Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A compelling conspiracy investigation

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Danish documentary film “Cold Case Hammarskjöld”, which received the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is about a potentially dubious but undeniably compelling conspiracy investigation. While I still have some skepticism on what is presented in the documentary, I observe its investigation process with curiosity and fascination nonetheless, and, though nothing is clear even at the end of the documentary, I think it ultimately makes some sharp points on the long shadows of European colonialism in the modern African history.

At first, director Mads Brügger, who previously made “The Red Chapel” (2009) and “The Ambassador” (2011), was curious about the rather suspicious circumstance surrounding the death of Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who was the UN General Secretary during 1953-1961. On September 18th, 1961, Hammarskjöld was going to Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) by plane for handling diplomatic matters involved with the ongoing Congo Crisis, but his plane crashed down to the ground right before arriving in Ndola, and everyone on the plane including him died as a consequence.

While it was concluded in the following investigation that this unfortunate incident was caused by a simple mistake of the pilot, there were some questionable aspects, and it was also rumored that the incident was not accidental at all. After all, as openly advocating many newly independent countries in Africa during his term of office in UN, Hammarskjöld came to have lots of political enemies, and it seemed possible that he was actually assassinated by one of them, though there was no definite evidence to incriminate any of them.

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The starting point of Brügger’s private investigation on Hammarskjöld’s death began with a certain object acquired by the father of his fellow investigator Göran Björkdahl. It is just a small old metal plate, but, according to Björkdahl’s father, it was from Hammarskjöld’s plane, and it has some traces on the surface which suggest that the plane was shot by a smaller jet plane before the crash.

For confirming that possibility, Brügger and Björkdahl went to Ndola, and the documentary shows us their search for a site where Hammarskjöld’s plane was buried not long after the incident. Although their attempt was eventually blocked by local authorities, they came to delve more into the incident as meeting a number of people willing to talk about the incident, and one of them, who was a local reporter at that time, tells us that a certain object which happened to be on Hammarskjöld’s body as shown from one photograph indicates that the CIA was involved in the incident. In addition, there is a former National Security Agency (NSA) guy recounting to us what he heard around the time when the incident happened, and then there is also a former mercenary telling us about a certain colleague of his who allegedly shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane.

In the meantime, the investigation led Brügger and Björkdahl to something else. In 1998, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa unearthed a document containing an outline for the assassination of Hammarskjöld, and this document supposedly came from the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR), a shadowy paramilitary organization which might be associated with MI-6 and the CIA. It could have drawn lots of attentions at that time, but, due to the questionable aspects of the document, it was quickly put aside and then forgotten while both the British government and the US government denied any involvement with SAIMR.

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Through a local journalist, Brügger and Björkdahl came to learn more about Keith Maxwell, who was allegedly one of the leading figures in SAIMR. According to his heavily fictionalized autobiography remaining to be incomplete, Maxwell was involved in numerous shady operations inside and outside South Africa, and it is later revealed that he also ran a number of medical clinics in several townships of South Africa although he was not a doctor.

As Brügger and Björkdahl delved more into Maxwell and SAIMR, there came more puzzles and questions, and, as Brügger admits to his two female African secretaries around the middle point of the documentary, their investigation seemed to be reaching to the dead end, but then they encountered two people who confided to them what Maxwell and his organization attempted to do via those clinic of his. According to these two people, SAIMR mainly served the interests of white supremacy in Africa, and the real purpose of Maxwell’s clinics was spreading AIDS in Africa for eradicating the black population of not only South Africa but also several other countries around it.

Now some of you will probably question the credibility of these and other testimonies in the documentary, but the documentary keeps holding our attention thanks to Brügger’s skillful direction coupled with some playful sense of deadpan humor. Brügger and Björkdahl are an engaging duo to watch, and I also enjoyed the occasionally humorous interactions between Brügger and his two secretaries, though I often wondered whether these two secretaries are actually hired actresses.

To be frank with you, I usually stay away from conspiracy theories for good reasons, but “Cold Case Hammarskjöld” did a pretty good job of presenting its conspiracy theory with reasonable doubts and questions. I do not believe all of it, but I will not deny that I was constantly entertained during my viewing, so I recommend you to watch it – with some caution, of course.

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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Of a house and the city

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“The Last Black Man in San Francisco” is a seemingly simple but surprisingly rich and powerful drama packed with mood and details to be savored and admired. Although I must confess that it took some time for me to become more interested in the story and characters, I eventually came to appreciate the intimate portrayal of one touching friendship in the film as well as the sincere presentation of the changing urban landscapes on the screen, and the lingering impression left by the movie still grows on me even at this point.

At first, we are introduced to Jimmie (Jimmie Fails) and Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), two African American lads living in San Francisco. As he does not have any other place to stay at present, Jimmie has been residing in a small shabby house belonging to Montgomery’s blind grandfather, and we later see him sleeping along with Montgomery in Montgomery’s tiny bedroom, which looks more like a closet as filled with many stuffs here and there.

As an aspiring playwright, Montgomery searches for any source of inspiration whenever he is not working at a local seafood market, and the movie often gives us small humorous moments from what he observes along with his friend. The opening scene feels rather surreal as showing a group of certain professional workers on a nearby beach area, and then we see a preacher guy who surely has lots of things to say to others passing by him, and then we later see a bunch of young boisterous guys who usually spend time in front of the house of Montgomery’s grandfather.

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In case of Jimmie, he has been obsessed with a certain Victorian house located somewhere in a more gentrified neighborhood of the city, and we get to know why he has been clinging on this house, which looks pretty nice with its old but lovely exterior design clearly showing its long history. According to him, this was built by his grandfather not long after he came to San Francisco after the World War II, and he lived there along with his family when he was a kid, but, unfortunately, his parents came to lose the house later due to their poverty and drug problems.

Now the house belongs to a middle-aged Caucasian couple, but that does not deter Jimmie at all, and Montgomery is willing to assist his friend. They routinely go to the house for fixing or decorating the exterior of the house bit by bit, and this action of theirs is understandably not welcomed much by the current residents of the house. At one point early in the film, a few pieces of croissant are hurled at Jimmie and Montgomery, and that is surely one of the most amusing moments in the film.

Anyway, due to a rather unspecified financial matter involved with family conflict, the current residents of the house subsequently have to leave the house, and Jimmie and Montgomery see an opportunity when they come to learn that the house may remain empty for an indefinite period. After they get Jimmie’s old family furnitures from Jimmie’s aunt who has stored them for years, they promptly move into the house and then begin to squat there. While they look around the gorgeous interior of the house which features numerous interesting things including an old pipe organ, we can clearly sense why Jimmie has been fixated on the house, and it is often touching to see how he takes care of the house with genuine care and pride.

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As they spend more time in the house, Jimmie and Montgomery become more comfortable with their new place, but, of course, they soon come to face the reality. While we are not so surprised to see what happens once the house is officially put on sale later in the story, we gradually come to discern what Jimmie does not want to admit from the beginning, and there eventually comes a moment when Montgomery attempts to make his friend face the truth via his play performed at the house.

Patiently taking its time in establishing the story and characters, the screenplay by director/co-producer Joe Talbot and his co-writer Rob Richert, which is based on the semi-autobiographical story written by Talbot and his lead actor Jimmie Fails, fluidly moves from one small episodic moment to another while never losing the focus on its two main characters. Thanks to cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra, the movie is constantly filled with the vivid sense of locations and people, and I particularly like several glimpses of human eccentricities shown in the film, which is exemplified well by a brief conversation scene between Jimmie and an old man who does not seem to mind being naked at a public spot.

Fails and his co-star Jonathan Majors are engaging to watch with their natural chemistry on the screen, and the movie also allows a number of supporting performers to have each own moment to shine. As Montgomery’s grandfather, Danny Glover is reliable as usual, and several other notable performers including Rob Morgan, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps, and Finn Wittrock are also equally fine in their respectable roles.

Overall, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”, which deservedly won the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award and the Special Jury Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is a sublime ode to San Francisco and its people, and it is certainly the impressive feature film debut by Talbot. As many others already said, this is indeed one of the best films of this year, and it will be very interesting to see what may come next from this evidently talented filmmaker.

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Being 17 (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A tricky matter of their young hearts

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French film “Being 17” is an intimate adolescent drama revolving around a difficult situation between its two young heroes struggling with a tricky matter of their young hearts. Calmly presenting the dynamic interactions between them, the movie gradually engages us via its dexterous storytelling, and it often touches us more than expected while steadily rolling its story and characters toward the eventual arrival point.

At the beginning, we get to know Damien (Kacey Mottet Klein) and Thomas (Corentin Fila), two very different teenage boys attending the same high school in an Alpine village. While Thomas is the adopted son of a couple running a cattle farm, Damien is the only son of the village doctor and her solider husband, and the movie slowly establishes their respective domestic environments during its first act. Although it may be better for him to move to a spot closer to his school, Thomas prefers to stay around his parents for helping run the farm, and it is apparent that he and his parents care a lot about each other. While his father is frequently absent due to his military missions, Damien has happily lived with his mother Marianne (Sandrine Kiberlain), and he also get some boxing lesson from a neighbor who is an old military buddy of his father.

On one day, Thomas commits an act of bullying to Damien during one of their classes, and we observe how the situation becomes more tense as he continues to bully Damien. While Damien initially maintains his passive attitude without any attempt to fight against Thomas, he eventually comes to clash hard with Thomas in front of everyone, and both of them are subsequently brought to the school principal while accompanied with Marianne, who already met Thomas when she visited his home for his mother’s health problem.

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As feeling sorry for Thomas, Marianne decides to help him a bit, so she suggests that he should stay in her home for a while to improve his school grades. Of course, neither Thomas nor Damien welcomes this suggestion, but Thomas reluctantly agrees to go to Marianne’s house after persuaded by his parents, and he and Damien soon find themselves studying together despite feeling quite awkward.

As time goes by and they accordingly enter the next semester, things get a little better than before. Although they have a rough physical fight outside at one point, Thomas and Damien subsequently become a bit friendlier to each other, probably because that fight resolved whatever had been accumulated between them. In addition, Thomas begins to get higher grades than before, and Marianne is certainly pleased about that.

However, we soon begin to notice another kind of tension developed between Thomas and Damien. It turns out that Damien has been quite attracted to Thomas, and there is an amusing scene where he virtually coerces Thomas to take him to a place belonging to some older guy whom Damien encountered via the Internet. When Damien finds that he is not particularly attracted to that guy, Thomas comes to spend some interesting time with that guy instead, and Damien has no choice but to wait alone for Thomas’ return.

This new tension between Damien and Thomas eventually reaches to another breaking point, and they subsequently become distant to each other, but then there comes an unexpected incident which devastates Damien and his mother a lot. Although he is not so eager to get closer to them again, Thomas comes to stay near them anyway, and Marianne, who already knows what was going on between her son and Thomas, surely appreciates his emotional support.

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As leisurely moving from one narrative point from each other, the screenplay by director André Téchiné and his co-writer Céline Sciamma carefully builds up the emotional momentum around its main characters, and that aspect is reflected well by the beautiful seasonal changes of the rural background of the movie. Thanks to cinematographer Julien Hirsch, there are several vivid landscapes shots to be appreciated, and I particularly like how the snowy background accentuates the restrained mood of the first act of the film.

The movie depends a lot on its main cast members, and they are all solid in their respective roles. While Kacey Mottet Klein, a young Swiss actor who drew my attention for the first time via his unforgettable lead performance in Ursula Meier’s “Sister” (2012), ably conveys to us his character’s emotional conflict without any false note, Corentin Fila effectively complements his co-star with his equally sensitive performance, and Sandrine Kiberlain is also terrific as another crucial part of the story.

On the whole, “Being 17” is worthwhile to watch for good reasons, and I admire the competent direction of Téchiné, who previously directed “The Witnesses” (2007) and “The Girl on the Train” (2009) and recently made “Farewell to the Night” (2019). Although it may require some patience from you due to its rather slow narrative pacing, the movie works well as a fascinating character drama packed with mood and details, and I assure you that you will not be disappointed if you are looking for something more thoughtful and matured than those brainless summer blockbuster flicks.

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Ghost Walk (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): As time goes backward for her

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South Korean film “Ghost Walk” is a modest but haunting fantasy drama about urban loneliness and isolation. As its heroine calmly journeys backward through her last several days as a ghost, the movie slowly establishes its melancholic mood surrounding her and a few other characters in the story, and we come to reflect more on their gloomy status of existence with some pity and empathy.

The story mainly revolves around Hye-jeong (Han Hae-in), a young woman who works in a factory on the outskirts of some city. While she is currently living with two other young women in her residence, she is not particularly close to them, and she also does not have much interest in responding to the tentative courtship from a male factory worker. When they happen to walk together to her residence on one day, he shows her some care and affection, but she flatly rejects him because, well, she cannot afford a romantic relationship as trying hard to earn her living day by day.

The movie moves forward to several days later, and we see Hye-jeong returning to her residence alone at the end of the day. Although it may not be safe for her to walk alone at night, she does not mind at all, and then she comes across a little girl hanging around her residence for some reason. That little girl seems to need help, but Hye-jeong does not give much attention, and we soon see her going inside her residence.

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And then something happens to her. She subsequently wakes up as a ghost, and, as reflected by the opening line at the beginning of the movie, time goes backward for her night by night. At first, she sees the police examining her death scene after her unconscious body was found then taken to a local hospital, and then she witnesses how much her two roommates are shocked by this unexpected incident. Although they and she did not know each other much despite living together in the same place for a while, they cannot help but emotionally affected by her death, and there is nothing Hye-jeong can do for them as she observes them from the distance.

Whenever she wakes up, Hye-jeong finds herself moved back further into the past, and she comes to know more about a few people’s daily lives surrounding hers. For example, that little girl, named Soo-yang (Gam So-hyun), turns out to be more significant than expected, and there is a sad, poignant moment when she leads Hye-jeong to an abandoned place and then showed what happened to her not long before Hye-jeong’s incident. In case of Hyo-yeon (Jeon So-nee), who is one of Hye-jeong’s roommates, it subsequently turns out that she has been under a very desperate financial situation, and Hye-jeong accordingly comes to realize that she could have helped Hyo-yeon and, to some extent, Soo-yang, if she had showed more care and attention to them.

The movie feels undeniably bleak on the whole, but then it gradually generates some emotional warmth via the unlikely relationship development between Hye-jeong and Soo-yang later in the story. She finds that she can somehow communicate with Soo-yang although Soo-yang cannot see her, and the story eventually becomes a little more tense as Hye-jeong later attempts to do something for Hyo-yeon as well as Soo-yang.

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Nevertheless, the movie keeps sticking to its slow narrative pacing under the competent direction of director/writer Yu Eun-jeong, who previously made several short films before making this first feature film of hers. As she steadily maintains the stark atmosphere on the screen, the sense of loneliness and isolation surrounding its female main characters becomes more palpable to us, and we are reminded more of their considerable social vulnerability. They are all alone in each own way, and the movie indirectly emphasizes the importance of social solidarity via its sobering presentation of their isolated situations.

As the emotional anchor of the movie we can hold onto, newcomer Han Hae-in ably carries the film with her unadorned lead performance, and she is also supported well by several good performers in the film. While Jeon So-nee, who previously played a crucial supporting character in “After My Death” (2017), demonstrates here that she is another talented young actress to watch, young performer Gam So-hyun is effortlessly natural as doing more than holding her own place well beside Han, and Lee Geun-hoo is well-cast in his small but substantial supporting role.

Although “Ghost Walk” may demand you some patience for its slow narrative pacing and low-key mood, but it is a rewarding experience which will leave you some lasting impression. This is one of the notable debut feature films of this year in South Korea, and it will surely show you that Yu is another talented South Korean female filmmaker who deserves more attention and support.

By the way, I must confess that I unfortunately felt drowsy at times due to my physical condition while I watched the movie along with a group of audiences in a rather small screening room during last afternoon. I am not that sure about whether I absorbed and understood everything in the film, but I still had a fairly interesting time with it at least, and I am certainly willing to revisit it for appreciating its good elements more.

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Warning: Do Not Play (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Searching for one cursed horror flick

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South Korean film “Warning: Do Not Play” is a little mystery horror flick alternatively creepy and amusing for its main target audiences. While being as sinister and ominous as required, the movie often throws some wryly amusing moments to be savored, and we gladly go along with that as enjoying its several nice scary scenes.

In the beginning, the movie observes the very difficult situation of its heroine. While she once was regarded a promising new filmmaker thanks to her debut work, Mi-jeong (Seo Ye-Ji) has been struggling to write the screenplay for a horror movie to be produced, and now she is told that she must complete and then submit the screenplay within two weeks.

And then she hears about an interesting urban legend from one of her juniors. Around several years ago, there was a student film which really scared the hell out of the audiences, and, according to this tale, the guy who made this film in question claimed that the film was directed by a ghost. Becoming quite curious about this mysterious film, Mi-jeong goes to a college where that student allegedly studied, but she does not get any clue about the movie as she does not even know who that guy is.

However, of course, Mi-jeong subsequently comes across a few pieces of information about the movie. As talking with several students, she gets some background knowledge, and she also comes to learn that it was supposed to be shown at a certain well-known film festival in South Korea, but the festival archive does not have anything except its trailer – and that certainly makes her all the more curious about it.

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While she keeps trying to get more information about the movie, she receives a phone call from Jae-hyeon (Jin Seon-kyu), a guy who directed the movie. When Mi-jeong meets him, he solemnly warns her that she should not delve more into what he supposedly made, and he does not say anything else besides that, though it is quite apparent that he is hiding something from her.

The mood subsequently becomes more insidious as Mi-jeong finds where Jae-hyeon lives and then sneaks into his shabby residence, which is, not so surprisingly, full of bad signs here and there. Besides lots of burning candles, there are a number of disturbing drawings on the walls, and it seems he is really afraid of whatever is associated with his movie.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Mi-jeong eventually gets a chance to watch Jae-hyeon’s movie – and that she comes to feel like being disturbed and threatened by some unknown dark force. As strange things begin to happen around her, she is often reminded of a certain dark moment in her past, and then there comes a tense scene where she suddenly finds herself alone and helpless in the dark at one point later in the story.

And she gets to know more about the production history of Jae-hyeon’s movie. At that time, he and several other students tried to make the movie at an abandoned movie theater, but the movie theater has been known as a haunted place, and there is a small creepy moment shown via what Jae-hyeon briefly shot with his video camera. I later learned that the movie theater shown in the film is actually a real one which has been abandoned for years, and it goes without saying that this location brings some extra authentic insidiousness to the screen.

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As slowly increasing the level of tension and creepiness on the screen, director/writer Kim Ji-won, who previously debuted with “The Butcher” (2007), keeps holding our attention with more curiosity and dread. Is there really a ghost in that movie theater? What did really happen to Jae-hyeon and his colleagues? And what is exactly going on around Mi-jeong?

While we come to muse more on these and other questions, there eventually comes a moment when we behold what is shown in Jae-hyeon’s movie, and Kim and his crew pull all the stops as Mi-jeong comes to take a fateful step into the abandoned movie theater. If you are familiar with many recent South Korean horror films, you will probably not that surprised by what is presented during the climactic sequence, but you will not be disappointed at least. Sure, there are several predictable moments to jolt you, but the overall result is as tense and scary as expected, and then you will get amused by what follows after that.

The few main cast members of the movie are effective in their respective parts. While Seo Ye-ji is engaging as a heroine who cannot help but driven her curiosity despite the sense of dread accumulating around her, Jin Seon-kyu looks suitably scared and disturbed as required, and Ji Yoon-ho is also solid in his small but crucial supporting role.

In conclusion, “Warning: Do Not Play” is an enjoyable genre piece which plays well with its familiar genre elements, and I was entertained enough during its 86-minute running time. Although it may look rather modest to you at first, it did its job as well as intended, and it will certainly remind you of how it is often hard and difficult for those horror movie directors to scare and entertain audiences out there.

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Wiener-Dog (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Four short stories around a dog

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I cringed and winced from time to time as watching “Wiener-Dog”, the latest work of Todd Solondz. While it is relatively less edgy and uncomfortable compared to his previous works such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and “Happiness” (1998), the movie often strikes us hard with its mean, vicious sense of humor, and I must warn you in advance that there are several moments which may repulse you for good reasons, but you may also admire its dry but empathetic presentation of human misery and unhappiness via four different short stories revolving around one little dachshund dog.

At the beginning of the first story, we see that dog in question taken to a suburban family. Danny (Tracy Letts) thinks that it will bring some support and comfort to his young cancer-surviving son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), and Remi is certainly is excited to have a pet dog to play with, but Danny’s French wife Dina (Julie Delpy) does not like welcome the dog much from the beginning. Some time later, she takes the dog to a local veterinarian for getting it spayed, and there is a darkly amusing scene where she tells a rather morbid tale for emphasizing to her son the necessity of getting his dog sterilized.

Things look fine for a while after that, but, of course, a big trouble eventually occurs thanks to a small act of misjudgment by Remi, and its consequence is not so pretty to say the least. In the end, his father decides that the dog must be removed from the house, and Remi is saddened and devastated by this loss of his, while coming to learn a bit about life and death from his mother.

After being taken to the local veterinarian, the dog is soon going to be euthanized, but Dawn (Greta Gerwig), who was the miserable young heroine of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and currently works as a nurse for that veterinarian, feels pity toward to the dog, and she eventually takes him to her residence. Thanks to her generous care, the dog gets better than before, and it soon becomes a good companion in Dawn’s drab daily life.

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On one day, Dawn comes across Brandon (Kieran Culkin), her former schoolmate who used to bully her during their school years but actually liked her more than he admitted. Although their awkward reunion seems momentary at first, Brandon subsequently suggests that she should go to somewhere in Ohio along with him, and Dawn does not reject his suggestion at all because, well, she still has some feeling toward him.

As spending more time with Brandon and the dog on the road, Dawn comes to like him more, and he also seems to be willing to get closer to her, but we soon sense how problematic his life is. For some purpose, he drops by several places, and there is a brief but crucial shot showing what he is hiding from Dawn. When he and Dawn eventually arrive at their destination, Brandon shows his better side, and Dawn becomes optimistic about their growing relationship, but we cannot help but worry about what may happen next due to his personal demons.

At the end of the second story, the dog is handed over to a certain young couple close to Brandon, but then the third story shows the dog belonging now to Dave (Danny DeVito), a scruffy middle-aged film school teacher whose daily life in New York City has been going nowhere for years. While he has hoped that a screenplay written by him will be sold in Hollywood someday, he only receives empty promises from his former agent and his successor, and this increasingly hopeless status certainly affects him a lot. At one point, he is told that he is not particularly regarded well by his peers and students due to his negative attitude, and that makes him feel all the more miserable.

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After a cringe-inducing scene where he finds himself mocked and humiliated by some hot-shot filmmaker who once studied under him, Dave becomes far more frustrated and exasperated than before, and that eventually leads to a funny but disturbing moment, which is followed by the melancholic ending with some ambiguity. Although he has been less prominent than before during recent years, Danny DeVito did a good job of balancing his character well between pathos and humor, and he surely gives the best performance in the film.

In the last story, which is the weakest part of the film in my inconsequential opinion, the dog now belongs to a blind old lady called Nana (Ellen Burstyn). When she is being taken care of by her caregiver as usual, her granddaughter visits along with her artist boyfriend, and it soon becomes clear to us that she comes to Nana for getting some money for her artistic boyfriend. While she eventually hands a check to her granddaughter, Nana does not hide her acerbic sides at all, and that certainly makes her granddaughter a bit uncomfortable.

The following scene showing Nana going through a dreamy introspective moment is rather sappy on the surface, but then the movie slaps us hard during its last several minutes. According to the IMDB trivia, many audiences actively showed their negative reactions to this moment when the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, and I think you will likely be quite horrified if you are an animal lover.

Although it is not wholly successful, “Wiener-Dog” is still an interesting piece of work supported well by its various main cast members, and it surely shows us that Solondz has not lost any of his edgy artistic touch. Like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness”, the movie is not something I am willing to revisit again, but, considering its more effective moments which will linger on your mind for a while, it deserves more attention and appreciation at least.

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Catfight (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Morbid, vicious, and, yes, violent

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“Catfight” is a morbid and vicious black comedy about the violent conflict between two different characters. Although it simply observes from the distance how these two characters respectively go up and down while occasionally clashing hard with each other, the movie mostly works thanks to its wry sense of humor as well as the committed performance from its two leading performers, and we cannot help but laugh more and more as the story sways back and forth between them.

During the first act, the movie quickly establishes its two main characters and their respective current situations. While they were once close college friends a long time ago, Veronica (Sandra Oh) and Ashley (Anne Heche) have been quite distant to each other for many years, and we observe how different their lifestyles are. While Veronica has living a cozy and luxurious life with her rich husband and their adolescent son in a posh apartment located in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City, Ashley has been a struggling artist living with her partner Lisa (Alicia Silverstone) in the Brooklyn neighborhood, and she has been quite frustrated as her artistic career has been going nowhere mainly due to her rather provocative painting style.

During one evening, Veronica and her husband go to the birthday party of his close associate/friend who is going to help his business a lot, and that is where she happens to come across Ashley, who happens to be serving the guests there along with Lisa. When they recognize each other, they seem to be glad to meet each other at first, but then their old mutual bad feelings are awakened as they talk more with each other, and we are not so surprised when they eventually come to fight hard with each other outside the party place due to some unfortunate coincidence accompanied with drug, alcohol, and, above all, grudge.

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Now I should be a little more careful about describing what happens next for not spoiling your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that the screenplay by director/writer/editor Onur Tukel has lots of fun with how things get completely turned upside down for both Veronica and Ashley after their first catfight. While Veronica is shocked to find herself hitting the bottom without anyone to help her except her ex-housekeeper, Ashley becomes more confident than before as her life and career advance more than before, and she is also going to have a baby as her partner has always wanted.

Meanwhile, we get a series of darkly humorous moments which frequently emphasize the warped reality surrounding the characters in the film. There is a blatant running gag involved with a crude TV comedy show which the supporting characters in the film always find funny to the bewilderment of Veronica and Ashley, and then we are also served with a number of whimsical elements including the childish but popular cartoon created by Ashley’s mousy assistant/apprentice Donna (Myra Lucretia Taylor), whose cheery artistic style does not fit that well with Ashley’s many disturbing works.

Although both Ashley and Veronica are not particularly likable characters to say the least, the movie keeps holding our attention as ruthlessly pushing them into more misery and hate, and we come to observe this process with some horrible fascination and curiosity. We do not care much about them, but we brace ourselves for what may happen sooner or later between them, and we surely get a load of uncomfortable laughs as they are fatefully back on their collision course later in the story.

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Of course, the movie depends a lot on the presence and talent of its two lead performers. While Sandra Oh, a wonderful Korean Canadian actress who drew my attention for the first time via her feisty supporting turn in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways” (2004), is reliable as usual, Anne Heche, whom I still fondly remember for her good supporting turn in Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” (1997), is an equal match for Oh, and they are constantly believable whenever their characters push or pull each other on the screen. Never making any excuse or compromise on their problematic characters, both of them willingly go all the way as demanded even when the movie steps back a little during its last act, and the ferocious comic energy between them is why it works to the end.

Although the movie is basically the showcase of Oh and Heche’s acting ability, a few other main cast members in the film manage to hold each own small place around them. While Alicia Silverstone, whom you probably remember for her enjoyable performance in Amy Heckerling’s “Clueless” (1995), will definitely make your cringe when Lisa makes many of her friends feel awkward and miserable during the baby shower for her and Ashley, Myra Lucretia Taylor steals the show with her pitiful meekness, and Tituss Burgess, who recently got more prominent than before thanks to his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in TV sitcom series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”, is also fun to watch in his brief appearance.

In conclusion, “Catfight”, which is currently available on Netflix, may be not for everyone, but you may enjoy it as much as I did if you are willing to appreciate its twisted aspects and the commendable efforts from Oh and Heche. As clearly reflected by its very title, the movie is not going to pull any punch, so please don’t complain later that I did not warn you in advance.

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