The Farewell (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A bittersweet Chinese family story

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As an Asian audience, I knowingly smiled as watching the heroine of “The Farewell” coming inside her dear grandmother’s residence full of their family members. When I was young, I and my family routinely visited the house of my mother’s eldest brother along with many other relatives, and I still fondly remember those lively domestic moments among my family and relatives, which are not so far from those boisterous domestic moments in the film.

In the beginning, the movie establishes the affectionate relationship between Billi Wang (Awkwafina) and her grandmother, who is usually called “Nai Nai” (Zhao Shuzhen). Although she has lived with her parents for many years in US since they left Changchun, China, Billi remains close to her grandmother nonetheless, and their mutual affection feels apparent to us as she and her grandmother, who is still living in Changchun, talk with each other on the phone for a while.

However, not long after speaking with her grandmother, Billi comes to learn from her parents that her grandmother has recently been diagnosed to have terminal lung cancer. Although it is quite possible that Nai Nai will die within several months, Billi’s parents and the other family members including Nai Nai’s younger sister already decided that they should not tell anything about that to Nai Nai, because they want Nai Nai to live her remaining life as peacefully and painlessly as possible. They lie to her that she is healthy as usual, and they also hasten the wedding of Billi’s male cousin and his fiancée, which will function as a convenient excuse for family members to come and see Nai Nai for the last time.

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Although her parents tell her not to come because she may not keep the secret to herself well, Billi eventually decides to come to Changchun. Her unexpected arrival certainly generates some nervousness among her parents and other family members, but Nai Nai gladly greets her dear granddaughter as before, and that makes Billi feel more conflicted than before. She manages to hide the growing sadness inside her from Nai Nai, but she also wonders more whether Nai Nai deserves to know about her impending death.

While never hurrying itself at all, the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Lulu Wang, which is inspired by her real-life family story, leisurely moves from one episodic moment to another. As the matriarch of the family, Nai Nai busily and happily occupies herself in the preparation for the upcoming wedding. There is a humorous scene where she becomes quite pissed about a minor mistake in the meal to be served to the wedding guests, and then we get a funny moment involved with the groom and his bride, who cannot help but feel awkward as being pushed toward wedding faster than expected.

And we gradually come to know more about not only Billi and Nai Nai but also their family members. While Billi’s father and his older brother, who also left China and has settled in Japan, feel guilty about not often being there for their mother, Billi’s mother turns out to have her own emotional issues, and Billi comes to muse more on the remaining generation gap between her and her parents. Sure, she and her parents love and care about each other, but there are still some unresolved feelings between them, and that leads to a small but powerful moment between her and her mother later in the story.

Nevertheless, the movie never lets itself mired in sadness as constantly exuding humor and warmness, and its main pleasure comes from how effortlessly it goes back and forth between comedy and drama. While it is mostly as calm and serene as those intimate family drama films of Yasujirō Ozu and Hirokazu Kore-eda, the movie does not hesitate from overtly comic moments, and that aspect is particularly exemplified well by a key scene where Billi and her family members visit the tomb of her diseased grandfather.

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In the end, everything in the story culminates to the wedding ceremony as expected, but Wang wisely avoids cheap sentimentality as tactfully rolling its story and characters along the whole gamut of emotions. Regardless of how many wedding guests actually know about Nai Nai’s terminal illness, Nai Nai and other family members around her cannot help but swept into the joyous mood of the wedding along with others, and I particularly like a small scene where several old people talk a bit about a certain interesting part of Nai Nai’s life.

As the beating heart of the film, Awkwafina, who previously drew our attention via her colorful supporting performances in “Ocean’s Eight” (2018) and “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), demonstrates a more serious side of her talent here in this film, and her sensitive low-key performance makes an effective contrast with the unadorned tenderness of Zhao Shuzhen, who alternatively amuses and touches us with her warm supporting performance. Along with the other main cast members including Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, Awkwafina and Zhao present a vivid, realistic portrayal of family members who have known each other for a long time, and the result is one of the best ensemble performances of this year.

While very funny and insightful during its numerous sweet moments, “The Farewell” is also quite moving in its thoughtful handling of intimate subjects, and I must confess that it almost made me cry from time to time during my viewing. Considering that I do not cry that often while watching movies, that is certainly an achievement, and I think it is one of the best films of this year.

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The Report (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A long, frustrating struggle for one important report

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“The Report” is angry and outraged behind its dry, methodical façade. Following one plain American government official’s long, frustrating struggle to finish and then publish a damning official report on the systemic tortures committed by CIA in the name of patriotism and national security during the years following the September 11 attacks, the movie often loses its detached attitude from time to time, and that is understandable, considering that, as told to us at the end of the film, most of government officials and agents responsible for this national disgrace were not punished at all.

The story begins with its real-life hero, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), starting to work as a junior member of the US Senate staff in Washington D.C., 2003. As your average idealistic lad, Jones eagerly wants to serve his country as much as he can, and, several years later, he comes to work under Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), who, as the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, instructs Jones to investigate on how CIA handled and interrogated its numerous detainees for extracting any information from them to track down terrorist groups and prevent another possible big attack on the country. Although that means he and his few other colleagues are going to go through a series of difficult and demanding tasks, Jones soon embarks on doing his job in an isolated office located somewhere inside the CIA headquarters, and that is the beginning of his long journey amid thousands of documents and records during next several years.

While delving deeper and deeper into heaps of documents and records, Jones cannot help but horrified by how those detainees, most of whom were labelled as terrorist suspects without any hesitation, were brutally mistreated by CIA officials and the contractors associated with them. As shown from a series of flashback scenes, many of high-ranking officials in CIA were quite shocked and enraged as watching the September 11 attacks on TV, and they soon became very determined to do anything necessary for winning War on Terror and making the country safer than before. When the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” (EIT) were suggested, they promptly accepted this suggestion because, well, it looked like a way both swift and effective for extracting whatever they were going to report to the White House.

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Jones meet a few people willing to talk about what they witnessed. For making their detainees feel more confused, helpless, and desperate, CIA officials and their contractors mercilessly applied several horrific methods of EIT including waterboarding on their detainees, and we accordingly get a series of gut-wrenching moments including the one involved with forced enema. Although there was some protest against this inside CIA, those high-ranking officials simply disregarded that because 1) they needed to report anything to the White House for saving their reputation seriously damaged by the September 11 attacks and 2) EIT are not tortures technically according to their very twisted and questionable legal logic.

Some of you may say that the end sometimes justifies the means, but, as sharply pointed out in the film, most of the information extracted via EIT turned out to be pretty useless because those tortured detainees frequently lied just for stopping their torture. Even in the cases where they actually did not lie, most of what they confessed was trivial or was already obtained via far less brutal and aggressive methods.

And we get to know more about how sloppy CIA was in the application of EIT on its many detainees. For example, two certain figures advocating EIT presented themselves as psychology experts, but they actually knew nothing about how to interrogate detainees. In addition, there was an old CIA report which was written not long after the Vietnam War, and it firmly concluded that torture is not a good method for extracting information from detainees.

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As learning more and more about the brutality and immorality of EIT, Jones comes to feel more urge to get his job done, but, not so surprisingly, he and Feinstein soon come across several obstacles and setbacks. While the officials of the White House are not so willing to expose what their predecessors deliberately or unwittingly allowed CIA to do, the director of CIA, John Brennan (Ted Levine), and his people in CIA are ready to suppress the report by any means necessary, and Jones later finds himself in a serious legal trouble due to a certain piece of document he deliberately took out from his workplace.

Although the screenplay by director/co-producer Scott Z. Burns, who previously wrote the screenplays for “The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007), “The Informant!” (2009), and “Contagion” (2011), loses its focus and narrative momentum from time to time, the movie is held together well by the earnest performance by Adam Driver, who has had another productive year as appearing in several notable films including “The Dead Don’t Die” (2019), “Marriage Story” (2019), and, yes, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (2019). He is also surrounded by a number of good performers including Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Morrison, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, Ted Levine, Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, and Corey Stoll, and Bening is enjoyably unflappable as a no-nonsense senator who cares about public service as much as Driver’s character.

On the whole, “The Report” is sometimes a bit too heavy-handed and monotonous at times, but it is occasionally sobering in its alarming presentation of the dark side of War on Terror. Although I felt impatient at time during my viewing due to its rather flat narrative and thin characterization, the movie engaged me enough at least, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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Ford v Ferrari (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A visceral racing car drama

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There are a number of electrifying moments in “Ford v Ferrari”, a well-crafted feature film which is about two real-life figures heading an American team of racing car engineers and designers who worked hard together for defeating their Italian opponent at the 1966 Le Mans race in France. When I watched it at last night, I felt like being a bit too tired to watch a movie, but I subsequently found myself quite thrilled and excited by what I saw and heard during its rather long running time (152 minutes), and I willingly came to forgive its several shortcomings.

During its first act, the movie depicts how things were not that good for Ford Motor Company in 1963. As having been quite frustrated and exasperated with the dwindling sales and growth of his company for years, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts), who is the grandson of Henry Ford, sternly demands his executives that they should find any possible way to boost their company, and Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), a vice president in charge of marketing, comes to suggest an idea which may be worthwhile to try: building a really good racing car to win the Le Mans race and then impress many young potential customers out there.

Because Ferrari, an Italian motor company which has dominated the Le Mans race for last several years, is in a serious financial situation at present, Iacocca initially feels confident that Ferrari will accept an offer from Ford, but then he and Ford only find themselves refused and insulted. Understandably quite pissed about that, Ford orders Iacocca to assemble a team to make a racing car which can beat Ferrari’s, and that is how Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), a retired professional race car driver who has run his own custom performance vehicle manufacturer company, comes into the picture. Because he once won the Le Mans race shortly before his early retirement, Shelby surely knows a lot about how demanding and exhausting that 24-hour race is, and he also knows a number of excellent experts willing to join the project.

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One of such people is Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a British professional race car driver who is also a top-notch car mechanic. Mainly due to his rather abrasive personality, Miles is definitely not someone easy to get along with, but Shelby believes that he and his team really need Miles for winning the Le Mans race, and he sticks to his decision despite the pressure from an obnoxious Ford executive named Leo Bebee (Josh Lucas), who does not like Miles right from their first encounter.

As Shelby and Miles go through a number of ups and downs in their bumpy quest toward their common goal, the movie accumulates its narrative momentum step by step while occasionally providing nice personal moments generated between Miles and his family. While she is fully supportive of her husband with deep understanding, Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) cannot help but become upset when her husband is not wholly honest to her, and she surely shows him that she is not someone he can fool at all during one dramatic scene. In case of Miles’ young son Peter (Noah Jupe), he has always looked up to his father, and there is a tender moment later in the story when he and his father have a little personal moment in a wide place during one evening.

Once everything is ready to be geared up for full speed, the movie swiftly enthralls us as demanded while racing through a number of superlative sequences which definitely deserve to be watched in a big screening room. Under the skillful direction of director/co-producer James Mangold, these sequences are quite breathtaking with palpable realism and intensity, and they will certainly make whatever you saw from those Fast and Furious flicks look pretty tame in comparison. Sure, I often noticed special effects used in the film as your average seasoned moviegoer, but the overall result felt quite real to me and other audiences around me nonetheless, and I must confess that I frequently winced and cringed as overwhelmed by the sheer verisimilitude in its vivid presentation of speed and sound.

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It helps that the movie is anchored well by its two good lead performers, who fill their archetype heroes with each own distinctive presence. While Matt Damon diligently holds the ground as required, Christian Bale, who looks much leaner than when he appeared as Dick Cheney in “Vice” (2018), willingly hurls himself into showy moments, and his intense quality is utilized well whenever his character pushes himself and his racing car as hard as he can.

In case of other main performers of the film, they are mostly stuck with underdeveloped roles, but they are well-cast at least. While Caitriona Balfe and Noah Jupe do a bit more than filling their respective spots. Tracy Letts reminds me again that he is always good at exuding aggressive authority, and Jon Bernthal and Josh Lucas are also effective as two contrasting Ford executives.

In conclusion, “Ford v Ferrari” drives along its familiar route without much surprise, but it drives its story and characters pretty well along its predictable course, and I admire a lot its superb technical aspects including the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael, the editing by Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, and the music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. In short, it will give you one of the most gripping movie experiences of this year, so I recommend you not to miss it while it is being shown at movie theaters.

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Knives Out (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A deliciously entertaining whodunnit

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Rian Johnson’s latest film “Knives Out” is a deliciously entertaining whodunnit which will delight any devoted fan of mystery novels like me. While I could see through its wily, dexterous handling of plot elements at time, I was really caught off guard more than once during my viewing, so I sincerely advise you not to read the next paragraphs if you want to enjoy the film as fully as possible.

Right after the opening scene where Harlan Drysdale (Christopher Plummer), an old rich man who has been known well for many popular mystery novels written by him, is found dead in the next morning after his birthday party, the movie promptly moves to a scene where some of Harlan’s family members who happened to be in his big house at that time are questioned by the police one by one. It initially seems that there is not anything suspicious about Harlan’s surviving family members, but, of course, it is gradually revealed to us that each of them has each own plausible motive for wanting Harlan’s death, and they are all naturally regarded as main suspects by Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), a well-known private detective who happens to get involved in the case shortly after Harlan’s death.

While Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), a local cop assigned to the case, thinks the case is pretty simple enough to be closed soon, Blanc thinks otherwise, and then he comes to pay attention to Marta Cabrera (Ana de Armas), a young woman who has worked as Harlan’s nurse and caretaker for several years. Due to a certain physical condition of hers, Marta cannot lie well in front of others, and it does not take much time for Blanc to confirm his suspicion because all he has to do is throwing some important questions to her and then observing how she responds to them.

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After a certain plot turn is sprung out, the movie seems to show us every card held behind its back, but it keeps us engaged via a number of small questions still lingering around the case. For example, why did Harlan’s dogs suddenly bark in the middle of that fateful night? Where is a certain personal letter intended for one of Harlan’s children? How much does Harlan’s elderly mother, who is mostly silent and wordless, know about what is going on around her? Above all, who is the person responsible for Blanc’s involvement in the investigation on Harlan’s death?

Now I should be more discreet about describing how Johnson’s smart screenplay operates after carefully establishing its story and characters during its first act. While there is an expected dramatic moment coming from Harlan’s will, there are also more than one moment of blackmail, and Blanc, who looks rather ridiculous but turns out to be pretty smart and resourceful just like Detective Columbo or Hercules Poirot, keeps delving further into the case to the annoyance of more than one characters in the story, while also trying to figure out a solution which can have everything in the case fit together perfectly without any doubt.

Steadily maintaining the level of suspense as required, the movie frequently amuses and entertains us via its sharp wit and impeccable style. We are tickled a lot by a number of darkly humorous moments which show us more of how unlikable many of Harlan’s surviving family members are, and the movie also throws a biting social/political commentary while observing the increasingly tricky circumstance of Marta, who subsequently becomes more worried for understandable personal reasons. In addition, I savored every small and big details of Harlan’s posh house which is full of interesting things including a certain hidden entrance, and I wonder whether a sailor mannequin in the house is a reference to the similar one shown in “Sleuth” (1972), another comic mystery thriller film which is also mainly set in the big antique house of a popular mystery writer.

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While it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that the story eventually arrives at an obligatory scene where everything becomes quite clearer to us, the movie skillfully delivers this crucial moment with precise coming timing, and Daniel Craig, who already showed considerable comic talent via his hilarious supporting turn in Steve Soderbergh’s “Logan Lucky” (2017), delivers his big moment with admirable gusto and intensity. Cheerfully wielding an exaggerated Southern accent, he did a brilliant job of balancing his character between humor and intelligence, and you may find yourself wanting another mystery movie featuring his character when the movie is over.

In case of the other main performers in the film, each of them has each own moment as having a lot of juicy fun with their broad archetype roles just like Craig. While Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Jaeden Martell, and Christopher Plummer are more prominent in comparison, Katherine Langford, Noah Segan, Edi Patterson, Riki Lindhome, K Callan, Frank Oz, and M. Emmet Walsh are also entertaining in their respective supporting parts, and Ana de Armas surely deserves to be praised for what will probably be regarded as a breakthrough for her acting career.

On the whole, “Knives Out” is another compelling genre piece from Johnson, who drew my attention with his debut feature film “Brick” (2005) and then moved onto “Looper” (2012) and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (2017). Like any first-rate mystery novel, the movie plays quite well with its genre elements, and I am willing to revisit it for savoring its goodies again.

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The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Adventures of the Peanut Butter Falcon

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“The Peanut Butter Falcon” entertained me in more than one way. While it is a typical Southern story clearly influenced by Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, it palpably vibrates with authentic local atmosphere as well as sweet personality, and I found myself often amused or touched as observing its main characters bouncing from one narrative point to another.

At the beginning, we meet a young man named Zak (Zack Gottsagen), who is mentally handicapped due to Down syndrome and has been in a facility for old people for a while because there is not any close family member to take care of him. The opening scene shows his latest escape attempt, and his motive turns out to be pretty simple and innocent; he has aspired to become a professional wrestler while frequently watching an old promotional video tape from a local wrestling star named the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church), and he really wants to go to the Salt Water Redneck’s wrestling school someday.

Although his kind and sympathetic supervisor, a young woman named Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), reminds him that he should stay in the facility as required by the state law, Zak is not deterred at all, and we soon see his another escape attempt assisted by Carl (Bruce Dern), an old dude who has been Zak’s roommate and is willing to help Zak have an opportunity to realize his innocent dream. During one night, Zak manages to escape through the barred window of their room, and then he runs away from the facility as far as he can.

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Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), a local lad who happens to get himself in a big trouble after clashing with a guy who takes over a river area where Tyler’s dead older brother used to catch fishes and crabs. Not long after he runs away from his trouble via a small motorboat, he finds Zak hiding in the motorboat, and Zak soon comes to accompany him although Tyler is not particularly eager to have Zak tag at his heels.

Of course, Tyler gradually comes to accept Zak as his journey companion – especially after coming to learn by coincidence that Zak is also on the run just like him. As spending more time with Zak, he teaches Zak a number of things including how to shoot, and Zak happily goes along with that while having more fun and freedom than before. During one amusing scene, they come across an eccentric blind old man who lets them build a boat in his backyard after baptizing both of them, and we soon see them joyously sailing on a big river.

Later in the story, Zak and Tyler are eventually found by Eleanor after their wild night, but then Eleanor comes to see that Zak deserves to have some more fun and get his wish. As accompanying Zak and Tyler during their ongoing journey to where the Salt Water Redneck lives, she comes to reveal more of herself, and, not so surprisingly, it does not take much time for her and Tyler to get closer to each other.

While the mood becomes a bit tense when Tyler faces the consequences of his impulsive action during its third act, the movie still maintains its leisurely narrative pacing as doling out small colorful moments as before, and directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, who previously made several short documentary films before making this first feature film of theirs, did a commendable job of establishing a vivid local atmosphere from the various Southern locations shown in their film. Thanks to their cinematographer Nigel Bluck, their film often shines with lyrical natural beauty coupled with that distinctive texture of the Southern areas, and the overall result evokes not only Twain’s aforementioned novel but also other idiosyncratic Southern literature works such as the ones written by William Faulkner.

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When our three main characters eventually arrive at the destination of their journey, we already have a pretty good idea on what will happen next, and the movie does not surprise us much, but it still generates laughs and poignancy as making us root a lot for Zak, who does not hesitate at all in front a chance of lifetime and then goes all the way as, yes, the Peanut Butter Falcon. I must say that the finale demands some suspension of disbelief from us, but it mostly works thanks to good storytelling and performance, and then the movie gives its three main characters a neat and satisfying exit.

The main performers in the film are all convincing on the whole. While Shia LaBeouf surprises us as completely immersing himself into his shabby character without any misstep, Dakota Johnson, who has shown that she is as talented as, say, Kristen Stewart after drawing our attention with “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015), brings considerable warmth and personality to her seemingly thankless role, and Zack Gottsagen, a non-professional actor who does have Down syndrome, gives an unadorned but indelible performance as firmly holding the center between LaBeouf and Johnson. In addition, the movie assembles a bunch of engaging supporting performers around its three main performers, and Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, Jon Bernthal, and Thomas Haden Church are reliable as usual in their small but substantial supporting roles.

Overall, “The Peanut Butter Falcon” is a little endearing film packed with goodies to be appreciated, and those good moments in the film have grown on me since I watched it at last night. Its journey is a little predictable, but it generates enough fun and charm as rolling and sailing around with its likable main characters, and I like that.

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Ready or Not (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A deadly game with her in-laws

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The heroine of “Ready or Not” faces a lot more risks and troubles than she ever imagined, and that is the main source of naughty pleasure in this morbid black comedy film. Poor girl, she only wants to present herself well in front of her groom’s eccentric wealthy family, but, alas, she happens to pick a very dangerous game for them, and now she must play the game for surviving her increasingly perilous wedding night.

At first, everything looks mostly fine for Grace (Samara Weaving), a young woman who is soon going to be the wife of Daniel (Mark O’Brien), the second son of a very rich family who has prospered a lot in their board game manufacturing business for several generations. Daniel assures Grace that nothing will go wrong during their wedding, and Grace does not look that worried about encountering Daniel’s family, but it is very clear to us that some of Daniel’s family members are not so pleased about accepting Grace, who do not look that good enough to be their new family member in their viewpoint.

Anyway, Tony Le Domas (Henry Czerny) and his wife Becky (Andie MacDowell) respect their son’s decision, and the wedding ceremony is soon followed by the evening family meeting in their big family mansion, where Grace gets to know a bit more about Daniel’s family members and the long history of their successful board game manufacturing business. Not so surprisingly, Daniel’s family is quite serious about playing games, and Grace is not bothered at all when she is notified that there will be a ritual where she will be demanded to pick a game to be played by her and them after midnight.

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Of course, as shown from Daniel’s concerned face full of anxiety and hesitation, Daniel and his family are not entirely honest about what they are going to do with Grace. When they finally instruct her to pick a game out of an antique box associated with a legendary benefactor of their family business, they all look utterly solemn and serious, and then they are all quite alarmed when her random pick turns out to be “Hide and Seek”.

Because of the opening scene in the film, we already have a pretty good idea on what will happen sooner or later, but Grace still does not notice anything strange from her in-laws. After being told that all she has to do is hiding from them till the next morning, she willingly participates in the game without any suspicion, but it does not take much time for her to realize how serious her in-laws are about playing their game. While Daniel understandably refuses to join the game, all of his family members are ready to win the game by any means necessary, and they are equipped with various kinds of lethal objects to be used for the game while also assisted a bit by their loyal family butler, who shuts off all the surveillance cameras in the mansion for fair play but locks up every exit in the mansion.

As our unfortunate heroine tries to survive this dangerous circumstance as much as she can, the movie cheerfully doles out a number of sudden moments to shock and jolt us. While you may cringe a lot during these violent moments, they are mostly executed well with sharp comic timing at least, and I was particularly tickled by a grisly but outrageous moment resulted from the clumsy handling of a crossbow.

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In the meantime, the screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy gradually raises what is being at stake for Grace and other characters. While Grace becomes more determined to survive as going through several grueling moments including the one associated into a certain underground space, it turns out later in the story that her in-laws are not playing this game for mere sport, and we come to see more of how conflicted Daniel is. While he wants to help his wife survive as much as he can, he may have to give up everything in his life including his family in the end, and he hesitates more even though he does not like many of them much.

Under the competent direction of directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, the movie continues to hold our attention even when it is approaching to its eventual finale, and Samara Weaving, who previously played a notable supporting role in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), functions well as a plucky heroine we can root for, and she is also supported well by a bunch of colorful supporting players, who all have a ball with playing their broad archetype characters. While Mark O’Brien is effective as a nice guy constantly hesitating between love and family, Henry Czerny and Andie MacDowell enjoy every second of their juicy moments, and so do the other main cast members including Adam Brody, Melanie Scrofano, Kristian Bruun, Elyse Levesque, John Ralston, and Nicky Guadagni, who, as Daniel’s stern aunt, always grips our attention with her sourly disapproving stare.

Although it is not that twisty and devious compared to other similar films such as “Sleuth” (1972) and “Deathtrap” (1982), “Ready or Not” still entertains us well on the whole, and I enjoyed many of darkly humorous scenes in the film. Yes, you can instantly see what you are going to get from it, but it will not disappoint you at all as providing a fair share of naughty fun and excitement, and you will be satisfied enough in the end.

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Atlantics (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A calm but powerful debut work to remember

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“Atlantics”, which was recently selected as the Senegalese entry for the Best International Feature Film Oscar at the 92nd Academy Awards, reminds me of that famous quote from Gabriel García Márquez: “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.” While you may be caught off guard by what occurs in the middle of its story, the movie will absolutely make you believe what is going on the screen via its vividly realistic mood and details to be appreciated, and its calm but undeniably powerful finale will certainly touch you a lot.

After the opening scene showing a group of construction site workers quite angry about their overdue wage, the movie, which is set in a suburb of Dakar that lies along the Atlantic coast, focuses on the romantic relationship between one of these workers, named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), and a young woman named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Considering her conservative Muslim background as well as the upcoming wedding between her and some wealthy business man, Ada certainly has to be very discreet about her romantic relationship with Souleiman, but she cannot help but feel happy while being with him, so she sneaks out of her house during one evening for going to a bar where she and Souleiman often hang around with other young people around their age.

However, when she arrives at the bar, she is belatedly informed that Souleiman and many other young men, who all have been quite desperate as they have not got paid at that construction site, left the town by a boat which may take them to Spain. As feeling more of the absence of their boyfriends, Ada and other young women at the bar slowly fall into quiet melancholy, and their loneliness is further accentuated by the constant sound of wind and waves under the night sky.

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During next several days, Ada remains quietly heartbroken while not telling anything to her parents, and then there comes the day of her wedding. While everyone around her congratulates her for this important event which will surely improve her life in more than one aspects, Ada still remains sad and depressed as worrying more about whether Souleiman is all right now, and only Dior (Nicole Sougou), the owner of the bar who is also Ada’s best friend, provides her some compassion coupled with pragmatism. After all, she is envied by many of her friends as becoming the wife of a rich man, and, at least, that is a bit better than being stuck with her family in their shabby residence.

However, something strange subsequently occurs, and it seems highly possible to many people including a detective investigating the incident that Souleiman somehow returns. Not so surprisingly, the detective comes to suspect that Ada is involved with the incident, and Ada, who insists that she does not know anything about her lover’s whereabouts, has to endure the suspicions from not only her in-laws but also her parents, who later have her go through a humiliating clinical process at a hospital just for confirming her virginity to their in-laws.

And then the screenplay by director Mati Diop and her co-writer Olivier Demangel takes an unexpected plot turn. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead on how the movie effortlessly generates a series of seemingly plain but undeniably uncanny moments, and I must say that I was quite surprised during one memorable scene where a certain supporting character suddenly finds himself facing the grave consequence of his greed and selfishness.

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In the meantime, there comes a mysterious text message for Ada, and that makes her more agitated and conflicted than before. While nothing seems certain to her now, her love toward Souleiman looks like the only thing she can hold onto, and that eventually prompts her to become a little more active than before. Her eventual big decision may not look that wise at first, but the movie empathizes with her feelings behind that decision, and, thanks to Diop’s subtle but sensitive direction, we also come to understand Ada as sensing more of that quiet romantic passion churning inside her.

Around that narrative point, you may easily guess in advance where the story is heading, but the movie still sticks to its calm, restrained approach, and then it surprises us again during the finale, which delivers not only a spooky moment of social/poetic justice but also a haunting moment of bittersweet romance. While Mame Bineta Sane is commendable in her unadorned natural performance which gradually takes the center of the story, the other main cast members including Amadou Mbow, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane, and Ibrahima Traoré are also convincing in their respective supporting roles, and Sougou is particularly fine as Ada’s no-nonsense friend.

“Atlantics” is the first feature film directed by Diop, who is the niece of prominent Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty and has also been known for acting in several notable films including Claire Denis’s “35 Shots of Rum” (2008). When the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in this year, Diop made history as becoming the first black woman to direct a film featured In Competition at the festival, and she also won the Grand Prix, which she totally deserved considering her skillful and confident handling of story, mood, and performance in the film. In short, the movie is one of the most memorable works of this year, and it will probably be regarded as the stunning start for another good filmmaker of our time.

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