Run (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little thriller set between mother and daughter

You probably should know nothing at all before watching “Run”, a little thriller film which turns out to be quite smarter than it seems on the surface. Right from its very first scene, you will come to have a pretty good idea on what you are going to get, but, though it may not surprise you that much, the movie provides enough thrill and excitement to hold your attention during next 80 minutes, so I strongly suggests you not to read the following paragraphs if you really want to be entertained as much as possible.

The story of the movie mainly revolves around a woman named Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) and her adolescent daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen), and the early part of the movie quickly establishes how much Diane has been occupied with raising her daughter. As directly conveyed to us at the beginning of the film, Chloe has been suffering from a number of illnesses including asthma for years, and Diane has been paid lots of motherly attention to her daughter’s wellbeing in many aspects. Besides her daughter’s routine medication, she has willingly taken care of many other domestic matters including the healthy daily diet for her daughter, and she has also taught her daughter a lot of things via her exemplary homeschooling.

Although she is mostly bound to her wheelchair and home due to her physical disability, Chloe has been content and happy within her little cozy environment, and we observe what a good daughter she is to her mother. She has been a pretty good student under her mother’s thoughtful teaching, and she is now aspiring to be enrolled in a state university where she can pursue her dream of becoming a prosthetics engineer someday.

As a matter of fact, Chloe has been waiting for the reply from that state university since she sent her application form some time ago, but there has not been any letter sent to her yet. Whenever Diane checks the latest mails sent to their residence as usual, she assures to Chloe that she will promptly notify Chloe on anything important for her, and Chloe initially trusts her mother’s words, but then doubt grows in her mind after she notices something quite suspicious from her mother at one point.

Of course, this shadow of doubt in Chloe’s mind becomes larger as she comes to notice more strange things from her mother. For instance, she is perplexed to discover that one of several different pills she has taken everyday is prescribed to her mother instead of her, and her suspicion only grows more even after her mother gives her a seemingly plausible explanation on that. When she later attempts to get to the bottom of this matter, she becomes more aware of how firmly and ominously her mother has been standing between her and the world outside, and that accordingly leads to a subtly tense moment between them on the very next day.

Although what has been lurking beneath the relationship between Chloe and her mother is exposed sooner than you might expect, the screenplay by director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian, who also produced the film along with Natalie Qasabian, did a skillful job of dialing up and down the level of suspense along the increasingly disturbing battle of wits between its two main characters. Both of them are clever enough to sense and guess what they do not reveal to each other on the surface, and the movie deftly toys with our expectation during a number of key scenes including the one associated with Chloe’s attempt on the identification of that questionable pill.

During its second half, the movie comes to lose a bit of its narrative momentum as having nearly all of its cards unfolded to us, but it still keeps engaging us nonetheless, and we accordingly become more emotionally involved in what will eventually happen between its two main characters. While the expected climatic moment is a little too predictable in my inconsequential opinion, the movie deftly delivers an effective dramatic punch for us at least, and you may also like a little nasty touch in the following epilogue scene.

Because it is basically a two-hander piece, the movie surely depends a lot on the presence and talent of its two lead performers, who dexterously complement each other as their conflicting characters push or pull each other throughout the film. While Sarah Paulson, who has been always dependable since her breakthrough turns in TV series “American Horror Story”, has a lot of fun with her character’s shifty aspects, newcomer Kiera Allen, who is actually a physically disabled person as shown in the film (She is the first female wheelchair-using actress to appear in a suspense film since Susan Peters in “The Sign of the Ram” (1948), by the way), does more than holding her own place well in front of her seasoned co-star, and I sincerely hope that the movie will lead her to more good opportunities in the future.

On the whole, “Run” feels less refreshing and surprising compared to Chaganty’s debut feature film “Searching” (2018), but this is a smart and efficient genre piece which handles its familiar story promise quite well. In contrast to pushing one fascinating story device all the way in “Searching”, Chaganty attempts here something quite plain and basic to the core, and he admirably succeeds in addition to confirming to us that he is indeed a good filmmaker who does know how to engage and thrill us. Yes, I clearly saw through it from the beginning, but I did not mind that at all as savoring its suspenseful moments enough, and I assure you that you will appreciate the efforts and skills packed into it.

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Radioactive (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A scattershot biopic on Marie Curie’s life and career

I remember well when I came to learn about the life and career of Marie Curie from a little biography book for children around 30 years ago. Although life was pretty hard and difficult for her because of a number of obstacles in front of her, this extraordinary Polish woman persisted anyway as stubbornly following her endless passion toward science, and she eventually became one of the leading scientists in her field in addition to receiving no less than two Nobel Prizes for her enormous academic contribution.

That is why I had some expectation on Marjane Satrapi’s new film “Radioactive”, which attempts to look here and there around Curie’s scientific career and contribution. As a biopic, the movie surely tries something different via its unconventional storytelling approach, and that intrigued me for a while during my viewing, but, despite the commendable performance from its lead actress, the overall result is rather scattershot and middling while not showing much beyond what I already know about its main subjects.

After the prologue scene in 1934, the movie moves back to 1893, when Curie, played by Rosamund Pike, was a young and headstrong student studying science in Paris. When Curie, who was Marie Skłodowska at that time, fiercely protests about how her ongoing study has been constantly interrupted by her insensitive male laboratory colleagues, the professor of her laboratory fires her without any hesitation, and now she has to search for any other laboratory to hire her, but, not so surprisingly, nobody is particularly willing to provide a space for her current scientific research.

While Curie becomes quite frustrated about this situation, there comes an unexpected opportunity via Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a promising scientist who happens to have his own laboratory and turns out to be quite interested in Curie’s research. As they talk more with each other, she and Pierre find themselves clicking well with each other, and it does not take much time of her to come to work and study in Pierre’s laboratory. Although his laboratory is rather small and shabby, Curie is delighted to find where she can freely study and work at last, and Pierre, who later marries her, always stands by her as her No.1 supporter and collegue.

Their common scientific interest is focused on the possible existence of some unknown radioactive element in uranium ore, and we accordingly see how Curie and her husband diligently working on the detection and purification of that radioactive material in question. First, they needed to crush and pulverize tons of uranium ore, and the following sequence shows us how demanding this research of theirs was in more than one aspect.

However, the movie moves onto their eventual success too quickly without conveying to us much of their Herculean efforts for the successful purification of two new radioactive elements, and it also stumbles in the depiction of the relationship between Curie and her husband. Although Sam Riley did a fairly good job of supporting Pike during their several key scenes, he is mostly limited by his bland character, and that is the main reason why Pierre’s unexpected death in 1906, which was caused by a very unfortunate accident, does not feel that devastating to us.

Moreover, the screenplay by Jack Thorne, which is based on Lauren Redniss’s acclaimed graphic novel “Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”, frequently alternates between its main narrative and the visual presentation of several historical incidents associated with Curie’s research on radioactivity, and that is often distracting instead of widening our perspective on her scientific contribution. For example, Pierre’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is intercut with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and then we later see Curie’s growing awareness of radioactive sickness being juxtaposed with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, but these and other similar scenes feel blatant and artificial while not generating much dramatic effect.

In case of Curie’s affair with her fellow scientist Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), the movie gives Pike opportunities to express more of her character’s strength and vulnerability, but this part unfortunately fizzles as the movie hurriedly moves onto her significant contribution during the World War I. Although she does not like hospital much due to her persona reason, Curie comes to apply her scientific knowledge on those injured soldiers on battlefields after persuaded by her older daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy, who shines as usual despite her underwritten supporting role), and there is also a small amusing moment when Irene introduces her future husband to her mother, who is not initially amused but then instantly approves of him once she discerns how willing he is to study radioactivity along with her daughter (As many of you know, Irene and her husband also won a Nobel Prize later).

Although it has more style and personality compared to the 1943 biopic film “Madame Curie”, “Radioactive” is not successful enough in my trivial opinion due to several glaring flaws including its weak narrative structure. The movie surely has all the right stuffs for its main goal, but, to our disappointment, it is no more than an admirable failure, and that is a shame considering the sincere efforts from Satrapi and her cast and crew members.

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Mank (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As he writes “Citizen Kane”

David Fincher’s new film “Mank”, which is released here in South Korea today and will be available on Netflix early in December, presents a personal perspective from the writer who co-wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), which is incidentally one of the greatest works in the history of cinema. As a guy who has slowly come to admire “Citizen Kane” more and more after the first viewing in 1996, I certainly observed the movie with keen interest right from the first shot, and the movie does not disappoint me at all with its admirable style and mood, even though it occasionally feels distant and detached in its bitter and sardonic presentation of some very unpleasant sides of Hollywood during the 1930-40s.

The screenplay by late Jack Fincher, who is Fincher’s father, alternates between two time periods, one of which is when Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is sent to a ranch in Victorville, California in early 1940 for writing the screenplay for Welles. While he is still recovering from the injury from a recent car accident and also struggling with his alcoholism as before, Mankiewicz is willing to meet the rather early deadline set by Welles, and Welles’ close associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton) is understandably nervous about whether Mankiewicz can pull it off in the end, even though Mankiewicz will be assisted and supported by his German nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann) and his British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) during his stay at the ranch.

Mankiewicz’s difficult struggle for what can be his comeback work is often intercut with a series of flashback scenes from the 1930s, when he was one of the most prominent screenplay writers working in the MGM Studios. When his fellow writer Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) comes to Hollywood after receiving Mankiewicz’s invitation, Mankiewicz gladly shows him here and there inside the MGM studios, and there is a dryly humorous moment when Lederer, Mankiewicz, and other MGM staff writers attend a meeting with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), the head of the MGM Studios. Once one story idea is suggested, it is embellished step by step by Mankiewicz and his colleagues, and it goes without saying that Lederer gets an unenviable job of providing a finishing touch.

While Hollywood is surely a place where Mankiewicz and other writers can freely wield their talents especially after the introduction of talkies, the movie also incisively observes the less glamorous sides of Hollywood along with its hero. As the Great Depression is still continuing outside, Mayer emphasizes to a group of many different employees of his that they all should sacrifice to some degree as a, uh, family, but Mankiewicz clearly sees through the empty words in Mayer’s speech, though he just cynically observes without saying much.

Meanwhile, Lederer introduces to Mankiewicz a certain MGM star actress who happens to be Lederer’s aunt. She is Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and she and Mankiewicz quickly befriend each other during the shooting of her latest film, whose production is financed by Davies’ lover William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Besides being quite rich, Hearst is very influential around the country due to his newspapers, and it goes without saying that he is not someone Mankiewicz or others in Hollywood can mess with at any chance.

Through his connection with Davies, Mankiewicz is subsequently invited to Hearst’s huge mansion, which is, as many of you know, the main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in “Citizen Kane”. When Mankiewicz happens to stroll along with Davies outside Hearst’s mansion at one point, they come to have a sincere and honest conversation, and this little sweet moment is enhanced further by the surprisingly sensitive orchestral score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who try here something quite different from their stark and aggressive electronic scores for Fincher’s previous films.

During the second half of the film, the gradual completion of the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” is bitterly juxtaposed with Mankiewicz’s growing disillusionment with Hollywood. For stopping a certain famous left-wing figure running for the California gubernatorial election, Mayer, who is closely associated with Hearst, is ready to do anything, and we later get a chillingly relevant subplot involved with one of Mankiewicz’s close colleagues, who comes to feel quite remorseful after making a virulent propaganda film not so different from those fake news in our time.

In case of Welles, who is embodied well by a brief but pitch-perfect performance from Tom Burke, he comes to clash a lot with Mankiewicz later in the story as arguing with him over whether Mankiewicz’s name is put on the screenplay along with Welles’. This will surely remind you of that infamous controversy on the authorship of “Citizen Kane” ignited by Pauline Kael many decades ago, but the movie sidesteps that while mostly siding with Mankiewicz.

Because of firmly sticking to Mackiewicz’s weary viewpoint, the movie is constantly accompanied with a dry sense of detachment which may frustrate you along with its rather slow narrative pacing, but it is still an impressive piece of work thanks to Fincher, who has never made a film looking bad and lousy, and his crew members. The production design by Donald Graham Burt and the costume design by Trish Summerville are top-notch in their authentic period details, and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt serves us a number of gorgeous moments as distinctively evoking the visual textures of old classic Hollywood films during the 1930-40s.

As the center of the story, Gary Oldman, who will probably garner another Oscar nomination in the next year for this film, deftly balances his character among wit, humor, and pathos, and he is also surrounded by a bunch of good performers who dutifully fill their spots as demanded. While Charles Dance is formidably regal as Hearst, Amanda Seyfried brings considerable warmth and spirit to her rather underdeveloped role, and Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Charles Lederer, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Gossmann are well-cast in their respective supporting roles.

On the whole, “Mank” will require some patience from you for several good reasons, but it is a mostly rewarding experience I am willing to examine again sooner or later. Although I am not sure whether it is another career peak in Fincher’s filmmaking career after “The Social Network” (2010) and “Gone Girl” (2014), I still admire this beautifully dispassionate work a lot despite some reservation, and it is certainly one of the most notable films of this year.

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Psychomagic, A Healing Art (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Psychomagic presented by Jodorowsky

When I heard for the first time about Alejandro Jodorowsky’s unorthodox therapy approach called ‘Psychomagic’, I simply regarded it as a merely interesting artistic element to mention in my reviews on his films. According to Jodorowsky himself, Psychomagic, which is a sort of alternative to psychoanalysis, can heal personal pain and trauma via performing symbolic acts, and you can clearly see his deep belief in Psychomagic from many keys moments of his several unforgettable cult films such as “Santa Sangre” (1989), whose poignant emotional climax has its deeply troubled hero liberated from the presence of his domineering mother via a classic case of Psychomagic therapy.

Jodorowsky’s documentary film “Psychomagic, A Healing Art” shows us how he has applied his philosophies of Psychomagic to real life, and that is surely interesting to watch to say the least, but I also cannot help but regard a number of cases presented in the documentary with a certain degree of skepticism. While those supposedly therapeutic moments in the documentary amused and intrigued me during my viewing, my skepticism on Psychomagic kept popping up throughout the documentary mainly because Jodorowsky keeps emphasizing on the positive effects of Psychomagic without any counterpoint, and he also goes a bit too far with that around the end of the documentary in my humble opinion.

After the brief introduction on Psychomagic by Jodorowsky himself, the documentary presents to us a number of different cases of success from his Psychomagic therapy. In case of one guy, he is clearly in the need of being free from his painful childhood memories of abuses from his own father, and his emotional confession on his unhappy past is followed by the scene where he lets Jodorowsky and his assistants bury himself in the ground. Once the guy is buried in the ground almost completely, Jodorowsky and his assistants cover the burial spot with lots of animal meat and organs, and we soon see a flock of vultures flying down from the sky to devour these bloody stuffs.

Once this ritual, which is a symbolic act for the death of the guy’s former self, is over, Jodorowsky has the guy naked and then drenched in milk for making the guy feel like, well, born again, and everything is over with a small act for saying goodbye to the hurtful memories of the guy’s abusive father. Some time later, the guy talks about how much he has felt better since that, and it does look like his Psychomagic therapy works as well as he and Jodorowsky hoped.

In a part featuring one problematic couple, both of them talk a lot about their inability to love well each other despite their mutual care and affection toward each other, and then we see them attempting to go through a series of acts for forming a new connection between them. Once they come to realize that they may have to end their relationship for each other’s benefit, they go through an act which seems to be inspired by one certain moment in Jodorowsky’s “Tusk” (1980), and what follows next is probably one of the most gentle moments of separation I have ever seen from movies and documentaries.

In case of a female cellist, she enthusiastically talks about how Jodorowsky’s viewpoint on menstruation helped her overcome an artistic obstacle of hers. Inspired by how Jodorowsky has some of his female patients express themselves via the blood from their menstruation (This is not a joke, I assure you), this woman applied her own menstruation blood to her cello, and she claims this symbolic act helped her subsequent performances a lot.

The most poignant case in the documentary probably comes from a 47-year-old man who has frequently suffered stutter. Once he locates a personal pain responsible for his stutter via his private session with Jodorowsky, the man subsequently subjects himself into a series of bold acts prescribed to him by Jodorowsky, and it is oddly touching to see him smoothly speaking without any inhibition despite being almost naked in public spaces.

However, I still regard this and other cases presented in the documentary with reasonable doubt. In case of one Australian dude who has been very angry about his family, Jodorowsky simply has him smash three big pumpkins respectively representing his family members, and we later see him sending some pieces of smashed pumpkin to his family via express mail. This looks quite silly to me, and I am not even so sure about whether this really works for this dude, because it is more or less than sticking pins into a voodoo doll.

It is understandable that Jodorowsky does not provide any opposite viewpoints on Psychomagic, but one scene later in the documentary suggests that Psychomagic can even cure cancer, and you may find yourself rolling your eyes during this distracting moment. A woman claims that she recovered from her cancer after receiving, uh, the positive group energy she received from many audiences in the middle of Jodorowsky’s public lecture on Psychomagic, and Jodorowsky also seems to believe that.

I still have lingering reservation on whether I should recommend it to you despite being a big fan of many of Jodorowky’s works, but “Psychomagic, A Healing Art” will surely engage you if you enjoy his works. Although I recently came to admire him less than before due to his very insensitive claim on a certain key scene in “El Topo” (1970) in the past, the documentary shows that he is still one of the most interesting filmmakers in our time, and I hope he will keep going on during his remaining years.

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Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): As festive as expected

Netflix film “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is a sweet and cheerful fantasy musical film which is surely ideal for the upcoming holiday season. To be frank with you, I am a dude a little too cranky and melancholic to enjoy its story and characters wholeheartedly, but I must admit that I could not help but amused and delighted at times by the game efforts from its cast and crew members, and I bet that you will probably have the same reaction while watching this pleasantly wholesome product.

After the opening scene where the character played by Phylicia Rashad comes to read a certain book to her two grandchildren during one winter night, the early part of the movie focuses on the unfortunate downfall of Jeronicus Jangle (Justin Cornwell), an ingenious inventor who has run a popular toy shop called Jangles and Things with lots of support from his wife and young daughter. As another Christmas season is coming, he is about to add the final touch to his latest invention, and, not so surprisingly, he succeeds as usual to his and his family’s delight.

Alas, this latest invention of his, which is a sort of clockwork version of artificial intelligence doll, turns out to be too successful. As soon as discerning its singularity being threatened by the next step of Jeronicus’ plan, it persuades Jeronicus’ dissatisfied apprentice Gustafson (Miles Barrow) to steal not only itself but also a book packed with Jeronicus’ many inventions ready to be introduced sooner or later, and Jeronicus is certainly devastated when his apprentice is gone along with that book and his latest invention.

After that incident, Jeronicus and his business have gone down during next several years. Deprived of his usual spirit and confidence, Jeronicus becomes less interested in invention, and he is further devastated when his wife dies not long after that. Although his young daughter still tries to support and motivate him, he only becomes quite more distant to his daughter, who is eventually sent away to somewhere and has been disconnected from him since that.

In the end, his glorious toy shop is turned into a shabby pawn shop, and Jeronicus, who is now played by Forest Whitaker, is a bitter gruff man who is mostly occupied with how to maintain the status quo of his pawn shop. Although he has recently tried to invent something again, there has not been much progress yet, and he is also notified that his pawn shop will be soon foreclosed by a local bank due to its dwindling business at present.

As Jeronicus is mired in despair and frustration, there comes an unexpected change via Journey (Madalen Mills), a plucky little girl who is the daughter of Jeronicus’ estranged daughter. As clearly reflected by her hair accessories, she is eager to be an inventor someday just like her grandfather, and she is ready to receive any lesson or wisdom from him right from when she arrives at his pawn shop, but Jeronicus is not particularly excited or delighted by her arrival while not showing anything in his attic laboratory.

Of course, Journey soon comes to discover what has been hidden in her grandfather’s attic laboratory, and, what do you know, she and Jeronicus’ clumsy apprentice Edison (Kieron L. Dyer) luckily find a certain crucial element to make her grandfather’s latest invention work, but then there are a couple of problems. While her grandfather remains so skeptical, Gustafson, who has built his own toy business empire via what he stole from Jeronicus, has been looking for any other thing to steal from Jeronicus, and this nefarious dude, who is now played by Keegan-Michael Key, instantly goes for that latest invention of Jeronicus once he happens to spot it.

The mood subsequently becomes a little more serious as expected, but the movie keeps sticking to its festive tone as before, and director/writer David E. Talbert did a competent job of mixing many different elements into his film. While we get several broad comic scenes including the one featuring an impromptu snowball fight, there is a fun action sequence unfolded at Gustafson’s big factory, and the movie also gives us a number of exuberant musical scenes driven by the songs written by Philip Lawrence, Davy Nathan, Michael Diskint and John Legend, who also serves as one of the producers of the film.

Talbert also draws a bunch of engaging performances from his main cast members. Justin Cornwell’s confident handling of a key musical scene early in the film makes an effective contrast with Forest Whitaker’s relatively low-key acting, and Whittaker, who once studied opera as a tenor before studying acting, has a little nice musical moment to reveal his jaded character’s longtime pathos. While young performer Madalen Mills naturally shines with irrepressible charm and spirit, Keegan-Michael Key, Anika Noni Rose, Miles Barrow, Kieron L. Dyer, Lisa Davina Phillip, and Hugh Bonneville are also solid in their respective supporting roles, and Ricky Martin gives a juicy voice performance for his little villainous CGI character.

Overall, “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” is not exactly fresh in terms of story and characters as your average Christmas season tale, but it is still an entertaining one balanced well between sweetness and darkness. I still prefer something naughtier like, say, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) or “Bad Santa” (2003), but I enjoyed this movie enough anyway, so I will not be grouchy about it for now.

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The Life Ahead (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Sophia Loren still rules

Italian Netflix film “The Life Ahead” is a sentimental melodrama which is considerably elevated by the indelible screen presence of Sophia Loren, who is one of the legendary movie stars of the 20th Century. Even though the movie does not delve that much into her character’s long past, you can instantly get the sense of life and personality from her right from when she enters the screen, and that surely reminds us again that she still rules even as we are entering the third decade of the 21st century.

The story of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of a young Senegalese orphan boy named Momo (Ibrahima Gueye). Since his prostitute mother died under a rather unspecified circumstance some time ago, he has been in the custody of a kind old doctor along with other orphans, but he is not particularly happy about his recent circumstance while still struggling with the loss of his mother, and he has also kept making troubles outside despite the old doctor’s patient tolerance of that.

On one day, Momo happens to steal a valuable stuff from Madame Rosa (Sophia Loren), an old lady who happens to be one of the old doctor’s patients. After he takes Momo to Rosa’s apartment for giving her the apology from Momo, the old doctor suggests to Rosa that she should take care of Momo instead because, well, 1) the boy is in the serious need of some motherly care and 2) Rosa, who once worked as a prostitute, has been known well for taking care of the kids of fellow prostitutes in her neighborhood.

Because she has already been quite busy with taking care of two other kids and making ends meet, Rosa is initially not so eager to take Momo under her wing, but she eventually agrees to do that when the old doctor gives her an offer she cannot refuse. Not so surprisingly, Momo does not welcome this change much, but he decides to stay in Rosa’s residence after a local drug dealer, who is willing to have Momo on his payroll, advises to him that it will be easier for him to work outside if he chooses to live with Rosa for a while.

His first day at Rosa’s residence is not so pleasant to say the least, but Momo slowly gets accustomed to his new environment. Although he and Rosa do not get along that well with each other, Rosa does not interfere much with whatever he does outside, though she later introduces him to an Algerian dude who may hire Momo at his old local shop. While he surely feels awkward when he meets two other kids being taken care of by Rosa, it does not take much time for him and them to get along well with each other, and he also gets acquainted with the transgender prostitute mother of one of these two kids, who was incidentally a lightweight boxer before her gender transition (That is the main reason why nobody dares to mess with her, by the way).

Meanwhile, Momo also comes to learn of what Rosa has kept to herself for many years. She sometimes goes down to the basement of her apartment building, and he sees her spending time there without saying much. As clearly shown to us via one brief shot showing her wrist in advance, Rosa is a Holocaust survivor, and the movie and Loren wisely do not overplay that aspect while letting us guess for ourselves how much Rosa struggled and endured for survival during the World War II and its aftermath.

The movie, which is based on Romain Gary’s novel “The Life Before Us” (It was previously adapted for cinema as “Madame Rosa” (1977), which received a Best Foreign Language Oscar at that time) , sometimes falters in its depiction of the relationship development between its two lead characters, and some of its several narrative turns later in the story are not as effective as intended, but director/co-adapter Edoardo Ponti, who is the son of Loren and her late husband Carlo Ponti, keeps holding our attention via a number of genuine moments of sincerity and poignancy. When Rosa’s fragile medical condition becomes more deteriorated than before, Momo comes to care about her more than before, and we get several touching scenes as he takes some risk for letting her have some dignity before the approaching end of her life.

Even at that point, Loren, who is 86 at present, remains vivid and captivating as usual in what may be the last highlight of her exceptional acting career. Although she have not worked much since her notable supporting turn in Rob Marshall’s forgettable musical film “Nine” (2009), she demonstrates here that she is still a legend alive and well, and I can only hope that the wide availability of this movie on Netflix will lead numerous young movie fans out there to her many other highlights including Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” (1961), which incidentally garnered her a Best Actress Osar.

On the opposite, young performer Ibrahima Gueye holds his own place well next to Loren, and it is always interesting to watch how these completely different performers complement each other on the screen. The supporting cast members including Abril Zamora, Renato Carpentieri, and Babak Karimi are also solid on the whole, and Karimi, who previously appeared in Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011) and “The Salesman” (2016), brings some human warmth to his rather functional role.

In conclusion, “The Life Ahead” will not surprise you much as being pretty familiar to the core, but it is still fairly enjoyable thanks to Ponti’s unadorned direction and the good performances from Loren, Gueye, and the other main cast members in the film. From its very first shot, we can clearly discern what it is going to do, but we gladly go along with that as beholding Loren, and it surely confirms to us on her enduring star qualities.

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Martin Eden (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): He wants to be a great writer…

The hero of Italian film “Martin Eden” is probably one of the least interesting writer characters I have ever seen throughout my inconsequential moviegoing experience of around 30 years. While I admire his passion and spirit to some degree, what he says and writes throughout the film usually bored me, and then I became conflicted as alternatively amused and distracted by the deliberately artificial style and mood of the movie.

Although Jack Landon’s novel of the same name on which the movie is based is set in the American society around the early 20th century, the screenplay by director Pietro Marcello and his co-writer Maurizio Braucci moves the story and characters to Italy during an unspecified time period somewhere around the 1960-70s, and this background change feels sort of amusing at first. We observe a few notable period details from time to time, but the movie is adamantly ambiguous about its exact period background, and its soundtrack freely bounces among different music styles while supported by the eclectic score by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci.

Anyway, our hero Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is your typical struggling writer character. Although he has aspired to be a great writer someday, he has still been stuck in his working class background without much progress, and he does not even get any proper education to help him taking the first step for his future writing career. At one point, he applies for college education, but his interviewers are aghast at his apparent lack of education, and I must confess that this rather silly moment somehow made me feel an urge to strike his head with a copy of William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s “The Elements of Style”.

On one day, Martin happens to save a rich lad from a little trouble, and this lad gladly invites Martin to his big house for introducing Martin to his family as a new friend. Being quite open-minded as he says, the lad’s parents generously welcome Martin without any hesitation, and the lad’s sister, Elena (Jessica Cressy), is instantly attracted to Martin because, well, she is enthralled by his passion and ambition besides his handsome appearance.

Elena is willing to help Martin in one way or another, and so are his parents, but Martin firmly refuses any help from them as a guy who has zealously stuck to his belief and dignity. His mind is particularly occupied with absorbing what Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer wrote, and the movie later gives us a couple of big scenes where he attempts to defend his rather old-fashioned social/political belief in front of others around him.

Meanwhile, things get worse for Martin with more despair and frustration. After clashing hard with his brother-in-law who have provided him a place to say just because of his wife, Martin eventually decides to leave the residence of his brother-in-law and his family, and he subsequently moves to a rural town where he luckily receives the kindness of a stranger he met on a train. He continues to write as usual, but his works keep getting rejected as before, and he soon finds himself against the wall due to his increasingly poor financial situation.

Of course, there comes a precious opportunity to Martin when he meets an aging writer after attending Elena’s birthday party. While quite jaded and cynical to say the least, this old writer does not mind giving some advices and lessons to Martin, and then Martin’s writing career finally gets a breakthrough he has yearned for years.

During the last act of the movie, we observe Martin being at the top of his field some time later, but the movie never fully conveys to us what makes his works so special except throwing the fragments of his thoughts to us at times. We are merely served with a series of aimless tirades from him, and these moments only remind us more of how much he lets himself wallowed in self-pity and self-hate. As a consequence, we do not care that much about him, and the thin narrative and superficial characterization of the screenplay further exacerbate this problem.

Luca Marinelli, who recently drew our attention for his solid supporting turn in “The Old Guard” (2020), looks as dashing and charismatic as demanded by his archetype role, but his performance, which incidentally won the Best Actor award when the movie was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, feels uneven and jarring particularly during the last act of the movie. In case of several other main cast members revolving around him, most of them are stuck with their flat supporting roles, and Carmen Pommella and Carlo Cecchi manage to leave some impression while Jessica Cressy and Denise Sardisco do not have much to do in contrast except functioning as two different women in Martin’s life.

Although I became more disappointed during its last hour and is accordingly baffled about some enthusiastic responses from several movie critics, the movie is not entirely without interesting stuffs to observe. I did enjoy its several anachronistic touches, and I also liked how the movie utilizes a number of old movie footage clips for reflecting its hero’s churning state of mind or whatever.

Nevertheless, I must point out to you that there are many other films about writers which are much better than “Martin Eden”. As a matter of fact, I would love to recommend you to watch “Wonder Boys” (2000) right now, and I assure you that you will get a more entertaining experience from that small gem which surely deserves more recognition and appreciation in my trivial opinion.

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Love and Monsters (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Reaching for love across a post-apocalyptic world

“Love and Monsters” is a likable post-apocalyptic movie which often amuses or terrifies us as expected. Although it is more or less than a mere combination of several different genre pieces ranging from “Monsters” (2010) to “Zombieland” (2009), the movie is well aware of that aspect from the very beginning, and it willingly goes along with that aspect as cheerfully brandishing its goofy sense of humor here and there around its meek hero’s bumpy journey across his perilous world.

At the beginning, a lad named Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) tells us how the whole world was suddenly turned upside seven years ago. When a huge asteroid was unexpectedly heading right toward the Earth, US and many other countries responded to this dire emergency via shooting lots of nuclear missiles to the asteroid, and the mission seemed accomplished when the asteroid was consequently destroyed into far smaller pieces before reaching to the Earth. Unfortunately, the resulting fallout from this destruction turned out to contain dangerous mutagens which transformed all the cold-blooded animals on the Earth into big giant monsters, and the human civilization was thoroughly destroyed by these monsters within a few years.

Most of the survivors of this global catastrophe came to hide in underground bunkers, and Joel has been living with a bunch of survivors in one of these bunkers. As he casually admits to us, he does not have a particular set of skills for battling against any possible threat from the world above, but he has been fairly useful in cooking and many other small things to be handled everyday in the bunker, and he has been content with that so far.

However, Joel often feels inferior to some other members of the group who are braver and tougher than him. He is also miserably alone while every other member of the group has someone to love, but he has been consoled a bit by his routine radio correspondence with Aimee (Jessia Henwick), who was his girlfriend before the catastrophe hit their hometown. Although they became separated during that dangerous time, Aimee luckily survived just like Joel, and now she has been living along with several other survivors at a spot far from Joel’s current residence.

On one day, his latest radio communication with Aimee is suddenly cut off for no apparent reason, and Joel cannot help but become quite concerned about Aimee’s safety. He seriously considers going to Aimee’s spot for himself, but, as he and others around him know too well, he may get himself killed by those monsters in the world above even before the first day of his risky journey is over, and he hesitates more over what he should do right now.

Nevertheless, Joel’s undying love toward Aimee eventually beats his constant fear of monsters out there, so he comes to go up to the world above as everyone in the bunker wishes him good luck, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that he really needs more than luck. While the world seems quiet and peaceful on the surface at first, we soon see various kinds of big monsters lurking around here and there, and our hero almost gets himself killed when he happens to encounter one of them, which later turns out to be more dangerous and stubborn than expected.

At least, our hero also comes across several characters who are a lot more well-adjusted to this dangerous environment. Joel accidentally befriends a dog which is quite intelligent and resourceful to say the least, and it does not take much time for him to accept this dog as a companion for his ongoing journey. When he literally tumbles down into another peril not long after that, he is fortunately saved by a pair of survivors, and they gladly impart some valuable lessons to Joel as they and he move together for a few days.

Never overlooking what it is being at stake for our hero, the movie gives us a series of humorous moments, most of which naturally come from our hero’s fear and clumsiness and his steady efforts to overcome them. Joel seems pretty hopeless at first, but, thanks to his accidental companions, he comes to find some grit inside him (Is this a spoiler?), and we accordingly come to root for him more.

Director Michael Matthews also takes some time for immersing us more into the post-apocalyptic background of the movie. While we get a number of terrifying moments to jolt us, there are also unexpected moment of awe and wonder such as when our hero and his companions happen to behold a certain big monster slowly moving right in front of them, and I also appreciate a funny and poignant scene involved with an abandoned robot which provides our hero a little solace.

The main cast members in the film did a convincing job of inhabiting in the background unfolded on the screen. While Dylan O’Brien, who is incidentally no stranger to post-apocalyptic world considering his appearance in “The Maze Runner” (2015) and its two sequels, demonstrates here a more humorous side of his talent, he is supported well by Jessica Henwick, Michael Rooker, and Ariana Greenblatt, who steals the show as much as the dog in the film.

Overall, “Love and Monsters” does not break any new ground in its genre territory, but it is still a competent genre piece balanced well between comedy, horror, and action. Although it does not exceed my expectation, it achieves as much as intended as serving us enough fun and thrill, so I will not grumble about this charming little monster flick for now.

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The Day I Died: Unclosed Case (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): She needs to get to the bottom of this case…

South Korean film “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is a mystery noir drama which gradually reveals its weary but palpitating heart behind its seemingly detached attitude. Although the mystery of its story is a bit too simple for some of you, the movie diligently focuses on its troubled detective heroine and her dogged pursuit of truth as slowly revealing to us a lot about her state of mind as well as her case, and it surely earns its narrative payoff around the arrival point of her gloomy emotional journey.

During the first act of the movie, we get to know the ongoing predicaments of Kim Hyeon-soo (Kim Hye-soo), a female detective who had a very unfortunate accident which can considerably jeopardize her career. When she returns to her workplace, Hyeon-soo is warmly welcomed by her direct superior, and she assures to her direct superior that she has recovered enough during her brief absence after that accident, but her direct superior reminds her that she will soon have to face an internal investigation committee on that accident anyway.

Nevertheless, her direct superior assigns Hyeon-soo to a case in the need of being closed as soon as possible. An adolescent girl who was a key witness for the case involved with her father was suddenly gone in the middle of her temporary stay in a remote island, and a note left by her clearly suggests that she committed suicide for understandable personal reasons. All Hyeon-soo has to do is checking whether there is not any big problem in closing the case, and her direct superior may give some help to her later if she does the job as well as wanted by her direct superior and others.

Like any good detective, Hyeon-soo looks into the circumstance surrounding that girl’s case step by step, and it looks like there is nothing surprising or baffling about the case. Before her father’s serious financial crime was exposed, Se-jin (Roh Jeong-eui) did not suspect her father at all, and she even fully cooperated with the police shortly after she happened to discover an incriminating evidence against him. After she was sent to that island for protection and recovery by the prosecution, she was often monitored by two police officers assigned to the case, and the video clips from several surveillance cameras placed in and around a house where she stayed do not show anything particularly suspicious.

As a part of her procedure, Hyeon-soo comes to that island, and she still cannot find any strange thing as getting some testimonies from the residents of that island. While Se-jin did not interact much with them as mostly staying in a house kindly provided to her, the people of that island did not have any problem with that at all, and, as shown from a flashback scene, they were all shocked when it looked like she committed suicide at a rocky cliff. They subsequently tried to find her body as much as they could, but, alas, the day when she was assumed to commit suicide was quite a stormy day, and her body has still not been found even at present.

It seems that there is nothing else Hyeon-soo has to do except closing the case as ordered, but she cannot help but become obsessed with small blank spots left here and there in the case. Why does the lawyer representing Se-jin’s only close living family member try to bribe Hyeon-soo while asking for a number of Se-jin’s personal items? Why has the girlfriend of Se-jin’s father stayed away from any contact even though she eventually turned out to be not associated with his crime at all? Why does one of the two police officers assigned to Se-jin refuse to talk with Hyeon-soo at any chance? And, above all, why did Se-jin not specify her suicide motive that much in her few last words?

While she keeps trying to find the answers for these and other questions, we come to have more understanding of the source of Hyeon-soo’s growing obsession. Besides feeling quite pressured about having to face the internal investigation committee sooner or later, she also has to deal with the stress from her rocky divorce process, and there is no one to lean on for her except a very close friend/colleague, who naturally becomes quite frustrated and exasperated to see her best friend becoming more self-destructive than before. Often feeling alone and depressed more than before, Hyeon-soo comes to identify more with Se-jin, and she adamantly continues to delve into the case for this unfortunate girl who really needed more attention and care.

The final act of the movie probably will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned connoisseur of mystery stories like me, but director/writer Park Ji-wan skillfully handles story and character development without any hiccup, and it is satisfying to see when everything in the story comes to make sense during the finale. Although the epilogue scene initially feels rather redundant, the movie wisely sticks to its low-key tone even at that point, and we are reminded of how much our heroine is changed at the end of the story.

As the center of the movie, Kim Hye-soo, who has been one of the most prominent South Korean actresses during last two decades, dutifully carries the movie via another strong performance of hers, and several other main performers in the film hold each own place well around her. While Roh Jeong-eui effectively hovers over the story as required, Kim Sun-young is solid as Hyeon-soo’s caring friend/colleague, and Lee Jung-eun, who gave a magnificent supporting performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), is superlative in her nearly wordless acting.

Overall, “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is more like a character study instead of merely being your average police procedural, and Park, who previously made a couple of short films, makes a solid feature film debut here. Considering what is presented in the movie, she is a good filmmaker with considerable potentials in my trivial opinion, and I guess I can have some expectation on her next work in the future.

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Let Him Go (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A western family drama

“Let Him Go” works best whenever it focuses on the strong and loving relationship of its two lead characters. Right from when they appear at the beginning of the story, we instantly come to sense the long history between them, and it surely helps that they are played by two star movie performers who have not lost any of their talent and presence during last four decades.

The first act of the movie is set in a rural area of Montana in the 1960s. We are introduced to George and Margaret Blackledge (Kevin Costner and Daine Lane), and everything feels fine and well for this gentle middle-aged couple and several people they have deeply cared about. Their only son married not so long ago, and Margaret is willing to help her daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) raising her little grandson in their cozy ranch house while George often works with his son outside.

However, this happy family life of theirs do not last long due to a tragic accident which kills George and Margaret’s son. While George and Margaret have tried to deal with their loss and grief since that tragic incident, Lorna comes to lean on some other guy in a nearby town, and it does not take much time for her to marry this guy and then move to his residence along with her son. Although they are not so pleased with this decision of hers, George and Margaret respect their daughter-in-law’s decision anyway with some perfunctory blessing on her second marriage.

Not long after Lorna left, Margaret happens to witness a very disturbing moment while she is in the town for grocery shopping. At first, she is delighted to spot Lorna and her grandson from the distance, but then she is unnerved to watch them abused by Lorna’s new husband. Quite concerned about Lorna and her grandson, Margaret decides to take some action later, but Lorna and her second husband are already gone along with their son when Margaret subsequently attempts to visit them.

It seems Lorna’s husband takes his wife and stepson back to his hometown in North Dakota, so Margaret soon prepares for searching for them in North Dakota, and that generates a little moment of conflict between Margaret and her husband. Although he has some reservation on whether she will succeed or not, George comes to accompany his wife because 1) As a former town sheriff, he is well aware of the possible dangers his wife may come across on the road and 2) he knows too well that he cannot possibly stop her when she is quite determined.

During the middle act, the movie takes a more leisurely tone as George and Margaret drive from one spot to another in the middle of their long journey across North Dakota. Fortunately for them, it does not take that long for them to find the whereabouts of Lorna and her son and second husband, and it seems that all they have to do is convincing Lorna to let them take their grandson back to Montana.

However, as George and Margaret get closer to the destination where Lorna has currently lived with her son and second husband, the mood gradually becomes tense and unnerving. It turns out that Lorna’s second husband brought his wife and stepson to his family ranch home located in the middle of some remote region, and it goes without saying that his family are not pleased to see two outsiders meddling with their family matter.

And these folks also turn out to be quite vicious to say the least. Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville), the matriarch of this family who has apparently held a firm control over her sons including Lorna’s second husband, exudes loony menace and insidiousness right from when she meets Margaret and George for the first time, and George and Margaret come to behold what a toxic environment Blanche’s house is for Lorna and her son.

While George and Margaret try to save Lorna and his son from Blanche and her virulent family as much as possible, the screenplay by director/writer Thomas Bezucha, which is based on Larry Watson’s novel of the same name, continues to develop its plot with more genre elements including a Native American character who happens to befriend Margaret and George by coincidence. While cinematographer Guy Godfree’s camera often shows the gorgeous shots of mountains and plains, the restrained score by Michael Giacchino tentatively accompanies these starkly beautiful moments, and they surely make a striking contrast with brutal moments of violence later in the film.

Although the movie becomes less interesting as heading to its expected finale, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who incidentally appeared together as a couple in “Man of Steel” (2013), still hold our attention as before, and they are simply effortless especially during a number of small intimate moments between their characters. On the opposite, Lesley Manville, who has been more prominent thanks to her stellar supporting turn in “Phantom Thread” (2017), forcefully chews every scene of hers as required by her very twisted character, and Will Brittain, Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, and Booboo Stewart are also well-cast in their respective supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Let Him Go” is a rather plain genre film on the whole, but it is supported well by not only Bezucha’s competent direction but also the enjoyable performances from Costner, Lane, and Manville. Yep, the story is quite familiar to the bone, but these good performers elevate their stock materials to some degree, and I appreciate that a lot.

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