us into their daily life, and we come to pay more attention to some interesting details presented on the screen. I do not know how the cows actually feel about a certain pop song played in the background, but that soft pop song makes an interesting contrast to their drab life condition, and I was also fascinated with one certain brief scene showing how the hooves of one cow are thoroughly cleaned for a hygenical reason.

The mood becomes a bit sunnier than before when the cows and calves are later allowed to be outside their cages. As they freely move around here and there in a field outside the farm, Arnold and her cinematographer Magda Kowalczyk vividly present a series of pastoral moments enhanced further by bright natural light, and we also become a bit more relaxed despite knowing too well that these animals’ free time on the field will be soon over.

What follows next is more or less than the repetition of what we previously observed. Once it is deemed to be ready for impregnation, the cow is soon put in a cage along with a black bull horny enough for their mating, and its pregnancy is confirmed not long after that. Some time later, another calf is born as expected, and the cow goes through another suffering as being subjected to the milking process along with other cows as usual.

And then there comes an inevitable moment as the cow reaches to the point where it cannot possibly be milked anymore. Although we already know what will eventually occur, it is still quite sad and devastating to say the least, and the camera thankfully distances itself from that a bit while never becoming sentimental about that. In the adamantly objective viewpoint of the documentary, the cow is a crucial but ultimately expendable entity to be discarded sooner or later, and the last scene of the documentary is going to unnerve you more as showing a bunch of calves which will surely go through that grim circle of life just like many cows before that.

On the whole, “Cow” is another interesting work from Arnold, who previously impressed me and other audiences a lot with “Fish Tank” (2009) and “American Honey” (2016). I do not know whether this documentary will actually change your viewpoint on dairy business, but I can tell you at least that it is a mesmerizing experience which deserves to be compared with Viktor Kosakovskiy’s “Gunda” (2020), an equally exceptional documentary about the daily life of one certain female pig and several other animals in one farm besides its little piglets. While these two documentaries do not make any direct point on their respective main subjects, many indelible moments of theirs will probably make you reflect more on our relationships with livestock animals we have exploited for many years, and you may come to understand the value of vegetarianism at least. Sure, we will probably continue to use livestock animals as one of our main sources of protein as before, but, considering how much they have been exploited for our life and society, they deserve better care and treatment at least, don’t they?

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

Homeless (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): They need a place to stay…

South Korean film “Homeless” is about a desperate young couple helplessly stuck in their grim economic status. Without getting any financial help or support at all, they come to resort to some desperate measures for not only themselves but also their little baby, and the movie often feels like a thriller as closely and intensely observing their increasingly precarious circumstance.

During its first act, the movie slowly lets us gather how things have been quite hopeless for Han-gyeol (Jeon Bong-seok) and Go-woon (Park Jeong-yeon). This poor young couple has been trying to get any suitable place where they can live along with their infant son, and they have saved a considerable amount of money for that, but, alas, they only end up swindled by some con man. As a result, they and their baby have no choice but to spend another night at a local sauna, and they become all the more frustrated when their baby happens to be seriously injured.

At least, the baby gets some emergency treatment at a local hospital, but now they will have to pay the medical bill for that, and there is no one to help around them. Neither Han-gyeol nor Go-woon has any close family member at all, and Han-gyeol’s current employer, who is running a small delivery service, is not so willing to lend some money to him for understandable reasons.

Remaining homeless as well as broke, Han-gyeol and Go-woon are accordingly driven into more despair and exasperation, and then Han-gyeol comes with a nice temporary solution for them. There is an old lady who has been very friendly to him while he often delivers a box of sushi to her, and this old lady is living alone in a house without any close family member around her. When Han-gyeol later takes Go-woon and their baby to the house, the old lady happens to be absent, and he tells Go-woon that the old lady asked him to take care of the house during her brief absence.

Go-woon is certainly glad to have a place for them and their baby at last, but it does not take much for us to sense that Han-gyeol is hiding something from her. For example, he tells her not to go inside a certain locked room on the second floor, and, though she is not bothered much by this strange instruction, she gradually comes to see that Han-gyeol was not totally honest with her from the very beginning, while more aware of some weird smell coming from somewhere inside the house.

Nevertheless, Go-woon also discerns that there is not any other option for them and their baby, and things look a bit better for them as they get accustomed more to their new staying place. They feel free and safe as comfortably sleeping with their baby at every night, and that inconvenient fact hovering over them can be ignored for a while at least.

However, their harsh reality keep cornering them more and more. After reporting to the police, Go-woon tries to find that con man, but there is really nothing she can do, and her desperate search eventually comes upon a dead end as expected. In the meantime, Han-gyeol continues to search for any cheap place they may move into, but he only gets frustrated again and again, and he becomes all the more desperate when he and Go-woon come to face another big problem later in the story.

What follows next is pretty despairing to say the least, but the screenplay by director Lim Seung-hyeun and his co-writer Kim Seung-hyun continues to hold our attention as steadily building the tension around its two main characters. Although the movie does not tell us that much about their past, it is implied to us that both of them struggled through some hard times even when they were very young, and we gather that is the main reason why they are so concerned about taking care of their little son. Determined to protect their son from their harsh reality as much as possible, both of them are eventually driven to make some bad choices, and we are not so surprised by that.

The movie is supported well by the unadorned acting from its lead performers, who ably embody their characters’ growing despair and weariness along the story. Jeon Bong-seok is harrowing especially when his character has a grueling moment of conflict at one point, and Park Jeong-yeon has her own several moments to shine in addition to complementing her co-star well during several key scenes. Right from their first scene, we can feel the strong emotional bond between their characters, and their characters’ sincere parental devotion feels all the more palpable because of that. In case of several substantial supporting performers in the film, Song Gwang-ja and Jang Joon-hwi are well-cast in their respective parts, and Song brings some warmth to what can be regarded as a few bright moments in the film.

Overall, “Homeless” is not a pleasant experience at all, but it works as a fairly compelling social drama thanks to its good storytelling and solid performances. Lim, who incidentally makes a feature film debut here, demonstrates that he is a good filmmaker who knows how to present story and characters well on the screen, and it will be interesting to see what he will do next after this commendable start. In short, this is one of notable South Korean films of this year, and I recommend you to check it out if you have a chance.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment