Gleason (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): His life with ALS

Amazon Prime documentary film “Gleason” gives us an honest and intimate look into one former professional athlete’s daily life with his serious illness and the following complications. While never overlooking all those difficulties and frustrations experienced by him and several others standing by him, the documentary shows a number of powerful human moments to be appreciated, and it surely earns all the emotional responses from its audiences.

In the beginning, we get a brief but succinct summary on how things went quite well for Steve Gleason in the 2000s. Although he is not that tall or bigger, Gleason tried his best as a promising American football player to watch, and his diligent efforts subsequently paid off. Several years after joining the New Orleans Saints in 2000, he had a big moment to remember for not only himself but his team and many people in New Orleans, Louisiana, and then he happily retired in 2008 while looking forward to enjoying life more with his dear wife Michel.

However, Gleason noticed something wrong with his body in 2011, and then there came a devastating news for him and Michel. Although he was only 34, he turned out to be going through the early stage of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), and he and his wife were also told that he might die within less than 10 years.

Naturally upset and scared by this bad news, Gleason and his wife embarked on preparing for what they would go through during next ten years at least. When it later turned out that Michel got pregnant, Gleason decided to record his remaining life for his child as much as possible, and that subsequently led to his collaboration with Sean Pamphilon, Ty Minton-Small, and David Lee, who served as the cinematographers of the documentary (Although Pamphilon also worked as the director at first, he was later replaced by Clay Tweel because of his serious professional conflict with Gleeson in 2012).

While Gleason and his wife were waiting for their child’s birth during next several months, Gleason’s physical condition were deteriorated further, and that is really heartbreaking to watch. Sure, he got all the supports he could get from not only Michel but also several others including his father, but he came to lose his ability to move and speak bit by bit, and Michel tells us about how much she is disheartened by the rapid progress of her husband’s illness. Only one year after his diagnosis, he found his body much less mobile than before, and his speech also became a lot more slurred than before.

Nevertheless, Gleason and his wife still tried their best even though they knew well that they will lose their battle with ALS in the end. We see him testing a wheelchair to carry him, and then we also watch him making his voice recordings to be used for a voice-generating software when he could not speak well anymore. In addition, he and his family established a non-profit organization for the support of ALS patients, and there is a little emotional moment when he and his wife talk a bit with one ALS patient who receives some substantial help from Gleason’s non-profit organization.

Meanwhile, Gleason’s child was eventually born, and Gleason was certainly excited and delighted, but he also recognizes how things will be much difficult for Michel. Besides taking care of her husband, she also has to pay a lot of attention to their young son, and Gleason feels saddened because he cannot help her that much due to his worsening physical condition.

At least, they hire several professional caregivers to help and assist them, but their daily life is frequently riddled with many different obstacles, and the documentary does not hesitate at all to show almost everything to us. At one point, we see Gleason suffering from an unexpected side effect from trying a stem cell therapy, and his following enema process will surely make you wince more than once even though the camera does not look closely into that.

In addition, the documentary looks directly into how much Gleason and his wife often became angry and frustrated with his incurable illness, and I admire how they let the camera observe those difficult moments of theirs without any pretension. Their love and relationship were certainly tested a lot from time to time, and it is poignant to see when they later make a very important decision which will affect his life as well as hers. He feels guilty because that would demand a lot more from her than before, but she is ready to stand by him as much as possible, and their life is brightened a bit more as they come to have more time to see their son grow day by day. In addition, he also comes to have some honest moments with his father, and there is a touching moment when Gleason’s father frankly admits his shortcomings and then sincerely commends Gleason for being a better father than him.

Overall, “Gleason” is worthwhile to watch for the unadorned human qualities observed from Gleason and his wife and several others around him. Not long after the documentary came out, Michel gave birth to another child of his, and she and her husband keep going as before along with their two kids even at this point. Yes, their journey will eventually be over someday, but they have surely lived fully, haven’t they?

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Transformers: Rise of the Beasts (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Better than most of its predecessors

I still remember how much I winced and cringed as enduring what followed after Michael Bay’s “Transformers” (2007). While the first film was fairly watchable, all of the next four sequels were utterly atrocious in many aspects thanks to Bay’s grossly brainless maximalism, and I must confess that “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009) actually drove me to drink at least four hard cocktails right after the screening because, my late mentor/friend Roger Ebert said at that time, it was inarguably “a horrible experience of unbearable length.” At least, we were consoled by “Bumblebee” (2018) not long after “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017) came as a sort of the final insult, but that was a bit too late although the movie itself was a considerable improvement compared to its predecessors.

Naturally, I felt instant dread when I came upon the trailer of “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” a few months ago, and I did not expect much with growing fear and concern as walking into the screening room in this early morning. What do you know, the film itself turns out to be not so bad even though still retaining a number of main weak points of the franchise, and it actually entertained and surprised me enough for recommendation.

In my opinion, the main reason why the movie works better than expected is providing more drama and substance to the story and characters in comparison. Yes, again, the two main human characters in the film, respectively played by Anthony Ramos and Dominique Fishback, are frequently required to run here and there amid lots of bangs and crashes made by those big alien robots, but, surprise, the movie actually takes some time to develop these characters before eventually bombarding us with lots of sound and fury as demanded by its story formula. As a result, we come to care about their personal dramas as willingly following their bumpy adventures with those big alien robots, and it looks like the filmmakers behind the film did learn from what made “Bumblebee” relatively more memorable compared to other Transformers flicks.

In case of the alien robot characters in the story, I already gave up distinguishing one alien robot from another before watching the movie itself due to my previous predicaments with Bay’s Transformers movies, but they actually show a bit of extra personality this time. Although the villain alien robots of the story are pretty monotonous as usual, some of those good alien robots working along with Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen as usual) are fairly distinctive on the whole, and I must tell you that Michelle Yeoh, another Oscar winner to be added to the franchise after Frances McDormand and Anthony Hopkins, maintains her dignity intact despite the mandatory metallization of her recognizable voice.

In addition, several action sequences in the film are relatively more effective compared to whatever we had to endure as watching “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and the following three sequels. Under the good direction of director Steven Caple Jr., who previously directed “Creed II” (2018), each of these action sequences in the film is packed with enough fun and thrill without getting us confused at all, and even the expected big climactic part, which is unfolded in a certain famous spot in South America, works better than expected even when it is drenched in lots of CGI on the screen.

On the other hand, the movie occasionally did some silly comic stuffs mainly via the alien robot character voiced by Pete Davidson. I did roll my eyes during these broad comic moments, but, folks, I have been able to forgive and tolerate a lot of things after suffering that annoying robot dog humping on Megan Fox’s leg in “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, and I think many of you will agree with me.

I was also surprised by how Ramos and Fishback’s earnest efforts could still engage me even when the movie pulled all the stops for more action and, yes, robots. I personally thought these two wonderful performers were too good and talented to appear in the film (Just watch “In the Heights” (2021) and “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), and you will see what I mean), but they actually did more than whatever is required by their respective paychecks from the movie, and it certainly helps that their characters come to function as more active parts of the story than we thought at first. While Fishback brings some wit and pluck to her character, Ramos does not lose any sense of fun at all when his character later happens to be tasked with something not so far from what Robert Downey Jr. did for more than 10 years in those Marvel Cinematic Universe products.

In conclusion, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” is not as bad as I feared, and that was a big relief for me to say the least. I will probably not remember much of it around the time when they release another Transformers movie, but I must not deny that I was entertained enough during my viewing, though I will probably be on the side of minority opinion this time. After all, it is more engaging and less cumbersome than “Fast X” (2023), and I am actually a bit interested in what may come next instead of dreading about that.

So, I will now do some calculation on my final rating. I gave “Transformers” 2.5 stars while giving “Bumblebee” 3 stars, and “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” lies somewhere between them. Mainly because I liked it more than I predicted, I give “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” an extra half star, but I think you may just rent or skip it instead, and I will respect your choice anyway.

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Wolf (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A murky and confused psychological drama

It is really hard for us to discern what kind of point “Wolf” is actually trying to make. Mainly in set in a special psychiatric facility for mental patients who think they are animals trapped inside human body, the movie merely presents one disturbing moment after another from both sides, and we become more aware of its superficial aspects in terms of story and characters.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a lad named Jacob (George MacKay), who, as reflected by the opening scene where he moves alone inside a forest while being completely naked, thinks he is a wolf. Knowing well that he has a “problem”, he subsequently lets his parents accompany him to a mental hospital for patients who are suffering “species dysphoria” just like him, and we soon him beginning his first day at this mental hospital and then getting introduced to several other patients.

Under the benevolent but occasionally strict care from Dr. Mann (Paddy Considine) and his staff members, Jacob and other patients in the mental hospital are often forced to face each own delusion in one way or another. In case of a girl who believes she is a parrot, she has been allowed to wear a bird attire as desired, but we later see how cruelly she is reminded of the undeniable fact that she cannot fly at all as a, well, human being.

It looks like all Jacob will have to do is obeying to whatever is expected from him while often admitting that he is not a wolf at all, but, not so surprisingly, that is not so easy for him from the very beginning. He sometimes cannot help but behave like a wolf whenever nobody is watching, and then he later gets himself closely associated with a young woman named Cecile, who incidentally thinks she is a wildcat. After having an accidental nocturnal encounter between them, Jacob and Cecile get to know each other more as spending more time together, and we come to gather how things have been desperate for Cecile. While most of the patients in the mental hospital can leave anytime once they get cured, Cecile does not have anyone to take her out of the mental hospital, and it later turns out that she has been stuck there for years due to one of the staff members, who has been virtually a controlling mother figure to her.

And we continue to observe what Jacob and other patients have to endure everyday. They frequently watch the video clips emphasizing how human being is superior to animals in many aspects, and some of them actually seem to show some progress as behaving more like human beings instead of animals. As a matter of fact, the mental hospital even has a “graduation” ceremony for those cured patients to leave.

Of course, Jacob gradually comes to see more of what a cruel and harsh place the mental hospital to him and other patients. Dr. Mann, who is naturally nicknamed “Zookeeper”, does not hesitate to use a number of extreme tactics if that is deemed necessary in his viewpoint, and there is a hurtful moment when he sadistically demands one of his patients to climb a tree like a real squirrel before that patient gets some serious injury as a consequence.

Around that narrative point, the story feels more like a metaphor on those toxic facilities for “curing” LGBTQ people, and it looks like we are supposed to side more with Jacob and other patient characters, but the screenplay by director/writer Nathalie Biancheri adamantly sticks to its detached position without giving much substance to the story and characters. Yes, we are certainly repulsed by those “therapeutic” methods of Dr. Mann and his staff at times, but we are also distant to the “madness” of Jacob and other patient characters. Sure, it may be better to let them be themselves outside, but their behaviors sometimes look quite pathological, and we come to have more doubt on their mental conditions while not caring that much about them.

At least, we can appreciate the considerable professional commitment observed from George MacKay, Lily-Rose Depp, and several other main cast members in the film. MacKay is particularly good whenever he embodies the deeply troubled aspects of his character, and he and Depp are fearless during a key scene where their characters shoe more of their animalistic sides to each other. On the opposite, Paddy Considine is quietly intense behind his unflappable façade, and he has a very unnerving moment later in the film when his character must show his patients who the boss is.

On the whole, “Wolf”, which is currently available in Netflix in South Korea, has an intriguing story promise to draw our attention, but the result is too murky and confused to our dissatisfaction. Under Bicnaheri’s competent direction, the main cast members surely did their best, but the movie still feels tediously solemn and shallow without leaving much impression, and you may wonder whether it needed some extra humor and substance for reaching to the level of Yorgos Lanthimos’ notable psychological drama film “Dogtooth” (2009), which did a much engaging job of pushing the weird madness of its main characters to the end without any compromise. Although I was not quite enthusiastic about “Dogtooth” at that time, I still vividly remember many of its truly twisted moments even after more than 10 years, so you should probably check out that deeply uncomfortable but oddly fascinating movie instead.

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The Ivory Game (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Save elephants

You may be a little relieved after watching Netflix documentary film “The Ivory Game”. Yes, it is really alarming to see how thousands of elephants in Africa were brutally slaughtered just because of their precious ivory tusks during last several decades, but, thanks to some global efforts glimpsed from the documentary, ivory trade has been more prohibited around the world than before, and we can only hope that those surviving elephants in Africa can prosper a lot via more protection and consideration in the future.

The documentary illuminates its important global issues via several different narratives respectively showing how complex and problematic the global ivory trade have been during last several decades. Although ivory trade is supposed to be strictly prohibited or regulated in many of African countries, many poachers and ivory merchants do not hesitate at all to get elephant tusks by means any necessary, especially after China recently emerged as a huge market for ivory trade. As a matter of fact, many of ivory merchants actually want elephants to get extinct in the end just because that will make their product all the more expensive than before.

We see how many local government officials and environmental preservationists, have certainly tried really hard to stop those poachers and ivory merchants – and how they often get quite frustrated in one way or another. While it is not so easy to monitor those surviving elephants constantly, it is also quite difficult to track down those poachers and their vast network of illegal ivory transaction, and there is even an elusive local criminal figure who has been quite notorious as occupying the top of his criminal business for some time.

Nevertheless, many local government officials and environmental preservationists keep working as hard as possible because most of them really care about protecting those surviving elephants. In case of Elisifa Ngowi, the head of intelligence for the Task Force of the Tanzanian government, he has diligently worked on locating and then arresting that notorious criminal figure in question, there are several intense moments not so far from the climactic part of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012). In case of Craig Millar, the head of security at the Big Life Foundation in Kenya, we see how he and his staff members tirelessly work in their preservation area, and we get to know how complicated their jobs can be. Besides always watchful of those poachers, they also occasionally have to deal with local people who do not like elephants much for understandable reasons, and there is a tense nocturnal scene where they manage to persuade some local people not to kill elephants just for ruining vegetable fields.

Meanwhile, the documentary also pays some attention to the illegal ivory trade in China via Andrea Crosta, the head of investigation for Wildleaks (Don’t confuse it with Wikileaks, please). Via his safe online network for informers and whistle-blowers, Crosta has tried to expose more of the illegal ivory trade in China, and he is helped a lot by a local investigative journalist named Huang Hongxiang. Although well aware of the considerable risks he is going to take, Huang is willing to do the right thing for those surviving elephants in Africa, and we subsequently see how he does some undercover works while disguising himself as a potential ivory buyer. At one point, he sneaks into a small local city in Vietnam which is virtually a port for the illegal ivory trade in China, and it is often chilling to see those ivory products openly displayed here and there throughout the city.

But that is nothing compared to the huge stacks of ivory stored in the government storage building in Kenya. After being thoroughly sorted out and then recorded, these stacks of ivory are now going to be destroyed forever, but we cannot help but reminded of the unjust death of countless innocent elephants in the past, and that resulting bitter impression does not go away at all even when these stacks of ivory are incinerated later.

For persuading the Chinese government more on banning ivory trade completely, Crosta and Huang delve further into the local illegal ivory trade, and the mood becomes more suspenseful when Crosta later gets some valuable help from one of his key local informers. Thanks to that informer, Crosta comes to behold some horrendous sights he will probably never forget, and I assure you that these sights, including a fur blanket supposedly made from the leg skins of at least 100 wild wolves, will even make Cruella de Vil look rather tame in comparison.

Things certainly looked quite dire as elephants in Africa were pushed more toward to extinction around 2015, but, fortunately, there came some considerable progresses later. Around the end of the documentary, Ngowi arrives at the closure for his longtime manhunt, and Crosta and Huang are certainly happy and excited when their investigative journalistic works actually leads to a significant global change. The Chinese government subsequently agrees to be much more restrictive about ivory trade, and this may become a big turning point for those surviving elephants in Africa.

Overall, “The Ivory Game” is effective in delivering its urgent environmental messages, and directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson skillfully juggle its several plot lines without losing its narrative momentum. The human race may be the only species on the Earth which deserves to be annihilated, but we still have time and opportunity for doing the right things for many other species on our planet at least, and the documentary certainly makes a good point on that.

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Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A vivid chronicle of the Umbrella Revolution

I could not help but feel a bit depressed as belatedly checking out Netflix documentary film “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, which closely follows Joshua Wong and what he actively led along with many young people in Hong Kong during 2012-2016, When the documentary came out in 2017, there were still some hope and optimism for these admirable civil activists in Hong Kong, but, as many of you know too well, things only got worse and worse for them during next several years, and Wong is currently imprisoned just because he dared to stand up against the Chinese government for freedom and democracy during that time.

Everything began from when Wong and his several schoolmates started a little protest against the new education policy imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in 2012. After getting Hong Kong back from UK in 1997, the Chinese government promised to maintain the status quo for Hong Kong and its citizens via “One Country, Two Systems principle”. but, not so surprisingly, it gradually worked on having Hong Kong and its citizens under total control during next 15 years, and that new education policy was one of the first aggressive steps toward that.

At first, Wong and his colleagues did not draw much attention, but then many members of his generation soon came to pay more attention to his political protest, shortly after when he threw hard questions to one of the leading local politicians in Hong Kong. As they became more aware of how the situation was serious for themselves and their future, many other young students came out on streets for more protests, and Wong and his fellow protesters surely attracted lots of attention when they occupied the public square in front of the Hong Kong government building.

The Hong Kong government, which has been constantly influenced by the Chinese government, simply disregarded Wong and his fellow protesters during first several days, and even Wong and other protesters became doubtful about whether they could actually succeed, especially when their schools were about to begin a new semester. However, they later received an unexpectedly big support from numerous citizens in the city, and the Chinese government stepped back a bit in the end.

Wong and his colleagues were certainly proud of how they tried hard and then eventually won their battle, but, as they worried from the beginning, their victory turned out to be the beginning of their longtime resistance against the Chinese government. When Xi Jinping became its new leader in 2013, the Chinese government began to strike back at Hong Kong and its citizens with a lot more aggression, and many of its citizens became much more alarmed than before. After a prominent college professor named Benny Tai subsequently wrote a column about the necessity of the civil disobedience against the Chinese government, lots of citizens came out on streets, and Wong and his several colleagues willingly became the central figures of the following historical civil movement, which was later called the “Umbrella Revolution” for a rather simple reason.

However, this time, the Chinese government was not so willing to step back at all, and it was quite ready to crush those dissenting citizens via the Hong Kong government, which had already become its political puppet step by step. Not long after Wong did a significant act of defiance in front of hundreds of protesters, lots of policemen quickly arrived to suppress them all, and Wong and many other protesters were certainly rattled by the very aggressive tactics of the Hong Kong Police.

Although they initially did not easily step back at all as getting more attention from the world outside, Wong and other protesters kept getting cornered in one way or another by their powerful opponent. As days went by without much progress, they naturally got more exhausted, and their civil movement accordingly came to lose momentum. That was exactly what the Chinese government expected from the beginning, and it certainly did not waste any time when Wong and several other key figures were arrested later.

At the end of the documentary, we see Wong and his colleagues trying to keep fighting with new political goals for them. They all look optimistic about their ongoing struggle against the Chinese government, and this part was supposed to give some hope and consolation for us, but what happened to them during next several years was not so hopeful to say the least. For example, Wang was subsequently sentenced to several months of imprisonment, and then his incarceration period became longer and longer as he got punished again and again by the Chinese government.

While lots of things happened in Hong Kong after it came out, “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”, directed by Joe Piscatella, remains fairly fresh as a vivid chronicle of the civil protests in Hong Kong during the 2010s, and Wong and his colleagues came to us as plain but undeniably brave human beings to admire. Like Greta Thunberg, they simply demanded more changes for their and next generations in the future, and they certainly reminded me that, despite my growing doubt and skepticism on the humanity, it is still worthwhile for me and others to keep fighting for a better world. After all, we all know well how utterly irresponsible and useless it is for us to succumb and wallow in despair and cynicism, don’t we?

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Confess, Fletch (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Fletch returns…

Gregory Mcdonald’s “Fletch” was one of numerous pulpy stuffs I gladly devoured during my wild and crazy childhood years in the 1990s. It is too bad that any of McDonald’s following sequel novels was not translated in South Korea, but “Fletch” remains one of the more enjoyable stuffs I read during that period, especially compared to those disposable products of Sidney Sheldon and Clive Cussler (In my inconsequential opinion, both of these two popular novelists’ writings were quite juvenile even to the 10-year-old self of mine, a precocious little prick who would engulf almost everything in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” a few years later).

In case of Greg Mottola’s new film “Confess, Fletch”, which is incidentally based on the following sequel novel of “Fletch”, it does not evoke much of my little entertaining time with “Fletch”, but it did at least a marginally better job than the 1985 film based on “Fletch”, which was nothing more than a casual star vehicle for Chevy Chase. While the 1985 film did have a fair share of fun and amusement coupled with an intriguing noir plot, Chase did not seem to be on the joke along with the movie itself as being aloofly charming and smarmy as usual. As late Roger Ebert pointed out his review, Chase was the one who almost sank the film, and then he unfortunately sank deeper with “Fletch Lives” (1989).

In case of John Hamm, who plays the titular hero of Mottola’s film, he is also aloofly charming and smarmy in his own way here as he did in the acclaimed TV drama series “Mad Men”, but he did a better job than Chase at least. He wisely lets himself often upstaged by a number of variously colorful supporting performers popping here and there around him, and his acting works best whenever his laidback character is caught off guard by another unexpected plot turn or revelation.

At the beginning, the movie puts us right into a big trouble into which Fletch unwittingly gets himself. As shown from the following flashback part in Rome, Italy, Fletch was asked by his current girlfriend to handle a rather tricky personal matter of her wealthy family, and it seemed that all he had to was going to Boston, Massachusetts and then investigating a local certain artwork dealer associated with her family, but, what do you know, he comes upon a dead body not long after arriving at a house where he is supposed to stay for a while.

Although he instantly calls for the police, Fletch finds himself becoming the prime suspect of the murder case mainly because he chooses not to tell everything to two very different detectives assigned to the case. As your average seasoned cop, Sergeant Inspector Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.) instantly senses something fishy about Fletch, and so does his earnest but occasionally clumsy Junior Detective Griz (Ayden Mayeri).

While trying to evade these two detectives as much as possible, Fletch gets himself more into the situation which he still does not understand that much. It is apparent that local artwork dealer has been hiding something behind his eccentric appearance, so Fletch decides to investigate this shady dude more, and this naturally leads to a series of occasions where he casually disguises himself in one way or another for getting more clues and information.

As steadily maintaining its low-key comic tone, the screenplay by Mottola and his co-writer Zeb Borow keeps throwing one surprise plot turn after another for more amusement, and some of the supporting cast members in the film delightfully chew every moment of theirs as required. As a quirky neighbor living next to where that murder happened, Annie Mumolo, who is mainly known for co-writing the Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Bridesmaids” (2011), is simply uproarious during one wacky kitchen scene with Hamm in the middle of the story, and Kyle MacLachlan has some sly fun with his neurotic supporting role. Although she enters the movie later in the story, Marcia Gay Harden cheerfully overacts as the suspicious stepmother of Fletch’s girlfriend, and John Slattery, who previously performed along with Hamm in “Mad Men”, also has his own moments as a cranky local newspaper editor who does not like Fletch much for good reasons.

In contrast, Roy Wood Jr. and Ayden Mayeri deliberately underplay during their several key scenes with Hamm, and their supporting characters bring some common sense to the increasingly complicated story in addition to providing some extra humor in each own way. For example, Monroe initially seems to be merely slouching after Fletch along with his junior partner, but, not so surprisingly, he turns out to be more intelligent and persistent than expected, and Wood and Mayeri complement each other well throughout the film as the two amusingly contrasting figures who may deserve their own movie.

On the whole, “Confess, Fletch” is a fairly engaging comic noir flick which has enough colorfulness to keep things rolling before everything in the story is revealed and resolved in the end. Yes, its narrative is a little too convoluted while demanding some suspension of disbelief from us, but that usually comes with its genre territory, and you may appreciate more of the game efforts of Hamm and the other main cast members in the film. It is too bad that there will probably not be another Fletch flick as the movie just came and then quickly got forgotten in last year, but it is a bit of improvement over the 1985 film at least, and that is a little but nice achievement.

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Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): On his fiery artistry

Netflix documentary film “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” will engage and then amaze you even if you are not that familiar with the artistic career of renowned Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang (Full disclosure: Neither am I). Here is an exceptional artist who has steadily explored his own areas of artistry for many years, and you will be impressed a lot by not only his palpable artistic spirit but also his gentle humanity.

The title of the documentary comes from Cai Guo-Giang’s old passion project which had somehow been aborted more than once for more than 30 years. After his first attempt was unfortunately aborted in 1984, Cai made several subsequent attempts during next 30 years, but all of these attempts of his were failed due to one unexpected reason after another. Nevertheless, he does not give up at all, and the early part of the documentary shows him eagerly preparing for his latest attempt in his hometown step by step.

Besides its artistic significance, trying his passion project, which will incidentally present a huge ladder of fireworks in the sky, in his hometown means a lot to Cai. After all, he was influenced a lot by his artist father who often put art and sophistication above anything else, and that is why the Cultural Revolution in China during the 1960-70s was so painful to young Cai, though now he wryly tells his daughter about a darkly humorous personal episode involved with those hostile Red Guards.

When he grew older in the 1980s and searched for his own artistic style and personality outside his father’s artistic influence, Cai happened to be in the right time for that. Once China opened itself to the outside world after the end of the Cultural Revolution, many young Chinese people like Cai were quite willing to embrace new things, and he soon came upon unexpected artistic potentials in firework. At first, he simply utilized firework for the extra touches for his early drawings, but then he went deeper into its undiscovered artistic potentials, and that soon became the major source of his artistic inspiration.

Eventually, Cai and his wife went to Japan because he needed more artistic freedom, and then they moved to US, where he quickly drew lots of attention in public for his striking artistic style and sensibility. Besides a number of stellar works of installation art which look still quite impressive, he deftly used fireworks for more artistic expressions to be added to his art exhibitions, and those fireworks soon became his own trademark to be known in public.

And we get to know a bit about how Cai and those people working with him carefully prepare for his firework shows. Yes, they surely care a lot about the various types of fireworks to be used for the shows, but they also pay considerable attention to how the components of his firework shows are arranged in terms of space and time. This is actually possible thanks to a tiny remote electronic detonator which can be attached to each firecracker, and you will be surprised by how exact and precise this detonator can be. 

Via this and other useful technical tools, Cai and his team usually get things under his total artistic control, and the results are often amazing to say the least. At one point, the documentary simply observes the process of his latest firework performance step by step, but you will instantly admire how all those colors and smokes from numerous firecrackers serve Cai’s ambitious artistic vision.

When he was asked to participate in the preparation for the opening ceremony for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, Cai was willing to throw himself into more challenges, though he was also well aware of the undeniable political aspects of his participation. He just did his best at that time, and he is proud of the final result, but we cannot help but help sense his deep reservation while watching him visiting the Tiananmen Square at one point. He may can accept some compromise for working for his home country, but he later became quite disillusioned when he ended up virtually suppressing himself in his next subject with the Chinese government in 2014. As a big-time artist, he knows too well that he always has to balance himself between idealism and pragmatism, but this turned out to be too much for him – even when he was consoled a bit by a certain famous Chinese filmmaker who happened to work with him again after their fruitful collaboration in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. 

Anyway, this professional frustration made Cai more drawn to maintaining his artistic root and integrity, and he also came to pay more attention to accomplishing his passion project. We see him collaborating a lot with a bunch of local people in his hometown, and he is certainly very excited right before the eventual showtime, which will incidentally be watched by not only many local people but also his 100-year-old grandmother.

On the whole, “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” is an engaging documentary, and director Kevin Macdonald, who has been known for several acclaimed documentaries including “Touching the Void” (2003), and his crew members including cinematographers Robert Yeoman and Florian Zinke did a solid job of presenting Cai’s life and career with enough care and respect. In short, this is one of more entertaining Netflix documentaries during last several years, and you may find yourself becoming more interested in its main subject after watching it.

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Citizen Pane (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Six little satires both painfully and realistically funny

South Korean omnibus film “Citizen Pane” presents six little satires painfully and realistically funny in each own way. All of them surely have something to say about the current social issues of the South Korean society, and I must tell you that they are not merely laughing matters at all. They may look too absurd to some of you at times, but, believe me, they are actually reflecting the South Korean society a lot in one way or another, and I could not help but become bitter even while frequently being amused during my viewing.

The prologue part, directed by Yoon Seong-ho, sets the tone for the next five parts to follow. The camera just observes the seemingly plain conversation between an employee of some big corporation and the owner of a small company outsourced by that corporation. but then these two figures’ conversation becomes increasingly absurd as they gleefully boast about how slyly they handle their business matters, and their superficial hypocrisy, which is embodied well by Kim Kyung-il and Yang Hyun-min, is accentuated further by the frequent utilization of laugh track.

The second part, titled “Haribo”, is about a little conflict between two young ex-lovers on their pet cat named, yes, Haribo. Although Haribo was initially supposed to be handed to one of these two young people, both of these two young people turn out to have each own reason for not being able to take care of Haribo, and that naturally sparks another argument between them, while their cat is rather obvious to what is going on between its two owners. Under Kim So-hyoung’s deft direction, Kim Woo-kyum and Kim So-hyoung are effortless in their comic chemistry, and the cat which plays their characters’ cat in this part surely steals the show with its natural cuteness.

The third part, “Where You Live Becomes You”, is directed by Park Dong-hoon, and it focuses on the private conversation between a concerned father and his married daughter. The father is not so pleased because his married daughter, who is incidentally pregnant, is going back to his hometown Gwangju along with her husband, and there is an ironic aspect in how he tries to persuade his daughter to change her mind. Because of the longtime social prejudice against his hometown and its people due to their dark political history involved with the dictatorship period of South Korea, he and his family have always tried to hide their background, but now he imposes the same social prejudice on his daughter.

Of course, the daughter immediately makes a shrewd counterargument in front of her father as emphasizing how things have changed at present, but then there comes another ironic twist as expected. Jung Seung-gil and Jo Yun-seo are believable as their characters pull and push each other, and it certainly helps that they play their material absolutely straight to the end without any self-conscious sense of irony on the surface.

The fourth part, titled “Sincerity”, revolves around the heated discussion between two female company employees who must finish and then post the ‘sincere’ online public statement about one ridiculous online controversy surrounding a ‘misandronistic’ online comment made by a certain colleague of theirs in public as a part of company promotion. No matter how much they try, they are reminded again and again of how outrageous and unjust the controversy really is, and the situation soon becomes quite hysterical to our bitter amusement, because what they are coping with is not so far from our reality in South Korea. Yes, there are lots of free-range online male trolls out there in South Korea frequently accusing anything to piss them off of ‘misandry’, and I still remember well how some local corporations recently bent themselves to these loathsome pricks’ petty and superficial online protests.

Director Choi Ha-na does not mince any word at all as the situation becomes all the more ridiculous for her two main figures. Her two performers, Sin Sa-rang and Oh Kyung-hwa, are simply hilarious as their contrasting characters desperately try to handle their imminent matter, and a dog appearing along with them in this part holds its own little spot as well as that cat in “Haribo”.

The fifth part, titled “Hands in Hands”, is directed by Song Hyeon-ju, and it is more lightweight than others in comparison. Seo Byuk-joon and Yoon Gai play a young couple who is going to have the moment of culmination for their longtime relationship, but, alas, they soon come to face how much they are different from each other, and we are left with lots of doubt and skepticism just like another character in this part, who is silently but memorably played by Kim Geum-won. Sure, love can resolve lots of things, but will they really overcome?

The last part, “A New Mind”, is about a toxic workplace environment. Kim Jun-seok and Lee Tae-kyoung play a very insensitive male supervisor and a young woman working under him, and director Han In-mi skillfully handles the two situations which feel different at first but eventually end up showing what a lousy human being that male supervisor really is – no matter how much he feels regretful later.

On the whole, each of the six parts of “Citizen Pane” achieves each own small goal in one way or another as making some sharp points on their respective social issues. The movie is funny indeed, but its numerous laughs always come with the painful reminders of our reality in South Korea, and it surely deserves more audiences for more talks and discussions.

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Dream Palace (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): The price of her compromise

South Korean independent film “Dream Palace” is about one ordinary woman’s increasingly grim and stressful situation which is frighteningly realistic at times. As having been quite frustrated with the deeply flawed system and society, she willingly chooses to make some compromise for living a bit easily, but, unfortunately, her understandable choices lead to lots of troubles for not only herself but also several others around her.

The early part of the film gradually lets us know its heroine’s current circumstance. A few years ago, Hye-jeong (Kim Sun-young) lost her husband due to some big accident at a big factory where he worked, and she and a group of surviving family members of the other victims of that accident protested against the owner of that factory, but they have been only ignored and cornered a lot while still not knowing what really happened at that time. In the end, Hye-jeong decided to settle with the company, and she recently moved into a newly built apartment thanks to the settlement fee.

However, her apartment turns out to be quite problematic behind its supposedly cozy appearance. Right from her first day, Hye-jeong discovers that her apartment has a serious plumbing problem, so she demands the necessary repair for that, but nobody is particularly interested in helping her. While an employee of the company which built her apartment building simply tells her that she will have to wait until the company sells all the remaining apartments, her new neighbors are more concerned about maintaining the current value of their apartment buildings by any means necessary, and that makes Hye-jeong all the more frustrated than before.

At first, it looks like there is a way to solve her problem. All Hye-jeong will have to do is advertising her apartment town more for luring potential buyers to fill the empty spots in the apartment town, and that company employee even promises to her that she will get some incentive if she succeeds in that task. As a matter of fact, she even recommends her apartment town to her friend Soo-in (Lee Yoon-ji) later, who also lost her husband due to that accident and, after going through another hard time due to one little incident, eventually decided to give up and then accept the settlement just like Hye-jeong.

And she keeps looking away from those people with whom she once fought against her husband’s company, which still does not do anything at all as before. At one point, the leader of the group approaches to Hye-jeong for some desperate request, but Hye-jeong flatly refuses as remembering how much she was isolated and desperate before accepting the settlement in the end. She probably should not have accepted the settlement from the beginning, but, as she bitterly points out, nobody was willing to support or help her just because it seemed that her husband was mainly responsible for that accident at that time.

Not so surprisingly, things get worse and worse for Hye-jeong along the story. While she subsequently receives more anger and resentment from her former colleagues, she also finds herself becoming the main target of her new neighbors’ ire and spite just because of her seemingly harmless advertising activity. When the value of their apartments is seriously threatened, they decide to become more active than before, and Hye-jeong becomes all the more unwelcomed by them than before.

Meanwhile, Hye-jeong’s very stressful situation also affects her relationship with her adolescent son Tae-hoon (Choi Min-young). While initially not having much problem with his mother’s decisions, Tae-hoon becomes more and more conflicted as watching the following consequences of his mother’s actions, and that makes him a lot more estranged from his mother.

We mostly observe Hye-jeong’s ongoing plight from the distance because she virtually asked for it from the start, but we also become more emotionally involved in the consequences of her actions because we understand why she made such questionable compromises. All she wants is having a normal life again, and that seemed to come easily once she bent herself a little, but, to her despair and exasperation, the price for that turns out to be much bigger than she expected at first.

During its inevitable last act, the screenplay by director/writer Ka Sung-moon corners its heroine a bit too hard in my trivial opinion, but Kim Sun-young’s harrowing lead performance continues to hold our attention as before. You may not like Hye-jeong that much for numerous reasons, but Kim’s nuanced acting presents her character as a complex human figure to observe and understand, and we are relieved a bit when the movie eventually allows some relief to her character around the end of the story. As the two substantial supporting characters around Kim, Lee Yoon-ji and Choi Min-young are well cast in their respective roles, and Lee is particularly devastating during one particularly intense conversation scene between her and Kim.

In conclusion, “Dream Palace” is another troubling South Korean drama film powerfully and painfully illuminating the problematic aspects of the South Korean society. It is surely tough to watch to say the least, but it is worthwhile to watch thanks to its solid direction and good performance, and you will come to reflect more on its main social issues once the movie is over.

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Father of the Bride (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A likable Cuban American remake

“Father of the Bride”, the third film based on the 1949 novel of the same name by Edward Streeter, is a likable remake which deserves its own little place besides the 1950 version and the 1991 version. Again, we see the comic struggles of a father who must give away his dear daughter sooner or later, but this remake version brings enough life and personality to its familiar plot and characters, and you will easily go along with that while alternatively amused and touched along the story.

In this version, the story is set in Miami, Florida, and Billy Herrera (Andy Garcia), the titular character of the film, tells us about how he has worked hard for achieving an American dream for himself as well as his family for many years. When he came into US from Cuba, he was a poor but ambitious immigrant lad quite determined to succeed, and, fortunately, he eventually became a prominent local architect while happily married to his wife Ingrid (Gloria Estefan). In addition, they came to have two lovely daughters, and they have done everything they could for their daughters as good parents.

When their older daughter Sofia (Adria Arjona), who has been a promising young lawyer in New York City, is about to return for a hometown visit, both Billy and Ingrid are certainly ready to welcome Sofia, but they actually have a big problem behind their back. Feeling a lot estranged from each other than before, Billy and Ingrid have gone to a therapist for some time, but they are only reminded more of how much they have been distant to each other during recent years, and they come to admit in the end that it will be better for them to have a divorce.

However, Billy and Ingrid soon confront an unexpected news from Sofia. It turns out that she recently met someone she really loves at her workplace, and, what do you know, she and Adan (Diego Boneta) are going to get married after a few months of engagement period. Once they get married, they will go to Mexico for working together in some non-profit organization for those poor Latino immigrants coming into US, and it certainly helps that Mexico is Adan’s home country.

While Ingrid and her other family members wholeheartedly bless Sofia’s upcoming wedding, Billy is not so pleased in contrast. After all, he and Ingrid do not know that much about Sofia’s fiancé, and, though Adan looks like an ideal groom to be welcomed by any future father-in-law, Billy does not like him that much – especially when he comes to see that Adan is not particularly interested in outdoor activities in contrast to him.

Anyway, Billy does what the father of the bride is expected to do, mainly because that is the only thing which feels like being under his control. Although Adan and Sofia want a simple intimate wedding, Billy insists that they should have a grand expensive one to remember mainly because he can afford that, though he subsequently finds himself outmatched by Adan’s parents, who turn out to have much more money and resource compared to him.

Meanwhile, a series of small comic moments happen here and there around our titular hero. Because the wedding is going to be prepared within one month, Billy reluctantly hires a wedding planner named Natalie Vance (Chloe Fineman), and she certainly provides some funny moments just like Martin Short’s supporting character did in the 1991 version. In addition, Sofia’s younger sister Cora (Isabela Merced), who is incidentally an aspiring clothes designer, later finds herself hired as her older sister’s dressmaker besides being rightfully chosen as the first bridesmaid, and she surely feels pressured even though she is really honored to be a more important part of Sofia’s wedding.

Of course, many things often go wrong even right before the eventual wedding ceremony, and our titular hero goes through several conflicts with many others around him, but director Gaz Alazraki and screenplay writer Matt Lopez keep things pleasant and lightweight from the beginning to the end. While Billy and many other main characters are more or less than broad archetypes, they are depicted with enough sense of life and humanity to hold our attention, and even Adan shows more human depth than expected when he happens to have a little private moment with Billy later in the story.

Above all, the movie is steadily buoyed by the earnest efforts from its good cast members. While he surely has to meet the standards set by Spencer Tracy in the 1950 version and Steve Martin in the 1991 version, Andy Garcia deftly balances himself between comedy and drama besides being successful in that task, and he and Gloria Estefan are believable as two persons who have somehow complemented each other despite their many differences. In case of several other main cast members in the film, Adria Arjona, Isabela Merced, and Diego Boneta adequately fill their supporting roles, and Chloe Fineman certainly has lots of fun with her neurotic wedding planner character.

On the whole, “Father of the Bride” is an enjoyable remake which distinguishes itself enough from its two predecessors, and it will be interesting to watch these three movies together for observing how fathers of brides always struggle in one way or another. After all, it is really hard and difficult for them to give away their daughters, right?

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