Wrath of Man (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Gritty and remorseless to say the least

Guy Ritchie’s latest work “Wrath of Man” is gritty and remorseless to say the least. While this is surely your average revenge action flick about a taciturn tough guy with a particular set of skills, it is at least packaged with considerable style and energy, and I was sometimes amused by the fateful inevitability of its plot even while observing the expected climactic mayhem from the distance.

After the striking opening scene which efficiently sets the overall tone of the movie, the first act of the movie begins with its hero getting hired by some well-known private security company in LA. Because the company has mainly handled the delivery of millions of dollars in cash everyday, its many security trucks are often targeted by those dangerous criminals out there, and, considering his fairly good resumé, our hero surely looks like well-qualified, though he barely passes the following tests for a number of skills including shooting and driving.

As he begins his first day under the guidance of a seasoned senior employee, everyone at his new workplace is very curious about him mainly because he does not talk much about himself while showing no interest at all in socializing with his new colleagues. For example, when he happens to be provoked by some cocky employee, he responds to this jerk with some sharp replies, but then he withdraws even though he seems to be well aware of that the dude is no more than a mere loudmouth.

And then an incident happens on one day. While our hero and that cocky employee are going through another workday as usual, they are suddenly ambushed by a bunch of gun-wielding criminals wearing masks, and, not so surprisingly, our hero’s partner instantly panics and squirms, but, what do you know, our hero does not lose any of his detached attitude at all. Once he spots a slip from one of the criminals, he swiftly takes care of that criminal in question, and the same fate soon falls on other criminals at the spot. 

Now you may complain that I exposed a spoiler to you, but, don’t worry, because the hero is played by none other than Jason Statham, who has been always good at bringing genuine toughness to his roles since he drew our attention via Ritchie’s early films “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” (1998) and “Snatch” (2000). While he can be funny and likable as shown from these two films, Statham can also be cool and intense as shown from “The Transporter” (2000) and “Crank” (2006), and his steely presence is utilized quite well here as he austerely carries the film as required.

As entering the second act mainly consisting of flashback scenes, the movie delves into the personal motive of Statham’s character, who turns out to have been quite wrathful toward whoever is responsible for the death of someone quite dear to him (Again, this is not a spoiler at all). There is a sad irony in that tragedy in fact, and that made him all the more devastated and vengeful, but, despite some help from certain people around him, he was going nowhere until he finally decided to get himself employed at that private security company with a hidden purpose behind his back. 

The screenplay by Ritchie and his co-writers Ivan Atkinson and Marn Davies, which is based on 2004 French action thriller film “Cash Truck”, subsequently takes another narrative turn as momentarily shifting its focus to the other substantial part of the story. I will not go into details for not lessening your entertainment, but I can tell you instead that I appreciate how a bunch of notable supporting performers including Raúl Castillo, Laz Alonso, and Scott Eastwood bring some personality and details to their rather functional roles. In case of Eastwood, you can promptly sense troubles from his character right from his first appearance, but then you will be surprised more as observing how nasty and treacherous his character can really be.

Around the eventual final act, we surely get lots of bangs and clashes along with lots of bullets in the air, and Ritchie and his crew members skillfully and confidently handle the actions unfolded on the screen without losing any control at all. Although you may not care that much about the fates of many of the characters in the story, the movie still holds our attention via its sheer intensity, and the resulting finale feels explosively inevitable instead of merely predictable.

With Statham holding the center as usual, several other cast members around him hold each own place well on the whole. While Josh Hartnett and Eddie Marsan bring a little sense of humor to the film, Holt McCallany, who has been more notable since his breakthrough turn in Netflix TV drama series “Mindhunters”, and Niamh Algar are also solid in their respective parts, and Andy Garcia savors every minute of his brief appearance in the film.   

In conclusion, “Wrath of Man” may not bring anything particularly new to its genre territories as reminiscent of many other gritty and violent crime films such as “Heat” (1995), but I will not deny that I was more entertained than expected when I watched it at a big Dolby Cinema screening room during this Sunday afternoon. Although I still personally think Danish film “Riders of Justice” (2020) did a better job as having more personality and humor in comparison, “Wrath of Man” is still engaging enough as packed with enough entertaining elements, and, along with Ritchie’s previous film “The Gentlemen” (2019), it surely shows us that Ritchie is indeed back in his element.

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Small Axe: Education (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A kid stuck at the bottom of the system

As your average constant movie reviewer, I was certainly quite interested in watching Steve McQueen’s exceptional movie anthology series “Small Axe”, which happened to be selected as one of the best works of 2020 among many film critics groups in last year. Although it can be regarded as a TV miniseries and I will not be surprised if it receives several Emmy nominations later, “Small Axe” is inarguably another superlative cinematic achievement from McQueen, and I come to admire it more as appreciating its whole big picture consisting of five different dramas with each own distinctive quality.

All of these five movies are mainly about Black British People (of West Indian heritage, to be precise) and their life and culture during the late 20th century, and each of them provides each own perspective to be appreciated. While “Mangrove”, the first film which is also the best of the bunch, presents a vivid and intense race drama involved with one curry restaurant in Notting Hill of London, “Lovers Rock” provides some warmth and comfort via its little but sensitive romance drama, and “Red, White and Blue” and “Alex Wheatle” illuminate the systemic racism and injustice via their contrasting viewpoints.

In case of “Education”, the fifth film which is incidentally the shortest one in the bunch (Its running time is only 63 minutes, by the way), it looks at another case of systemic injustice through the viewpoint of one little black kid and his family. While it is often heartbreaking to see how this kid gets deprived of the opportunity for better education and life just like many other young black students during that time, we are also touched by the communal efforts for saving these unfortunate kids, and the overall result is the satisfying last chapter to follow its four predecessors.

After the opening scene which will probably take you back to your childhood memories of planetarium, the movie observes the daily life of a young black kid named Kingsley Smith (Kenyah Sandy). While it is apparent to us that he is a smart and sensitive kid who wants to be an astronaut someday, he has not been doing that well at his elementary school, and, though it looks like he really needs some extra help for learning how to read, his teachers do not help much while casually labeling him as a trouble to be discarded sooner or later.

In the end, Kingsley’s mother Agnes (Sharlene Whyte) is brought to the school principal’s office for some important discussion. Because Kingsley’s recent IQ test result turned out to be below average, the principal decided to have Kingsley transferred to a certain “special” school, and Agnes does not mind this at all mainly because she has been constantly busy with her menial job just like her husband.

When she reads a pamphlet from that special school, Kingsley’s older sister does not feel that right about it, and Kingsley soon comes to learn how horrible it is in many ways. The teachers at that special school often neglect their duties without showing much care and attention to Kingsley and many other ‘special’ kids, and Kingsley and other students simply spend time without learning or doing anything at all. Agnes is initially relieved as her son does not cause any more trouble at all, but Kingsley becomes more frustrated and despaired, and there is no one to whom he can talk about that.

Fortunately, Kingsley happens to meet someone helpful at the right time when he is aimlessly going through another frustrating school day as usual. She is a young black psychiatrist/activist who has had a keen interest on the systemic mistreatment inflicted on young black kids like Kingsley, and it does not take much time for Agnes to realize what is really happening to her son. She initially dismisses that at first, but, as a caring mother, she gradually comes to sense that she made a big mistake, and then she becomes much more active for protecting her son’s interests as much as possible.

As shifting its focus a bit toward Agnes’ viewpoint, the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons directly tells us about how the British public education system had deliberately discriminated many black students out there for many years. As exposed by educationalist Bernard Coard’s 1971 pamphlet “How the West Indian Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System”, there was an unofficial policy of transferring disproportionate numbers of black students from mainstream education to schools for the so-called “educationally subnormal”, and this disgraceful policy consequently contributed to a vicious cycle of poverty and the lack of education among Black British folks. The less they learned, the more likely they were bound to cheap menial jobs while not being capable of giving opportunities of better life and education to their children, and that went on and on for decades.

After directly pointing out its main issues to us, the movie resolves its character conflict a little too easily, but it still engages us thanks to the good performances from two main performers at the center of the story. While young performer Kenyah Sandy instantly earns our sympathy and empathy right from the very beginning, Sharlene Whyte is equally fine as a mother with some human flaws, and she and Sandy are particularly touching when their characters come to have an emotional breakthrough between them around the end of the film.

On the whole, “Education” may feel less special compared to the first three films of “Small Axe”, but, like “Alex Wheatle”, it works as another crucial part of the series nonetheless, and its tentatively hopeful finale lingers on you for a while as making you reflect more on the social issues presented by it and the other four films of the series. Yes, these social issues surely feel like big intractable trees, but, as suggested by the lyric of Bob Marley’s song “Small Axe”, they may fall down someday via small but persistent communal efforts functioning like small axes against them, and we see a glimpse of hope and future at the end of this very special series. After all, things do change, don’t they?

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Small Axe: Alex Wheatle (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): How he came to tell his story

Steve McQueen’s movie anthology series “Small Axe” firmly held my attention as I watched its first three movies, which were incidentally shown at a number of major films festivals including the New York Film Festival before all of five films were shown on BBC One in UK and released on Amazon Prime in US around the end of the last year. While “Mangrove” surprised me a lot as fully engaging me throughout its 2-hour running time, “Lovers Rock” mellowed me a bit as showing McQueen’s warmer and tenderer side, and “Red, White and Blue” impressed me a lot as calmly but powerfully depicting two different personal struggles against the system and its racism.

Compared to these three strong predecessors, “Alex Wheatle”, the fourth entry of the series, looks rather weaker in comparison. Like “Mangrove” and “Red, White and Blue”, it is based on a real-life story, and it is also prominently drive by reggae music like “Lovers Rock”, but the overall result sometimes suffers from its curiously unfocused storytelling, and I found myself losing patience despite its relatively short running time (66 minutes).

The movie opens with its young titular hero, played by newcomer Sheyi Cole, being transferred to his new prison cell in the middle of his imprisonment period. As being stuck with his new cellmate, Wheatle soon comes to clash with his new cellmate, but his new cellmate easily suppresses Wheatle within a minute, and, as trying to calm down Wheatle, he asks about Wheatle’s past, and the movie promptly examines Wheatle’s early years, which were full of emotional scars he acquired from here and there. Abandoned by both of his biological parents right after his birth, young Wheatle frequently experienced abuses from his foster mother, and, not so surprisingly, he grew up to become a problematic teenager who kept getting himself into troubles.

When he finally enters adulthood, Wheatle is allowed to live alone by himself, and he is sent to a shabby one-room residence located in the middle of a black neighborhood of London, but he feels quite awkward to say the least as an outsider who is not so familiar to many things in his new world. For example, he does not know a number of local slangs such as “Babylon”, and his accent surely sounds quite different from how his new neighbors speak (Due to their thick local accent, it is sometimes difficult to understand for us what the hell they are talking about, so I sincerely recommend you to watch the movie with English subtitle).

Anyway, things are not entirely bad for Wheatle thanks to a small-time criminal who gladly takes Wheatle under his wings right from their first encounter. Although he is still clumsy in many aspects, Wheatle comes to learn more and more from his new friend as time goes by, and he eventually gets accustomed more to his street life of crime.

In the meantime, Wheatle gradually becomes more fascinated with reggae music. He frequently drops by a local record shop for buying any latest album from his favourite artists, and he also gets interested in making a sound system good enough to sell to others along with drug. He is subsequently involved with a local crime organization for getting more money and advance, and there is a little amusing moment when he has to show those criminals that he is not an undercover cop at all despite his accent.

However, Wheatle is also reminded of how things can be quite grim for him and many other black dudes in his neighborhood. Although he has been more careful than before, he is well aware that he can be arrested by the police at any point, and a certain tragic real-life incident reminds him and many other black people of how they frequently cope with racism and inequality everyday. Around that narrative point, the movie stops for a while as presenting a series of photographs of the aftermath of that incident, and I must say that, along with the accompanying narration, these photographs are more impactful than the story itself.

That incident led to riots and demonstrations from black people during that time, and that was how Wheatle got arrested and then incarcerated. Thanks to his new cellmate, Wheatle slowly goes through a process of enlightenment via a bunch of books given to him by his new cellmate, and he comes to realize the importance of knowing the past for advancing toward the future. Once he gets out of the prison, he searches for who he really is, and there is a small touching moment when he comes across someone close to him in the past.

Although the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Alastair Siddons stumbles more than once as merely scratching the surface of its titular hero’s dramatic life story, McQueen’s competent direction still holds our attention to some degree, and Cole’s earnest performance is good enough to carry the film at its center. In case of several supporting performers surrounding Cole, Jonathan Jules and Robbie Gee are solid as two different important figures in Wheatle’s life, and Jules did a good job of balancing his character between charm and sleaziness.

In conclusion, “Alex Wheatle” is the least satisfying entry in the series as feeling more like an aborted prelude, but it is not entirely without engaging elements at least, and it mostly works as another story added to the big picture envisioned by McQueen. Along with the next entry, “Education”, the movie makes a point on the importance of enlightenment in fighting against racism and inequality, so I will not complain for now.

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Small Axe: Red, White and Blue (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Against the system he walks into

During last two days, I finally watched Steve McQueen’s movie anthology series “Small Axe”, which generated some hoopla during the recent Oscar season as receiving a bunch of nominations and awards from several major film critics associations including the LA Film Critics Association, which incidentally bestowed the Best Picture award upon it. Regardless of whether it should be regarded as cinema or TV miniseries (It may receive a number of nominations from Emmy a few months later, by the way), the anthology is another stunning achievement from McQueen, and its many powerful moments still linger on my head even at present.

The anthology mainly focuses on Black British people (of West Indian heritage, specifically) and their life and culture during the late 20th century, and its first two chapters simply knocked me down for their skillful handling of mood, story, and characters. While “Mangrove” is a tense and electrifying drama of systemic racism and injustice surrounding a small curry restaurant in Notting Hill of London, “Lovers Rock” is surprisingly tender and sensitive as observing one memorable night of music and romance, and McQueen demonstrates here that he can establish genuine romantic mood and feelings on the screen as well as Barry Jenkins.

In case of “Red, White, and Blue”, the third film of the anthology which is also based on a real-life story like “Mangrove”, McQueen returns to the harsher sides of Black British lives as shown from the opening scene. When a young black boy is merely waiting alone in front of his elementary school, two white police officers approach to him just because of their prejudice on black boys, and their attempt to frisk him without his permission is fortunately aborted when the boy’s father comes at the last minute. As he drives his son back to their home, the father reminds the son that he should never conform to any unjust demand from police officers, and we gather that the father also had some bad experiences with white police officers.

The movie subsequently moves forward to several years later, and we observe how things look hopeful and promising for that boy. As his parents hoped, Leroy Logan (John Boyega) studied hard as steadily advancing in his education course, and now he is going to be a forensic expert after receiving a doctoral degree, though he begins to wonder whether this is really what he wants to do at present – especially when a friend of his tells him that he can join the law enforcement training for becoming a police officer instead. After all, the police have been eager to show the inclusion of colored people in their system, and Leroy looks like an ideal recruit considering his many exemplary qualities including his excellent physical condition.

After consulting an aunt who has worked as a liaison for the local police, Leroy eventually decides to participate in the law enforcement training, but Leroy’s father Ken (Steve Toussaint) is not so amused by that because of a very unpleasant incident of his. Not long after he parked his truck for stopping by his frequent food truck, two white police officers approached to his truck just because they think Ken violated the parking regulations, and that soon led to Ken being savagely beaten by these two white police officers. Quite angry at this incident just like his father, Leroy becomes more determined to be the one who will change the system from within, and he accordingly comes to clash a lot with his father, who is understandably furious to learn that his promising son is going to be a police officer instead of a highly paid expert.

Anyway, Leroy begins his training with the support from others including his pregnant wife, and everything seems to go well for him right from the first day of the training. He often excels others during a series of various training sessions, and those high-ranking officers interviewing him later look impressed by his youthful idealism. Once his training is over, he is assigned to his neighborhood, and he is certainly eager to be a bridge between the police and his black community.

However, of course, Leroy soon finds himself against the wall more than once. While many black people do not trust him much due to his uniform, he also has to cope with the racism prevalent among many white officers in his precinct. At least, there is an Indian, sorry, a Pakistani police officer sympathetic to Leroy’s situation, but he has been quite tired of being mistreated and ostracized by those white officers, and we are not so surprised by his subsequent decision later in the story.

Meanwhile, Ken also becomes quite exasperated and frustrated as trying to get some justice for himself. As a guy as stubborn as his son, he is willing to go all the way for seeing those two white officers legally punished for their misdeed, but he is soon blocked by the system, and he is not consoled at all by the fact that he technically wins in his legal conflict with the police. Around the end of the story, he comes to have a little private conversation with his son, and this becomes quietly poignant as they come to share their anger and frustration toward the system.

While firmly sticking to its sobering tone, the movie occasionally gives us impressive visual moments to accentuate its two main characters’ respective plights in addition to their emotional conflict along the story. I particularly enjoy the long-take scene which phlegmatically follows Leroy chasing after a suspect alone in a factory, and I also like a certain extended shot which looks at Leroy and Ken from the behind while Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is played on the soundtrack.

The two main performers in the movie did a wonderful job of carrying the film together. While John Boyega, who has been always interesting to watch since his breakout performance in “Attack the Block” (2011), is fabulous in his strong performance full of quiet intensity, Steve Toussaint is equally excellent as embodying his character’s tenacity, and they effortlessly convey to us their characters’ complicated emotional relationship whenever they share the screen.

In conclusion, “Red, White and Blue” is another excellent entry in “Small Axe”, and I admire the efficient storytelling by McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland as well as the commendable efforts from Boyega and Toussaint. In fact, I wish the movie could be longer to show more of their characters, and the ending is rather abrupt in my trivial opinion, but they are just minor flaws on the whole, and I remain quite impressed anyway.

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Small Axe: Lovers Rock (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Their one romantic night to remember

Steve McQueen’s remarkable movie anthology series “Small Axe” impressed me a lot for many reasons. Although I have only watched its first two movies at this point, I already marvel at the vivid presentation of Black British people and their life and culture during the late 20th century as well as McQueen’s confidently dexterous handling of story, mood, and characters, and that surely makes me have more interest and expectation on what I going to get from the next three films in the series.

In contrast to “Mangrove”, the electrifying opening entry which is quite raw and intense as a forthright tale of systemic racism and injustice surrounding one modest curry restaurant, the next entry, which is titled “Lovers Rock”, is surprisingly tender, lovely, and joyful in its simple romance drama. As freely and smoothly dancing around its two main characters and many other characters at one certain place, the movie gradually establishes its laid-back mood and rhythm on the screen, and we find ourselves gladly going along with that, while also observing the gradual development of one romantic possibility.

After the opening shot in dusk which will finally make sense to you around the end of the story, the movie, which is set in West London in the 1980s, looks around the busy preparation processes for a house party. While a bunch of black lads are busy with setting a number of stuffs including audio equipments in one big room, we also see several black ladies busily cooking dishes for those guests to come, and you will be a bit delighted if you are disappointed for not getting many cooking moments from “Mangrove” (Full disclosure: I was during my viewing).

Once everything is set and prepared well, people begin to come in groups during the following evening, and they are checked by some imposing black dude standing at the front gate of the house. Although there is not much restriction on entering the house besides paying the modest fee for that, this dude is absolutely serious and solemn as the gatekeeper of the event, and that is why we are amused when he becomes softened a little when he is about to check two young pretty black ladies.

We already saw one of these young black ladies at the beginning of the film, and her name is Martha (Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn). Like many other black young women coming into the house, she and her accompanying friend simply want to have lots of fun and excitement as hanging around with young black lads, and we soon observe them and other girls dancing with some of these lads while music is constantly played in the background.

Although the screenplay by McQueen and his co-writer Courttia Newland often seems to be aimless at first as frequently hopping among many different characters in the house, it gradually generates a steady narrative flow along with various pieces of music swinging back and forth between reggae and R&B, and the result is alternatively relaxing and exciting. Probably because I saw “Mangrove” right before “Lovers Rock”, I felt nervous whenever the disc jockey in the movie switched to another song with the sound of police siren, but then I slowly got accustomed to that anyway, and then I found myself looking forward to the next musical moment to come.

Thanks to McQueen and his competent crew members, these musical moments in the film are simply spellbinding to say the least. While the scene accompanied with Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” is surely the highlight of the movie, several other moments are equally exhilarating for their palpable presentation of joy and excitement generated among the characters in the film, and cinematographer Shabier Kirchner deserves all the praises he got considering how he moves the camera so fluidly and effortlessly among many figures on the screen. His camera often seems to be enthralled as much as the characters in the film, and we accordingly become more immersed into whatever is going on the screen, even though we do not totally get it mainly because of the heavy local dialects sprinkled throughout the dialogues in the film (Thank God I happened to watch the movie with English subtitle).

In the meantime, Martha has an accidental encounter with some young man, and, though she did not like him much at first, she comes to spend more time with him after her friend left without saying anything to her. Although he was a bit too blunt in his first approach toward her, he comes to show her more sensitivity and tenderness as time goes by, and she starts to consider being serious about him. It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these two characters eventually come to explore more possibility of romance between them, and Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, a newcomer who made her film debut here, and Micheal Ward, who previously drew our attention for his dynamic performance in “Blue Story” (2019), have a good onscreen chemistry together as their characters tentatively dance around each other.

Overall, “Lovers Rock” entertains and touches us with its joyful romantic atmosphere, and McQueen demonstrates here the relatively lighter side of his immense talent. In my inconsequential opinion, this is the most amiable work in his advancing filmmaking career mainly represented by several dark and serious films including Oscar-winning movie “12 Years a Slave” (2013), and it is certainly nice to see McQueen successfully broadening the range of his talent. To be frank with you, I want to see him compete with Barry Jenkins for judging which one can be better at making a good romance movie.

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Small Axe: Mangrove (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Trial of the Mangrove Nine

During the latest Oscar season, there was a rather trivial controversy on Steve McQueen’s ambitious film anthology series “Small Axe”. While its first three films were respectively shown at a number of movie festivals including the New York Film Festival in last year, all of its five films were shown on BBC One in UK and then on Amazon Prime in US around the end of last year, so that led to lots of discussions on whether the whole series should be regarded as cinema or TV miniseries. The situation became more confusing later because it received several nominations and awards from a number of major film critics associations including the LA Film Critics Association, which boldly gave it the Best Picture award, and now it is regarded as a potential front runner in the upcoming Emmy season of this year.

I must confess that I have hesitated to review “Small Axe” because I usually do not review TV series or miniseries here as mostly focusing on feature films, but I come to decide that it should be regarded as cinema just like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s great film anthology “Dekalog” (1988), which was initially made as a TV drama series but has been regarded as a film anthology series nonetheless since it came out. After all, “Small Axe” was produced under the full artistic control of McQueen from the beginning to the end, and, though I only watched its first two films at present, I was already quite impressed by what he and his cast and crew members achieve here.

The common thread among the five films of “Small Axe” is the life and culture of Black British people during the late 20th century, and the first film of “Small Axe”, “Mangrove”, is an infuriating drama of systemic prejudice injustice which is actually based on a real-life story back in the late 1960s. During the opening part, we are introduced to a plain black dude named Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), and the movie observes how much he tries to run a modest curry restaurant in his neighborhood of Notting Hill, London. While this place will surely remind many of you of that 1999 romantic comedy film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill during the 1960s looked quite different as filled with the people of black community, and the movie vividly presents the authentic local period atmosphere on the screen while Crichlow’s restaurant becomes a precious place for him and many black neighbors and friends of his.

Although it is implied that he has some problematic past, Crichlow simply wants to run a respectable restaurant while providing some comfort and joy to his black community people, and he makes sure that the restaurant is free of any possible problem including drug, but, sadly, he has a big problem from the very beginning. There is a mean and vicious police constable who has been watching Crichlow for a while, and this white racist prick is already quite determined to make Crichlow “know his place”.

What follows next will not probably surprise you much if you are familiar with those stories about police brutality and racism, but it is still exasperating to watch a series of abuses and mistreatments which Crichlow and others around him have to endure. Thanks to that deplorable police constable, his restaurant is disrupted by sudden police raid more than once, and that certainly damages the restaurant and its reputation a lot.

As cornered more and more, Crichlow naturally becomes more angered and frustrated day by day, and he begins to consider giving up his business, but then he gets helped and supported a lot by many people of his black community. While he receives an unexpected financial aid at one point, he is also persuaded by several activists in the neighborhood to hold a local demonstration against the police, and he is ready to fight more as many neighbors and friends gather around him in front of his restaurant.

Of course, the police are ready to suppress the demonstration by any means necessary, and their ruthless suppression on demonstrators eventually leads to the arrest of Crichlow and eight other people including a feisty female activist named Altheia Jones-LeConite (Letitia Wright). They all are subsequently charged with riot and affray, and it looks quite possible that many of them will receive considerable jail sentence in the end.

What follows next is a tense and visceral courtroom drama which makes Aaron Sorkin’s recent film “The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) look rather mild and artificial in comparison. Under McQueen’s skillfully austere direction, many following dramatic moments in the film are seemingly dry but undeniably captivating on the emotional level, and there is a particularly harrowing scene where the camera simply but powerfully captures Crichlow’s fear, anger, and frustration as he gets confined in a small stuffy space for a while.

Except Letitia Wright, who has been more prominent since her breakthrough supporting turn in Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” (2018), many of the main cast members in the film are quite unfamiliar to many of us, but they are all effective in their commendable ensemble performance. While Shaun Parkes is utterly magnificent in many key moments of his in the film, Malachi Kirby, Nathaniel Martello-White, and Rochenda Sandall are also give effective performances as Crichlow’s fellow defendants, and Jack Lowden brings some humor to the second half of the film as a young barrister who does care about justice and racial equality despite his seemingly casual attitude.

On the whole, “Mangrove” is the electrifying opening chapter which will gradually capture your attention along its compelling narrative. When I watched it during last evening, I was surprised as finding how much I was riveted by its story and characters without checking its running time at all, and that certainly made me more determined to write about it. As a single film, it is certainly one of the highlights of last year, and I assure you that you will be quite ready for experiencing the next four films of “Small Axe” once it is over.

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Falling (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): An angry bitter old man and his good son

Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut film “Falling” is a somber and melancholic drama which mainly revolves around a strained relationship between one angry bitter old man and his good son. While often observing how unlikable and unpleasant this old dude really is in many aspects, the movie also lets us understand him to some degree, and we come to overlook several notable weak elements in the film as appreciating two different strong performances at its center.

Lance Henriksen, whom many of you remember for his memorable supporting turn in “Aliens” (1986), plays Willis Peterson, an aging New York state rancher who has lived alone in his ranch for years since his family members left him in one way or another. Although he has no problem with living alone by himself as before, his health condition has been considerably deteriorated during recent years, and that is why his gay son John, played by Mortensen, is taking him to California for helping him get any nice residence closer to John and his sister’s homes in California.

Willis certainly does not like this change at all, and his spiteful mind, which already shows some possible signs of dementia, does not help this situation much. In the middle of the flight to California, he suddenly lashes out at his son for no apparent reason, and he often does not seem to be conscious of where he is at present. John tries to be patient as much as he can, but his cranky father continues to annoy and exasperate him even after they finally arrive in California, and he does not get softened at all even when he comes to John’s house, where John has happily lived along with his nurse husband Eric (Terry Chen) and their Latino adopted daughter. As your average hardcore conservative Republican, Willis does not approve much of John’s liberal political viewpoint or his gay marriage, and he naturally makes some rude comments, but John remains mostly tactful and patient with his father even at that point.

As Willis and his son keep pushing and pulling each other, the movie often goes back to those old times along with either of them. During the opening scene of the movie, we see younger Willis, played by Sverrir Gudnason, and his first wife Gwen (Hannah Gross) arriving in their house along with their young son, and we soon come to gather that he was not a very good father or husband. While he could be fairly nice to his son during their outdoor activities, Willis was often driven by his toxic concept of masculinity, and this negative aspect of his inevitably affected his relationships with the people he was supposed to love and care about. The gap between him and his children were widened as his children grew up, and Gwen eventually left him along with their kids after being quite suffocated and frustrated with his pettiness and stubbornness.

Although many years have passed since that point, Willis still has lots of spite and resentment toward not only Gwen but also his second wife Jill (Bracken Burns), who did understand and love him but subsequently left him just like Gwen. When he happens to have a supposedly cordial family meeting with John, his sister, and their respective family members, he suddenly rambles about his past, and he surely embarrasses everyone else at the spot as casually wielding his crude bigotry and misogyny in front of them.

During its third act, Mortensen’s screenplay moves back to Willis’ ranch along with him and his son, and the movie focuses more on the accumulating tension and strain between these two characters. As being more aware of losing the control over his life, Willis becomes more aggressive and obnoxious than before, and, not so surprisingly, John consequently finds himself at the limit of his steady patience and tolerance, though it is implied that this is not his first emotional rodeo with his grumpy father.

While the movie, which is incidentally dedicated to Mortensen’s two family members, is not exactly an autobiographical tale, Mortensen, who also served as its co-producer as well as its composer (He actually played the piano on the soundtrack, by the way), clearly cares a lot about the story and characters, and that is evident from his sensitive direction. As John and Willis’ minds are frequently taken back to their past, cinematographer Marcel Zyskind gives us a number of poetically meditative landscape shots, and these shots accentuate more how much both John and Willis are haunted by their past in each own way.

Mortensen draws good performances from himself and the other main cast members in the film. Henriksen surely has a number of juicy character moments as expected, but he also brings some genuine human nuances and details to his character, and we come to have more understanding of John’s love/hate relationship with his father. On the opposite, Mortensen wisely underplays his character’s mixed feelings toward Willis, and he ably complements his co-star during several key scenes in the film. While Hannah Gross, Bracken Burns, and Sverrir Gudnason are well-cast in their respective roles, Laura Linney dexterously handles her character’s emotional turmoil during her brief appearance, and Terry Chen is also fine as John’s loving husband, though his character is the least developed character in the film.

Overall, “Falling” is rather modest in terms of achievement, but Mortensen makes a fairly good directorial debut here at least. Although it sometimes stumbles due to its rather thin and repetitive narrative in addition to being less impressive than Florian Zeller’s “The Father” (2020), it is still worthwhile to watch mainly thanks to Mortensen and Henriksen, and I assure you that they will not disappoint you at all.

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Not Out (2021) ☆1/2 (1.5/4): Out, please

South Korean film “Not Out” is the latest example of those drab and miserable movies about angry and disaffected South Korean lads. While there are some recent better cases including Lee Chang-dong’s rather overrated “Burning” (2018), this one is hopelessly inert and uninteresting due to its barebone plot and superficial characterization, and I became disappointed more and more as watching it sluggishly trudging from one bland moment to another during my viewing.

The story of the movie is mainly about Gwang-ho (Jung Jae-gwang), a struggling high school baseball player who has aspired to be a professional player someday. During the opening scene, we see him getting another moment of victory during the latest game, and he seems to be good enough to be selected at the upcoming professional baseball draft, but his coach later suggests that he should choose an alternative given to him instead because the chance of him getting drafted by any major professional team is rather slim. Because of his firm belief on his talent and potential, Gwang-ho unwisely ignores this suggestion, and, not so surprisingly, he comes to regret and despair a lot on the draft day.

Gwang-ho later tries to look for other alternatives for continuing his athletic career, but he only finds himself more frustrated more without getting any help or support from others around him. While the coach is nothing but a bully who apparently cares more about a certain other team member whose parents are incidentally affluent enough to give some bribe, Gwang-ho’s estranged father, who has run a small and shabby noodle shop alone without much care since his wife died, is not so supportive of his son’s aspiration, and he does not respond much even when Gwang-ho desperately pleads to him for financial help at one point.

Anyway, Gwang-ho keeps trying to grasp any possible opportunity for continuing to play baseball. For example, he begins to consider applying for several college baseball drafts, but he needs some help and support from the coach, and the coach is not so pleased about this at all, because his mind is already set on helping that other team member as much as he got paid by that other team member’s parents. Despite the coach’s indirect warnings, Gwang-ho adamantly insists on going his way, and that consequently causes lots of conflict between him and several team members including that other team member, who do not mind ostracizing him at all as shown from one certain scene.

Around that narrative point, we are supposed to root for Gwang-ho more in addition to understanding and empathizing with his hope and aspiration, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Jung-gon fails to flesh out its hero more, and Gwang-ho consequently comes to us as nothing but a willful sullen lad who surely deserves the outcomes of his foolish choices. Although he seems to be trying really hard on the screen, Jung Jae-gwang is usually forced to look merely sour and disgruntled throughout the film, and the result is one of the most wooden performances I have ever seen from South Korean films since Doh Kyung-soo in “Room No.7” (2017).

In the meantime, the movie also tries to generate some tension as Gwang-ho gets himself involved more in a certain shady illegal business, but this part is so predictable and artificial in many aspects that you will not care that much about what will inevitably happen. Blatantly pushing its hero into more despair and frustration, the movie also throws lots of plot contrivances into the story, and the finale is particularly unconvincing due to a number of implausible coincidences including the sudden convenient appearance of one supporting character to stop Gwang-ho from another stupidity at the last minute. In addition, the following last several scenes feel banal and hollow without much emotional base, and I actually felt like being cheated around that point.

I also must point out that the supporting characters in the film are seriously underdeveloped without much personality or human depth, and the performers surrounding Jung are wasted a lot as a consequence. I am sure that they are not bad performers at all, but they are miserably limited by their bland and colorless characters, and that is particularly evident in case of Song Yi-jae, who happens to be the sole substantial female character in the story but sadly does not have many things to do from the beginning.

As I come to dislike it more and more, I try to search for anything good in “Not Out”, but my hands still remain in frustrating emptiness, and my mind keeps coming back to “Baseball Girl” (2019), a modest but solid South Korean sports drama film about a female high school baseball player quite determined to try her best for getting drafted by a major professional baseball team. That movie may not aim that high from the start, but its story and characters are still interesting nonetheless thanks to good writing, competent direction, and strong performance, and it really touches us as its heroine does try her best instead of wallowing in anger and frustration just like the mindlessly pathetic hero of “Not Out”.

In conclusion, “Not Out” gives me one of the most depressing movie experiences I have ever had during last several years, and I truly hate those sloppy and incompetent moments in the film. Incidentally, I happened to watch Czech documentary film “Caught in the Net” (2020) right before watching “Not Out” today, and I would rather watch this very disturbing and uncomfortable documentary again instead of ever giving a second chance to “Not Out”.

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Caught in the Net (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A disturbing and gripping exposé of online sexual predators

Rarely have I felt an urgent need to calm down myself with a glass of drink or anything, but I had such a feeling while watching Czech documentary film “Caught in the Net”, which was released as “#WeWatchYou” in South Korean theaters a few days ago. Those sexual predators lurking in the dark territories of the Internet are not a shocking news anymore to many of us these days, but what is presented in the documentary is so chilling and disturbing that, in fact, I could have stopped more than once during my viewing if I had watched it via streaming service or screener.

At the beginning, we observe how directors/writers Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák and his crew members carefully set up the stage for their documentary. First, they held an audition for adult actresses who are young enough to look like being around 12-13 on the surface, and you will be surprised as watching many of actresses in the audition willingly talking about each own past experience with those online sexual predators out there. As already told to us in advance, the recent statistics shows that a considerable number of underage kids in Czech have been exposed to online sexual predators, and that is the main motive behind Chalupová and Klusák’s apparently risky documentary project.

Once three actresses (Tereza Těžká, Anežka Pithartová, and Sabina Dlouhá) were eventually selected after the audition, Chalupová and Klusák and their crew members embarked on making these actresses into plausible baits for their online targets. Besides preparing the fake accounts on several prominent social media applications including Facebook, the crew members also worked on making the convincingly realistic bedroom sets for each of these actresses, and we get some cheerful moments when these actresses bring some authenticity to their roles via renting a number of notable personal items from their respective adolescent pasts. To be frank with you, I was tickled a little by a brief scene involved with a plain but nice handmade doll house, and I also giggled when a certain famous American young adult novel was mentioned at one point.

After these careful preparations were completed on the set, our three actresses took their first step as disguising themselves as 12-year-old girls. For their protection, there were a number of rules on how to communicate with those online targets, and their online activities were also constantly monitored by not only the filmmakers on the set as well as several various experts brought to the set in advance for advice and consultation.

Nevertheless, the following results during next several days shocked and amazed everyone on the set a lot. As soon as the actresses presented their respective underage alter egos on the Internet, a bunch of very suspicious adult online users approached to them within a few minutes, and many of these adult users, who sometimes look like the creepy version of Casper the Friendly Ghost due to their blurred faces in the documentary, did not hide at all their deplorable sexual intentions in front of the actresses and everyone else on the set. Mostly frank about their age, these adult users blatantly attempted to befriend, seduce, and then exploit the actresses, and many of these dirty rotten persons did not even hesitate to send the photos of their certain body parts. During my viewing, I wrote down in my mental note: “Gee, this documentary has more dick pics than what I saw from those Grindr users during last five years.”

The situation subsequently became trickier when one of the crew members recognized one of these adult users approaching to the actresses. The man in question has handled many young kids because of his current occupation, and everyone on the set was more alarmed and disgusted as that person showed more of his depravity in front of them. The actresses kept their spirit high while also getting some help and support from the crew members and the experts on the set, but we cannot help but become concerned about their emotional tolls whenever they handle that person and several other equally loathsome online sexual predators.

Anyway, Chalupová and Klusák and their actresses and crew members continued to stick to their plan as entering its later stages. They prepared a number of fake nude photographs which can induce their online targets to cross ethical/legal lines, and we get quite a repulsive moment when one of their online targets cruelly blackmails one of the actresses as a result. For the final stage, they arranged a series of respective meetings with a number of selected online targets, and you will roll your eyes as watching how willing many of these selected targets were to go for the next stage of exploitation.

While too heavy-handed at times due to several reasons including the overbearing score by Jonatán Pastirčák, the documentary keeps holding our attention with these and many other gut-wrenching moments, and Chalupová and Klusák mercifully give us a few bright moments. There is an unexpectedly poignant scene which reminded the actresses and others on the set that there are also good and decent people on the Internet, and you will be certainly relieved a bit during a few key moments around the end of the documentary.

Although how it is about its urgent social issues is not entirely free from ethical questions and debates, I recommend “Caught in the Net” mainly for its truly disturbing emotional power on me. It is really uncomfortable to watch from the beginning to the end, but I think you must watch it especially if you are parents with young kids growing under you, and you will certainly come to have lots of things to muse on after watching this edgy documentary.

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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A subpar entry in the series

To be frank with you, I am not a big fan of “The Conjuring” (2013) and its several sequels and spin-off flicks. Yes, most of them are competent products while not entirely without entertaining aspects, but I usually observed their supposedly scary moments from the distance instead of getting really terrified during my viewing, and I have also been getting quite accustomed to their usual tactics including those typical false alarms to be followed by expected “Boo!” moments.

I was surely well aware of what I was probably going to get from “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, but the movie turns out to be more pedestrian than I expected. Again, we are served with a number of spooky moments involved with demonic possession, but you will not see much novelty from that especially if you saw its predecessors before, and the movie will disappoint you more for its rote handling of story and characters.

The movie, which is set in 1981, opens with what can be regarded as one of a few highlight moments in the film. When a young boy of some ordinary middle-class family living in Brookfield, Connecticut seems to be suffering from a dangerous case of demonic possession, Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are brought into this disturbing circumstance, and we see them and the family preparing for an exorcism ritual to be performed by a local priest who is soon going to arrive there. Although things seem to be under control on the surface, the circumstance becomes quite urgent even before the priest arrives, and we surely get lots of bangs and crashes as everyone in the house is shaken up by that demonic force in question.

Anyway, that unfortunate boy is eventually free from whatever has been tormenting him, but, alas, there is one big problem. Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), a nice lad who happens to be there as the boyfriend of the boy’s older sister, lets that demonic force transferred to him as desperately trying to save the boy at the last minute, and it does not take much for him to sense that something is going very, very, very wrong in his mind. At first, he often sees strange and disturbing things, and, not so surprisingly, his condition only gets worse and worse after that point.

In the end, Arne finds himself mired in sheer confusion and terror, and that inevitably leads to the gruesome death of one of his acquaintances. Shortly after the incident, he is quickly arrested and then incarcerated in a state prison, and everyone in the town including his girlfriend is certainly shocked a lot by this horrible incident.

Although he already knew what might happen to Arne, Ed could not prevent the incident as being unconscious for a while at a local hospital due to a serious heart problem resulted from that wild exorcism event, and he and Lorraine soon embark on proving that Arne is under that demonic influence. When they visit a female lawyer lawyer representing Arne, the lawyer is understandably skeptical, but she somehow changes her opinion after visiting Ed and Lorraine’s house, and we get a little amusing moment as she flatly argues at the court that her client is a serious case of demonic possession.

After finding a very sinister clue at the boy’s house, Ed and Lorraine comes to discern that they are facing a trouble much more serious than they thought at first, and they later come to consult an ex-priest who knows a lot about demonic possession and curses involved with that. The basement of this ex-priest’s residence is full of sinister stuffs which make Ed and Lorraine’s personal collection look rather pale in comparison, and Ed and Lorraine look around these stuffs with horror and fascination before asking a few important questions to this ex-priest.

As Ed and Lorraine gradually get closer to the origin of their supernatural case, the movie tries to hurl more shock and terror upon us, but the overall result is not that scary at all because of being too predictable more than once. You may be jolted once at least, but then you will not be surprised much as seeing through its very apparent pattern of shock and suspense, and the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick fails to generate much interest from the mystery at the center of its plot, which, to our disappointment, is handled in very contrived ways.

In case of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they are dependable as usual. Although I still think the real-life counterparts of their characters were nothing more than charlatans, Wilson and Farmiga’s diligent acting brings some sincerity and personality to their characters, and we care about their characters to some degree even during the pedestrian finale unfolded within an ominous underground space. In case of the other main cast members including Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, and John Noble, they are mostly stuck with their functional supporting roles, and O’Connor manages to leave some impression during his several key scenes in the film.

In conclusion, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, which is directed by Michael Chaves (He previously directed “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019), by the way), is subpar compared to its two predecessors, and I give it 2 stars mainly because I gave 2.5 stars to both of its two predecessors. Besides “The Exorcist” (1973), whose certain iconic moment is blatantly quoted early in the film, there are better movies in its genre territory, and I assure you that you will be more scared and entertained if you watch them instead of this rather mediocre piece of work.

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