Prey (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her big game

“Prey”, the fifth installment of the Predator franchise which was released on Disney+ two days ago, is a wonderful surprise for this summer. This is another variation of the story formula established in “Predator” (1987), but it has enough style and personality to distinguish itself well on the whole, and it is really a shame that this solidly entertaining flick somehow went straight to streaming service instead of released in theaters.

In contrast to its predecessors which are set in a contemporary or near-future background, the movie is set in the Great Northern Plain of North America in 1719, and its opening part quickly introduces and then establishes its young Native American heroine. She is Naru (Amber Midthunder), and this plucky Comanche lass has aspired to be recognized as a hunter just like her older brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) and other male tribe members, but, to her frustration, she is usually expected to do what most of female tribal members are expected. She does try a lot, but she still has lots of things to learn and experience for attaining her goal, and even her brother has some reservation on whether she can actually succeed.

Anyway, Naru follows after her brother and several other young tribal members when they go into a nearby forest for tracking down a mountain lion which took away one of their tribe members. She is naturally not welcomed much, but Tabbe allows her to join the group mainly because she can be useful as a tracker in addition to being able to provide some medical help.

It seems that they will soon accomplish their task, but Naru comes to notice something strange at one point. What she discovers suggests that there is something more dangerous lurking somewhere in the forest area, and she suspects that this is connected with a certain strange happening in the sky she previously witnessed. Not so surprisingly, her brother and his male colleagues do not pay much attention to her discovery or what she says, because they are mostly occupied with tracking down that mountain lion and then rescuing that poor dude.

Of course, Naru’s instinctive inference turns out to be right, and we are soon served with what we expect from the very beginning. A member of that infamous alien tribe already came into the area for its hunting time, and, as frequently covering itself with that familiar invisible shield, it commits gruesome savagery on any animal which looks threatening enough to be hunted and then killed, At one point, it surreptitiously watches upon a wolf which happens to be preying upon a little cute rabbit, and then it swiftly strikes upon that wolf with no mercy while probably enjoying the nasty pleasure for showing who is the boss.

Meanwhile, Taabe and his colleagues eventually accomplish their task, but Naru is still fixated on her odd discovery, so she decides to take care of the matter for herself. Without telling anyone, she leaves along with her dog for tracking down for whatever is lurking out there, and she soon comes to face a number of challenges in the wilderness which surely test how brave and resourceful she can really be.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that our heroine eventually comes to behold that vicious alien hunter, but the screenplay by Patrick Aison has a few nice surprises for us while steadily accumulating tension and suspense along the narrative. At one point, the situation unexpectedly becomes more complicated as Naru happens to be stuck between the alien hunter and a bunch of unpleasant figures introduced later in the story, and we surely get some morbidly ironic fun from that.

Nevertheless, the movie still focuses on how its heroine comes to show more shrewdness and toughness along the story. She does not seem to have much chance in defeating the alien hunter in many aspects, but she comes to discern several things which she can use for her advantage, and she is certainly willing to take a chance for proving herself in addition to surviving her perilous circumstance in the end.

During its last act, the movie goes for a full-action mode as expected, and director Dan Trachtenberg, who previously drew our attention for his solid debut feature film “10 Cloverfield Lane” (2016), skillfully handles the following action scenes. These action scenes are packed with considerable visceral thrill and excitement, and the movie does not disappoint us at all when it finally arrives at the rousing climax where our heroine goes all the way for defeating her mighty opponent.

As the center of the film, Amber Midthunder gives a strong lead performance, and she is also supported well by her fellow Native American cast members including Dakota Beavers and Michelle Thrush, who provides some wordless gentleness as Naru’s concerned mother. For bringing extra authenticity to the film, Trachtenberg also prepared the Comanche version in addition to the English version, and it will be interesting to see how this version, which is also available on Disney+, feels different compared to the English version.

In conclusion, “Prey” provides us more than gory and violent entertainment, and I enjoyed its efficient handling of mood, story, and characters. I must confess that I only watched “Predator”, but that did not prevent me from being entertained by a number of effective moments in “Prey”, and that surely says a lot about its considerable accomplishment.

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Thirteen Lives (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A redundant but solid docudrama from Ron Howard

Ron Howard’s new film “Thirteen Lives”, which is now available on Amazon Prime, attempts to give us a close look into the events of the 2018 Tham Luang cave rescue, and it succeeds to some degree despite its several inherent weak aspects. Although most of us know well the eventual outcome of that dramatic rescue operation, the movie did a fairly good job of presenting its real-life story with some attention and care besides generating enough tension and suspense for us, and that compensates for its rather redundant existence in my inconsequential opinion.

At the beginning, the movie shows us what happened on June 23rd, 2018 in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. After doing some afternoon practice on that day, 12 boys of a local junior association football team and their coach decide to spend some free time in the cave before going to the upcoming birthday party of one of these 12 members, and they are not so worried because the monsoon season has not begun yet, but, alas, it begins to rain earlier than expected not long after they entered the cave together. Several hours later, the parents of the boys are naturally worried as the boys do not return, and then they belatedly discover that the boys and the coach are inside the cave, which is already overflown with lots of rainwater.

Naturally, a rescue team mainly consisting of Royal Thai Navy SEAL soldiers are immediately assembled under the supervision of the local governor, but the situation looks pretty grim from the beginning. They do not know the exact location of the boys and the coach inside the cave, and, as one foreign expert shrewdly points out, the underwater passage of the cave is not so easy to go through due to a number of very challenging aspects besides the rapidly increasing level of water in the cave.

Around that point, the movie introduces us to Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell), two British civilian cave divers who instantly come to the scene after hearing about this urgent circumstance. They are not so welcomed at first, but Stanton and Volanthen soon come to show others on the scene that they are really ready for this very daunting rescue operation as experienced experts, and they eventually come to play a crucial part in locating where the boys and the coach has been in the cave during last several days.

Everyone is certainly relieved and delighted that the boys and their coach are all alive for now, but both Stanton and Volanthen know too well that there will be much more challenges to come in the next step of the rescue operation. Because the oxygen level in the temporal refuge spot of the boys and the coach inside the cave is dangerously low, they must be rescued as soon as possible, but, due to their inexperience as well as the very tricky underwater passage of the cave, they cannot possibly go all the way through the cave even if they are accompanied with professional divers.

In the end, Stanton comes to have one possible idea which can be done but is also quite risky to say the least, and that is where his Australian colleague Richard Harris (Joel Edgerton) comes into the picture. As a professional anesthetist, Harris can concoct a plan for steadily making the boys and the coach sedated and unconscious during several hours for their transportation along the underwater passage of the cave, but he understandably hesitates because so many things can go wrong even if they prepare and try as much as possible.

It goes without saying that the movie often cannot help but focus more on Stanton and his colleagues because they happen to be played by well-known actors like Viggo Mortensen, Colin Farrell, and Joel Edgerton, but the screenplay by William Nicholson occasionally pays some attention to the considerable efforts of a bunch of local people willing to help the rescue operation as much as they can. For stopping the rainwater from flowing into the cave, they quickly build makeshift dams and waterways, and local farmers do not object to this at all although this will inevitably ruin their rice paddies. In case of the governor and other local officials, they understandably worry about the worst while also quite concerned about how much their public image can be damaged, but they give full support to their rescue teams as well as Stanton and his colleagues nonetheless, because everyone is well aware that time is running out for the boys and the coach minute by minute.

During the eventual climactic part, the mood naturally becomes more intense than before, but the movie thankfully shows some restraint, and Howard and his crew members including cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom did a splendid job of conveying to us the claustrophobic suspense surrounding the characters in the film. I must point out that those recreated moments of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s acclaimed documentary film “The Rescue” (2021) are relatively more vivid and impressive in comparison, but what is presented on the screen is mostly competent on the whole, and the performers look believable as their characters take enormous risks for what should be done right now.

Overall, “Thirteen Lives” is a rather plain docudrama which does not show us anything particularly new or revealing beyond what is so compellingly presented in “The Rescue”, but it is at least better than Howard’s disappointing previous film “Hillbilly Elegy” (2020). I recommend it for that reason only, but I will not urge you to watch it if you already watched “The Rescue”, so I will just let you decide on whether you will give the movie a chance or not.

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Ali & Ava (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little romance in the middle of their life

“Ali & Ava” is a little intimate drama about one accidental romantic relationship between two different people. While it is rather predictable in terms of story and characters, the movie gradually engages us as observing how they tentatively approach to each other as two lonely persons, and it is also supported well by the unadorned realistic acting of its two lead performers.

During the first act, the movie looks into its two main characters’ respective daily lives in a town in Yorkshire, England. While Ava (Claire Rushbrook) is an Irish assistant teacher in a local elementary school, Ali (Adeel Akhtar) is a married South Asian Muslim guy who has also been the friendly landlord of a house where one Hungarian immigrant family lives, and he and Ava come across each other on one day when he comes to her workplace for picking up the little daughter of that family, who happens to be under Ava’s charge. He kindly suggests to her that she should get on his car along with that little girl mainly because they all live in the same neighborhood, and she gladly accepts his generous offer.

As they talk with each other for a while in his car, Ali and Ava come to see how much they are different from each other besides their cultural/racial difference. While Ava loves country and folk music, Ali is a passionate fan of techno and trance music as a guy who once worked as a DJ before marrying his wife, and we are not so surprised when the movie later shows his private place full of numerous albums in addition to a recording equipment for composing his rap songs.

Nevertheless, Ava and Ali cannot help but attracted to each other when they come across each other again, and Ali eventually decides to visit Ava’s house for himself later. As spending their little private time together, they willingly share each other’s favorite music genres, and that leads to a small but sweet intimate moment between them, though that is unfortunately interrupted by the sudden appearance of Ava’s volatile son Callum (Shaun Thomas)

While more attracted to each other, Ali and Ava soon come to face each own difficulties in front of them. Although they remain married while living together in the same house, Ali and his wife Runa (Ellora Torchia) have actually been separated from each other, and his wife is already considering leaving him as soon as possible, though they are still hiding their ongoing separation from his family, who has no idea on what is going on between them when they are invited to another family dinner. In case of Ava, she is still haunted by what her second husband, who was not a very nice person according to her, did to her and her eldest daughter from the previous marriage before she eventually decided to leave him along with her children, and she certainly feels hurt whenever she sees how much Callum still misses his father without knowing the awful truth about his father at all.

Nevertheless, both Ava and Ali keep meeting each other as ‘friends’, and it looks like they can step forward a bit toward each other. Ali does not hide at all that he is still technically married, and that makes Ava rather unsure about their developing relationship, but she still likes him anyway, and she does not say no when they eventually move onto the next step of their relationship.

Although it is often conventional, the screenplay by director/writer Clio Barnard pays attentions to the specific details of the lives of its two main characters, and that contributes considerable realism to the story. Through a number of ethnic characters surrounding Ali, we observe how much the world of the British working class has been changed during last several decades, and the same thing can be said about the school class handled by Ava, which is filled with various kids from different racial backgrounds.

Above all, the movie moves us with a number of small poignant personal moments showing its two main characters’ aching loneliness. Still struggling to accept the fact that his wife does not love him as much as before, Ali often lets out his conflicted feelings whenever he is alone in the middle of a misty morning field, and his emotional pain is evident even when the camera observes him from the distance. Although she still does not know that much about Ali, Ava decides to take a chance with him, but her decision causes an unintentional conflict between her and Callum, who cannot accept that well that his mother simply wants to have a boyfriend.

The last act of the movie feels a bit too hurried, but Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook still hold our attention as before. While Akhtar, who has been more notable as appearing in several recent films including “Four Lions” (2010) and “Enola Holmes” (2020), subtly conveys to us his character’s complicated human feelings without exaggerating them, Rushbrook, who played Brenda Blethyn’s feisty daughter in “Secrets & Lies” (1996), ably generates gentle warmth behind her plain appearance, and they are also supported well by several other main cast members including Ellora Torchia, Shaun Thomas, Natalie Gavin, and Mona Goodwin.

On the whole, “Ali & Ava” is worthwhile to watch thanks to not only Akhtar and Rushbrook’s praiseworthy efforts but also Barnard’s sensitive handling of story and characters, and I am also impressed by how it effectively utilizes several songs for effective dramatic moments. To be frank with you, I am not so interested in folk or techno, but the movie made me appreciate a bit more of a certain famous Bob Dylan song as well as one techno song prominently featured in the film, and I guess that is a sort of achievement.

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Boiling Point (2021) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): One tense evening at a restaurant

I often braced myself while watching “Boiling Point”, a tense and electrifying drama continuously unfolded in one upmarket restaurant located somewhere in London. Mainly revolving around a very troubled head chef and a bunch of other people working in that posh restaurant, the movie gradually raises the level of emotional tension along its fluid and dexterous narrative, and it surely strikes us hard as not only its flawed hero but also several other characters around him come to reach to each own, yes, boiling point.

At first, we are introduced to Andy Jones (Stephen Graham), and we slowly come to gather some personal details of his as he is hurriedly going to his restaurant. Besides his recent divorce, his life has been quite a mess due to several reasons to be revealed later in the story, but another evening at his restaurant is about to begin right now, and he must ready himself well before the opening hour just like those employees working there.

However, the situation does not look particularly good when he enters the restaurant, which happens to be going through a routine health and safety inspection. The inspector assigned to the restaurant has already noticed a number of significant problems in the kitchen, and he accordingly comes to downgrade its rating from 5 stars to 3 stars with a tactful warning. Andy naturally becomes quite exasperated, but he has to admit that he is partially responsible for this serious professional humiliation as he has been quite distracted by his problems during last two months.

At least, it seems that he and his employees will go through their another evening fairly well. Everyone will surely be quite busy because it happens to be a Friday night before Christmas, and there is also some serious food shortage problem to deal with, but everything may turn out to be okay as long as Jones keeps things under control along with Carly (Vinette Robinson), who has been his second-in-command. As observing their interactions, we come to gather that Carly has been an invaluable coordinator for Andy and others at the restaurant, and we are not so surprised when she demands to him salary raise later in the story. After all, it is apparent to us that she has taken care of many big and small troubles for her boss, and she does not feel like being appreciated by her boss for that at all.

Anyway, the situation becomes a bit more stressful than expected due to several unwelcomed factors. There is a very unpleasant customer who is not so nice to waiters and chefs right from when he orders wines, and he also gives them a big headache as complaining about a lamb dish served to him later. In case of three rude Americans suddenly coming into the restaurant, they promptly demand something not on the menu, and Andy and his employees have to tolerate them because these superficial dudes happen to have a very popular Instagram account.

Above all, Andy is belatedly notified that an old colleague of his, who has been very popular thanks to his successful TV show, is going to have a dinner at the restaurant. When this guy finally comes, he comes along with a certain well-known figure in the local restaurant business field, and that makes Andy and his employees more nervous. If they do not do their best during this evening, their restaurant may suffer something worse than their recently downgraded health and safety rating.

All these and many other things in the story are seamlessly presented on the screen via one impressive continuous take, and director/co-writer/co-executive producer Philip Barantini, who adapted his 2019 short film of the same name along with his co-writer James Cummings, and his crew members including cinematographer Matthew Lewis did a superb job of immersing us into the main characters’ increasingly tense circumstance. While it may look modest compared to more ambitious films such as Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)” (2014) or Sam Mendes’ “1917” (2019), the movie distinguishes itself well via its skillful camerawork coupled with effortless verisimilitude, and it is really amazing that Barantini and his cast and crew members did only four takes during their shooting (They actually planned to do eight takes at first, but they later decided to cut down to four takes because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic).

The main cast members are believable in their respective roles, and their good ensemble performance is one of the main reasons why the movie engages us from the beginning to the end. While Stephen Graham, who has been one of the most interesting British actors since he drew my attention for his memorable supporting turn in Shane Meadows’ “This Is England” (2006), deservedly received a BAFTA nomination for his intense performance here in this film early in this year, the other main cast members have each own moment to shine, and Vinette Robinson is wonderful especially during one particular scene where she has to convey us a lot of her character’s emotional conflict.

In conclusion, “Boiling Point” is impressive for not only its commendable technical aspects but also a series of engaging human moments observed from its numerous main characters, and you may come to reflect a bit on how difficult it really is to run a restaurant. Unless what we are going to eat is really terrible or harmful to us, we should show some appreciation to those hard-working people, shouldn’t we?

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How to Please a Woman (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Cleaning and sex

“How to Please a Woman” is a little Australian comedy film which cheerfully handles female sexual desire and yearning without any pretension. Although it could delve more into its interesting main subjects in my humble opinion, the movie often amuses and delights us via a series of humorous moments to be savored, and it is also supported well by the earnest performance from its engaging lead actress.

Sally Phillips plays Gina, a married middle-aged woman who has not been that happy in her mundane middle-class life. While her and her lawyer husband have lived fairly well together for years, there has not been much romantic feeling between them, and her husband does not seem to be particularly interested in her while often busy with his work. At least, she has worked in a local liquidation agency instead being stuck in her house, but she is usually disregarded by her boss, who does not appreciate her much while constantly demanding her to do one thing after another.

Anyway, Gina usually gets some comfort and cheerfulness from her several friends in a local female swimming club, and one of them gives her a little surprise on her birthday. A young man named Tom (Alexander England) suddenly comes to her house, and it soon turns out that he works as a male stripper, though he is not that good despite his basic professionalism.

Feeling rather embarrassed about this little surprise, Gina simply instructs Tom to do some cleaning instead during their next two hours, and then she gets a little interesting idea. As Tom does some cleaning in his shirtless appearance, she cannot help but feel the sexual need inside her, and she eventually decides to start a little service business which provides not only house cleaning but also sexual pleasure to women like her. Incidentally, she knows a little local moving service company on the verge of being shut down and then liquidated, so she takes over the company without hesitation while re-hiring its several male employees including Tom, who actually also works there for earning some support money for the baby of his ex-girlfriend.

Of course, the first several days of Gina’s little service business are not so easy to say the least, and some of the most hilarious moments in the film come from how she and her employees try to make their first step. While many of Gina’s friends are quite interested, most of them want much more than mere cleaning service, so Gina reluctantly agrees to go along with their desire, but her employees are not prepared enough to say the least. Tom has no problem with providing whatever his clients want, but he still needs some advices on how to provide a satisfying cleaning service. In case of one of his fellow employees, this dude is confident about his, uh, certain body part, but it soon turns out that he really needs some education on how to give his clients a real sexual pleasure.

Although it keeps everything as mild and pleasant as possible without being too explicit and raunchy, the movie freely explores female sexual desire with considerable honesty. In case of one friend/client of Gina, she wants to test the range of her sexuality, and that leads to an amusing scene between her and some other friend of Gina, who willingly fills the spot not eligible for Gina’s male employees.

In the meantime, Gina also becomes more aware of how she has sexually been discontent for years. She actually tries to ignite some romantic spark between her and her husband, but her husband only comes to let down her a lot, and she subsequently finds herself attracted to Steve (Erik Thomson), a middle-aged guy who ran the moving service company before she acquired it. He has no problem with working under her while providing her some extra help, and she surely appreciates that, but they also become more aware of their mutual attraction – especially after their rather silly moment involved with a little certain object given to her.

Of course, the situation becomes a little more serious later in the story, but the screenplay by writer/director Renée Webster does not lose any of its sense of humor, and neither does Phillips’ good performance. While steadily maintaining her character’s unflappable appearance, Phillips ably conveys to us Gina’s gradual sexual liberation along the story, and we certainly root for Gina when she comes to her feelings more than before.

Around Phillips, several supporting performers in the film have each own fun with their respective roles. While Erik Thompson subtly clicks well with Philips during their several key scenes, Hayley McElhinney, Caroline Brazier, and Tasma Walton are entertaining as Gina’s colorful friends, and Alexander England, Ryan Johnson, and Josh Thomson are also funny as their characters try to adjust themselves to their new job.

Although it arrives at its ending in a little too convenient way, “How to Please a Woman” provides breezy fun and pleasure as much as we can expect from its naughty story promise, and it will probably make a nice double feature show with “Good Luck to You, Rio Grande” (2022), another recent comedy film which also honestly and humorously deals with female sexual desire. As many of you know, we still need more female films these days, and this is certainly another good one to watch.

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Emergency Declaration (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A predictable crisis in the air

As your average seasoned moviegoer, I saw lots of disaster flicks, and that is probably the main reason why I was rather unimpressed by South Korean film “Emergency Declaration”. While reminding me of many other movies ranging from “Airport” (1970) to “Airplane!” (1980), the movie flies fairly well during its first half thanks to its taut and efficient setup process, but then it takes a flight course riddled with bland clichés and sappy melodrama during the rest, and I simply observed its eventual landing (Is this a spoiler?) without much care or excitement.

Right from the beginning, the movie introduces us to the villain of the story, who is a creepy and unpleasant young man ready to execute his diabolical plan. At an international airport which is filled with lots of people as usual, this lad is looking for any airplane suitable for his plan, and he eventually chooses one particular airplane after one accidental encounter with a young girl who happens to notice something suspicious about him.

That young girl is accompanied with her single father, and both of them become understandably nervous when they later notice that odd lad gets on the airplane. In addition, the girl’s father, who later turns out to be a former commercial airline pilot, has a serious mental issue with being on airplane due to some incident in the past, and, what do you know, the co-pilot of the airplane turns out to be someone associated with that incident.

In the meantime, the movie also pays attention to what is happening on the ground. We are introduced to a detective who had to give up his summer vacation because of some unexpected big case, and he is certainly not so pleased when he is requested to handle another case involved with someone who announced on the Internet that he will soon commit an act of terror. Although it looks rather insignificant on the surface, the detective decides to delve a bit more into this case, and what do you know, he ends up entering a shabby apartment belonging to that creepy young dude and then discovering very terrible things.

Unfortunately, that creepy young dude has already embarked on executing his atrocious plan. Not long after the airplane takes off from the airport and then flies toward its destination, he secretly spreads a highly virulent pathogen at one certain spot within the airplane, and the situation gets worse and worse as many of the passengers in the airplane get infected one by one within a short period of time.

At least, once his plan is belatedly revealed, many government officials and experts quickly gather together for handling this unprecedented case of bioterror, but there is nothing much they can do except trying to find any cure for that dangerous pathogen and secure a safe landing spot for the airplane as soon as possible. After the whole situation is reported on the media, the airplane is regarded as a flying hot zone unwelcomed by other countries including US, and even South Korean citizens are understandably not so eager to get the airplane back in South Korea.

Up to that narrative point, the movie did a good job of accumulating enough amount of tension and suspense on the screen. Although its main characters are no more than broad stereotypes, the movie skillfully juggles them as their storylines gradually converge together, and the main cast members dutifully fill their respective spots as require. While Song Kang-ho, Lee Byung-hun, and Jeon Do-yeon are more prominent as expected, Kim Ham-gil, Han So-jin, and Park Hae-joon hold each own place well on the whole, and Im Si-wan is particularly effective in his villainous role.

However, the movie begins to stumble more than once during its second part, where it tries too hard for squeezing more emotions from us in addition to doing many predictable things. Yes, we all know that the ex-pilot character in the story will eventually come to the cockpit and then must overcome his longtime anxiety for keeping the airplane in the air. Yes, those passengers in the airplane are naturally thrown into panic and desperation, and we certainly get several moments of conflict among them while also reminded of our current situation outside the film. Yes, there comes a climactic moment as one certain main character tries something quite daring for saving those passengers, and I do not have to tell you anything about the eventual outcome of this desperate act.

And there are several things which are not so necessary in my humble opinion. The frequently shaky camera of cinematographers Lee Mo-Gae and Park Jong-Chul is clearly influenced by Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” (2006) and “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), but the result is merely showy, and the same thing can be said about a sudden action sequence in the middle of the film. In case of the climactic part, it is too mellow and overwrought as burdening the movie with more melodrama, and this only makes us more aware of how contrived the finale is in many aspects.

Overall, “Emergency Declaration”, whose theatrical release in South Korea was postponed for more than one year due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, is a mostly competent genre piece, but it does not have enough fun or thrill compared to its numerous seniors. To be frank with you, I would rather watch “Airplane!” or “Airport” again, but I will not stop you from spending your precious two hours on the movie.

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Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Good luck on your viewing

Romanian film “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, is quite bold and naughty to the core. Right from its deliberately salacious opening scene, the movie will catch you off guard, and that is just the beginning of how it frequently challenges us from the beginning to the end as handling many different subjects besides the main issue of its very unfortunate heroine.

The movie consists of three parts, and the first part gradually establishes the ongoing plight of a young schoolteacher named Emi (Katia Pascariu). As shown during the opening scene, she and her husband shot a sex video just for their private fun, but, alas, their sex video file was somehow leaked on the Internet not long after that, and now she will have to confront the parents of her students during the upcoming evening meeting.

While it does not delve much into how her sex video happened to be exposed on the Internet, the movie does not hide at all the content of that sex video from us. As far as I can see from the film, it looks like the two performers on the screen really went through a series of explicit sexual acts, and I can only admire how willing director/writer Radu Jude and his two performers were to go all the way for pushing boundaries. Yes, the result is basically your average porn clip, and I still wonder whether this is really necessary due to its inherent voyeuristic quality, but it surely shocks and embarrasses us as much as intended while somehow generating some gaudy sense of humor.

Once it grabs our attention via the opening part, the movie becomes far less sensational as leisurely rolling from one tangential moment to another along with its troubled heroine. When she drops by a flower shop, she is approached by some male stranger who seems to be interested in getting closer to her, but we wonder whether he knows her via that leaked sex tape. When she later drops by the residence of her direct boss who is sympathetic to her, the movie pays some attention to what is going on among the family members of her direct boss, and we get a little amusing moment as our heroine listens to one of these family members for a while.

In case of several outdoor scenes, they almost feel like the clips from a documentary film as cinematographer Marius Panduru’s camera calmly looks around streets and people. I have no idea on how much of these moments were actually planned in advance, but their considerable verisimilitude is impressive on the whole, and we come to get several small slices of life from the Romanian society going through the current COVID-19 pandemic era. Many people on streets do wear a mask, but I could not help but notice that some of them do not wear their masks that properly, and that made me wince more than once during my viewing.

The second part of the film is a forthright video essay which presents various subjects ranging from history to sex. I must confess that I do not entirely understand the whole picture of this part, but I was often amused by how the movie cheerfully presents these subjects one by one in alphabetical order like a little encyclopedia. The movie is surely determined to encompass all these things presented during its second part, and you may come to admire its ambitious attempt more.

As entering its third part, the movie eventually goes back to its heroine’s ongoing circumstance, and that is where many of subjects presented in its second part come to resonate via the accumulating absurdity around her. After flatly presenting herself in front of the parents of her students, she tries to make some points on her privacy and rights, but many of them are already determined to judge and then persecute her, and some of them are quite rude while never hiding their prejudice and bigotry at all. I guess these very unpleasant characters represent a number of negative aspects of the Romanian society, and they will probably make you think twice about visiting Romania.

As our heroine and those parents pull and push each other during next 30 minutes, the movie skillfully dials up the level of its comic tension, and then it catches us off guard again. I will not go into details here for not spoiling any of your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that I chuckled a lot as watching the very last shot of the film, which is another social satiric jab to be appreciated.

By the way, I must tell you that the movie has two different versions. Compared to the original version, the “censored” version prepared by the director himself covers up all those sexually explicit elements in the film, and that is the one which is being currently shown in South Korean theaters. I watched both of these two versions, and I assure to you that you will be less shocked and embarrassed in case of the “censored” version, but I also must point out that the overall dramatic impact of the film is naturally decreased in comparison – especially in case of what is so uproarously shown at the very end of its third act.

In conclusion, “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”, which was incidentally selected as the Romanian entry for Best International Feature Film Oscar in last year, is definitely not for everyone, but I recommend you to watch it if you are looking for something daring and different. I am not sure whether it succeeds as well as its director wishes, but it is quite unforgettable to say the least, and I guess that is a sort of achievement.

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Chorokbam (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): An atmospheric slice of life

To be frank with you, I felt growing frustration while watching the first 30 minutes of South Korean independent film “Chorokbam”. In terms of story and characters, the movie is adamantly dry and minimalistic to the core, and it was really difficult for me to gather what it is actually about. Nonetheless, I also could not help but admire how it is about, and my eyes kept paying attention to its commendable technical aspects even though my mind still felt rather detached at times.

First, let’s talk a bit about the three main characters of the story. The opening scene shows a middle-aged man who works as a night guard in some apartment complex, and then we are introduced to his wife and their adult son, who have lived along with him in their little old apartment. Although everything looks mostly fine on the surface, we come to learn that they will soon have to move to somewhere else because their landlord recently decides to put the apartment back on the market, and this results in some strain on their domestic daily life although they keep going on as usual. For example, the son accepts that he may have to live separately, but the future is not so bright for him as he remains stuck in his menial job, and he only gets some consolation from his girlfriend from time to time.

And then something happens. We soon see the family solemnly holding the funeral for a close family member of the father along with two family members of his, but the quiet mood is suddenly disrupted by a sudden physical conflict between the mother and one of these family members of his. As the camera phlegmatically observes this conflict from the distance, we naturally come to wonder more about the personal reason behind this physical conflict, but the movie does not delve into this situation at all, and it simply moves on along with its characters, who somehow come to have some reconciliation as mourning for that dead family member.

The mood becomes a little more tense later in the story, but the movie still sticks to its austere storytelling approach while just having us filling the gaps and blanks in the story for ourselves. As a matter of fact, director/writer Yoon Seo-jin deliberately whittled out many details from the first draft of his screenplay before shooting the film, and this can be quite frustrating for you at times as you struggle to grasp its rather subtle narrative flow.

Nevertheless, the movie will be a considerably rewarding experience once, like I did, you accept what Yoon and his cast and crew members intend to achieve here. The camera of cinematographer Choo Kyeong-yeob is mostly static throughout the film, but, coupled with unadorned but precise scene composition, its calm and serene gaze gradually immerses us into the mundane daily life inhabited by the main characters. During one particularly impressive scene, the camera just observes one action from the distance for a while, but then we are caught off guard by the unexpected appearance of a certain figure right in front of us, and I will let you appreciate its somber but striking dramatic effect for yourself.

What follows after that is another quiet highlight in the movie. As the camera calmly watches the aforementioned figure from the distance, we come to listen more to what is being said to this silent figure, and we slowly gather a certain irony behind the circumstance. What eventually happens not long after that may not be so surprising, but an emerging sense of devastation is palpable to us nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the movie also throws a bit of style and poetry into the mix. As reflected by its very title (It means “Green Night” in Korean, by the way), the movie often decorates the screen with green light, and its rather creepy utilization of green light brings extra nervous tension among its main three characters, each of whom has each own fear and discontent behind their weary façades. While the father does not know what to do with the rest of his life, the mother is reminded again and again of how she has been sick of her married life, and the son feels lost and confused with no bright promise in his life. During one brief moment ominously suffused by green light, the movie shows them sleeping together but clearly being distant to each other in more than one way, and that conveys to us more of their hopeless family life.

Although these three main characters are more or less than mere archetypes, they come to us as real people with human issues thanks to the humble and unaffected acting of its three main cast members. While Lee Tae-hoon holds the ground as required, Kim Min-kyung, who sadly died not long before the shooting of the film, ably complements Lee, and Kang Gil-woo, who recently played a supporting character in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Broker” (2022), holds his own place well between Lee and Kim. Several supporting performers in the film are equally convincing, and Oh Min-ae and Kim Guk-Hee deserve to be praised for bringing some life and personality to their respective roles.

In conclusion, “Chorokbam”, which is incidentally Yoon’s first feature film, can be pretty challenging as your average arthouse movie, but you will not easily forget its stunning technical qualities at least. This is not something which can be described as ‘entertaining’, but I assure you that it will haunt your mind for a long time after it is over, and you may have some expectation on what may come next from Yoon.

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Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Epic, tense, and efficient

South Korean film “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is a war historical drama about one big sea battle which was a significant turning point in the Imjin War, which is also known as the Japanese invasions of Korea of 1592–1598. Although I have no idea on how much of the movie is actually fictional, I enjoyed it anyway for not only its epic climactic part but also those efficiently tense scenes preceding that, and I eventually decided to put aside its several notable weak aspects including the rather distant presentation of its legendary real-life hero.

He is Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Park Hae-il), who has been one of the biggest national heroes in Korea since his honorable death at the very end of the Imjin war. When his country was almost cornered to the end shortly after the Japanese army invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, he miraculously changed the course of the war via a series of victories on the sea, and he was a truly fearsome opponent to those Japanese admirals during that time because of his brilliant strategies and a certain famous secret weapon of his.

The story of the movie begins not long after Admiral Yi won first several battles in 1592. Because the Japanese army has still lots of chance to win the war, Admiral Yi and his navy must make a big forward move as soon as possible for regaining the control over the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula, but he also knows well that he and his navy must be very careful under their increasingly difficult circumstance. While his king, who already fled from the capital, seems to consider running away to China, the Japanese army has already been planning to corner him on the land as well as the sea, and, above all, that secret weapon of his needs some urgent improvement for the next battle.

Naturally, Admiral Yi is quite pressured from many sides including his own men, but he keeps maintaining his stoic fortitude as usual. Although he is physically wounded during the previous sea battle, he is determined to keep going nonetheless, and he also begins to devise one bold strategy which is a risky gamble considering how exactly many factors work together for him and his navy during the upcoming battle.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on his main opponent, who is played by Byun Yo-han with grim intensity. Knowing well how smart and dangerous Admiral Yi is for him and his navy, this Japanese admiral is ready to do anything for finding any weak point from his opponent, and that includes sending several spies into the area of Admiral Yi. Once he comes to learn of the major weakness of Admiral Yi’s secret weapon, he becomes more confident about the chance of defeating Admiral Yi, and he does not hesitate at all when he later has to do something drastic for getting what he needs for increasing his odds.

Around these two lead characters, the movie places a number of other characters, but they are more or less than mere story elements. The Korean figures under the command of Admiral Yi look mostly same in their almost identical armors, and the same thing can be said about the Japanese figures serving under Admiral Yi’s main opponent. In addition, the movie has only one substantial female figure in the story, but she does not speak much on the whole, and we are not so surprised by a hidden purpose behind her docile appearance.

Above all, the movie does not go deep into its hero. It surely presents Admiral Yi as a wise and courageous man, but whatever is churning behind his unflappable façade remains elusive to us, and we can only behold him instead of getting to know him more. Park Hae-il’s face can be quite expressive as shown from Park Chan-wook’s latest work “Decision to Leave” (2022), but he is only required to look merely formidable here without revealing much throughout the film, and, despite his diligent efforts, I think the movie is not exactly one of better moments in his solid acting career.

Fortunately, all these and other complaints of mine were completely washed away during the climactic part, which is certainly worthwhile to watch on big screen. You may not totally follow how Admiral Yi’s strategy is unfolded on the sea near Hansan Island, but the movie keeps holding our attention without losing any of its narrative momentum, and it surely delivers impactful highlights for its South Korean audiences. To be frank with you, I think some of them are a bit far-fetched, but they still work in dramatic sense, so I guess I should not grumble about that here.

On the whole, “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is relatively less satisfying than director/co-writer Kim Han-min’s electrifying breakthrough work “War of the Arrows” (2011), but it works better than his previous work “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014), which is incidentally about another significant victory in Admiral Yi’s naval career. Although I did not like “The Admiral: Roarding Currents” enough to recommend it, it confirmed to me that Kim is a skillful action movie director who knows one or two things about how to excite audiences, and “Hansan: Rising Dragon” solidifies my inconsequential opinion on his filmmaking talent.

By the way, I have to inform you that Kim is actually planning to conclude with the third film which will be about Admiral Yi’s last battle. It is already titled “Noryang: The Sea of Death”, and I will not expect too much as your typical seasoned moviegoer, but I sincerely wish that it will be as entertaining as what I saw from the two previous films besides being the good final chapter for Kim’s trilogy.

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Alienoid (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A bland and bloated teaser for whatever will come next

South Korean film “Alienoid”, which is actually the first half preceding the second half which will come in next year, is bland and bloated to say the least. Although I watched the film during last evening, I cannot recall any particular moment to remember or savor, and I only come to discern more of how it looks and feels insignificant and unimaginative. Sure, this is supposed to be a grand and ambitious mix of SF, fantasy, action, and comedy, but it does not succeed at anything while merely trudging from one narrative point to another without any ounce of genuine inspiration or imagination, and the result is one of the most tedious movie experiences of this summer.

The story promise of the movie is pretty familiar to the core. For many centuries, the Earth has been covertly used as a sort of prison by a highly advanced alien race, and those alien prisoners are imprisoned inside their human hosts before they eventually die along with their human hosts. Of course, somebody needs to control and maintain the status quo over time and space, and that is what “Guard” (Kim Woo-bin), an alien robot whose design is clearly ripped off from “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), has been doing for a very long time along with his artificial intelligence computer partner.

During the opening scene, Guard and his partner literally drive into Korea in the 14th century in a way not so far from “Back to the Future” (1985), and they swiftly take care of the latest case of prisoner escape, but then there comes a little problem. While they manage to capture the prisoner in the end, the prisoner’s human host, who happens to be a young woman, dies, and she pleads Guard to take care of her baby daughter before her death. Guard ignores without much hesitation because he is not supposed to meddle with human affairs, but he only ends up being stuck with that baby thanks to his partner.

Around 10 years later, that baby becomes your average plucky little girl with lots of curiosity about what her ‘father’ really does. While she already knows much about Guard and his partner, Guard still does not reveal his longtime mission to her, and that makes her more determined to find that out. Via his partner’s indirect help, she comes to learn of what Guard is going to do sooner or later at a certain local hospital, and, what do you know, she comes to behold something amazing (and frightening) when she goes there later.

Meanwhile, the movie rolls another main plot, which is set in Korea in the 14th century. We meet a young swordsman/Taoist named Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol), and the movie give us an exaggerated action scene as he wields his martial art skills and some supernatural power for catching a trio of thieves. At one point, we see two cats coming out of his fan and then transformed into a couple of human sidekicks for him, and that is surely more than enough for you to see that the movie does not give a damn about any realism or historical accuracy.

While looking for any job to handle, Mureuk tumbles into a complicated situation surrounding one mysterious sword which seems to have considerable magic power, and he consequently gets himself involved with several other figures eager to get that sword by any means. They are 1) a goofy Taoist duo who seem to be as powerful as they claim; 2) an ominous cult leader who keeps wearing a mask to hide his face; 3) a lethal man who is apparently from the future; and 4) a young lady who is also from the future as shown from a certain weapon of hers.

The movie tries to juggle all these and other story elements together before its obligatory climactic part, but, unfortunately, it frequently stumbles instead as seriously lacking style, personality, and substance. While its comedy mostly comes from heaps of silly gags, its science fiction elements are mediocre and uninspired while only reminding us of better alternatives out there, and its drama often feels superficial as failing to develop its characters enough to engage us. For example, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Guard comes to care about his ‘daughter’ more than he admits despite being mainly driven by logics, but the movie does not bring enough depth to their relationship from the beginning, and we only come to observe their story without much care or attention – even when they hurriedly go through a series of big action scenes later in the story. The action scenes in the film are fairly competent in technical aspects, but they feel plain with lots of crashes and bangs, and you may be distracted by how the special effects used in these action scenes look curiously cheap without much impression or impact.

The movie is packed with a number of notable South Korean performers, but they are not utilized that well on the whole. Whenever he is not playing some other main role which is more colorful in comparison, Kim Woo-bin is not very interesting as Guard, and that is the main reason why young performer Choi Yu-ri often steals the show from him. In case of Ryu Jun-yeol, Yum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, and Kim Eui-sung, they have some fun with their respective roles, but it is a shame that Kim Tae-ri, who has been more prominent since Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016), does not have many things to do here except being as feisty as required.

Directed and written by Choi Dong-hoon (“Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006) and “The Thieves” (2012)), “Alienoid” is a major letdown considering the talents assembled for it, and it is disappointing enough to lower my expectation for whatever will come next in 2023. As your average amateur movie reviewer, I will have to watch the following film anyway, and I can only hope that I will be bored less than before at least.

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