Triangle of Sadness (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three acts of absurd satire by Ruben Östlund

Ruben Östlund’s new film “Triangle of Sadness”, which won the Palme d’Or award when it was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, attempts three acts of absurd satire which are often amusing even though they do gel together well on the whole. Although I felt a bit impatient around its last act where it spins its wheels at times, the movie still diligently provides barbed laughs as before, and it mostly works as a blatant but effective black comedy about class and gender roles.

After the casual opening scene featuring lots of shirtless males models waiting for their audition, the first act of movie focuses on the relationship problem between one of them and his current girlfriend. At a fancy restaurant, Carl (Harry Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who unfortunately died suddenly not long after the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival), happen to argue over who should pay the bill for their dinner, and their increasingly silly argument is continued even while they are going back to staying place. It is clear that Carl is grumpy just because he feels rather emasculated by Yaya’s more successful status with more money in her hand, but Yaya turns out to be no better than him as your typical social media influencer, and their argument is eventually ended as they come to make a sort of reconciliation for their mutual benefit.

In the next act, we see Carl and Yaya enjoying a luxurious cruise along with a number of other guests on a big yacht. Every crew member of the yacht is ready to serve the guests as much as possible just because that is what they are paid for, but their captain, hilariously played by Woody Harrelson, does not care much about the cruise while locking himself up in his private cabin for some drinking, and that certainly frustrates the crew members working under him.

Meanwhile, we get to know a bit about several other guests besides Carl and Yaya. In case of one jolly middle-aged Russian dude accompanied with his wife, he turns out to be a very wealthy guy, and he makes a little crude but amusing joke about his business at one point. Compared to him, an elderly British couple looks more benign in comparison, but, what do you know, their source of wealth is relatively less respectable than that Russian dude’s business. Later in the story, we meet a rather pathetic guy who is eager to get along with a couple of young women at the bar, and he turns out to be quite rich just like many of the guests of the yacht.

After making some sharp points on how many guests on the ship are quite oblivious and insensitive to their privilege over many crew members of the yacht, the movie soon moves onto its most uproarious part. While the captain is reluctantly attending the dinner along with his guests during the following evening, the yacht constantly fluctuates among stormy waves, and some guests naturally begin to suffer seasick. In addition, it seems that there is also some food poisoning problem, and the situation soon gets all the worse along with lots of vomit and diarrhea.

In the next morning, the situation looks like being under control as everyone on the ship tries to start another day of their cruise, but, alas, there comes another unexpected incident which eventually causes the sinking of the yacht. I will not go into details here, but I must tell you that I was quite amused by a little but sweet ironic poetic justice served to a certain couple on the yacht.

During the third act, the movie revolves around several guests who manage to survive and then find themselves stranded ashore in a remote spot. Because none of them does not know any useful skill for survival while not having any food or water, they consequently find themselves depending a lot on a plain cleaner named Abigail (Dolly de Leon), who does not hesitate to take the full control over them as the one who has the power and privilege now.

What follows next is a naughty satire driven by the reversal of class and gender roles. Once they see that they have no choice in their circumstance, the survivors willingly obey to whatever Abigail orders them to do, and we get some laugh as she “domesticates” many of male survivors in the group including Carl. When it becomes quite clear to him that Abigail wants something from Carl in exchange for more food and water, he goes along with that despite his understandable reluctance, and, of course, he soon comes to learn how easy it is to put aside his petty male pride for survival.

During its last 20 minutes, the movie begins to lose some of its comic momentum, and the ending feels anti-climactic compared to what has been so enjoyably developed before that point. At least, the movie is still supported well by its solid main cast members, and Dolly de Leon is an undeniable standout in the bunch, though she was sadly not Oscar-nominated despite her commendable efforts here in this film.

Overall, “Triangle of Sadness”, which recently garnered three Oscar nominations including the one for Best Picture, is engaging enough for recommendation, but I must confess that I am not as enthusiastic about it as others. In my trivial opinion, its level of achievement is somewhere between Östlund’s two previous films “Force Majeure” (2014) and “The Square” (2017), and that will probably help you decide on whether you should check it out or not. It could be more focused and daring, but I had enough good laughs at least, so I will not grumble for now.

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Blonde (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A miserable bore

It has been known well that Marilyn Monroe was a very unhappy woman, and Netflix film “Blonde” is relentlessly and tediously emphasizes that miserable aspect to our disgust and boredom. Its heavily fictional story surely intends to show how much Monroe was abused and exploited throughout her short life and career, but the result only ends up being ironically quite distasteful and exploitative, and that only leaves a merely depressing impression on us without much insight on Monroe’s humanity or personality.

During its early part, the movie depicts Monroe’s deeply problematic childhood years. When her rather mentally unstable mother was finally sent to a mental hospital after one incident of domestic abuse between them, young Monroe, played by Lily Fisher, hoped that her father, who left her and her mother around the time when she was born, would come back to take her, but, alas, her hope was soon broken cruelly, and that was just the prelude to many other miserable moments she had to endure during her life.

Several years later, Monroe, who is now played by Ana de Armas, grows up to become a young new model looking for any chance for her movie acting career in New York City, and what follows next is pretty ugly to say the least. As demanded by her agent, she goes to a certain powerful Hollywood figure who does not hesitate to rape her in his private office, and she soon comes to get a small but significant supporting role in a famous Oscar-winning classic film produced by that figure. Thanks to her considerable charm and presence, it does not take much time for her to become a next new Hollywood star actress, but she is not so pleased when her success is not appreciated that much by her mother, who is still in her mental hospital as before.

Meanwhile, Monroe’s private life becomes messy as she unwisely lets herself exploited by two guys who lure her into a kinky threesome relationship among them and her. Her agent advises her that she should not get involved more with these two guys, but she cannot help herself just because she feels a bit more alive whenever she hangs around them, though it is clear to us from the beginning that they are using her innocence as much as her agent. She always needs somebody to lean on, and they gladly provide some comfort while taking advantage of her at times.

However, her relationship with these two guys does not end that well when Monroe gets pregnant later. At first, Monroe wants to have a baby, but then she becomes quite conflicted when there comes a chance to advance her movie acting career. What follows next is a rather graphically nightmarish sequence showing her subsequent abortion process, and I am depressed to report that this is merely vulgar and repulsive instead of being dramatically devastating – especially when it briefly shows some very unpleasant anatomical details of the abortion process.

Some time later, Monroe encounters another figure to whom she is helplessly attracted, and that is Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), a famous baseball player who has recently retired. Because he looks like the one who can take care of her longtime daddy issue as your average alpha male, Monroe says yes to his proposal, but, alas, she belatedly comes to realize how violent and abusive he can be, and we naturally get another painful moment to watch.

Shortly after her marriage to DiMaggio was ended, Monroe happens to meet Arthur Miller (Adrian Brody), a legendary Broadway playwright who comes across at a small read-through event for his latest work. He is not so impressed at first, but he finds himself attracted to Monroe as talking with more with her, and he looks like someone to provide a stable private life for her. Once they get married, everything seems to be fine for both of them for a while, but, of course, the situation soon becomes quite problematic mainly due to Monroe’s fragile mental condition.

After that narrative point, the screenplay by director/writer Andrew Dominik, which is based on the novel of the same name by Joyce Carol Oates, goes further into more misery and exploitation. With no one to stand by her, Monroe tumbles into more neurosis and depression, and she also lets herself exploited by the most powerful political figure in US. The movie thankfully goes for the graphic details of this sickening moment, but it is still quite disturbing and disgusting enough to earn its NC-17 rating in my inconsequential opinion.

These and many other things in the film are packaged with frequent artsy touches including the occasional changes in screen ratio, and the overall impression is hollow at best and repulsive at worst. As I reflect more on what I observed from the film, it becomes more apparent that the movie objectifies its heroine’s numerous miseries without any care or empathy at all, and that accordingly wastes the fairly good efforts of de Armas, who was incidentally Oscar-nominated for her work here in this film on last Tuesday. Yes, she flawlessly immerses herself into her iconic character, but her admirable acting is often limited by many superficial aspects of Dominick’s screenplay, and that is really a shame.

In conclusion, “Blonde” is a misguided artistic misfire which tires and bores us throughout its overlong running time (166 minutes) without any sense of reward. As my late mentor/friend Roger Ebert said, no good movie is depressing while all bad movies are depressing, and this is surely a prime example of how depressing a bad film can be.

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Navalny (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The man against the Kremlin

Documentary film “Navalny”, which was recently nominated for Best Documentary Oscar, focuses on one compelling figure who has defiantly resisted against the Kremlin as much as possible. As closely observing how he and his colleagues investigated on a shocking attempt to poison him, the documentary gives us a number of powerful moments to remember, and you will come to admire his courage and dedication more while also wondering about what may happen next to him and others around him in the future.

At first, we are introduced to Alexei Navalny, and we get to know a bit about how this Russian politician has been a major headache for Vladimir Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin during last several years. There are a number of political figures opposing to Putin in Russia, and many of them are more or less than Putin’s puppets to distract Russian people, but Navalny was really defiant against Putin’s regime right from the beginning. As he drew more and more attention in public thanks to his natural charisma and leadership, Navalny soon became the No.1 enemy to Putin and his cronies, and, not so surprisingly, he was consequently blacklisted in Russia in one way or another. As a matter of fact, Putin has even refused to mention his name, and that tells us a lot about how much this tyrannical prick hates and fears him.

Because he was already attacked with some toxic substance a few years ago, Navalny was certainly aware of the constant risk around him and his colleagues, but, to his little bewilderment, everything seemed to be going pretty well for him when he went to a little city in Siberia in 2020 August for making another exposé video for his YouTube channel. This time, there was not much interference from the Russian Government, and Navalny could not help but worried as going back to Moscow a few days later.

Unfortunately, his instinct turned to be quite correct. On an airplane in the middle of the flight to Moscow, Navalny’s body began to show alarming symptoms, and then the airplane quickly made an emergency landing. When his wife Yulia and several colleagues of his hurriedly went to a local hospital where he was supposedly receiving medical treatments, they were blocked by local authorities for no apparent reason, and they naturally began to have reasonable suspicion on what was happening to Navalny.

After a short period of deliberate delay due to the Russian government, Navalny was eventually transferred to a hospital in Germany for getting the right treatment for him. As he gradually got recovered during next several weeks, it turned out that he was actually poisoned with a nerve agent associated with the Russian military, and everyone was naturally shocked by that for good reasons. Sure, Putin and his cronies have often attempted to eliminate their political enemies by any means necessary, and they got away with that more than once, but using that military nerve agent in question was pretty incriminating from the beginning to say the least.

Of course, Putin and the Russian government denied everything as usual, and there was not much possibility of exposing their assassination attempt on Navalny, but that did not stop Navalny and his colleagues at all. With the considerable help from Bulgarian investigative journalist Christo Groze, Maria Pevchikh, the head investigator for Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, embarked on finding any clue for finding whoever was involved with the assassination attempt, and the documentary gives us a compelling presentation on how they diligently gathered one clue after another.

In the end, Navalny and his colleagues made a series of unexpected discoveries, which brought more light to the assassination attempt. They got a number of possible suspects who happened to be involved with the Russian intelligence agency, and they also obtained the information on several scientists who probably made that nerve agent for poisoning Navalny. All they needed now was a big evidence to be used against whatever Putin would claim, and we later get a quiet but undeniably tense dramatic moment as the camera simply looks at Navalny and his colleagues attempting to fool a certain target of theirs for extracting more information about the assassination attempt. They initially did not expect much, but, what do you know, their target turned out to be a lot more foolish than expected, and, to their disbelief and amusement, that figure virtually revealed almost everything to them without having any suspicion or hesitation at all.

Meanwhile, the documentary occasionally focuses on the personal aspects of its main subject, and Navalny is willing to tell anything in front the camera in addition to showing a bit of his private life with his dear wife and daughter. Yes, there was a time when he got himself involved with some nasty right-wing figures, but he is pretty frank about why he did that, and you can sense that he really cares about his country and people. Although he was quite well aware of the enormous risk in going back to Russia, he did return to his country for his numerous supporters out there once he was fully recovered, and the Russian government was certainly ready to suppress him by any means necessary.

On the whole, “Navalny”, which won the Festival Favorite Award and the Audience Award for the U.S. Documentary Competition when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, is worthwhile to watch for its very engaging presentation of its political main subject, and director/co-producer Daniel Roher, a Canadian documentary filmmaker who previously made “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band” (2019), did a commendable job of handling the main subject with care and respect without losing any human dimension. In short, this is one of the best documentaries of last year, and I certainly recommend you to check it out as soon as possible.

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Pearl (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her colorfully disturbing origin story

Ti West’s “Pearl”, which came out not long after his previous film “X” (2022) in last year, presents the colorfully disturbing origin story of the villain character in “X”. In contrast to the dryly creepy atmosphere of “X”, “Pearl” cheerfully bounces along with its demented heroine as she delves further into her madness, and we are alternatively amused and chilled by a number of striking moments of insanity and violence along the story.

The story is set in the same Texan farm shown in “X”, but its period is different for showing the early years of Pearl (Mia Goth). It is 1918, and Pearl is the daughter of a German immigrant couple who has been going through a very hard time due to the ongoing war in Europe. Mainly due to the hostility toward German immigrants, there is not any employee to work in the farm, so Pearl’s stern mother Ruth (Tandi Wright) must take care of everything in the farm, and she also has to nurse her paralyzed husband who cannot move or speak at all due to his illness. Naturally, Pearl is usually expected to help her mother, but, as shown from the opening scene, she is hoping to get out of the farm for anything better than her current life, and she certainly feels suffocated and frustrated everyday under her domineering mother.

And then there come two small but significant changes into Pearl’s isolated daily life. On one day, she goes to a nearby town for her father’s medicine, and she happens to meet a charming lad who works as the projectionist at a local theater where she spends some free time. As a matter of fact, Pearl is already married to some other young man who went to the war, and she really loves her husband as still waiting for him, but she cannot help but feel more of her growing need for being loved and desired. While coming back to her home, she comes to have a little kinky experience with a scarecrow, and we come to sense more of the repressed sexual desire inside her.

Some time later, Ruth and Pearl are visited by Pearl’s mother-in-law and her daughter Mitsy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), a plucky blonde young girl who has incidentally been Pearl’s only friend. During their little private moment, Mitsy tells Pearl that there will soon be a little dancer audition for some traveling troupe, and she kindly encourages Pearl to go to the audition along with her. Although there is not much chance for both of them, Pearl is determined to go the audition and then get herself chosen in the end, and her life begins to look a little cheerful and colorful than before as she is buoyed by the possibility of getting her wish at last.

However, Pearl soon finds herself clashing with her mother, who is not so amused when her daughter tells her about that audition during one evening. Well aware of how twisted and dangerous her daughter can really be, Ruth absolutely forbids her daughter to go to the audition, and that inevitably leads to a striking moment of confrontation between them.

And that is the point where Pearl comes to pass the point of no return. As she tries to keep going as usual for the upcoming audition, she only finds herself driven more by her dark side, and she certainly regrets over how things get messier for her despite her desperate efforts. Nevertheless, she has no problem at all with covering up one terrible deed after another, and a big alligator living in a nearby pond, who is probably related to the similar one in “X”, comes handy for her.

Even at this narrative point, the movie maintains its deliberately colorful mood to accentuate the melodramatic horror of its heroine’s madness. While its bright and sharp color scheme is often reminiscent of the Technicolor wonder of “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), the intentionally overblown score by Tyler Bates and Tim Williams intensely depicts the frequent emotional upheavals of our murderous heroine, and we gladly go along with that as often horrified by the consequences of her relentless madness.

As the center of the film, Mia Goth, who also wrote the screenplay along with West in addition to serving as one of its executive producers, gives another committed performance to mentioned along with her terrific dual acting in “X”. Fearlessly throwing herself into a series of disturbing moments in the film, Goth is constantly captivating to say the least, and she is especially superb when the camera simply focuses on her face as she deftly delivers an emotional monologue during several minutes without any interruption. We come to feel more pity for her character, but then we are also more terrified as sensing more of how insane she really is.

Around Goth, a few main cast members hold each own small place well as dutifully supporting her. While Tandi Wright is effective as the main acting opponent for Goth, David Corenswet is well-cast as Pearl’s possible love interest, and Emma Jenkins-Purro brings some warmth to the story as functioning as the most normal person in the story.

In conclusion, “Pearl” is a solid genre piece which is as entertaining as its predecessor, and you may come to have some expectation on whatever will come next from Goth and West, who are already planning on making another film to be added to their X series at present. Along with its predecessor, the movie delights me for showing that their genre is still a rich territory to explore, and I assure you that its last very last shot will linger on your mind for days after it is over.

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X (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Sleazy, creepy, and bloody

“X”, one of Ti West’s two films which came out in last year, is an interesting juxtaposition of sleazy porn-making and creepy horror with some bloody moments. Although this attempt is not exactly fresh or original, it is still engaging in terms of mood and details to be savored, and it is certainly another good genre work to be added to West’s solid filmography.

After the prologue scene which announces us a bit of its ending to us in advance, the movie, which is incidentally set in Texas,1979, begins its story with a young porn actress named Maxine “Max” Minx (Mia Goth), who will soon go outside with her sleazy boyfriend/producer Wayne Gilroy (Martin Henderson). They are going to make their latest porn along with a few cast and crew members of theirs, and Wayne has already got a certain remote place where they are going to shoot that porn.

Besides Max and Wayne, there are only four cast and crew members. While Max’s fellow two porn performers Jackson Hole (Scott Mescudi) and Bobby-Lynne Parker (Brittany Snow) are eager to have another fun time as your typical porn performer couple, R.J. Nichols (Owen Campbell), a lad who has worked as a director for Wayne, is ready to be more artistic in his porn-making along with his girlfriend Lorraine “Raine” Day (Jenna Ortega), but Raine seems not so comfortable with participating in his porn-making as his only crew member.

As these six persons are going to their destination, there come a few bad signs as you can expect from any horror flick. When they drop by a local shop, the atmosphere is not exactly friendly to say the least, and there is also a gruesome case of roadkill which will make you cringe for good reasons. When they finally arrive at their destination later, we see another bad sign: a old and shabby farmhouse which feels almost empty as being shrouded in lots of creepy mood.

Wayne soon meets an old man who is the owner of the house, and, though their encounter is not exactly pleasant, the old man subsequently leads Wayne and his cast and crew members to a guesthouse where they are supposed to stay. Wayne did not tell the old man about what he and his cast and crew members are going to do, but that will not be much of a problem because, well, the old man got paid anyway.

As they immediately embark on shooting their porn in the guesthouse, we get some amusing moments involved with their porn-making. While RJ is eagerly handling his cheap camera, Jackson and Bobby-Lynne show some, uh, physical dedication in front of the camera, and everything seems to be going pretty well for everyone as they are ready to move onto the next scene where Max will perform along with Jackson.

In the meantime, we come to sense that there is something about Max which somehow affects not only the old man but his mostly silent wife, whom Max happens to meet while she is having some free time for herself. Because we already saw this old woman watching Max from the distance, we cannot help but feel uncomfortable as observing their brief encounter, and that disturbing feeling only grows further when Max goes all the way for performing her sex scene later. During one voyeuristic moment, her vibrant youth and beauty are strikingly contrasted with how old and ugly the old woman looks, and we are more unnerved as wondering what may happen next.

When the night eventually comes, the movie dutifully follows the footsteps of many of its senior slasher horror films such as, yes, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) and “Friday the 13th” (1980), but it also takes some time in making extra character development before that. At one point, Raine impulsively decides to try to do a sex scene, and her boyfriend understandably opposes to that, but everyone else has no problem with that. She is surely aware of how exploitative porn-making can be, but she knows the risk anyway, and she is willing to show more of herself in front of the camera just like Max and Bobby-Lynne.

During its last act, the movie gleefully wields extreme violence and gore, but it did its expected job better than most of slasher horror flicks out there. Because its broad but colorful main characters are established well in advance, there are enough dramatic impacts as they are dispatched one by one (Is this spoiler?), and West effectively delivers them on the screen. In addition, the movie has several nice surprises involved with the very twisted sides of the old couple, and I also like a number of small but notable references on other classic horror films including “The Shining” (1980).

Under West’s competent direction, his main cast members are effective in their respective roles. While Scott Mescudi, who also served as one of the executive producers of the film, Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell have a little fun with their sleazy male characters, Jenny Ortega, who is no stranger to slasher horror film considering her recent appearance in “Scream” (2022), and Brittany Snow also have each own moment to shine, and Mia Goth, who has been more prominent since “Suspiria” (2018) and “High Life” (2018), is simply terrific as deftly going back and forth between two very different appearances throughout the film.

On the whole, “X” is an enjoyable horror flick to be appreciated for its good mood, storytelling, and performance, and you will have some expectation on what West did in his very next film “Pearl” (2022), which is incidentally a prequel to “X”. Like West’s previous films including “The House of the Devil” (2009) and “The Innkeepers”, it just wants to have some fun in its small playground, and it surely did its job well in my inconsequential opinion.

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M3GAN (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): One nasty AI robot

“M3GAN” is an amusing horror film about one little but nasty AI robot who simply follows its programmed nature. Like many famous horror movie figures ranging from Norman Bates to Dr. Hannibal Lector, it is just driven by its own twisted behavioral logic to the extreme while trying to do right things in its viewpoint, and that surely makes it an interesting horror movie character to amuse and horrify us.

This AI robot is called “Model 3 Generative Android” (M3GAN), which has been developed by Gemma (Allison Williams), a smart and ambitious female engineer who recently happens to take care of her young niece Cady (Violet McGraw) after Cady lost her dear parents due to one tragic car accident. While struggling to provide a comfortable domestic environment for her niece, Gemma comes to have one nice idea when her niece is brightened up a bit by an old big robot in the basement of her house, and that is how M3GAN is subsequently introduced to Cady.

Cady is understandably awkward at first, but she instantly befriends M3GAN, and M3GAN soon becomes another important figure in Gemma’s house as doing more than babysitting Cady day by day. As a matter of fact, mainly thanks to its quick learning process, M3GAN turns out to be much more successful than Gemma expected, and Gemma’s following presentation impresses not only her obnoxious boss but also those investors willing to finance its production as soon as possible. Although it will be certainly quite expensive, this may be much cooler than the latest hit product of their company, and Gemma is glad for finally having a career breakthrough she has yearned for years.

However, of course, Gemma ignores a few bad signs from M3GAN just because of how happy her niece is with M3GAN. While surely ready to serve Gemma and her niece, M3GAN is also quite willing to do anything for Cady’s welfare, and that aspect is quite apparent when M3GAN comes across an annoying trouble with one vicious dog belonging to a rather unpleasant middle-aged lady living right next to Gemma’s house. According to its programmed logic which is constantly upgraded by its daily input, the dog as well as that middle-aged lady should be eliminated for Cady’s welfare, so we are accordingly served with a couple of nasty moments when M3GAN decides to be a little more active than usual.

My personal favorite moment is involved with some unlikable boy whom Cady happens to meet at a sort of alternative school event in a nearby forest. When Cady and this boy happen to be alone without anyone else around them, he soon shows his very unpleasant sides, and that is where M3GAN enters the picture for giving him a lesson he will never forget. Although the movie went through some reshooting for rated PG-13 instead of R in US, you may cringe as watching this disagreeable boy getting his gruesome comeuppance in the end.

Of course, there eventually comes a point where Gemma belatedly comes to see what is going on around her and Cady because of M3GAN, and we surely get a series of intense moments as she tries to protect her niece form M3GAN, but the movie still maintains its morbid sense of fun even at this point. Although the trailer of the movie shows a bit too much of this climactic part, I enjoy a darkly humorous moment when M3GAN dances a little before approaching to its latest target, and I certainly appreciate how that big old robot becomes quite useful later in the story (I would be more delighted if that famous line from “Aliens” (1986) were borrowed: “Get away from her, you bitch!!”).

The effectiveness of the movie depends a lot on how convincing M3GAN looks on the screen, and director Gerard Johnstone and his crew members did a fairly good job on the whole. While it is often supplemented with CGI, M3GAN feels physically palpable as embodied by child actress Amie Donald, and the unnerving flat voice performance by Jenna Davis adds some extra uncanny quality to our homicidal robot character.

Because the movie is mainly about M3GAN, the two main cast members of the movie usually step aside for M3GAN, but they act as much as they can do with their broad archetype roles. While Allison Williams, who has been more prominent thanks to her substantial supporting turn in “Get Out” (2017), is believable in her character development along the story, young performer Violet McGraw has her small moments to shine as she flawlessly interacts with M3GAN during several key scenes, and she and Williams convey to us well the considerable awkwardness between their characters.

In conclusion, “M3GAN” is another typical horror product you can expect from its producers Jason Blum and James Wan, who incidentally wrote the screenplay with Akela Cooper. Although I did not recommend many of Wan’s films “The Conjuring” (2013) and “Malignant” (2021) mainly because they did not satisfy me enough without breaking any new ground in their genre territories, but I came to admire some of those horror flicks directed or produced by him, and I have actually been considering re-evaluating “Malignant”, which is a little too flawed for my taste but was certainly one of the wildest and craziest horror films of 2021 in my humble opinion. Anyway, I heard that the sequel to “M3GAN” is already being planned at present, and I sincerely hope that the sequel will be wilder and crazier than its predecessor.

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The First Slam Dunk (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A solid Japanese animation sports drama

I am usually open to anything, but I hesitated a bit in case of watching Japanese animation film “The First Slam Dunk”, which is based on Japanese manga series “Slam Dunk”. Although I am familiar with that popular Japanese manga series it is based on, I have never touched it because I am your average nerdy guy not so interested in sports (Confession: I was a lot more interested “Detective Conan” and “The Kindaichi Case Files” for my insatiable appetite for mystery genre), so I was not particularly willing to watch “The First Slam Dunk” when it was released in South Korea a few weeks ago.

Nevertheless, I became a bit more curious thanks to a series of positive audience reactions on the film. I eventually decided to give it a chance yesterday, and I am happy to report that it will entertain you enough even if you do not know much about “Slam Dunk” just like me. Like any good sports drama, the film keeps focusing on story and characters even while following every predictable genre convention to the core, and you will be surely enthralled by one dramatic moment to another in the film.

The story mainly revolves around one big match between two rival high school basketball teams, and, along the story, we gradually get to know the five principal members of the Shohoku high school basketball team: Ryōta Miyagi (voiced by Shugo Nakamura), Hishashi Mitsui (voiced by Jun Kasama), Kaeda Rukawa (voiced by Shin’ichiro Kamio), Hanamichi Sakuragi (voiced by Subaru Kimura), and Takenori Akagi (voiced by Kenta Miyake). Led by their taciturn but wise coach, these five members are now almost close to a big moment of glory and achievement, and they are certainly ready to play as much as possible against their mighty opponent team.

Along these five lads, Ryōta becomes the most prominent one as his family melodrama comes to function as the backbone of the flashback part alternating with the basketball match part. Even when he was very young, Ryōta aspired to be a first-class basketball player, and he certainly hoped that he would follow the footsteps of his older brother, who had already shown considerable potential as a high school basketball player. Unfortunately, Ryōta’s older brother died due to an unfortunate accident not long after their father died, and that certainly devastated not only Ryōta but also their mother, who eventually decided to move to somewhere else as often haunted by the memories of her dead older son.

Ryōta’s mother did not want her son to play basketball just like his older brother because that often reminded her too much of her older son, but Ryōta was adamant about going his way nonetheless. When he later went to Shokoku high school, he came to show more talent and potential, and he soon played along with his current principal team members.

Although they are less developed compared to him, Ryōta’s four principal team members are depicted with enough life and personality to engage us. While Kaede is the most flamboyant one in the bunch as reflected by his dyed crew cut, Hishasi and Hanamichi are also provided with each own personal moment, and I was often amused by the stoically hulking appearance of Takenori, whose younger sister incidentally works under his coach while not hesitating at all to show her interest in Ryōta. In case of their opponent team, its principal members are also presented with some care and respect, and you can see that they may actually beat Ryōta and his team in the end.

While frequently jumping back and forth between the ongoing game and the flashback part, the film does not lose any of its narrative momentum at all as doling out one thrilling scene to another. To be frank with you, I do not know much about basketball, but the movie still could engage me without getting me lost among all those quick and flashy physical movements unfolded on the screen, and I found myself more emotionally involved in what is going on among its main characters. As a seasoned moviegoer, I have watched lots of basketball drama films ranging from “Hoosiers” (1986) to “Hustle” (2022), and I can really tell you that not many of them can top those exciting highlight moments of “The First Slam Dunk”.

I must point out that the film occasionally shows several notable week aspects. I do not like when the film goes all the way for broad humor, but I accept at least that comes with the territory when you are watching a Japanese manga flick. I also notice that there are only a few substantial female characters in the story, and they are less colorful in compared to Ryōta and his principal team members. Yes, they are surely no more than plot elements in my humble opinion, but, to my little relief, they are thankfully not objectified at all unlike numerous female Japanese manga characters out there.

In conclusion, “The First Slam Dunk” can appeal to others besides its target audiences because of its considerable spirit and style, and director/writer Takehiko Inoue, who is also the creator of “Slam Dunk”, and his crew and voice cast members deserve to be commended for their good efforts here in the film. No, I do not think I will soon check out “Slam Dunk”, but I do appreciate the entertainment value of “The First Slam Dunk”, and I assure you that you will have enough fun and excitement from it.

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Citizen K (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The rise and fall of one Russian Oligarch

Alex Gibney’s documentary “Citizen K”, which is available on Amazon Prime, presents the rise and fall of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was once one of the most prominent Russian oligarchs in the early 2000s. While never overlooking a number of questionable things in Khodorkovsky’s life, the documentary enlightens us a lot on how his country fell into another authoritarian regime not after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and that is alternatively chilling and compelling to say the least.

Via a number of various interviewees including Khodorkovsky himself, the documentary initially gives us a brief overview on how bad things were in Russia during the 1990s. When the country attempted its own capitalistic experiment, everyone in Russia was hopeful about possible changes to follow, but, alas, the result turned out to be disastrous, and Boris Yeltsin, who was the president of Russia during that time, soon faced the big possibility of losing the upcoming election in 1996.

Seeing that their country might go back to good old communism due to Yeltsin’s rapidly decreasing popularity, a group of Russian oligarchs including Khodorkovsky were quite concerned for good reasons. They had earned lots of money and power thanks to their close connections with Yeltsin’s government, and they certainly wished that Yeltsin would remain to be the president at least for a few more years.

And they did have the power to boost the support for Yeltsin considerably. Mainly via the mass media under their control, they tried really hard in presenting Yeltsin in a lot more positive ways, and, what do you know, their media strategy worked much better than expected. Yeltsin eventually succeeded in getting re-elected, and he certainly rewarded the Russian oligarchs for that. As a result, these rich dudes came to have much more power and wealth than before, and they were naturally willing to support whoever would succeed Yeltsin, as long as that guy would maintain the status quo for them.

When Vladimir Putin quickly and suddenly rose as Yeltsin’s successor during next several years, Khodorkovsky and his fellow Russian oligarchs had no problem with supporting Putin from the beginning. Once he became the new President of Russia in 2000, Putin seemed to be ready to work along with them for their mutual benefit, and it looked like they would be left alone without any interference if they just did not meddle with his political business in exchange.

However, Putin gradually began to show his true color during next several years. As a former KGB officer, he was quite adamant about having everything under his absolute total control, and Khodorkovsky soon came to clash with Putin a lot as he gradually became one of the most vocal critics of Putin and his government. He was well aware of what Putin and his government might do for silencing him once for all, but he often went all the way for criticizing Putin and his government, and Putin eventually decided to crush Khodorkovsky by any means necessary.

What followed next is an utterly absurd tale of political prosecution. Khodorkovsky was accused of ordering the murder of the mayor of one small Siberian city who happened to be in a serious conflict with him, and then his company was indicted for failing to pay the taxes to the government. In case of the former case, there are some dubious aspects associated with Khodorkovsky, and Khodorkovsky is also rather vague about the case in his interview. In case of the latter case, it is clear that Putin wanted to show who is the boss to Khodorkovsky and other Russian oligarchs, and there was nothing Khodorkovsky could do except showing some defiance before eventually sentenced to the 10-year imprisonment in Russia.

During that imprisonment period, Khodorkovsky came to find more will and resilience, so he did not step back at all when he was charged for another thing around the time he might be paroled. This time, he came to get much more support in public as Putin’s public image became less positive than before, and he responded to the following trial with cynical sarcasm before sent back to the prison with more imprisonment time as expected.

Anyway, Khodorkovsky was eventually released several years later mainly because Putin wanted to improve his public image inside and outside Russia more for the upcoming 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. After immediately leaving Russia, he eventually settled in London along with his family, and he became one of the most well-known anti-Putin Russian figures as being quite active about exposing the dirty and unpleasant sides of Putin and his government, though both he and the documentary recognize how limited he and his fellow activists are in many aspects. Having the total control on many things besides the mass media, Putin and his new Russian oligarchs are ready to do anything for continuing their authoritarian reign, and, as all of us know, they are still reigning in Russia despite their big current problem with Ukraine.

Overall, “Citizen K” is worthwhile to watch for getting more insights on what has been going on in Russia during last three decades, and Gibney and his crew members including editor Michael J. Palmer did a splendid job of presenting their main subject with enough interest and fascination. In short, this is one of the better documentaries in Gibney’s stellar filmography, and I am glad that I belatedly checked it out today.

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Devotion (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): One black US Navy pilot in the Korean War

“Devotion”, which is currently available on Netflix in South Korea, is about one real-life black US Navy pilot who deserves to be known more for his barrier-breaking efforts. Although he is often regarded via a white figure who happened to fight along with him, the movie thankfully avoids clichés expected from its main subject, while mostly working as a somber but engaging war drama about race and comradeship.

The movie opens with the arrival of Lieutenant Junior Grade Tom Hudner (Glen Powell) in Quonset Point Naval Air Station in Rhode Island, US in 1950. He is assigned to Fighter Squadron 32, and he soon meets the members of the squadron including Ensign Jesse Brown (Jonathan Majors), who is incidentally the sole black soldier in the group. Although their first encounter is rather strained, Hudner gradually befriends Brown, and Brown lets Hudner come a bit closer to him even though he usually remains guarded to others around him.

As the movie often shifts to Brown’s viewpoint, we get some glimpse into what Brown has to deal with everyday. While everyone in the squadron treats him as their equal partner, there is always a certain gap between them and him, and he always hardens himself as often throwing racist insults to himself in private. He is certainly one of the best pilots in the group, but he should keep himself discreet and watchful, and we feel more of the constant pressure upon him especially when the movie indirectly implies how he is regarded by many of white soldiers.

Hudner does not have any particularly serious prejudice on Brown, but he recognizes how Brown looks lonely and isolated at times. Without any condescension, he simply approaches closer to Brown when Brown happens to need a little help, and Brown subsequently lets Hudner get to know him as well as his wife more. Once Hudner gains Brown’s trust, Brown comes to accept Hudner as a comrade of his, and Hunder also comes to respect Brown’s determination and devotion.

The screenplay by Jake Crane and Jonathan A. Stewart, which is based on Adam Makos’ nonfiction novel “Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice”, thankfully does not overplay the racial aspects of the story. While it does not overlook at all how much Brown has to struggle with racism everyday, it also avoids presenting Hudner as your average white savior character. He and Brown simply come to develop their comradeship as getting to know each other day by day, and Hudner just does what he has to do as a comrade of Brown when Brown happens to be racially insulted at one point.

Nevertheless, the movie still does not ignore how much Brown is disadvantaged compared to Hudner, and that aspect becomes more apparent when they are put into the Korean War later in the story. During one mission, Brown makes an unauthorized move for the complete success of the mission, and Hudner writes that on his report, but then Brown points out how that will make him look pretty bad to those high-ranking officers and generals up there. As one of a few black pilots in the US Navy, he should always be flawless in his record unlike Hudner, who is much more advantaged due to his race as well as his better career background.

In the end, there comes a point where the comradeship between Hudner and Brown goes through its ultimate test, and the movie wisely maintains its rather restrained but dignified attitude while bringing enough tension to the climactic part. Although the action sequences in the film are relatively modest compared to the ones in “Top Gun: Maverick” (2022), they are mostly executed well on the whole thanks to the good efforts from the crew members including cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who previously won an Oscar for “Mank” (2020).

The two lead performers of the movie are solid as complementing well each other throughout the story. Jonathan Majors, who has steadily advanced since his wonderful breakout supporting turn in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” (2019) and will surely draw much more attention from us via “Magazine Dreams” (2023) and “Creed III” (2023) in this year, is often stoically intense as required by his role, but he is also tender and sensitive during several small private moments when his character opens up himself more to Hudner. On the opposite, Glen Powell, who recently became more notable to us thanks to his colorful supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick”, humbly stands by his co-star without overshadowing him at all, and he and Majors deftly handle a quiet but poignant scene which functions as the emotional highpoint of the last act of the movie. In case of several other substantial supporting performers, Christina Jackson holds her own small place well as Brown’s loving wife, and Thomas Sadoski is also effective as Brown and Hudner’s no-nonsense squadron leader.

In conclusion, “Devotion” is a solid war drama film, and director J. D. Dillard, whose father was incidentally a Naval flight officer and the second African-American selected to fly for the Blue Angels, handles the story and characters with enough respect and care. Although you may be disappointed if you expect it to be as thrilling as “Top Gun: Maverick”, it will touch you in addition to enlightening you a bit on its main subject, so I recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A singing crocodile in the attic

“Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile” did not click that well with me somehow despite a number of nice things to enjoy. As a matter of fact, I got actually more interested when its end credits showed a series of drawings probably influenced by Bernard Waber’s two classic children’s stories on which the movie is based, and I even considered checking them out someday just for curiosity.

The story is about one singing crocodile living in the attic of one of the old brownstone houses in the middle of Manhattan, and the opening part of the movie shows us how he was adopted by a struggling magician named Hector P. Valenti (Javier Bardem). While looking for any animal useful for his magic performance, Hector happened to encounter a little baby crocodile who could sing pretty well, and he immediately took him to his residence for more practice after naming this small crocodile, yes, Lyle. Thanks to Hector’s support and help, Lyle came to develop his singing talent more and more, but, alas, he happened to have a stage fright during what was supposed to be a big breakthrough for both him and Hector, and, due to losing his residence as a consequence, Hector had no choice but to depart while leaving Lyle in the attic of his residence.

Several years later, a family moves into the house without any idea on who has been residing in its attic. While Mr. Primm and Mrs. Primm (Scoot McNairy and Constance Wu) are excited about living in the middle of Manhattan, their son Josh (Winslow Fegley) is rather nervous about adjusting to his new environment, and his loving parents certainly pay some attention to him when he goes to his new school, though that still does not lessen his constant anxiety much.

At one night, Josh happens to hear a strange sound from the attic. When he eventually goes up there despite his nervousness, he comes across Lyle, and he is certainly frightened at first, but, after having one accidental nocturnal adventure outside the house, he comes to befriend Lyle, and Lyle gladly shows him how he has survived during the ongoing absence of Hector (You may wince more than once if you have any aversion to food trash, by the way).

In addition, Lyle occasionally demonstrates his singing talent via the voice of Shawn Mendes, and that surely charms not only Josh but also his mother, who is also quite scared during her first encounter with Lyle but then finds herself becoming much more spirited than before as she and Lyle sing together. In case of Mr. Primm, he remains rather oblivious to what is going on in the house for a while, but then he also comes to meet Lyle in the end, and Lyle also makes Mr. Primm a lot livelier than before.

Around that point, Hector returns to the house, and the mood becomes a bit awkward between him and Lyle as well as the Primms, but the movie keeps bouncing as usual. While still hoping for that big break for him and Lyle, Hector also brings lots of fun and excitement for Lyle and the Primms, and the Primms come to accept Hector as a part of their daily life.

Of course, the situation becomes a little more complicated later mainly because of a grumpy neighbor living in the basement, who certainly does not welcome all the fun and excitement unfolded right above him. When his pet cat has some unpleasant trouble as spending more time with Lyle and Josh, this mean dude decides to take some action against the Primms and Lyle, and the following consequence certainly breaks Josh’s heart.

What follows next is pretty predictable to say the least. Yes, Josh becomes quite determined to help his dear crocodile friend as much as possible. Yes, despite betraying Lyle at one point, Hector also decides to help Lyle, and he soon comes to work together along with Josh. Yes, the climax part eventually culminates to a big moment when Lyle must overcome his persistent stage fright, and we all already know how this moment will end.

Nevertheless, the movie engaged me to some degree due to its likable aspects. Although I often regarded Lyle as a mere CGI figure during my viewing, he became more endearing to me along the story, and his several musical scenes are effective thanks to the solid songs by Benj Pasek and Justic Paul. While the songs in the movie are not that memorable compared to the ones from “La La Land” (2016) or “The Greatest Showman” (2017), they work in the context of the story at least, and Mendes ably handles them on the whole.

In case of the several cast members surrounding Lyle, they did an adequate job of filling their respective spots. While Javier Bardem willingly shows a more cheerful side of his talent, Constance Wu and Scoot McNairy have each own moment for our little amusement, and Winslow Fegley, who was wonderful in his first feature film “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made” (2020), holds his own place well among his adult co-stars.

In conclusion, “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile”, directed by Will Speck and Josh Gordon, does not reach to the level of “Paddington” (2014) and its 2017 sequel, but it has some fun and charm at least. While I do not recommend it for now, I will not stop you from watching it if you happen to some free time to spend, and, who knows, you may be charmed more than me.

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