The Humans (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A chilly chamber family drama

“The Humans” is a chilly chamber drama about one increasingly stark situation among several miserable family members who happen to gather together for their little Thanksgiving dinner. This is certainly not something you cannot casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but the movie did a fairly good job of presenting its story and characters with enough mood and insight, and it steadily holds our attention even as it gets more bitter and depressing later in the story.

The story is mainly unfolded inside one modest apartment located somewhere in the Chinatown area of New York City. Although it looks rather barren and stuffy on the whole, Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) and her boyfriend Richard (Steve Yeun) hope that this apartment will be a nice new place for both of them, and we see her several family members looking here and there inside the apartment for a while. Although her parents Erik (Richard Jenkins) and Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell) do not like this place much, they do not say that to their daughter, and neither does Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Amy Schumer).

Anyway, Brigid’s parents and older sister come to the apartment for having the Thanksgiving dinner with her and Richard, and they also bring Brigid’s grandmother Momo (June Squibb). Having recently become quite fragile in addition to suffering Alzheimer’s disease which deteriorates her speaking ability a lot, Momo is mostly bound to her wheelchair, and there is not much interaction between her and others because she often seems to be lost in her fading mind.

As Brigid and her family spend some time together before having the Thanksgiving dinner, we also come to observe the considerable emotional gaps among Brigid and her family. Her parents, who are still living in their hometown in Pennsylvania, are devoted Catholics, and they unintentionally annoy their daughters as asking and talking a bit too much about how their daughters have been in their respective personal lives. While Brigid is a struggling musician without much prospect at present, Aimee recently happened to lose her job due to a certain chronic illness, so they do not want to talk about their current statuses, but, to their annoyance, the conversation among them and their parents often sways to that inconvenient subject.

Brigid and Richard try their best for giving the fairly nice Thanksgiving dinner to their guests, but the mood is still not lightened up much despite their sincere efforts. Furthermore. there are also a series of small but disturbing incidents due to the shabby aspects of their apartment, and the mood accordingly becomes chillier and spookier with more darkness here and there in the apartment.

And it gradually turns out that there are a few secrets to be revealed sooner or later. While Aimee frequently checks her smartphone alone for some unknown reason, Erik and his wife seem to be having some problem between them even while they behave as if nothing serious had happened at all, and we later get a sudden moment of emotional outburst from Deirdre.

These secrets will not surprise us much when they are eventually fully revealed during the second half of the film, but we come to pay more attention to how much the characters are isolated from each other. They all cannot help but become strained and uncomfortable whenever they have a conversation among them, and they simply prefer to walk away and then be alone for a while. If you have ever been quite unhappy to be among your family members during those holiday season meeting, you will surely understand well their misery and unhappiness.

Although everything in the story remains calm and static to the end, the movie thoughtfully observes and depicts its characters nonetheless, and director/writer/co-producer Stephen Karam, who adapted his Tony-winning play of the same name for himself, ably conveys to us the stark sense of isolation and disconnection surrounding the characters in the film. While usually watching them from the distance, the camera of cinematographer Lol Crawley makes some effortless movements around the characters, and I particularly admire how the camera smoothly revolves around them during one impressive extended shot as subtly accumulating more tension under the surface.

The six performers assembled here together for the movie are all wonderful in their respective roles. Richard Jenkins, who has always been one of the most dependable character actors working in Hollywood for more than 25 years, has a masterful moment as the camera slowly zooms on his face during one certain scene, and Jayne Houdyshell, who incidentally reprises her Tony-winning role here in the film, holds her own place well besides Jenkins. While Beanie Feldstein and Amy Schumer are surprisingly effective as being quite different from their several recent comic performances, Steven Yeun fills his seemingly thankless role with enough life and personality, and so does June Squibb, who admirably keeps going with her acting career even at present despite being 92 in this year.

In conclusion, “The Humans” is an admirable piece of work which is not exactly entertaining but still worthwhile to recommend mainly for the good ensemble performance from its small but solid cast. I felt impatient from time to time during my viewing, but I appreciate its subtle handling of mood and nuances at least, and I am certainly willing to revisit it for appreciating that more.

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Night of the Kings (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Stories for surviving his first night in prison

“Night of the Kings”, which was selected as Ivory Coast’s official entry to Best International Film Oscar in last year (It was included in the shortlist although it was not subsequently nominated), is a little but extraordinary film to be admired for many reasons. I must confess that I cannot tell you that much about what it is about, but I appreciate how it is about a lot nonetheless, and this is definitely something you have to experience for yourself.

The movie is set in one infamous prison outside Abidjan, the capital city of Ivory Coast. Inside this big prison, hundreds of male inmates form their own community as being isolated from the world outside by those huge walls and a number of prison guards, and the prison guards do not do much except guarding the walls because the inmates are virtually running the place while firmly sticking to their own set of rules.

According to the one of these rules, all the inmates of the prison must obey under the leadership of “the Dangôro”, who is virtually the king of inmates in the prison. If he becomes too ill to govern, the Dangôro must abdicate and then let himself die, but the current Dangôro, who is nicknamed Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), is not so willing to go gently into darkness even though his days are clearly numbered due to his worsening physical condition. Knowing well that there are already several other inmates eager to grab his position sooner or later, he is not going to give up his position easily at all, so he decides to go all the way with a certain risky traditional event which is held whenever the red Moon rises on the sky.

That traditional event requires someone to function as a griot, or a storyteller, shall we say, to tell a story to the inmates in the prison, and he must engage and entertain his tough audiences till the next morning for not getting killed by them. Although he could choose anyone in the prison at his whim, Blackbeard instead chooses a teenage inmate who has just been transferred to the prison after meeting and then speaking a bit with the boy, and the boy, who was incidentally arrested for his association with some notorious local gang in Abidjan, is certainly perplexed and frightened as coming to learn of what he is demanded to do for surviving the upcoming night.

As those prison guards are phlegmatically watching from the outside, the event is eventually started with lots of aggressive excitement among the inmates, and the boy remains as scared as before, but it soon turns out that he is a fairly good storyteller. Although he stumbles a bit for a while at first, he starts with the story about the well-known leader of his gang organization, and then he gives his tough audiences more as they get more engaged and excited word by word.

While we are not so sure about how much of his story is actually real, we gradually come to sense more of the power of storytelling as the boy and the inmates actively interact with each other. While the parts of his story are shown on the screen with some fantasy elements, some of inmates enthusiastically depict several key moments via their physical movements, and the mood becomes more tense and exuberant as a result.

As the boy’s storytelling freely moves across time and space, the movie gives us a number of impressive moments to linger on our mind. We are amused by a bold moment involved with one magical tribal battle between a beautiful queen and her opponent, and then we are baffled as the story somehow flows to a modern background. A certain big real-life political upheaval in Ivory Coast is mentioned later in the film, and we come to sense more of how the movie functions as the broad reflection of the cultural and historical background of Ivory Coast.

In the meantime, the screenplay by director/writer Philippe Lacôte also focuses on its main background and a number of various criminal figures inhabiting inside this background. Besides Blackbeard’s subordinates and opponents, the movie pays some attention to several other colorful characters including a seductive transgender inmate and an old French dude with a chicken on his shoulder, and there is also the growing intrigue around Blackbeard. In one of the quieter moments in the film, Blackbeard has a brief private moment with the boy, and he shows a bit of his softer side while revealing to the boy on why he chose the boy right from the beginning.

I think the eventual finale feels a bit abrupt, Lacôte and his crew members including cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille keep us engaged as before, and he also draws the good performance from his cast members, most of whom did not have any movie acting experience before being cast for the film. While Koné Bakary earnestly holds the center with his unadorned natural performance, Steve Tientcheu and several other main cast members are solid in their respective supporting roles, and Denis Lavant, a French actor who has been known mainly for his frequent collaborations with Leos Carax, naturally steals the show as the sole Caucasian character among many African guys in the film.

In conclusion, “Night of the Kings” is quite distinctive in terms of mood and storytelling, and Lacôte demonstrates here that he is another interesting African filmmaker to watch. Although I have not seen his two previous films “African Metropolis” (2013) and “Run” (2014), he is a talented filmmaker who knows how to interest and then engage audiences as far as I can from “Night of the Kings”, and I think I can have some expectation on his next work in the future.

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Dear Comrades! (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An absurd and devastating Russian period drama

Russian film “Dear Comrades!”, which was submitted as the Russian entry for Best International Film Oscar in last year (It subsequently made to the shortlist, by the way), looks into one relatively unknown historical incident via the personal viewpoint of a woman who absolutely believed in her communist system before opening her eyes to its absurdity and ruthlessness. While it initially amuses us a lot with several absurd moments of communist bureaucracy during its first half, the movie eventually strikes us hard with its calm but devastating presentation of that historical incident, and we become more emotionally involved in its heroine’s following desperate struggle during the second half.

At first, the movie, which is set in Novocherkassk, June 1962, shows us how things are mostly ‘ordinary’ for Lyudmila ‘Lyuda’ Syomina (Julia Vysotskaya) and many others in the city. Many of citizens have been struggling a lot as usual due to the frequent deficiency of commodities and groceries everyday, but Lyuda is not particularly concerned as believing that everything will eventually be all right under the control of their communist party, and she also does not mind getting a bit more than others behind her back. After all, she is a party worker of the local city committee, and she has also been in a close relationship with the head of the committee even though he is a married man.

Anyway, it soon turns out that there has been considerable unrest in one of the important factories in the city due to the significant cut in the wages of its numerous workers. Some of Lyuda’s fellow committee members show some reasonable concern, but they all do not worry that much while mostly occupied with presenting their report well to those high-ranking apparatchiks above them, and Lyuda willingly goes along with that.

However, we gradually come to sense that something is bound to happen sooner or later. When Lyuda’s daughter talks about the increasing unrest among those factory workers and her strong support toward them, Lyuda is not pleased at all as a hardcore communist who often misses those good old days of the Stalin regime, and their eventual domestic conflict is silently watched by Lyuda’s old father, whose sardonic silence speaks volumes on how much he experienced and suffered in the past.

On the very next day, Lyuda and her colleagues begin their another day as usual, but then a strike is suddenly started in that factory, and then they find themselves stuck inside their building once a bunch of strikers and demonstrators arrive in front of the building. Belatedly coming to realize how serious the situation really is, Lyuda and her colleagues hurriedly hide somewhere inside the building, and that is later followed by an absurd scene where they manage to escape from the building without getting noticed.

Once the news of the strike reaches to the central government in Moscow, everyone around Lyuda becomes more pressured to get things under control as soon as possible. At the emergency meeting held among officials and military officers, they all come to agree that the strike must be quickly suppressed by any means necessary, and Lyuda does not hesitate to express her radical opinion loud and clear to others around her.

When the demonstration is started again, a bunch of soldiers are ready to shoot those demonstrators, and several undercover KGB agents are already sent into the demonstration for checking out any instigator to be arrested later. At one point, something goes quite wrong, and what follows right after that point is simply devastating to say the least. Although the camera of cinematographer Andrey Naydenov, who did a commendable job of filling the film with enough authentic period mood on the black and white film of 1.33:1 ratio, calmly sticks to its usual static position, what is shown during this sequence is often quite striking, and we come to sense how much Lyuda’s mind is shaken up as she happens to witness the brutal suppression of the demonstration by those soldiers.

During the aftermath, Lyuda finds herself in a tricky position just like many others around her. As the city is completely shielded from the world outside, she and many citizens are demanded to sign a document demanding their complete silence on whatever happened on that terrible day, and she also finds herself pushed toward covering up everything along with her colleagues, but there is one big problem. Her daughter happened to be gone missing on that day, and Lyuda desperately tries to locate where her daughter is, but it is increasingly possible that her daughter was swept aside along with many other victims on that day.

Although the finale feels rather artificial in my inconsequential opinion, it still works well on the whole thanks to the skillful direction of director/co-producer/co-writer Andrei Konchalovsky, who has been mainly known for several notable works including “Runaway Train” (1985). As the main human center of the film, Julia Vysotskaya ably conveys to us her character’s gradual development along the story, and she is also supported well by several other main cast members including Sergei Erlish, Yuliya Burova, and Vladislav Komarov, who is also very good as a jaded KGB agent who turns out to be much more decent than he seemed at first.

Overall, “Dear Comrades!”, which garnered the Special Jury Prize when it was shown at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a vivid and engaging period drama, and I enjoyed its specific mood and details while following its story and characters with more care and attention. As a dry arthouse flick, it will require some patience from the beginning, but it is a rewarding experience nonetheless, and you may become more interested in getting to know more of its historical subject.

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Procession (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Act of Healing

Netflix documentary film “Procession”, which was released in last week, presents one interesting therapeutic process to observe and appreciate. Mainly revolving around six different men who are all survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, the documentary gradually reveals their longtime pain and anger as they prepare step by step for shooting the fictionalized reenactments of their respective traumatic moments in the past, and we come to have more empathy and understanding on them while also reflecting more on the injustices inflicted upon them.

They are Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Ed Gavagan, Dan Laurine, Michael Sandridge, and Tom Viviano, and each of them has each own traumatic story to tell. As being sexually abused by those deplorable predators who were supposed to guide and protect them, they were all angry and confused to say the least, but there was no one to help or support them at that time, and one of them painfully remembers when his mother later sent him back to his victimizer with a chocolate cake without any idea on what her son was going through.

Because sexual abuse by Catholic priests finally came to draw lots of public attention in the early 2000s as depicted in Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” (2015), these six people eventually decided to come out as the survivors of sexual abuse under the Catholic Church several years ago, and that was how they were contacted by director Robert Greene and his production team in 2018. After meeting some of these survivors via a lawyer representing them, Green asked them whether they could participate in the production of a movie which reenacts their traumatic experiences, and they and other group members willingly agreed to collaborate with Green with a professional drama therapist in attendance.

As subsequently preparing for making their movie, the six survivors naturally come to face their traumas again – and how much they have struggled during all those many years. In case of Foreman, he is still seething a lot about what happened to him around 40 years ago, and he feels all the more frustrated after losing an opportunity for any closure for him. He remembers well how his belated accusation against that horrible man was quickly and heartlessly dismissed by the independent review board inside the Catholic Church, and there is a brief but undeniably harrowing scene where he shows us how he often tries to calm himself in his little private place.

In case of Viviano, he even cannot tell that much about what happened to his younger self at that time, but he comes forward nonetheless for helping his several fellow survivors as much as he can. During the shooting of a couple of key reenactment scenes, he is cast as a priest who abused Eldred, and we later see how he tries his best even though he is quite uncomfortable about playing someone not so far form the one who sexually abused him in the past.

Along with Sandridge, who usually functions as the main representative of the group, Eldred closely watches the whole shooting of this reenactment scene, and that is quite an emotionally draining moment for him to say the least. As a man who understands well abuse and its consequent trauma, Eldred has diligently worked as a counselor for many abused kids, but he cannot help but feel angry and helpless again as revisiting his own traumatic past, and we are relieved as he manages to endure in the end while also having more enlightenment on that old traumatic experience of his.

In case of Laurine and his older brother, who was also sexually abused by the same priest, they try to locate a place where their innocence was shattered forever, and then they soon find themselves struggling with their old trauma again as their search does not seem to be going anywhere. When it looks like they finally find the spot they have been looking for, they come to have a little moment for healing together, and you will be touched by the little poignancy of this small personal moment.

In the meantime, the documentary also observes a bit of Gavanan’s continuing pursuit of justice. Despite his strenuous efforts, the priest who sexually abused him is not punished at all even around the time of his eventual demise, and he certainly lets out lots of his anger and frustration when he is later allowed to demolish the set for the reenactment of his traumatic experience bit by bit. Although he will still have to live with his dark trauma as before, he feels a little better than before, and it is touching to see him ready to be open about his trauma as continuing his life with more peace of mind.

As he previously did in “Kate Plays Christine” (2016) and “Bisbee ‘17” (2018), Green takes his own unconventional approach for delving deeper into his human subjects, and the overall result is often quite powerful with considerable emotional truth. The reenactment scenes in the documentary may initially look plain on the surface, but they eventually come to resonate a lot with the deeply human aspects observed from the behind-the-scene preparation of the six survivors, and we are reminded again of why we really need to listen to sexual abuse survivors more than before.

In conclusion, “Procession” is another excellent documentary vividly illuminating the pain and struggle of sexual abuse survivors, and I particularly admire how Green handles his human subjects with care and respect. In short, this is one of better documentaries of this year, and I sincerely urge you to check it out as soon as possible.

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The Shaman Sorceress (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A shaman sorceress’ story

South Korean animation feature film “The Shaman Sorceress” does not seem to be confident about its story and characters. While it works to some degree as a harrowing melodramatic fable of cultural clash, the movie, which is based on the acclaimed 1936 Korean short story written by Kim Dong-lee, often falters due to its several weak musical interludes which are rather distracting instead of enhancing the story and characters, and, as a guy who still remembers well Kim’s short story, I think the people behind the film should have gone all the way without softening the story and characters at all.

At first, the male narrator of the film tells us a bit about how his family happened to acquire one gorgeous picture around the early 20th century. Although his family was not wealthy as they were once a long time ago, his grandfather kept buying pictures and other artworks as usual even while selling most of what he bought in the past, and that picture in question was drawn by the young mute daughter of a wandering merchant who happened to drop by his grandfather’s house on one day.

According to his grandfather, the picture was inspired by that young mute lady’s mother who was a shaman sorceress. Since she was very young, Mo-hwa (voiced by Sonya) had practiced shamanism, and the early part of the movie succinctly shows us how she works to earn her living day by day in a rural village where she settled many years ago. Whenever someone in the village becomes sick mentally or physically, villagers always go for Mo-hwa’s help, and she willingly provides them her spiritual ritual and then gets paid well later along with her assisting colleagues.

However, regardless of whether her spiritual service is really effective or not, Mo-hwa recently seems to pass her peak period, and there is a little disturbing moment where she gets a bit paranoid while getting quite drunk not long after her latest spiritual ritual. Because there is no other option for her to earn money besides performing those rituals, she cannot help but feel more desperate, and her mute daughter Nang-yi is helplessly watching Mo-haw’s increasingly unstable status.

And then there comes an unexpected big change into their life. Before having Nang-yi, Mo-hwa also had a son, and, as he grews up to be a smart and promising boy, she decided to send him to a temple for his life, but, alas, that led to a result not so welcomed by her at all for a good reason. After growing up more during next several years, Wook-yi (voiced by Kim Da-hyun) decided to leave the temple and then went to Seoul, and that is where he got himself converted to Christianity shortly after his encounter with a Christian minister (This foreign supporting character is incidentally voiced by critic Darcy Pacquet, who, as some of you already know, supervised the English subtitle for Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019)).

Before preparing to go to US along with that minister, Wook-yi decides to visit his hometown, and he is certainly delighted to see his mother and half-sister again, but it does not take much time for him and Mo-haw to conflict a lot with each other due to their respective religions. As Wook-yi firmly sticks to his religious faith, Mo-hwa often becomes hostile to her son, and this domestic conflict only gets worse when Wook-yi decides to spread his god’s words around those villagers. In Mo-hwa’s viewpoint, Jesus is simply a foreign deity invading her territory, and she cannot help but become more fanatic about chasing away Jesus from her dear son, especially when many of villagers are gradually drawn more to Christianity.

Around that point, we are supposed to have more empathy on Mo-hwa’s dwindling position, but the film often hesitates to empathize with her growing desperation, and it only comes to go back and forth between her and her son without generating much human depth for both of them. As a result, Mo-hwa often feels merely shrill while getting madder and madder as required by the plot, and his son is not an effective counterpart at all as often blandly throwing the quotes from the Bible.

At many of its key points, the film attempts to compensate for its weak storytelling via a series of musical moments, but, to my disappointment, these musical moments are not that good in many aspects. As the music is performed too loudly on the soundtrack more than once, I hardly got the lyrics during my viewing, and I consequently came to observe the expected moment of emotional devastation from the distance without much emotional involvement.

Anyway, the film is a nice treat in visual aspects at least. Although it is apparent to us from the beginning that its production budget was not that big to say the least, the cell animation of the film are drawn well with lots of care and efforts, and I especially like how the movie utilizes bold primary colors for dramatic effects during the climactic sequence where Mo-hwa comes to lose herself completely before reaching to a devastating outcome.

“The Shaman Sorceress” is directed by Ahn Jae-huun, who has been known for directing several modest animation film adaptations of notable Korean literature works including Hyun Jin-geon’s 1924 short story “A Lucky Day”. Although I did not enjoy the film enough, he is a competent animation filmmaker as far as I can see from it, and I hope his next work will be better in addition to being more than a supplement material for your average Korean literature course.

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A Boy Called Christmas (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A solid seasonal product for Christmas

Netflix film “A Boy Called Christmas”, which was released on this Thursday, is something I cannot possibly be cranky about. Yes, this is another wholesome seasonal product for the upcoming Christmas season, but its engaging fairy tale is equipped with enough heart, humor, and mood to draw its target audiences, and you will probably find yourself smile a bit at least even if you prefer darker and naughtier Christmas tales like me.

The story is another your typical Christmas origin tale, which is incidentally told to three young kids living in a cozy house in London. As their recently widowed father, played by Joel Fry, happens to be absent on Christmas Eve for a while, the kids is going to be babysat by an old lady played by Maggie Smith, and they are not so pleased about this at all, but, what do you know, they soon find themselves gradually absorbed into a little Christmas bedtime story from this old lady.

The hero of the story is a young Finnish boy named Nikolas (Henry Lawfull, who is solid in his first movie acting), who has lived alone with his father Joel (Michiel Huisman, who did as much as he can with his thankless part) in the middle of a forest since his mother passed away several years ago. While Nikolas and his father still miss his mother a lot, things have been quite difficult for not only them but also many other people in the country as winter mercilessly continues, and everyone is losing hope as trying to survive day by day.

When the King, played by Jim Broadbent with his usual eccentricity, announces that he will reward anyone who can bring hope back to the country, Joel and several other men decide to look for a magical town of elves hidden somewhere outside the country. Although nobody exactly knows where that town is located, Nikolas’ mother used to tell him about that town and its residents because, according to her, she went there once when she was very young, and Nikolas certainly wants to join his father when his father prepares to leave along with guys.

However, that is the last thing Joel wants, and he already brings someone who is supposed to take care of Nikolas during his absence. That person in question is his sister Carlotta (Kristen Wiig, who is rather unrecognizable at first), and it is apparent to us from her very first scene that she is not a very nice person at all. Once Joel is gone, Carlotta mistreats Nikolas a lot as frequently complaining about many things including the shabby aspects of Joel and Nikolas’ cabin, and then we get a little naughty moment when she shows her nephew a bit of twisted generosity at one point.

Getting sick of mistreated by his aunt, Nikolas eventually comes to decide to search for not only his father but also that magical town of elves for himself. After finding a secret map from what his mother gave him before her death, he simply embarks on his journey alone, but he soon finds a company from his little pet mouse who can finally talk as he has hoped (Stephen Merchant is excellent in his scene-stealing voice performance, by the way), and then he also comes to befriend a big reindeer whom he helps a bit during their first encounter.

In the end, Nikolas and his two companies finally arrive at the spot where that magical town of elves is located (Is this a spoiler?), but he is surprised by how cheerless the town is in contrast to what his mother told him. Although there are still many friendly elves in the town, they and other elves in the town have been strictly ruled by their bitter leader played by Sally Hawkins, and Nikolas’ appearance in the town is the last thing wanted by her.

Once he comes to learn of the origin of the unhappiness in the town, Nikolas tries to solve the problem as getting some help from not only his animal friends but also several figures in the town including Father Topo (Toby Jones, who looks shorter than Lawfull on the screen as demanded by his role) and the Truth Pixie (Zoe Colletti, who brings considerable pluck and spirit to her character), and the movie accordingly serves us some action as expected without losing any of its charm and good will. While it has several obligatory dark moments just like any good fairy tales, the screenplay by director Gil Kenan and his co-writer Ol Parker, which is based on the novel of the same name by Matt Haig, keeps the story and characters floated with enough cheer and energy as before, and the occasional brief interlude scenes between Smith’s babysitter character and the kids in her charge bring some extra humor to the overall result.

We all know how the story will eventually end due to the very title of the movie, but the movie constantly amuses and charms us via a number of nice visual moments in the film, and Kenan and his crew members did a competent job on the whole. I was particularly delighted by those bright and colorful moments from Father Topo and other cheerful elves, and the resulting jolly mood makes a nice contrast with the gloomy aura exuded by Hawkins, who has a little dark fun with her character while somehow making us have some understanding on her character’s neurotic bitterness.

Although I feel like recommending Finnish horror comedy film “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” (2010) instead, “A Boy Called Christmas” is fairly entertaining to watch for the upcoming season, and it will surely remind you again of that timeless meaning of Christmas. Yes, we are all bound to misery and disappointment as inexorably heading to the end of our life right from the very start, but that is also why we should be nicer to each other as much as we can, and Christmas always gives us a precious chance for that every year, after all.

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Halloween Kills (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A pointlessly vicious and bloody sequel

“Halloween Kills”, the sequel to “Halloween” (2018), does kill as much as its very title suggests, and that is all. Still stuck in the same playground as before, the movie only merely follows the footsteps of many other countless slasher horror films which are simply occupied with killing and body count, and I often shook my head as observing the sheer waste of the talents associated with this maddeningly hollow piece of work.

The movie starts at the point shortly after the ending of the previous film. Finally working together, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her daughter and granddaughter managed to get their longtime boogeyman figure trapped in the basement of her house, and then they left her house as it is burning, but, not so surprisingly, the situation turns out to be far from over. A bunch of firemen quickly arrive not long after they left, and, of course, these unfortunate firemen soon come across that boogeyman figure, who is still quite alive and certainly ready for another killing spree.

As this figure keeps killing one person after another, the movie serves us numerous gory moments of brutal violence which make those Friday the 13th flicks look rather timid in comparison. For example, I cringed as watching the graphically barbaric moment of a poor old lady cruelly stabbed in her neck by a broken florescence lamp, and then I winced as watching how pitilessly and unmercifully the movie handles her final moment right after that.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays some attention to Deputy Frank Hawkins (Will Patton), who manages to survive probably because it is not that figure who attacked him in the previous film. As he is found in a very seriously injured condition and then sent to a local hospital where Strode is also sent, the movie gives several flashback scenes associated the 1978 film of the same name directed by John Carpenter (He serves here as one of its executive producers besides working as one of the co-composers, by the way), and we get to know a bit about how their town was more shocked and devastated even after the ending of the 1978 film.

Like Hawkins, many other people in the town still remember well that terrible night they had 40 years ago, and some of them turn out to be quite willing to take care of the matter for themselves when they hear that their boogeyman figure is still on the loose. Along with a bunch of town residents, they quickly form a vigilante mob and then search for wherever that figure is possibly stalking around, but, this is not much of a spoiler, that figure is surely more than a match for them as these folks do many stupid things which will lead to certain death in any slasher horror film.

While the town is quite more agitated as a result, Strode remains helpless and frustrated in the hospital due to her badly injured status. Karen (Judy Greer) tries to shield the ongoing situation from her mother, but she cannot stop her daughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) from joining that vigilante mob, and then things become quite more serious when the hospital later also happens to be swept by panic and fear just like the town.

As deliberately putting Strode aside, the movie attempts to explore several other characters who have been traumatized just like her, but the result feels quite superficial as they remain to be more or less than figures to be menaced or killed just like many minor characters in the story. As one of the key survivor characters from the 1978 film, Anthony Michael Hall tries as much as possible, but his fairly good efforts are mostly stuck in his one-note supporting role, and we only come to observe his character and other vigilante members without much care or concern as expecting them to be killed sooner or later.

The best part of the movie is still Jamie Lee Curtis, and she brings the same intensity and vulnerability to her enduring character as before, though her character is not particularly utilized well on the whole. In the scene between her and Will Patton, the mood becomes a little more introspective than before, and these two good veteran performers sell this scene better than expected even though it is basically another perfunctory moment to emphasize to us how unstoppable their terrifying boogeyman figure is.

In case of the other cast members of the film besides Curtis, Patton, and Hall, they do not have much to do except looking urgent or terrified, though I enjoyed the brief appearance of Jim Cummings and Thomas Mann in the flashback scene to some degree. Considering that how they click well together with Curtis in the previous film, it is a shame that Judy Greer and Andi Matichack do not share the screen with Curtis much this time, and it is all the more disappointing to see how the movie later comes to damage what was established and then developed fairly well among these three good actresses in the previous film.

While it is a slick genre product in technical aspects under the direction of director/co-writer David Gordon Green, “Halloween Kills” does not bring anything new or substantial to its franchise while inevitably opening the door to whatever will come to us next a few years later. Whenever somebody shouted “Evil dies tonight!” in the film, I chortled with more skepticism, and, folks, that was not a good sign at all.

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Snakehead (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little crime thriller flick set in Chinatown

“Snakehead” is a little crime thriller flick which did its job better than expected within its genre conventions. As delving into the seedy sides of the Chinatown area of New York City along with its feisty criminal heroine, the movie gradually engages us via its vivid mood and details, and we come to have some understanding and empathy on her even though we often observe her shady struggle for survival from the distance.

At the beginning, the movie succinctly establishes its heroine’s past and current status. Around 8 years ago in Taiwan, she was separated from her young daughter as being arrested and then incarcerated for some crime, and now she is determined to reunite with her daughter by any means necessary, who was sent to US for being adopted at that time. Along with many other illegal immigrants from China, she gets herself shipped to New York City by a local human smuggling organization in the city, and we see how she manages to arrive in the city along with some of those illegal immigrants despite an unexpected raid on their ship.

Because she has to pay off the debt which is more than fifty thousand dollar, she is soon sent to some stuffy brothel somewhere in the Chinatown area of the city along with several other women. Although she is ready to do anything as reflected by a brief moment with her first customer, she attacks some other customer when this dude attempts to hit one of her fellow workers for a minor trouble, and that consequently leads to a very serious situation for her.

However, when she subsequently rises to the challenge as showing that she is definitely not the one to mess with, she draws the attention of Dai Mah (Jade Wu), the owner of the brothel who is also the boss of that local human smuggling organization. Although their first encounter is not exactly pleasant, Dai Mah instantly senses how tough and strong-willed her new girl is, and then she gives an offer our heroine cannot easily refuse. If she shows more of her worth, she will be sort of promoted, and she does soon gets transferred from one job to another as she works harder as demanded.

Eventually, Dai Mah trusts her enough to assign her to collecting debts in their area, and our heroine, who is now often called Sister Tse by others around her, gradually becomes her boss’ trustworthy right-hand figure as getting to learn more and more from her criminal mentor who has built and maintained her small criminal empire for many years. Even though she is well aware that she and her criminal organization have passed their peak period with dwindling profit, Dai Mah still has lots of influence and connections in her area, and she is determined to go on as much as possible.

Meanwhile, we get to know Mai Dah’s main human weakness, and that is Rambo (Sung Kang). He is one of his sons, and she is willing to tolerate his hot temper and stupidity because, as revealed later in the story, she has felt like owing a lot to this troublemaker son. In case of Rambo, he is certainly grateful to his mother’s care and protection, but, as your average macho dude, he tries to earn money for himself as a man, and he is not so pleased to see our heroine getting earning more trust from his mother.

After gaining more trust from her boss after one unexpected incident, our heroine is tasked with handling one big human smuggling operation as a new “snakehead”, and the movie accordingly widens its view a bit as she hops among several different locations around the world. At one point, we get a tense scene where she and her accomplices must outwit their opponents for transporting those illegal immigrants across the border, and director/writer/co-producer/co-editor Evan Jackson Leong, who incidentally made a feature film debut here in this film, skillfully dials the level of tension up and down as required.

As often chilling us with how harsh and ruthless the small criminal world surrounding its heroine can be, the movie also has some softer moments for conveying to us the human sides of her and a few other characters in the story. While the subplot involved with her lost daughter is rather perfunctory and contrived in my humble opinion, its eventual resolution is a bit poignant, and so is our heroine’s accident friendship with an African immigrant dude who wants to have his own dumpling shop someday.

Most of all, the movie depends a lot on the dynamic relationship development between its heroine and her boss along the story, and its two main cast members are convincing as their respective characters are heading to the inevitable point we have been expecting from the start. While Shuya Chang brings considerable gritty hardcore resilience to her character, Jade Wu effortlessly exudes her character’s long history as well as her cold-blooded sides, and they are supported well by several other main cast members including Catherine Jiang, Richie Eng, Yacine Djoumbaye, and Sung Kang, who often chews his scenes as demanded by his showy supporting role.

Overall, “Snakehead” will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned moviegoer familiar with its genre, but it distinguishes itself fairly well via mood, details, and two strong performances at its center. Yes, I instantly knew what and how it is about during its first few minutes, but I did not mind going along with that, and I am satisfied enough for now.

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Nothing Serious (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): No string attached, right?

As your average seasoned moviegoer, I usually find myself getting bored while watching romantic comedy films. Unless they are equipped with enough charm and appeal to hold my attention, many of romantic comedy films do not engage me that much as duly following their predictable plot and then arriving at the eventual happy ending, and most of such cases are quickly forgotten as I quickly move onto whatever I am going to watch next.

In case of South Korean romantic comedy film “Nothing Serious”, I was thankfully not that bored during my viewing, but I was also constantly aware of its plot mechanism and clichés throughout its 95-miunte running time. While it is supposed to be a cool contemporary genre piece for our digital age, the movie itself has nothing new or refreshing in my trivial opinion, and that is a shame considering the fairly enjoyable performances from its two appealing lead performers.

At first, the movie shows how things have been going nowhere for Ja-yeong (Jeon Jong-seo). She recently applied for the government grant to finance her independent podcast which may be a big breakthrough for her independent professional career, but she is not so sure about whether she will succeed or not, and she has also been quite depressed since she broke up with her ex-boyfriend several months ago. Although she is often consoled by her widower father as well as several close friends of hers, she cannot help but feel lonely as facing her increasing sexual need day by day during last several months.

That is why she begins to use a certain digital application for casual sexual encounter, but, so far, she has not been able to get any suitable man for her. Sincerely concerned about their friend, Ja-yeong’s friends suggest that she should aim lower a bit in addition to motivating her a lot, and, what do you know, she is subsequently approached by someone suitable for her on one day.

That person in question is Woo-ri (Son Sukku), and he and Ja-yeong soon come to have sex together shortly after their Meet Cute moment, but, as already shown to us from the beginning, Woo-ri has a hidden motive behind him. As one of the staff writers of some fancy magazine, he is assigned to write a series of columns about casual sexual encounters via that digital application, and, despite his initial reluctance as well as the lack of his experience, he agrees to write several columns as demanded by his forceful editor-in-chief.

Now you will have a pretty good idea on what will happen next, and the movie does not exceed your expectation at all. Yes, Woo-ri and Ja-yeong come to feel much better than before as they meet each other for sex again and again. Yes, even though they make it pretty clear to each other from the beginning that their meetings are simply for sexual pleasure, they eventually come to open themselves more to each other anyway. Yes, Woo-ri’s subsequent columns surely draw lots of clicks after published on the Internet, and he certainly comes to feel conflicted more when he has to keep meeting Ja-yeong for more columns to write.

In the meantime, the movie gives us a number of humorous scenes to enjoy. I like several casual moments of camaraderie among Ja-yeong and her close friends, and I also enjoyed an unexpected comic moment involved with the evening wedding ceremony of Ja-yeong’s ex-boyfriend. In addition, the movie provides a few good chuckles from the brash attitude from Woo-ri’s editor-in-chief, and I was disappointed to see that the movie does not utilize this supporting character further for more laughs for us.

Like many of other romantic comedy films out there, the movie comes to lose its cheerful mood after a certain inevitable moment which you could already see coming from the distance, and we are served with a series of genre conventions including, yes, a musical interlude for conveying to us some passage of time. I was relieved to see that the movie does not dwell too much on this part, but, unfortunately, the following ending feels unsatisfying for being too abrupt and convenient, and that was another disappointment for me.

Anyway, the movie is supported fairly well by its two lead performers, who deserve better considering the good comic chemistry between them. Jeon Jong-seo, who has quickly advanced during last several years thanks to her good performance in “Burning” (2018) and “The Call” (2020), demonstrates another side of her undeniable talent here, and she is especially funny whenever her character freely and unapologetically follows her sexual need and desire. On the opposite, Son Sukku’s low-key acting complements his co-star’s spirited performance well during several key scenes between them, and several other cast members including Gong Min-jung and Kim Jae-hwa have each own little juicy moment around Jeon and Son.

On the whole, “Nothing Serious” is merely passable while not bringing anything particularly new or fresh to its genre, but it is not a total dud at all due to director/co-writer Jeong Ka-young’s competent direction and his two lead performers’ engaging presence. I would rather recommend another recent South Korean romantic comedy film “Perhaps Love” (2021) because it is more humorous and entertaining in comparison, but I did not feel like wasting my time despite my lingering dissatisfaction with “Nothing Serious”, and you will probably enjoy the film more than I did.

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Encanto (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her and her family’s certain domestic problem

Disney animation feature film “Encanto” is quite predictable to the core, but it is fairly colorful enough to delight us. While it is not particularly fresh in terms of story and characters, this weakness is fortunately compensated by not only its distinctive cultural aspects but also a number of entertaining moments to be savored, and I assure you that its 99-minute running time will smoothly pass by during your viewing.

The story mainly revolves around Mirabel Madrigal (voiced by Stephanie Beatriz), a plucky lass who has often been overshadowed by her very special family. Many years ago, her grandmother Alma (voiced by María Cecilia Botero), who is usually called “Abuela” (It means grandmother in Spanish, by the way). ran away from her hometown along with many other people including her husband when her hometown was attacked by a bunch of bad guys, but then they were unfortunately ambushed by those bad guys following after them, and that was when something unbelievable happened. When her husband courageously sacrificed himself for protecting her and others, a sort of miracle suddenly happened as a result, and that gave her and others a new place to live safely and peacefully during many following years.

In addition, through a candle imbued with some magical power at that point, Alma’s three children got each own special power later, and so did her grandchildren except Mirabel. As watching how her special family protected and helped many town people, young Mirabel certainly aspired to have her own special power during the upcoming ritual for her, but, alas, she somehow failed to get any special power to everyone’s disappointment, and she still feels rather inadequate as the only ordinary member in her family besides her younger cousin Antonio (voiced by Ravi-Cabot Conyers).

Nevertheless, as reflected by the first musical scene of the film, Mirabel still loves her family members besides being very proud of them, and their life is never boring as living together in a big house which is also full of magic power. In this magical house, Mirabel’s family members have each own special private place according to each own special power, and we later get a wonderful visual moment when Antonio comes to get his own private place shortly after acquiring his own special power on the day of his ritual.

While everyone around her is delighted by Antonio’s special power and private place, Mirabel feels sad and depressed for being the sole ordinary person in the family again, but then something strange happens to her. She sees a vision which disturbingly suggests a serious crisis for her family in the near future, but nobody listens to her growing concern, and that eventually prompts her to take care of this possibly serious matter for herself.

As investigating why a certain family member was vanished for no apparent reason, Mirabel goes through several precarious moments, and I was particularly amused by one certain scene where she has to go along a very tricky route to some dark cavernous spot once belonging to that certain family member. In addition, we also get some big musical moments from some of her family members who turn out to be not so perfect as they seem to be on the surface, and the songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who is having one hell of productive year as involved in several notable films of this year besides his directorial debut work “tick, tick… BOOM!” (2021), are performed well with considerable energy and enthusiasm.

I must point out that the story is rather thin in addition to being rather artificial during its last act, but this thankfully remains as a minor problem because directors/co-writers Byron Howard and Jared Bush, who previously made “Zootopia” (2016) together, keep things rolling as constantly filling the screen with vivid cultural mood and ample personality. Although the overall result is relatively less impressive than “Coco” (2017), the film is buoyed by its own Latino American atmosphere and cultural details, and it also brings some life and personality to its many different main characters, who are basically more or less than broad stereotypes but are also depicted with each own individuality.

The voice cast members of the film are solid while having a fun with their respective parts. If you remember well her amusingly terse supporting turn in TV sitcom series “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”, you will be surprised by how Stephanie Beatriz can be quite perky and charming here in this film, and she also handles several key musical scenes well. In case of the other cast members, María Cecilia Botero functions as a good counterpoint to Beatriz’s lively voice acting, and Ravi-Cabot Conyers, Diane Guerrero, Jessica Darrow, and John Leguizamo are well-cast in their substantial supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Encanto” is a conventional product which simply did its job within its genre territory, and I enjoyed its good moments even though, instead of fully engaged in its story and characters, my mind was often distracted by the occasional thoughts on what I was going to write in this review. In short, this is another fine Disney animation film of this year along with “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021) and “Luca” (2021), and its target audiences will surely appreciate its considerable mood, spirit, and energy.

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