Cocaine Bear (2023) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): This bear is pretty wild and high…

“Cocaine Bear” is as cheerfully silly and gory as you can expect from its very title. Outrageously developed from one amusing real-life incident, the movie goes all the way for gore and absurdity, and the resulting shocks and laughs are almost enough to carry its one-joke promise to the end. I wish it had more flesh and bones to be chewed by its titular bear figure in terms of story and characters. but I will not deny that I was often amused even while recognizing its noticeable weak points.

I must tell you that that real-life incident is surely preposterous but far less dramatic than what is depicted in the film. In 1985, a drug smuggler threw away loads of cocaine packages from his airplane before jumping from the airplane in the middle of a flight over Knoxville, Tennessee, but unfortunately, he fell to his death due to a little but fatal problem. Not long after that, a certain bear in a nearby forest region happened to ingest a considerable amount of cocaine from one of those discarded cocaine packages, and this bear was eventually found dead because of its overdose (It was subsequently stuffed and displayed at a mall in Kentucky, by the way).

The screenplay by Jimmy Warden goes much further from this utterly ridiculous real-life incident. In the movie, that bear in question becomes not only quite high but also very, very, very violent after ingesting lots of cocaine, and it goes without saying that its consequent brutal rampage along the story leads to lots of shock and awe for us. During its first scene in the film, a European couple unluckily come across the bear in the forest, and it surely gives them something they will never forget during the rest of their remaining life.

After that, we are introduced to a bunch of characters who may all be on the target list of our bear. There is a criminal organization boss who must retrieve those cocaine packages as soon as possible, and this figure, played by late Ray Liotta (The movie is dedicated to his memory), instructs one of his underlings to go to the forest along with his rather unenthusiastic son, who has been quite depressed to lose his loving wife recently. When the body of that pilot is found, a local detective instantly senses a chance to catch that criminal organization boss, and he quickly embarks on searching for anything to lead him to his longtime adversary.

Meanwhile, we are also introduced to two local kids who decide to skip their school just because they want to have a little special time together in the forest. No, their plan does not involve with sex at all, but they are old enough to know what they accidentally come across in the forest, and you will surely get some amusement as they “innocently” talk and discuss about what they are going to do with what they have just found.

It does not take much for these two kids to realize that they are in a very serious danger, and they certainly get a fair share of terror just like many other characters in the story. In case of a local nurse who is incidentally the single mother of one of these two kids, she simply wants to know where the hell the kids are right now, but, along with two other unfortunate supporting characters, she soon finds herself terrorized by the sudden appearance of the bear, who is eager to ingest cocaine more and more despite being quite high and violent.

Although it is essentially your average CGI animal figure, the bear, who is incidentally nicknamed “Cokey the Bear” by Boston Globe movie critic Odie Henderson, is indubitably the most fun character in the film, and director Elizabeth Banks, who recently tickled us a lot as accompanied by a dude wearing a big bear suit at the Academy Awards ceremony, and her crew have lots of crazy and bloody fun with this big furry animal figure. While the movie comes to lose some of its comic momentum later in the story, it is perked up whenever the bear appears on the screen, and our bear character also turns out to have a little wacky surprise involved with its gender.

I must point out that the human characters in the story are less substantial in comparison, though a number of recognizable performers in the film do try as much as they can do for filling their cardboard roles. While Keri Russell is the most sympathetic one in the bunch (Matthew Rhys, her co-star in the acclaimed TV drama series “The Americans”, briefly appears in the film, by the way), O’Shea Jackson and Alden Ehrenreich play their criminal characters straight even during their most outrageous moment in the movie, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and Margo Martindale are reliable as usual, though they are rather under-utilized in my inconsequential opinion. In case of Brooklyn Prince, a young performer who was utterly unforgettable in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project” (2017), she demonstrates here that she grows up a lot besides being on the road to a promising adult acting career, and I admire how willing she is to go for some naughty laugh for us.

In conclusion, “Cocaine Bear” is not as hilarious as I expected when I watched its trailer a few months ago, but it reminded me of what critic Pauline Kael once said: “The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can’t appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go.” Yes, “Cocaine Bear” is not even a great trash, but it is a fairly solid one at least, and I think you will be entertained more than me if you just want to spend your remaining free time.

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Plane (2023) ☆☆(2/4): As plain as it sounds

I know it sounds like a cliché, but “Plane” is sadly as plain as it sounds, and that is a big disappointment for me. As your average B-action flick, it does not provide much fun or surprise as earnestly following its familiar story formula without any style or personality, and the overall result is fairly competent but ultimately superficial to say the least.

Gerard Butler, who is no stranger to B-action flicks just like Liam Neeson and also participated in the production of the film as one of its co-producers, plays Brodie Torrance, a Scottish commercial pilot who has worked for some big commercial airline. New Year’s Day is near, but Torrance has to fly an airplane to depart from Singapore as scheduled, and the opening scene shows him hurriedly arriving in the airport not long after the departure time.

While there are not many passengers on the airplane, Torrance is concerned about one particular passenger. That passenger in question is a former French Foreign Legion soldier named Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter), and this guy is being extradited to Canada on charges of homicide by an accompanying Canadian police officer. Although Gaspare is placed around the end of the airplane while also being handcuffed, Torrance understandably worries about whether Gaspare’s presence will unnerve the other passengers on the airplane, and Gaspare certainly draws their attention despite his silent appearance.

Anyway, Torrance and his co-pilot come to pay more attention the other safety issue to face during their flight. They are instructed to take a shortcut across the South China Sea for saving time and fuel, but a storm happens to be developing in the area, and it is possible that the airplane may have to go through that storm. As Torrance worried from the beginning, the airplane eventually comes across that storm which becomes more dangerous than before, and things soon become quite perilous when the airplane comes to have a big malfunction problem after getting struck by a lightning in the middle of the storm.

Torrance manages to land the airplane on one of those tropical islands in the Philippines, but the situation turns out to be much problematic than expected. Because the electronic system of the airplane is broken, he and others on the airplane are totally isolated from the outside world, and they may have to wait for many days before the search party finally locate them. Therefore, Torrance decides to go inside the surrounding jungle area for looking for any chance for communicating with the outside world, and he reluctantly enlists Gaspare in his little desperate operation because of Gaspare’s military experience.

Right from the beginning, Gaspare seems to be ready for his possible escape, but, of course, he turns out to be more helpful than expected when it is confirmed that not only he and Torrance but also others are in a really serious danger. As Torrance’s co-pilot warned in advance, the island is a lawless region occupied by criminals and rebel soldiers, and the leader of a rebel group is already ready to take all the passengers and crew members of the airplane as hostages once he receives the information about its emergency landing.

Of course, Torrance and Gaspare work together for saving the passengers and crew members of the airplane, but the movie does not generate much suspense from that as flatly providing one predictable moment to another. Yes, both of them show us how tough they are, though Torrance is relatively less skilled than Gaspare in eliminating those rebel soldiers one by one. Yes, the passengers and crew members of the airplane come to have very unpleasant experiences thanks to the leader of the rebel group and his equally cruel and barbaric soldiers, and I was not surprised to learn later that the movie was not so welcomed by the people of the Philippines.

Above all, the movie fails to develop Torrance and Gaspare into solid action movie heroes to watch. While we get to know a bit about Torrance’s personal life, that feels mostly redundant, and he remains a bland archetype character despite Butler’s diligent efforts. In case of Gaspare, he is more or less than your typical killing machine without any interesting personal aspect, and Mike Coulter is seriously wasted as only demanded to look intense and ambivalent.

In case of several other main characters in the story, they are merely plot elements to handle, and that is another disappointment in the film. The passengers and crew members of the airplane are mostly defined by their helpless status, and they are even far less colorful than those stock characters of “Airport” (1970) or “Airplane!” (1980). In addition, the movie pays some attention to the rescue operation led by a former Special Forces officer played by Tony Goldwin, but that feels rather unnecessary while often decreasing the level of the suspense in the film, and Goldwin remains stuck in his thankless supporting part without many things to do except looking very, very, very serious.

In conclusion, “Plane”, directed by Jean-François Richet, is quite dissatisfying for its big failure to entertain us in one way or another, and I wish it went further for more fun and entertainment instead of holding itself too much in its mediocre seriousness. In fact, there are many better B-action flicks out there such as, say, “Snakes on a Plane” (2006), and you may have a much more productive time with any of them.

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Soulmate (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two best friends

South Korean film “Soulmate”, which is a remake version of the 2016 Chinese film of the same name, revolves around the dynamic friendship between two very different girls. While mostly faithful to the Chinese original version, the movie distinguishes itself fairy well as successfully transplanting the story and characters into the South Korean background, and it is also supported well by the strong performances from its two promising lead performers.

The movie begins with a mystery surrounding one talented female artist who has gained considerable attention in public thanks to a number of exceptional artworks but refuses to reveal anything about herself except her name. Because she was once close to this female artist in the past, Mi-so (Kim Da-mi) is approached for more information, but she flatly replies that she has been not in contact with her friend for years, and that seems to be all she can tell at present.

However, after she happens to encounter someone else in her past, Mi-so comes to reflect more on her past with Ha-eun (Jeon So-nee), and the movie naturally goes back to when they met each other for the first time around two decades ago. At that time, young Mi-so was newly transferred to young Ha-eun’s elementary school in Jeju Island, and she was not so happy about moving there, but then she instantly drew Ha-eun’s attention. Although they were different from each other in many aspects, they soon got pretty close to each other, and Mi-so gladly depended on Ha-eun and her family when Mi-so’s single mother later left Mi-so alone in Jeju Island for some personal reason.

Several years later, Ha-eun and Mi-so become high school students, and they often talk and dream about what they are going to do in the future. While Ha-eun is simply content with being a schoolteacher as her parents have wanted, Mi-so is eager to get out of Jeju Island and then experience the world outside, and she even comes to quit her school and then work at a local bar later just because she just wants to enjoy her life right now.

Meanwhile, somebody happens to enter their little private world. When Ha-eun confides to Mi-so that she has had a crush on a certain boy in her school, Mi-so decides to check out this boy, and that leads to a rather awkward moment between them. When Ha-eun later expresses her affection toward him, Jin-woo (Byeon Woo-seok) does not mind this at all, and they eventually begin their romantic relationship, but, what do you know, Jin-woo and Mi-so soon come to sense the mutual attraction between them as they come to spend time along with Ha-eun.

Of course, Mi-so naturally feels quite conflicted about what is happening between her and Jin-woo, and this consequently prompts her to leave Jeju Island and then go to Seoul, but she fails to keep her secret from Ha-eun. Although Mi-so promises to Ha-eun that she will return after going here and there for a while, they become more distant and estranged from each other during next several months, and that is quite apparent to both of them when Mi-so finally returns to Jeju Island.

We already know where the story will eventually arrive, but the screenplay by director Min Yong-geun and his co-writer Kang Hyun-joo keeps us engaged while never losing its focus on its two contrasting main characters. As their complex relationship swings amid many different emotions ranging from affection to resentment, Ha-eun and Mi-so come to influence each other a lot more than expected, and there is a poignant irony between their respective life stories. While Mi-so comes to settle into a lot more stable position after going through a series of ups and downs, Ha-eun comes to reflect more on what she really wants to do with her life, and we are not so surprised at all when she comes to take a big bold step later in the story.

In addition, the movie is constantly energized by the terrific duo performance from its two lead performers. Kim Da-mi, who has been mainly known for “The Witch: Part 1. The Subversion” (2018), and Jeon So-hee, who previously drew my attention for her crucial supporting turn in “After My Death” (2017), are flawless as their characters push and pull each other throughout the film, and their effortless chemistry on the screen is almost equal to that of Zhou Dongyu and Ma Sichun in the Chinese original version. In case of several other cast members, young performers Kim Soo-hyung and Ryu Ji-an are smoothly connected with Kim and Jeon, and Byeon Woo-seok manages to acquit himself well despite his colorless functional role (To be frank with you, that little cute stray cat adopted by our two heroines early in the film has much more presence in my inconsequential opinion).

On the whole, “Soulmate” does not surpass the original Chinese version, but it is a solid remake which has enough sincerity and sensitivity to be appreciated. Because I still remember the original Chinese version well, this remake version does not feel exactly fresh to me, but I admire how it handles the story and characters in its own way while staying mostly true to its original version, and I assure you that it earns all the tears from its expected melodramatic finale. Yes, I surely knew in advance what I and other audiences would get, but the movie engaged and then touched me during its 2-hour running time nonetheless, and that is more than enough for recommendation for now.

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Shazam! Fury of the Gods (2023) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Another forgettable superhero flick

One of my friends once told me that he comes to care about superhero flicks far less than before, and I came to feel more like him while watching “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”. Although I was not terribly bored during my viewing at last night, I remained mostly unimpressed and distant throughout its 130-minute running time without much care or attention, and all I can say is that the movie is just marginally better than that boring superhero flick starring Dwayne Johnson in last year.

I enjoyed “Shazam!” (2019) enough for recommendation, but, folks, I do not remember that much about it although it has been only four years since I watched it in 2019. Oh, yes, we all went through a pretty hard time in one way or another during last three years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so 2019 feels like a distant past these days, but I still cannot recollect much of “Shazam!” except its silly but rather amusing story premise.

The story premise of “Shazam!” is surely simple enough to remember. After his fateful encounter with an old ancient wizard played Djimon Hounsou, Billy Baston (Asher Angel) comes to acquire the power to transform into a mighty superhero figure played by Zachary Levi, and he comes to share his power with his fellow foster kids including Frederick “Freddy” Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) as going through their first big adventure.

Since that adventure, Billy and his fellow foster kids have often done some heroic stuffs in their hometown while hiding their superhero identity from others around them, but things do not look exactly good for them. Despite their latest heroic act, they are still not so welcomed by the city and its citizens, and Billy is also having some emotional issues as he feels more insecure about himself and his future. He and his fellow foster kids have had some fun together inside and outside the house belonging to their generous foster parents, but they are growing older day by day, and they may be separated from each other someday if they are too old to be under their foster care.

And then, of course, there comes a new menace which will threaten not only their city but also the whole world. Three ancient gods, who happened to be released by Billy’s rather reckless deed in the previous film, are looking for Billy and his fellow foster kids, and these ancient gods, played by Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, and Rachel Zegler, want to retrieve not only the superpower of Billy and his friends but also something they need for restoring their barren world. Once warned by that old wizard, Billy and his friends try to stop these ancient gods, but they soon find themselves becoming pretty helpless for a good reason, and there is also one complicated situation between Freddy and one of their opponents.

The mood subsequently becomes all the more serious as heaps of CGI creatures and actions are unfolded onto the screen, but I observed that from the distance without enough entertainment. As hurriedly moving its main characters from one point to another, the movie is frequently contrived in terms of story and characters, and the romantic subplot between Freddy and the aforementioned character feels rather redundant as often being pushed aside for more actions served to us.

Like the previous film, the movie occasionally tries a number of silly moments for some amusement, but most of them are flat and disposable on the whole. Although he can be both funny and likable as shown from the previous film, Levi’s performance here in this film is somehow deficient in comic spontaneity, and his superhero character remains to be a one-joke superhero figure just like the fellow superhero figures surrounding him. In case of Jack Dylan Grazer, he tries as much as he can do with his conventional sidekick character, but he is often limited by his under-developed role, and the same thing can be said about Zegler, who is considerably wasted here compared to her wonderful breakout turn in Steven Spielberg’s recent musical film.

In contrast, Mirren and Liu acquit themselves well as the two main antagonistic figures in the story. While Liu has a few juicy big moments from her character’s vengeful aspects, Mirren shows admirable professional commitment as effortlessly bringing some menace and authority to her character. She knows that playing absolutely straight is the best way to handle the materials given to her, and she certainly amuses us as maintaining her usual unflappable attitude even during the silliest moments in the film. As a matter of fact, she is as heroic as she was in that dreadful high school black comedy film “Teaching Mrs. Tingle” (1999), where she was incidentally its sole saving grace.

Overall, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods”, directed by David F. Sandberg (He also directed the previous film, by the way), is another forgettable superhero flick of this year after “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (2022), and they made me wearier about all those superhero movies to come during next several years. In my inconsequential opinion, the ongoing era of superhero movies had already passed the peak even before “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) came, and the disappointing results of “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” confirm my little concern more. I will surely keep reviewing whatever will come next, but, considering my ever-growing weariness with superhero flicks, I do not know whether I can actually endure.

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The Janes (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Still relevant, unfortunately

HBO documentary film “The Janes” looks into a fascinating real-life story about a group of remarkable women in Chicago who willingly helped thousands of women in the urgent need of abortion from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. During that time, abortion was illegal in many of the states including Illinois, and they could actually get arrested and then imprisoned for their illegal service, but they kept going nonetheless – before abortion eventually became legal in 1973 thanks to that landmark US Supreme Court decision.

At the beginning, the documentary presents how these women were motivated by the big sociopolitical change in the American society in the 1960s. As the society was shaken a lot by the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war protests day by day, more people came to demand for more social change, and that prompted many female activists to raise their voice more for women’s rights. However, as several interviewees in the documentary sharply point out, they were put aside as frequently overshadowed and ignored by many male activists during that time, and they surely had a fair share of disillusionment because of that.

Nevertheless, many of them still did not give up as continuing to fight for women’s rights, and that was how a bunch of female activists in Chicago started an illegal abortion service for women. Their risk was considerable not only for the police who often monitored them but also for those local mobsters involved with underground abortion business, but they took the risk anyway mainly because they firmly believed that safe abortion should be more accessible to many women out there.

Mainly via the underground advertisements introducing them as “Janes”, they let themselves known to their potential clients, and, needless to say, they soon found themselves handling lots of clients day by day. They looked for doctors who might work with them, and they even got associated with an abortionist who was quite experienced despite not being a certified professional at all. As a matter of fact, this dude even taught them a lot about how to do a safe abortion when he decided to quit his little illegal business later.

Several surviving members interviewed in the documentary fondly reminisce about how they really tried their best during that risky time. For avoiding any possible suspicion, they often changed the gathering spot for their clients, and they were also careful about selecting a suitable place where abortion would be performed in secret. Of course, they always needed lots of medical stuffs, and they were certainly discreet when they had to purchase those medical stuffs from many different local drugstores.

These good women’s passionate efforts during that time are contrasted with how poorly the American society dealt with women’s reproductive rights for many decades. In the Cook County hospital in Chicago, which is now The John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County, there was a separate ward for those unfortunate female patients suffering for botched illegal abortion, and a doctor who once worked there tells us about how frequently he and others at the ward witnessed small and big tragedies everyday.

And that is why the efforts of the “Janes” are quite admirable. While they worked on their clients under many limits, but they always focused on their clients’ safety and welfare. Although they did get paid for their illegal service, they always considered their clients’ respective financial situations first, and they also paid a lot of attention to whether their clients did not have any medical problem after their abortion. In the end, they performed approximately 11,000 abortions from 1968 to 1972, and it should be mentioned that none of their clients died or was seriously injured.

Of course, things became quite more serious later when they eventually drew more attention from the Chicago Police Department. Because some clients of the “Janes” were associated with some powerful figures in the city, nobody particularly wanted to get involved into this matter, but then there came an inevitable point where the “Janes” came to confront the legal consequence of their illegal activity. Fortunately, they hired a very good female lawyer, who was shrewd enough to delay the following trial until the US Supreme Court delivered its decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973.

The surviving Jane members interviewed in the documentary gladly talked about how happy they were when their illegal service was not needed anymore thanks to Roe v. Wade, but many of us cannot help but feel lots of bitterness because that landmark US Supreme Court decision was unfairly overturned not long after the documentary was released in last year. This was certainly a big blow to the women’s rights in the American society, and it is really frustrating to see the American society being more regressed to that gloomy time of prejudice and bigotry.

Anyway, “The Janes” is a compelling documentary which illuminates a relatively unknown story involved with the women’s rights in the American society, and directors/co-producers Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes did a commendable job of presenting their human subjects with care and respect. Considering their common main subject, it will make a nice double feature who with Phyllis Nagy’s recent debut feature film “Call Jane”, and both of them will surely enlighten you a lot on that.

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Call Jane (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A story about women called “Jane”

“Call Jane” presents a conventional fictional story inspired by a real-life story about a group of remarkable women who tried their best for providing safe abortion to many women during the late 1960s. Although its overall result is a bit too mild in my humble opinion, the movie is fairly engaging at least thanks to good storytelling and solid performances, and its main subject surely resonates a lot with what is going on in the American society at present.

The story, which is set in Chicago in 1968, is unfolded mainly via the viewpoint of its fictional heroine who is just your average middle-class American suburban wife. When she belatedly discovers that she has been pregnant for several weeks, Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is not so pleased at all for good reasons. First, she and her lawyer husband did not plan to have another child besides their adolescent daughter, and, above all, her current pregnancy turns out to be quite risky for her life as well as her health.

Naturally, both she and her husband prefer abortion, but there is a big problem because her case has to be reviewed by a group of hospital doctors, most of whom are incidentally male. No matter how much she tries, they do not listen to her at all from the beginning, and they flatly reject to do an abortion for her. At least, her doctor suggests some other option for getting the approval on her abortion, but Joy does not like that option at all, and that makes her all the more frustrated.

In the end, Joy decides to take care of the matter for herself in private, but that turns out to be much difficult than expected. Although she manages to get some money for her abortion without telling anything to her husband, she cannot help but become very anxious when she visits a certain shady spot in one slum neighborhood area of Chicago. Instantly sensing that this spot is not very good for her at all, Joy hurriedly leaves, and then she comes across a small advertisement for pregnant women, and she later comes to use the telephone number on that advertisement.

All Joy has to do is calling for “Jane” via that telephone number while giving some information on how she can be approached on the phone later. Again, she becomes very nervous, but, what do you know, what follows next turns out to be much less painful than expected. Once everything is arranged for her in private, she meets an abortionist associated with “Jane”, and everything is done pretty quick before she gets some little rest and comfort at an office place packed with women working under that code name.

Their leader is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), and it does not take much time for Joy to get drawn into what Virginia and her colleagues have been doing for several months in secret. At first, Joy reluctantly agrees to be a temporary driver for women in the urgent need of abortion just like her, but, what do you know, she becomes more interested in becoming a “Jane” as coming to learn more of how valuable “Janes” are to many women out there. Eventually, she becomes a lot more active than she ever imagined at first, and she even becomes willing to go further than many of her colleagues.

While Joy and her colleagues sometimes clash with each other over a number of matters including the one involved with how their service should be more accessible to their poorest clients, they all know too well that they should be really careful all the time because abortion is still mostly illegal throughout the country. Joy keeps telling her husband and daughter that she is occasionally attending an art class outside, but, of course, they soon wonder more about what she is exactly doing out there, and that consequently puts some strain on her relationship with them.

The screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi feels unfocused at times as trying to show and tell a little too many stuffs within the 2-hour running time, but it still engages us via episodic human moments among Joy and many other female characters around her. Whenever Joy and her colleagues gather and work together on the screen, the movie becomes more energized than usual, and you may wish that the movie could delve more into their passion and dedication instead of merely following its heroine’s conventional character arc.

Anyway, the main cast of the film are enjoyable to watch on the whole. Elizabeth Banks, whom I still fondly remember for her game efforts in that sticky B-horror comedy film “Slither” (2006), is believable in her character’s gradual growth along the story, and Sigourney Weaver is also effective as the no-nonsense leader who tactfully balances her group between idealism and pragmatism. In case of several other substantial cast members in the film, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards and John Magaro fill their respective supporting roles with enough life and personality, and the special mention goes to Wunmi Mosaku, who was wonderful in Netflix movie “His House” (2020) and demonstrates more of her talent and presence here in this film despite her under-developed supporting character.

“Call Jane” is the first feature film of director Phyllis Nagy, who previously received an Oscar nomination for her adapted screenplay for Todd Haynes’ “Carol” (2015). Compared to that great film, “Call Jane” is less impressive, and I think it could be better in several aspects, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its good elements besides its important social issue. Considering how the American society fails to protect women’s reproductive rights even at present, the movie is surely timely to say the least, and it will probably make you reflect more on that.

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Knock at the Cabin (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): The Cabin at the End of the World

M. Night Shyamalan’s new film “Knock at the Cabin” is a modest but tense thriller surrounded by one grim possibility of apocalypse. While it sometimes feels like an extended episode of “The Twilight Zone”, that is what we usually expect from Shyamalan’s films, and he handles the story and characters well enough to hold our attention before the movie arrives at its inevitable finale.

The story begins with one ominous encounter in the middle of a remote forest area. While she is enjoying her own free time while her adoptive gay parents are resting in a nearby cabin, Wen (Kristen Cui) sees a hulking male figure approaching to her, and she soon comes to have some talk with him. Although this guy, who is named Leonard (Dave Bautista), looks like mild and gentle on the surface, Wen instinctively senses something wrong about him – especially when she sees three other strangers also coming to her.

Naturally quite disturbed, Wen runs away to the cabin for warning to her adoptive parents, and Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) are certainly alarmed to see Leonard and his three fellow strangers. As these four strangers knock on the front door, Eric and Andrew try to block them as much as possible while also trying to call the police, but, of course, the phone line is already cut, and they are soon overpowered by Leonard and his companions once Leonard and his companions eventually break into the cabin.

After having both Eric and Andrew tied up in chair, Leonard and his companions explain why they come to the cabin. All of them have had apocalyptic visions for some time, and they firmly believe that their visions will come true unless there comes a willing sacrifice from Andrew, Eric, and Wen. One of them must be killed for preventing the impending apocalypse, and, not so surprisingly, suicide is not an option in this case.

Of course, neither Andrew nor Eric believes what they are just told, and they try to deal with Leonard and his companions as sensibly as possible, but it soon turns out that Leonard and his companions are quite serious about what they believe. Whenever Andrew and Eric refuse to make a choice, Leonard and his companions show how they are really committed to their shared belief, and you will wince more than once for good reasons, though many of violent moments in the film are not directly depicted on the screen.

And it looks like what Leonard and his companions are warning about is really happening outside. Because TV is still working, Eric and Andrew see several inexplicable big disasters happening around the world, and Leonard and his companions insist that these are consequences from Andrew and Eric refusing to make a sacrifice to abort the eventual apocalypse.

Andrew and Eric remain unconvinced on the surface for good reasons, but they respond to their impossible situation in different ways. While Eric, who was incidentally injured in his head in the middle of the break-in, somehow becomes calmer, Andrew becomes more frantic and furious, and he also intensely questions the real motive of Leonard and his companions. He later recognizes one of Leonard’s companions because they had a very unpleasant encounter some years ago, and he naturally comes to suspect more that he and Eric were targeted just for being gay.

In the meantime, the screenplay by Shyamalan and his co-writers Steven Desmond and Michael Sherman, which is based on Paul G. Tremblay’s “The Cabin at the End of the World”, insert occasional flashback scenes which flesh out the relationships among Eric, Andrew, and Wen. Besides being a good couple despite a few setbacks including the disapproval from Andrew’s parents, Eric and Andrew also have been good daddies to Wen since they adopted her in an unofficial way, and both of them care about Wen’s safety first even when they try to get out of their current tricky circumstance as much as possible.

I will not go into details on what eventually happens along the story, but I can tell you instead on how Shyamalan and his crew members keep things rolling even when the story becomes more predictable later in the film. Thanks to the cinematographers Jarin Blacshke, who was previously Oscar-nominated for Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” (2019), and Lowell A. Meyer, the movie seldom feels stiff or stuffy even though it mostly stays within its limited background, and the score by Herdís Stefánsdóttir is often striking whenever it needs to inject the sense of doom into the screen.

In case of the main cast members of the film, Dave Bautista is a definite standout as ably balancing his seemingly gentle character between menace and desperation, and he is supported well by Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abby Quinn, and Rupert Grint, who has gone his own way like Daniel Radcliffe since their Harry Potter films. Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge are also solid as the emotional center of the story, and young actress Kristen Cui holds her own small place well among her adult co-stars.

In conclusion, “Knock at the Cabin” is one of more enjoyable films from Shyamalan, who has had a fair share of ups and downs since he was Oscar-nominated for “The Sixth Sense” (1999). Although it does not reach to the level of several similar but better films including Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” (2001) and Michael Tolkin’s “Rapture” (1991), the movie is fairly entertaining for Shyamalan’s competent direction and several fine performances to notice, and that is good enough for recommendation for now.

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Suzume (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Love and earthquake

Makoto Shinkai’s latest animation film “Suzume” is visually gorgeous enough to compensate for its typical mix of fantasy, adventure, and romance. Although I often felt rather distant to the story and characters due to several weak aspects, the film has lots of wonderful visual moments to savor, and the overall result is a bit better than Shinkai’s previous films “Your Name” (2016) and “Weathering with You” (2019).

The story begins with an accidental encounter between its two main characters. When she is beginning another usual day at a little seaside town in Kyūshū, Suzume (voiced by Nanoka Hara), a pretty high school girl who has lived with her aunt since she lost her mother a long time ago, comes across a mysterious lad who is looking for some abandoned place in the town. Although their encounter was brief, Suzume soon finds herself quickly smitten with this handsome dude, so she subsequently goes to where he is supposed to go.

That abandoned place in question is an old spa resort area which is no longer in business. As looking for him here and there, Suzume comes across a door standing still in the middle of one wide spot, and, what do you know, the door turns out to be a sort of portal to some other world. While quite befuddled by this, she accidentally removes a certain stone from the ground, and then this stone is turned into a cat and then runs away from her.

Of course, it subsequently turns out that the door is not just a mere portal. Through that door, something dark and disturbing is unleashed, and Suzume and that lad, who belatedly arrives at the door, manage to close the door before it is too late. According to him, that dangerous entity in question is a sort of dark energy which can cause big earthquake, and it has been his job to keep this door and many other doors in Japan closed for safety. His name is Sōta (voiced by Hokuto Matsumura), and we later come to learn that his family has been the guardians of these doors for many centuries.

Anyway, mainly because Sōta was injured a bit, Suzume takes him to her house, and then another unexpected thing happens. That magical cat suddenly appears in front of them, and Sōta is transformed into a three-legged chair right before it is gone again. For getting transformed back to his human from, he needs to retrieve the cat, and Suzume accordingly finds herself on an impromptu journey as chasing after the cat along with him from one area to another in the country.

What follows next a series of episodic moments where Suzume fortunately receives some kindness of strangers whom she and Sōta come across in the middle of their accidental journey. For example, not long after they succeed in having another portal closed as before, they come to stay in a local inn thanks to one nice girl around her age, and you will surely appreciate how delicious the dinner looks on the screen.

Meanwhile, the film doles out a series of impressive visual moments which are worthwhile to watch on big screen. Whenever that dark energy is unleashed from the opened portal, it surely looks both epic and terrifying as hovering in the sky without being noticed by anyone except Suzume and Sōta. In case of one big sequence set in the downtown area of Tokyo, the city and its citizens are presented with vivid details to notice, and that makes a striking contrast with the grand fantasy elements in the sequence.

The story also pays some attention to the relationship development between its two main characters along the story. Although he is now a small chair which can incidentally talk and walk, Suzume comes to care a lot about Sōta as going through one adventure after another with him, and she becomes quite determined to get him back by any means necessary, when it later turns out that he should remain in that way forever for stopping more earthquakes in the future.

Around that point, I could not help but become skeptical. Yes, they say love knows no logic, but risking a considerable danger to millions of people in Japan just for love looks rather unconvincing for me, so I came to observe the rest of the story with some reservation. You may accept how quickly and passionately Suzume falls in love with Sōta, but you may often wonder what she sees from this rather bland lad. Seriously, I have no idea on what exactly he feels about her, but I can tell you instead that he looks more interesting as a talking chair.

Although I could not entirely be involved in the story and characters on the emotional level, I kept admiring the visual beauty of the film during my viewing. During the last act, Shinkai and his crew members pull all the stops for a big melodramatic finale, and you will not be disappointed while also getting a little surprise involved with the recurring past moment of our plucky heroine. In addition, I come to like that cat in the film a lot, which looks annoyingly mischievous at first but turns out to much more helpful than it seemed at first.

On the whole, “Suzume” sometimes clashes with my inconsequential common sense, but it is still a lovely cell animation film to be appreciated and admired. While I am not as enthusiastic as other reviewers and audiences, I recommend it mainly for its top-notch visual style and mood, and it will surely remind you more of how cell animation is still valuable at present.

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My Prediction on the 95th Academy Awards

Again, we are coming to the end of another Oscar season as things get a bit better than before in our world. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to be becoming a mere part of the 21st century history, and I cannot help but notice that some people do not care much about wearing mask inside or outside. As a guy who unfortunately got infected with the virus once early in last, I am more cautious than those people, but I do often feel more urge to stop wearing mask, and I really hope for the arrival of the day where I can feel safe enough anywhere without wearing mask.

In the meantime, compared to the rather uneventful Oscar season of last year, this Oscar season turns out to be a lot more exciting than expected. When “Everything Everywhere All at Once” was released several months ago, it did not look like a big Best Picture Oscar contender, but, what do you know, it is now an almost unstoppable front runner at present, and the question is how many awards it will actually take besides the Best Picture award. In contrast, most of the other categories including no less than three acting categories are full of uncertainty, and that is certainly quite nail-biting to say the least. Will Michelle Yeoh be the first Asian Best Actress Oscar winner in the Oscar history? Will “Everything Everywhere All at Once” actually sweep nearly all of the acting categories? And will Brendon Fraser’s rising narrative be really strong enough to beat his cheap competitor Austin Butler’s?

I really have no definite idea, folks, but I still do my Oscar prediction just for fun, and you may outguess me in more than one category. To be frank with you, since I began this in 2007, I have never been entirely correct in my prediction, but my prediction of last year showed me that I prefer to be wrong mainly for surprise and excitement. In that year, I was correct in all but one category, and that was certainly the most boring Oscar experience I have ever had. Regardless of whatever will happen on March 12nd at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, I hope I will not be bored like that at least.

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The Quiet Girl (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Importance of Being Loved

“The Quiet Girl”, which was recently nominated for Best International Film Oscar as an Irish film, is a little but precious coming-of-age drama about the importance of being loved. Calmly and sensitively following one summer of a little quiet lonely girl, the movie brightens up its mood bit by bit as she is gradually transformed by two good people who really care about her, and it is touching to observe how she and they become much closer to each other than expected in the end.

At the beginning, the screenplay by director/writer Colm Bairéad, which is based on Clair Keegan’s novella “Foster”, economically establishes the stark and loveless domestic environment surrounding its 9-year-old heroine in some rural area of Ireland, 1981. Although she has a family to live with, Cáit (Catherine Clinch) has been mostly neglected and disregarded by both of her crummy parents at their home, and her several siblings do not provide much comfort or consolation at all. Even when she is in her school, she is often left alone without anyone to play with her, and we are not so surprised when she later commits a minor act of transgression.

While Cáit is going through another depressing evening at her home, the movie lets us know a bit more about the poor economic condition of her domestic environment. While her father clearly does not have much affection for her or any other sibling of hers, her mother is soon going to have another child despite that, and that is the No. 1 priority for her at present. Eventually, they decide to send Cáit to the farm of her distant female cousin and her husband, and Cáit follows their decision without much resistance while maintaining her usual passive attitude, though she is certainly afraid of this sudden change.

When Cáit subsequently arrive at their farm along with her father, Eibhlín (Carrie Crowley) warmly welcomes Cáit in contrast to her taciturn husband Seán (Andrew Bennett), and she instinctively senses how much Cáit has been unloved. Although Cáit’s first night at the farm is not exactly pleasant, Eibhlín tries as much as possible for showing Cáit that she can be more relaxed and comfortable, and Cáit slowly comes to show more of herself as she begins to trust Eibhlín more day by day.

In case of Seán, he is initially reluctant to show care and affection, but then he comes to care a lot about Cáit as he lets her assist him in several farmworks of his. At one point, he becomes rather harsh to her because of an understandable reason, but he sincerely apologizes to her later, and he really tries to compensate for that.

Thanks to the care and love from Seán and Eibhlín, Cáit becomes a little more spirited and active than before, and the movie subtly reflects her emotional changes via mood and details. As summer days peacefully continue around her and her accidental foster parents, the screen feels brighter and warmer compared to the barren ambiance of the early part of the film, and that is more than enough for us to sense how much our little young heroine is changed and matured.

In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to what Eibhlín and Seán have kept to themselves for years. As revealed by one rather mean neighbor of theirs later in the story, there is a painful incident in the past with they have to live for the rest of their life, and there is a somber but powerful scene when Seán has a little serious night conversation with Cáit outside while Eibhlín has a very private moment outside the screen.

Around the time when the movie eventually enters its last act, we come to see and understand how much Cáit and her foster parents love and care about each other, and that is why it is saddening to observe that their happy time will not last as long as they hoped. Even at that narrative point, the movie steadily maintains its restrained attitude while clearly conveying us to the subsequent emotional pains from its main characters, and that makes its quiet melodramatic finale all the more powerful.

Bairéad, who incidentally made a feature film debut here, draws good performances from his three main cast members. As the emotional center of the film, young performer Catherine Clinch gives one of the most notable child performances of last year, and her unadorned natural acting ably anchors the film from the beginning to the end. Around Clilch, Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett embody the genuine human decency of their respective characters, and Crowley is particularly wonderful when Eibhlín gently and patiently treats Cáit during their first encounter. As her husband says, Eibhlín always sees the good sides of people around her, and she certainly brings out something good from a child who really needs to be cared and loved.

Overall, “The Quiet Girl” may require some patience from you due to its rather slow narrative pacing, but it will eventually engage you as an intimate human story of love, compassion, and empathy. No matter what will happen next, she comes to learn about being loved at least, and I can only hope that she will never forget that while eventually becoming capable of giving love and affection for herself.

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