Supernova (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): They’re still together, but…

“Supernova” is a little somber drama which depends a lot on the undeniable chemistry between its two lead performers, who are simply fabulous as playing along with each other throughout the film. As their characters interact more and more on the screen, we come to sense more of many years of life and love between their characters, and that is the main reason why its rather contrived finale works on the emotional level.

Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci play Sam and Tusker, a middle-aged gay couple who are starting the first day of their road trip along the rural areas of England at the beginning of the movie. While Tusker is an acclaimed novelist, Sam is a fairly well-known pianist, and they decided to have a little private trip for them before Sam gives a small concert performance at the eventual arrival point of their road trip.

As they talk with each other during their driving time, we get to know more of how Sam and Tusker complement each other in their palpable personality difference. While Sam is your average reserved British gentleman, Tusker is a fastidious American dude who usually insists on getting things done in his ways, and we are amused to see them arguing a lot on whether they are driving in the right direction now. Although he gets more annoyed, Sam does not mind this at all because 1) he has apparently been accustomed to living with his spouse’s flaws while always loving him for who he is and 2) he is reminded again of how Tusker is still himself despite going through the early stage of dementia at present.

However, Sam cannot help but concerned about his spouse’s medical condition, which has been irreversibly deteriorated day by day no matter how much they try to hold each other. At one point where they are at a place where they are supposed to spend a night, Sam suddenly finds that Tusker is gone along with their pet dog, and he frantically looks for Tusker until Tusker is eventually discovered at a nearby spot with the dog while visibly quite confused about his current status.

And this incident makes both Sam and Tusker reflect more on how much their relationship will be affected by Tusker’s worsening condition. Sam is already determined to stand by Tusker, no matter how his dear spouse’s mind will be faded during next several years. In contrast, Tusker does not want more pain and suffering for himself as well as Sam. He is already losing his ability to write, and that makes him wish more for some dignity and control for his remaining years, which are bound to be accompanied with much more dread and confusion of losing himself.

At least, both Sam and Tusker are still consoled by each other’s presence. They drop by a serene remote spot where they met each other for the first time a long time ago, and they cannot help but become a little nostalgic about many years they have spent together. When they subsequently come to stay at a house belonging to the family of Sam’s sister, Tusker has a little surprise for Sam, and that culminates to a heartfelt moment when Tusker attempts to read something special for him and his spouse.

However, Tusker’s gradually fading mind still remains as a gloomy fact looming over him and Sam, who becomes more conflicted when he later comes to find something Tusker has not told him yet. As a result, the third act of the screenplay by director/writer Harry Macqueen becomes more tense and serious, and that is where the movie tries to pull our heartstrings a little too hard. To be frank with you, the finale is a bit manipulative, and the ending is also too abrupt compared to what has been so carefully built up during the rest of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie is still engaging thanks to the solid performances from Firth and Tucci, both of whom never make any misstep as flawlessly revolving around each other. While Firth, who has been always good at expressing understated feelings and thoughts beneath the surface, ably conveys the growing pain and despair churning behind his character’s calm façade, Tucci, who has always been dependable since I came to notice him for the first time via “Big Night” (1996), is equally superb as subtly articulating his character’s fear and concern without any ounce of exaggeration, and their fluid interactions give us intimate glimpses into a long and loving relationship which has endured so many years but will inevitably be ended sooner or later.

Macqueen wisely lets his two lead actors take the whole stage while steadily maintaining the quietly elegiac mood in the background. Thanks to cinematographer Dick Pope, the movie occasionally gives us a series of gorgeous landscape shots to be appreciated, and these lovely moments in the film accentuate more the bittersweet sense of love and loss surrounding Sam and Tusker.

Although it is instantly compared with many other similar drama films ranging from “Iris” (2001) to “Still Alice” (2014), “Supernova” is worthwhile to watch mainly for Firth and Tucci. What they do here looks modest at first, their result glimmers as much as the very title of the film suggests, and you may get some valuable lessons on love and relationship from that.

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A Long Way to School (2020) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): Mothers fighting against prejudices

South Korean documentary film “A Long Way to School” looks into a long fight of a group of courageous mothers who simply wanted their children with disabilities to have a special school closer to them. While it is often infuriating to see how the situation was often hard and difficult for these strong-willed ladies in many aspects, it is also touching to see how they stuck together through the love for their children, and we come to reflect more on the urgent social issues presented in the documentary.

These mothers’ desperate story has been quite familiar to me and many other South Korean people thanks to an unforgettable TV news report on their latest struggle several years ago. In 2017, a closed elementary school located in the middle of their neighborhood area of Seoul was going to be reconstructed into a special school for the children with disabilities, and these mothers were certainly willing to support this plan, but they were soon opposed by many other people in their neighborhood, who strongly preferred to have an oriental medicine hospital building instead just because they believed that special school in question will ruin the reputation of their neighborhood in addition to affecting their real estate price. I still remember well watching how desperately and tearfully these mothers kneeled and pleaded in front of those local people vehemently and heartlessly opposing the plan for the special school, and that surely reminded me and many others of the deep prejudices against disabilities in the South Korean society.

At the beginning, the documentary shows us how much the mothers and their children with disabilities really needed to have that special school in question. Because there was no special school in their neighborhood area at that time, the mothers had no choice but to send their children to some other special school located far from their neighborhood, and it took more than one hour for their children to go to that special school. In addition, they also needed more time for preparing their children for going to that special school by bus, so they and their children had to wake up quite early in the morning, and that was another inconvenience for them and their children to say the least.

Sticking together via their association established in 2013, the mothers tried their best for making the society better for not only them but also their children, and the documentary often shows us their collective efforts toward those politicians and administrators in Seoul. As it seemed quite possible that the plan for that special school would be canceled, the mothers became determined to protect the plan as much as they could, and they also tried to communicate with many local people out there for understanding and persuasion, though many of those local people did not even try to listen or discuss with them at all.

While frankly showing us how common people can be hateful and spiteful just because of fear and selfishness, the documentary also provides some understanding on a number of social reasons behind that. Their neighborhood has been packed with poor people for many years as those city administrators let heaps of cheap apartment buildings established in the area, and building a special school for the children with disabilities felt like putting another social stigma onto their neighborhood. However, as sharply pointed out at one point in the documentary, they were guilty of stigmatizing that perished elementary school which was usually for the children from poor households, and it is no wonder that many local people who sent their children to that perished elementary school did not support their neighbors against the special school.

In case of those city administrators and politicians associated with this problematic circumstance surrounding the special school, they were not much of help to the mothers. A certain parliament member willingly went along with his potential voters, and we are more disgusted when the documentary later shows how hypocritical this scumbag really is. In case of the commissioner of the city education department, he initially looked like a reliable ally for the mothers, but then he let them down as making some questionable compromises just for building that special school as soon as possible without more troubles.

Despite lots of exasperation and frustration, the mothers still did not give up at all, and some of them give us a series of poignant moments as honestly telling their respective personal stories in front of the camera. Many of them still remember well how much they were despaired as trying to deal with the disabilities of their children at the beginning, but they eventually came to find each own way to accept and live with their children’s disabilities, and they are all constantly concerned about their children’s future. Yes, their children will be fine as long as they are with their children, but their children are bound to have to live on their own someday, and they simply hope that the world is good enough for their children even after they are gone.

As often emphasized throughout the documentary, the South Korean society still needs more changes for improving the civil rights and welfare of people with disabilities, but there have been a few significant changes during last several years, and the eventual construction and opening of that special school was one of them. Although the children of many mothers appearing in the documentary are already too old to go there, they are proud of their accomplishment nonetheless, and they are still willing to fight more for more changes in the future.

Overall, “A Long Way to School” is an earnest and powerful documentary, and director Kim Jung-in did a good job of presenting the human dimensions of its main subject. It will probably take many more years for the South Korean society to be free of prejudices against disabilities, but these exceptional mothers in the documentary and many other good people are not daunted at all while ready to keep going as usual, and I fully support them without any hesitation.

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The Outside Story (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): As he is stuck outside

“The Outside Story” is a small but likable film which does a commendable job of handling its very simple comic promise. When I watched its trailer a few weeks ago, I had a pretty good idea on how it is about, and the movie does not exceed my expectation that much, but it still often amused and entertained me via a series of humorous moments to be cherished for considerable wit and warmth.

Mainly set in one neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, the movie looks into one rather eventful day of Charles Young (Brian Tyree Henry), a filmmaker who has been miserably concentrating on his current work since his lawyer girlfriend Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green) left him due to their recent breakup. When we see him and his apartment at the beginning of the film, it is evident that he has been stuck inside his apartment for days, but he does not care much about how messy his apartment is, and his depressed mind is mostly occupied with completing a memorial video clip for some well-known old movie actor who is expected to die sooner or later.

When Charles is almost finishing his memorial video clip, a food delivery guy arrives as expected, but then there comes a little trouble. He belatedly realizes that he does not have extra cash for tipping the delivery guy, so he is understandably embarrassed while the delivery guy is not pleased about that. When he unexpectedly finds some more money in the apartment shortly after that, Charles hurriedly goes outside for giving the tip to the delivery guy, and, fortunately, the delivery guy has not left yet, but, unfortunately, Charles subsequently finds that he left his apartment with a wrong set of keys.

Consequently being locked out of his apartment, Charles naturally tries to find any possible way to get into the apartment, but his several different attempts only lead to more frustration for him. For example, he tries to enter his apartment via the fire escape of the apartment building, and that only causes considerable inconvenience for one of his neighbors, who happens to be about to have a little kinky private meeting with a couple from Oslo, Norway. Charles later tries to call his landlord, but the landlord happens to be very busy with a personal business of his, and Charles simply cannot wait for his landlord because of the frequent calls and text messages from his employer, who wants Charles to send that memorial video clip as soon as possible.

As he reluctantly spends more time outside his apartment without any progress, Charles comes across a number of different people in his neighborhood. There is a little precocious girl who is living right below his apartment along with her neurotic actress mother, and she turns out to be quite more helpful than expected. In case of an old lady living in the apartment building right next to Charles’, she kindly offers him some footwears because he forgot wearing his sneakers when he left his apartment at that time, and he is delighted when it turns out that she saw some of the movies where that dying movie actor appears.

And there is also a female police officer who is a bit too strict about the parking rule in Charles’ neighborhood. Although their first encounter is not so pleasant to say the least, she subsequently comes to show some compassion and generosity to him, and, when they get a bit hungry, she even takes him to a certain nice spot he never visited before even though it is quite near to his apartment building.

As bouncing from one episodic moment to another along with its hero, the screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Casimir Nozkowski occasionally goes back to those good old times between Charles and Isha. They met each other at a party, and, though Charles was pretty awkward for being not so social to say the least, it did not take much time for them to get attracted to each other as they interacted more with each other.

And we also get to know what caused their breakup, which still hurts Charles a lot as shown from his accidental encounter with a person involved with that. Things naturally get a bit tense between these two characters, but then the movie takes an unexpected turn, and that leads to another good laugh while giving us (and Charles) a lesson on the importance of honesty, trust, and tolerance in romantic relationship.

The movie certainly depends a lot on the talent and presence of its lead actor, and Brian Tyree Henry, who has been more prominent during last several years thanks to his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in TV comedy series “Atlanta” in addition to several notable performances in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) and “Widows” (2018), carries the film well while ably balancing his performance between humor and pathos. Besides effortlessly handling his comic moments with good timing, Henry also subtly conveys to us the pain and melancholy behind his character’s hulking appearance, and we come to root for Charles when he becomes a bit more active during the expected finale.

The other main cast members revolving around Henry bring enough life and personality to their respective supporting roles. While Sonequa Martin-Green brings some warmth to her flashback scenes with Henry, Sunita Mani has a couple of funny moments as the aforementioned female police officer, and young actress Olivia Edward functions as an effective counterpart to Henry.

Overall, “The Outside Story” is a modest but enjoyable piece of work, and it certainly demonstrates well that Nozkowski, who made a number of short documentary films before making a feature film debut here, is a good director who knows how to handle mood, story, and characters. I usually prefer indoor environment because that is more comfortable for me, but the movie makes me want to get out and then appreciate a bit of the world outside, and I guess that is more than enough for recommendation.

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Bad Hair (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Her new hair has a price to pay…

Justin Simien’s new film “Bad Hair” attempts a spooky mix of cultural horror and satire, and I was sort of amused by that despite my remaining dissatisfaction with the overall result. Although it is not wholly successful due to its rather incoherent storytelling, the movie makes some sharp points on gender and race during its first half, and that is the main reason why I wish it could delve further into its eerie premise instead of resorting to a series of insipid genre clichés during its jumbled second half.

After the opening scene which feels sweet but then becomes more disturbing than expected, the movie introduces us to a young African American woman named Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), who works as an aspiring assistant in some big music cable TV company in LA, 1989. When she begins another day at her workplace, Anna is belatedly notified that her immediate superior is going to leave due to some creative disagreement with the owner of the company, and she is not so pleased at all as seeing a former supermodel named Zora Choice (Vanessa Williams) becoming her new immediate superior. Zora is quite determined to bring lots of changes into the company for drawing more viewers out there as demanded by the owner, and we soon see some of the employees around Anna leaving the company as a consequence.

When she is about to have a private interview with Zora, Anna is understandably quite nervous to say the least, but, what do you know, Zora is very open to Anna’s creative ideas for improving those popular shows of the company. It looks like she is willing to help Anna getting a big break she has hoped for years, and she also suggests that Anna should change her hair for making her look, uh, more presentable. As a matter of fact, she even gives Anna the calling card of some upscale hair salon located somewhere in the city.

At first, Anna is reluctant about giving up her natural Afro-textured hair, but then, tempted by what can be possibly attained by changing her hair, she eventually goes to that posh hair salon. Although it turns out that getting a service there is quite difficult and expensive, Anna soon gets what she wants thanks to some generosity from the owner of the hair salon. After she selects a bunch of hairs to be planted on her head, the process is instantly begun, and she is surely delighted by how she looks different thanks to her new hair.

And this considerable change of her hair affects her career more than expected. Everyone comes to notice Anna more than before, and she finds herself becoming more active in her work. When one of her female colleagues happens to clash with Zora, Anna is the one who persuades that colleague to change her mind, and Zora lets Anna having a little taste of success as everything goes well for their company.

Of course, as already implied to us, there is something quite sinister about Anna’s new hair, which looks like having a life of its own in addition to a certain unspeakable craving. As frequently disturbed by a recurring nightmare, Anna becomes more aware of her new hair’s ominous aura day by day, and her mind keeps coming back to an old African American slave lore she read from a book belonging to her professor uncle. That lore is about some possessed hair with demonic power, and it is quite possible that Anna is its latest target to be possessed.

The movie did a competent job of building up the sense of dread up to that point, but then, unfortunately, it digresses into predictable moments of shocks as its heroine is pushed into more panic and fear as expected, and that is where Simien’s screenplay loses its balance between satire and horror. You may be amused a bit by several brief moments of humor during the climactic part, but they do not mix well with a number of intense scenes poured upon our heroine, and the following ending feels rather unresolved without much impact to linger on our mind.

The main cast members of the movie are mostly adequate on the whole, though many of them are under-utilized to say the least. While Elle Lorraine dutifully holds the center as required, Vanessa Williams has some juicy fun with as Anna’s new immediate superior, and it is a shame that the movie does not explore much the relationship dynamics between her character and Anna. In case of the other notable cast members, Jay Pharoah and Lena Waithe are sadly stuck in their respective thankless supporting roles, and Blair Underwood and Laverne Cox manage to bring some spirit to their functional characters.

In conclusion, “Bad Hair” is not as successful as Simien’s first feature film “Dear White People” (2014), which was incidentally released in South Korea as, to my bafflement and amusement, “Campus Obama War”. To be frank with you, I initially observed its story and characters from the distance as a foreign audience living outside US, but I soon got interested in how that little funny comedy film deftly handles race and other social issues with considerable wit and insight, and it is surely more relevant to us now, considering how the American society has become more troubled since it came out. Although it did not bore me with its intriguing genre exercise, “Bad Hair” is still a disappointing misfire compared to what was wonderfully achieved in “Dear White People”, and I can only hope that Simien will soon move onto better things to come.

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Hotel Artemis (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A problematic evening at one exclusive hotel

“Hotel Artemis”, which I watched just for my inconsequential curiosity at last night, is a pretty familiar genre stuff for seasoned moviegoers like me. While I enjoyed its noirish mood and some solid performances from its engaging main cast members, I also discerned a number of pedestrian aspects at times, and it did not surprise me much on the whole even though I assumed that everyone in front of and behind the camera had a fun together in playing with numerous genre elements.

At the beginning, the screenplay by director/writer Drew Pearce quickly establishes its futuristic background set in LA, 2028. Due to the privatization of water supply in the city, millions of people in the city cannot get any water easily, and their resulting fury and frustration eventually lead to big riots here and there around the city, but that is not much of a concern for an old doctor named Jean Thomas (Jodie Foster), who has run a very exclusive hotel located somewhere in the city. Although it has a big neon sign on its rooftop, Hotel Artemis is actually only for a number of registered criminals, and Thomas and her loyal right-hand guy Everest (Dave Bautista) are always ready to help those criminals if they ever need any emergency medical care.

When Thomas is about to begin another day, everything looks mundane as usual in her heavily guarded insulated hotel, but then there comes an emergency to be handled by her and Everest. Two brother criminals, who are registered as Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and Honolulu (Brian Tyree Henry), hurriedly arrive in the hotel not long after committing a big bank robbery in the city, and Honolulu really needs a quick emergency treatment due to his serious gunshot injury.

Because the hotel has several state-of-the-art medical equipments including a 3D printer machine which can generate a vital human organ within a few hours (Don’t ask me how the hell that is possible), Honolulu’s urgent medical condition is swiftly handled, and now he needs some recuperation period, but, of course, he and his brother soon come to realize that they have a far bigger trouble. During their bank robbery, Honolulu happened to steal a certain small object, and that belongs to someone they should not mess with at any chance.

Meanwhile, we get to know a bit of two other current hotel guests: Nice (Sofia Boutella) and Acapulco (Charlie Day). Acapulco is your average jerk who thinks he is above everyone else because of his considerable wealth, and this annoying dude soon approaches to Nice without having no idea on what Nice, who happens to have some history with Waikiki, is capable of – and what she is planning to do right now.

And then the situation becomes more complicated as Thomas is subsequently notified on the arrival of another guest, who turns out to be a powerful crime lord who has allowed Thomas to manage the hotel for many years. While the goons working under this crime lord demand that Thomas should reserve the remaining one spot in the hotel in advance, but Thomas sticks to the rules of the hotel nevertheless, and that certainly generates the tension between her and one of the crime lord’s sons, a hot-tempered guy who is so eager to prove himself to his powerful daddy by any means necessary.

While Thomas and Everest become quite busier than expected, the movie throws another character into the story, and Thomas cannot possibly say no to this character’s desperate plea because this character turns out to be associated with an old painful past she has tried to look away for years. That means she will have to cross over several lines set around herself, and she is surprised to find that she can actually do that despite her fear and reluctance.

What follows next in the story is predictable to the care, but the movie is anchored by the diligent acting of Jodie Foster. While looking wearier and shabbier than usual, Foster conveys well to us her character’s strength and vulnerability, and she is particularly convincing when her character attempts be more active at one point later in the story. Even though well aware of the risks on that act of hers, Thomas simply follows her simple human decency, and Foster skillfully reminds us of what is being at stake for her character.

The other main cast members surrounding Foster dutifully fill their respective spots around her, and some of them have some juicy fun with their colorful characters. While Sofia Boutella is fabulous when her character comes to show more of her particular set of skills during the expected climactic part, Sterling K. Brown, David Bautista, and Jenny Slate provide extra gravitas to the story, and Jeff Goldblum is clearly enjoying every moment of his brief appearance. In case of Charlie Day, Brian Tyree Henry, and Zachary Quinto, they are mostly wasted in their thankless roles, and I must point out that Day often goes a little too far with his obnoxious character even though that is required to him from the start.

In conclusion, “Hotel Artemis” will instantly take you back to many other recent movies in its genre territory such as “John Wick” (2014) and its two sequels, but it does not distinguish itself enough despite having some style and mood to enjoy. I cannot recommend it, but I will not stop you if you just want to kill your free time on Sunday afternoon.

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The Boy from Medellín (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A superstar back in his hometown

Documentary film “The Boy form Medellín”, which was released on Amazon Prime two days ago, presents a close look into one eventful week surrounding J Balvin, a Colombian raggaeton singer which has been quite popular around the world during last several years. Although it is not that informative to audiences who are not so familiar with his many hit songs (Full disclosure: I am one of such people), the documentary did a fairly adequate job of showing us some engaging personal aspects of its human subject, and Balvin comes to us as a sensitive and spirited artist worthwhile to observe.

At the beginning, the documentary opens with Balvin doing a big concert in Mexico City, and we see how he effortlessly energizes the audiences via his talent and presence. While I must tell you that the Spanish lyrics of his songs did not feel that close to me due to language barrier, the excitement of thousands of audiences was palpable to me at least, and I could easily see how he could become a rising new star in his field within only a few years.

Of course, his early career years were not so easy at all. When Balvin was 17, his middle-class father suddenly became unemployed, and his family was subsequently put into economic hardship. That made Balvin quite determined to be a singer successful enough to support his family, so he moved to US for following his dream, but he soon found himself struggling a lot more than expected. Frustrated with how his life and career were going nowhere, he often became quite depressed, and he frankly speaks to us about those gloomy times before he eventually returned to his hometown city Medellín.

Anyway, things gradually got better for Balvin as he continued to focus on music after his return. As shown from a series of archival footage clips shown in the documentary, he was willing to grab any opportunity to perform his songs in front of others, and that eventually helped him taking his first forward step toward stardom. Once he got his first big break, everything went pretty well for him during next several years, and he also became a big social media figure as he openly talked about his experience with depression via his Instagram account.

When he came back to Medellín for a homecoming concert in 2019, Balvin was eager to bring lots of optimistic energy to his dear hometown. As many of you know, the city has been pretty notorious for drug crime (Remember Pablo Escovar?), and, as an international superstar nicknamed “the Boy from Medellín”, Balvin wanted to give a big positive public impression there while entertaining his fans out there as usual.

At first, things seemed to be going well when Balvin arrived in Medellín a week before the concert. We see him casually interacting with many people excited to see him, and we are a bit amused when he later tells us a bit about his rather compulsive habit of being nice to others. Despite his current status, he does not forget at all where he was once, and he also has good relationships with a number of associates and collaborators working under him, who are all ready to help and assist him as much as possible before the concert.

They and Balvin frequently spend time in a slick modern house belonging to him, whose interior environment feels like a playground with all those big dolls and action figures. Within this rather insular space, Balvin and his people discuss on a number of matters involved with the concert, and the most important one is whether the concert can be held despite the ongoing social/political turmoil in Colombia. As days go by, the situation becomes more volatile all around the country, and Medellín is no exception as shown from a brief scene later in the documentary.

While being more aware of what is going on outside, Balvin also finds himself pressured by heaps of public demands and criticisms poured upon him. As a major public figure, he is expected to show where he stands on this national issue, but, as pointed out to him at one point, there is no way for him to avoid criticism regardless of whether he remains silent or speaks out. As he becomes more nervous and uncertain, his physical condition seems to be affected by his inner conflict, and everyone around him is certainly concerned about the possibility of the last-minute cancellation.

Balvin simply wants to focus more on his music as before, but he is reminded again of why he cannot be free from politics as a well-known artist – especially after he made a small misstep on his Instagram account. In the end, he decides to do what he thinks he should do during the concert, and director/co-producer Matthew Heineman, who also served as a co-editor in addition to serving as one of several cinematographers for the documentary, skillfully delivers that impactful moment after vividly conveying to us the sheer excitement around and behind the stage.

On the whole, “The Boy from Medellín” is another typical contemporary star musician documentary following the footsteps of other recent ones such as “Miss Americana” (2020) and “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry” (2021), and, though I only give it 2.5 stars, I was entertained to some degree while appreciating its supposedly unpretentious portrayal of Balvin. As far as I can see from the documentary, he is an interesting musician who is also a decent dude, and I guess I should check out some of his albums later just for some more knowledge and experience.

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Happy Children (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A mild but likable children drama

South Korean film “Happy Children” may not be as cheery as its very title suggets, but it is still a likable children drama to be admired for several good reasons. As often buoyed by the unadorned acting of its wonderful young main cast members, the movie glides from one heartfelt moment to another with warm amusement, and it will surely win your heart before entering its predictably melodramatic third act.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a little boy named Da-i (Lee Kyung-hoon), and we observe how he is going through a sudden big change in his life. His mother recently became very ill and then hospitalized, and he and his father move to some other place not long after that. As soon as everything belonging to them is moved into their new residence, his father hurriedly leaves due to his work, but Da-i does not feel particularly lonely, and he later goes to a nearby hospital for seeing his dear mother again.

Meanwhile, Da-i begins his first day at an elementary school to which he is transferred. When he enters his new class, he is warmly greeted by a young female teacher, and it does not take much time for him to befriend two of his new classmates. They are Min-ho (Park Ye-chan) and Yoo-jin (Hong Jung-min), and these two cheerful kids willingly show Da-i their little secret place. Although their little secret place turns out to be merely an abandoned trailer, but its interior is mostly cozy thanks to some decoration by Min-ho and Yoo-jin, and Da-i soon spends lots of time there along with his two new friends.

When Da-i later shows considerable excellence in the latest class examination, a kid named Jae-kyeong (Park Si-wan) cannot help but feel inferior even though his test score is just a bit lower than Da-i’s, and that subsequently leads to a small conflict between him and Da-i. This is surely petty to say the least, but it reminds me of how competitive I was during my elementary school years. Like Jae-kyeong, I was often occupied with getting better test scores compared to my classmates, and that was more important for me than anything else – except books, of course.

Speaking of books, another kid in the movie also reminds me a lot of myself just like Jae-kyeong. That kid in question is a young girl named Si-ah (Ok Ye-rin), and she loves reading as much as I was around her age. Although she is not happy about not getting much attention from her parents compared to her older brother, she can always depend on books to read, and I can easily imagine her growing up to be a smart and confident woman someday.

Besides his school life, the movie also pays considerable attention to the relationship between Da-i and his ill mother. He keeps coming to the hospital for spending time with his mother, and his mother surely appreciates that while also cheered up a lot by her dear son’s presence, but it goes without saying that, as reflected by a brief but alarming moment later in the story, the situation is not so good for her to say the least. While her husband is concerned about a lot about what will happen sooner or later, he unfortunately remains quite busy as before, and Da-i slowly starts to gather his mother’s gloomy circumstance.

During its third act, the movie becomes more serious than expected, but it does not lose its cheerful tone at all as Da-i and his friends stick together for helping him meeting his mother, who is later sent to another hospital far from their city. What they attempt to do is rather reckless in my humble opinion, but the mood is mostly bright and sunny even when their plan goes a little wrong, and we come to sense that they will be all right in the end regardless of they succeed or not in their little personal mission.

The screenplay by director Lee Ji-won, which is adapted from a popular online comic of the same name, subsequently gets quite sappy as arriving at the finale waiting for its young hero. I must point out that the animation scene during this part feels a bit redundant, but it is poignant nonetheless because it is grounded well in what has been steadily built up between our young hero and his mother along the narrative.

Lee, who previously made several short films before making a feature film debut here, also draws good natural performances from his young main cast members, who are all effortlessly engaging in their respective parts. According to the production note, Lee let his young main cast members have lots of spontaneity among them via their improvisation on the set, and that is evident from their unpretentious interactions on the screen. While Lee Kyung-hoon did a commendable job of holding the center of the movie, his fellow cast members Hong Jung-min, Park Ye-chan, Ok Ye-rin, and Park Si-wan have each own moment to shine, and Lee Sang-hee, Yoon Kyung-ho, and Gong Min-jung are also solid as a few substantial adult characters in the story.

In conclusion, “Happy Children”, which is incidentally released in South Korean theaters on Children’s Day, is another good children drama which deserves to be added to the growing list of notable South Korean films about children. Although it does not reach to the level of Yoon Ga-eu’s two exceptional films “The World of Us” (2015) and “The House of Us” (2018), the movie is equipped with enough charm and heart at least, and it is certainly recommendable to young audiences as well as adult audiences.

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Those Who Wish Me Dead (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Between fire and killers

Taylor Sheridan’s new film “Those Who Wish Me Dead”, which is released today in South Korean theaters before released in US on next Friday, literally burns slowly at first then blazes toward its expected finale. Although this is basically a run-of-the-mill chase story, it thankfully pays some attention to building up its plot and characters first, and the overall result is a fairly good thriller flick which is also competent enough to hold our attention to the end.

During its first act, the movie patiently establishes the current status of a female forest service firefighter named Hannah Faber (Angelina Jolie). Although she seems to be ready for another task when we see her spending some time with her male colleagues, she has still not fully recovered from the trauma caused by a very unfortunate incident during her previous mission, and she does not complain much about being assigned alone to a fire tower located in the middle of her forest region in Montana. Ethan Saywer (Jon Bernthal), a local sheriff who was incidentally quite close to her in the past, shows some sympathy to her when they come across each other due to her certain impulsive illegal act, but that is the last thing she wants right now, and we soon see her beginning her first day at the aforementioned fire tower.

It looks like nothing much will happen around the fire tower during Hannah’s stay, but, of course, a trouble is already heading toward her. In Florida, a guy who happens to be Ethan’s brother-in-law hurriedly runs away along with his little son Connor (Finn Little) shortly after seeing a TV news about an ‘accident’ which killed the district attorney and his family, and he later explains to his son a bit on what is going on. While working for that dead district attorney, he discovered a massive case of corruption which will ruin some powerful people up there in the US government, and there is no one to trust for them except Ethan, who can probably hide him and his son for a while before he can disclose a crucial piece of information on that corruption case in public.

Not so surprisingly, a couple of killers are already pursuing them, and it does not take much time for them in tracking down their main target. As a matter of fact, these two killers are already waiting for the main target and his son when they are almost near to Ethan’s residence, though the situation becomes more messier than expected. The killers succeeded in eliminating their main target, but Connor manages to escape from the spot as his father wanted before his eventual death, and the killers are subsequently ordered to eliminate any loose end besides Connor.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Connor later comes across Hannah, who, right from their accidental encounter in the forest, instantly senses that he really needs help. Still quite traumatized by what he witnessed, Connor is not so willing to trust Hannah, but he has no choice but to depend on her because he must survive and then deliver to any TV reporter a certain stuff entrusted to him before his father’s death.

Meanwhile, the killers are quite determined to accomplish their task by any means necessary. Once they discern that their actions will definitely draw the attention of the local police, they deliberately cause a wild fire for distracting the local police, and that wild fire is quickly spread all over the forest in addition to endangering Connor and Hannah.

Now you may already guess where the story and characters are heading, but the screenplay by Sheridan and his co-writers Michael Koryta and Charles Leavitt, which is based on the novel of the same name written by Koryta, throws some surprises for us while efficiently dialing up the level of suspense. While the killers in the story are certainly wily and ruthless as expected, Hannah and the few other main characters standing on their way are equally smart and resourceful, and I was glad to see that a seemingly functional supporting character turns out to be more active and courageous than I thought at first.

The movie also works as an interesting transition point for Sheridan, who previously wrote the screenplay for “Sicario” (2015) and “Hell or High Water” (2016) before making a directorial debut with “Wind River” (2017). While “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water” were your average gritty macho crime dramas, Sheridan paid more attention to female characters in “Wind River” as reflected by Elizabeth Olsen’s strong lead performance next to Jeremy Renner’s in that film, and now he lets a female character fully take the center stage here in this film. Thanks to another good performance from Angelina Jolie, Hannah comes to us a generic but engaging heroine to watch, and Jolie and young actor Finn Little are convincing in the quick development of their characters’ emotional bond along the story.

In case of the other main cast members in the film, they dutifully fill their respective spots as required. While Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen bring some depth and menace to their villainous characters, Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore are also well-cast in their substantial supporting roles, and you may be a bit amused by the brief appearance of Tyler Perry, who is more believably serious than whatever he did in “Alex Cross” (2012).

Overall, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” will not surprise you much if you are familiar with its genre territory, but it is still a competent piece of work while also being supported well by Jolie’s diligent effort. Although it has been more than 20 years since she drew my attention for the first time via her feisty Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Girl, Interrupted” (1999), Jolie has not lost any of her talent and presence yet, and I hope she will keep going for many years to come.

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The Mitchells vs. the Machines (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): One wacky family adventure

Animation feature film “The Mitchells vs. the Machines”, which was released on Netflix on last Friday, is wacky, speedy, and colorful from the beginning to the end, and it may be pretty dizzy and exhausting for some of you. As a matter of fact, I happened to watch it right after Indian film “The Disciple” (2020), and watching the former right after the latter, which is quite dry, slow, and calm to say the least, was akin to getting a sudden shock into the system even before arising from a serene meditation.

After the frantic opening sequence which quickly introduces us to its main characters one by one, the story promptly goes back to when things were quite normal for them a few days ago. Katie Mitchell (voiced by Abbi Jacobson), a teenage girl who has been aspiring to be a filmmaker, was excited about finally going to a film school in LA where she can pursue her dream and ambition more, and her father Rick (voiced by Danny McBride) and her mother Linda (voiced by Maya Rudolph) were certainly glad about that, but, like any other caring dad, Rick wanted to spend more time with his daughter, especially after reminded again of the considerable gap between them.

So, without telling anything to his daughter in advance, Rick concocts a surprise plan with some support from his wife and their little son Aaron (voiced by director/co-writer Mike Rianda). Instead of having Katie go to LA by airplane, he makes her join the weeklong family road trip from their home in Michigan to LA, and Katie is understandably not so pleased about that for good reasons. After all, she wants to get away from her home as soon as possible, and, though she loves her father as well as her other family members, spending more time with her father is the last thing she wants at present.

Anyway, their family trip turns out to be fairly eventful mainly thanks to Rick’s numerous unwise decisions including the one involved with food poisoning, and Katie comes to have some fun as waiting for their eventual arrival at her film school in LA, but then something quite serious suddenly happens. When Dr. Mark Bowman (voiced by Eric Andre), the founder of a very influential Silicon Valley company not so different from Microsoft or Apple, introduces the new version of his popular virtual assistant application, millions of robots operated by this AI app unexpectedly become very hostile to all the human beings around the world, and Bowman belatedly comes to learn of the evil plan of the mastermind behind it, who has understandably been quite angry at him.

As the world is completely turned upside down because of those unstoppable robots ready to capture any human being on their sight, the Mitchells certainly look helpless, but, of course, they come to rise to the occasion more than once. Although they are still your average dysfunctional family, they stick together as much as they can under Katie’s plan, and they also get some unexpected help from two robots who happen to acquire sort of free will due to their accidental malfunction.

After that narrative point, the screenplay by Rianda and his co-writer Jeff Rowe hurls more actions and gags into the screen, and the result is pretty busy and kinetic but undeniably funny and entertaining despite that. I must confess that I do not think I got all the jokes in the film during my viewing, but the film keeps holding my attention even during the busiest moment thanks to its irrepressible spirit coupled with a zany sense of humor, and it also allows me to have some good chuckles during a number of satiric moments including the one involved with Wi-Fi.

In addition, the film also makes us care about the rambunctiously dynamic relationships among the Mitchells, who are as broad as you can expect from animation characters but become more lovable as we get to know them via their bumpy quest for saving the humanity. While Katie and Aaron are smart and colorful in each own way, Rick and Linda have each own eccentricity, and I will not deny that I had a big guffaw when Linda shows her hidden strength during the climactic part. I will not go into details here for not spoiling your fun, but I can tell you instead that I was quite amused by the unlikely reference to a certain Quentin Tarantino film.

The voice cast members of the film are excellent on the whole. While Abbi Jacobson is perky and lively as required by her role, Danny McBride and Maya Rudolph ably balance their characters between humor and sincerity, and Mike Rianda is also solid as the fourth member of the Mitchells. In case of the other cast members, Eric Andre, Fred Armisen, Beck Bennett, and Conan O’Brien bring extra humor and colorfulness to the film, and Olivia Colman, who can be quite funny in addition to being very serious as shown from her recent Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “The Father” (2020), has lots of juicy fun as the main villain of the story.

In conclusion, “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is sometimes a little too busy and frantic in my humble opinion, but it mostly succeeds in generating plenty of laughs as cheerfully and energetically bouncing from one narrative point to another. I am willing to watch it again someday, but I will probably pause it more than once just for appreciating more of its numerous gags and references, and I have no problem with that. After all, that is what Netflix is for, isn’t it?

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The Disciple (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An observation of artistic struggle

Indian film “The Disciple”, which was released on Netflix in last Friday, calmly observes its musician hero’s seemingly endless artistic struggle, and that is often quite more absorbing and sublime than you may expect. While giving us a vivid and realistic presentation of the small world of Indian classical music surrounding him and others, the movie subtly and sensitively conveys to us its hero’s growing doubt and insecurity along the story, and we come to understand and empathize with him more as noting what is lost and gained for him in the end.

During the first half of the movie, which is mainly set in 2006, we see the daily life of a young Indian classical music vocalist named Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak). He has been under the tutelage of some old guru for several years, and he is eager for more advance and recognition besides excellence, but, alas, these things still seem to be out of his reach no matter how much he tries. He surely practices a lot everyday, and he often listens to the recorded lectures of some legendary vocalist who was incidentally his guru’s mentor, but it looks like he is still far from any artistic breakthrough.

While sharply pointing out his pupil’s errors from time to time, Sharad’s guru later tells him that he should have more patience and be willing to hone his skill and talent more for many years, but Sharad cannot help but feel pressured at times. He has worked at a small company where he handles a bunch of recordings from obscure vocalists everyday, but this job does not look that promising to say the least, and his mother, who frequently calls from his hometown, is always concerned about whether he will finally marry and then settle. When he later comes to participate in a local competition, he becomes quite nervous even before attending it, but he manages to give a fairly good performance in front of the judges.

Via a number of flashback scenes, we get to know the origin of Sharad’s artistic passion. His father was also a vocalist just like him, and, even after he chose an alternative instead of pursuing his vocalist career more, he often instilled his learnings and disciples into young Sharad. During one flashback scene, we see his father having a TV interview in front of a group of audiences including young Sharad, and the movie deliberately modifies visual quality and screen ratio for emphasizing Sharad’s present perspective on that moment. Time has passed a lot since that moment, and his father is not remembered that much now just like many others in their field, but Sharad still cherishes that moment nonetheless.

However, Sharad and his career are not going anywhere as usual. Time continues to pass, but he is still stuck in his shabby status as before, and he becomes more unsure and insecure about his artistic potential. When he observes one of his peers getting some success, he cannot help but become envious, and there is a little amusing moment when he considers giving a reply to one mean comment to his recent YouTube clip.

While quietly going through small ups and downs along with its hero, the movie slowly immerses us into his environment, and director/writer/editor Chaitanya Tamhane and his crew members did a fabulous job of filling the screen with considerable verisimilitude. Thanks to cinematographer Michał Sobociński, we get a number of terrific shots to be admired for thoughtful camera movement and precise scene composition, and I particularly like a recurring long-take shot showing Sharad riding a motorcycle at night. As he listens to the recorded words of that legendary vocalist, everything feels slow and calm around him, and we come to sense more of what he is trying so hard everyday.

Furthermore, the movie pays a lot of attention to presenting its musical elements as realistically as possible, and we are accordingly served with several good performance scenes to remember. Although these scenes are mostly plain on the surface, Sobociński’s camera subtly and patiently captures mood and details on the screen, and they come to function as the fascinating glimpses into a cultural world alien to most of us. Not so surprisingly, Aditya Modak and several other cast members in the film are actually singers/musicians, and they certainly bring lots of authenticity to these performance scenes.

On the whole, “The Disciple”, which won the FIPRESCI International Critics Prize and the Best Screenplay award when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year (It also won the Amplify Voices Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival, by the way), is an extraordinary piece of work which deserves more attention for its impressive technical aspects, and Tamhane, who previously made a feature film debut with “Court” (2014), surely shows here that he is a talented filmmaker to watch. Those calm and immersive qualities of his film remind me a lot of Alfonso Cuarón’s great film “Roma” (2018), and I was not so surprised to learn later that Cuarón helped Tamhane a lot during the pre-production and production of the film in addition to serving as one of its executive producers.

By the way, as watching the haunting last shot of the film, I came to reflect a bit on my current status as an amateur movie reviewer. To be frank with you, Sharad’s doubt and frustration certainly resonated with me a lot, and that made me wonder whether all the efforts I have put in my movie review blog during last 10 years will actually lead up to anything in the end. At least, I have been mostly happy to share my thoughts and feelings with you for years, and I am really grateful for that, even if I am never going to be as prominent or famous as I wish in the end.

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