Lying and Stealing (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A predictable but enjoyable heist flick

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“Lying and Stealing” is a predictable but enjoyable heist flick which has some good elements to cherish. Although it does not break any new ground in its genre territory, the movie did a fairly good job of handling its story and characters well along with enough sense of fun and excitement, and we gladly go along with that even though we can clearly see where its story and characters are heading right from the beginning.

Like many other heist flicks, the movie opens with its criminal hero’s latest job. While disguising himself as one of the guests at a party being held in a slick modern house located somewhere in LA, Ivan Warding (Theo James) waits for the right moment to steal a certain famous (and precious) artwork by Jeff Koons, and we soon see how this young thief works. In a simple but clever way, he swiftly accomplishes his mission despite one minor setback in the last minute, and then he promptly reports his success to his boss Dimitri Maropakis (Fred Melamed), for whom he has worked for years due to his father’s debt.

Because he thinks he has done almost enough for paying back all of his father’s debt, Ivan subsequently expresses his wish to quit to Dimitri, and, of course, Dimitri is not so pleased to hear that. He promises to Ivan that Ivan can quit after doing two more jobs for him, but his seemingly melliferous words are not so trustworthy to say the least. Ivan has no choice to accept that condition, as he does not want to provoke Dimitri at any chance, who can be quite ruthless if necessary.

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Anyway, Ivan’s next job is stealing a painting by Philip Guston, which is in the residence of a sleazy Italian movie producer. Again, he effortlessly sneaks into the residence while a party is being held there, but then he comes across a young actress named Elyse Tibaldi (Emily Ratajkowski), whom he incidentally met at the site of his previous heist. As they spend some time with each other, they are gradually attracted to each other, but Ivan keeps focusing on that job nonetheless, and, again, he succeeds without being noticed by anyone.

In the meantime, we see how Ivan’s private life is disrupted by his older brother Ray (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), who has been in a mental institution for his bipolar disorder but gets himself evicted due to his naughty criminal behaviors. Although Ivan prefers to live alone, he cares about Ray’s welfare nonetheless as his only close family member, so he comes to let Ray stay in his apartment for a while even though he knows well that Ray is not someone easy to live for many reasons besides his mental illness.

And then there comes another trouble for Ivan. His two latest heist jobs happen to draw the attention of a federal agent named Lyman Wilkers (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and it does not take much time for him to track down Ivan. Although there is no direct evidence to incriminate Ivan, Wilkers deliberately approaches to Ivan at one point, and Ivan is certainly alarmed although he manages to keep himself calm on the surface.

Meanwhile, Dimitri orders Ivan to do what is supposed to be the last job. There is some rich guy who has collected a bunch of rare items associated with Nazi Germany, and one of them is the self-portrait by a certain infamous figure. Although the job in question turns out to be pretty simple, Ivan subsequently finds himself pressured by both Dimitri and Wilkers, and he must be very careful for his survival and freedom.

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Smoothly rolling the plot toward the expected finale, the screenplay by director Matt Aselton, who previously debuted with “Gigantic” (2008), and his co-writer Adam Nagata continues to provide several nice moments to be appreciated. For instance, I enjoyed how Elyse, whose acting career has been going nowhere since her very unpleasant incident with a powerful movie producer, comes to get herself more involved with Ivan (Is this a spoiler?), and I also liked a small twist involved with Dimitri’s henchmen.

As the center of the film, Theo James, who has been mainly known for “Divergent” (2014) and its forgettable sequels, is well-cast while being slick and likable as required, and he is surrounded by a number of colorful performers. While Fred Melamed, a dependable character actor who has seldom disappointed me since I noticed him for the first time via his hilarious supporting turn in the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” (2009), is clearly having a fun with his shady character, Emily Ratajkowski has a nice chemistry with James during their several key scenes in the film, and Ebon Moss-Bachrach is equally solid as Ivan’s problematic older brother. In case of Isiah Whitlock Jr., who drew my attention for the first time via his wily supporting turn in acclaimed TV series “The Wire”, he surely adds extra entertainment to the movie whenever he appears, and I must confess that I often expected him to utter that amusing catch phrase of his from “The Wire”.

On the whole, “Lying and Stealing” is mildly entertaining while safely saying inside its genre boundaries, but I recommend it anyway because of its efficient storytelling and engaging performance. Sure, it is indeed predictable to the core as also being reminiscent of other countless heist films out there, but it is equipped with considerable personality at least, and you will probably have a good time with it as long as you do not expect too much.

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Night Comes On (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A young girl seeking vengeance

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“Night Comes On”, which won the NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, is a quiet and sensitive character drama about one troubled young girl attempting to seek vengeance. While calmly following its heroine’s emotional journey, the movie subtly conveys to us pain and torment insider her, and we come to empathize more with her as also more concerned about what may happen in the end.

When we see Angel Lamere (Dominique Fishback) in the beginning, this adolescent girl who is soon going to be 17 years old is about to be released from a juvenile detention center, and we gradually come to gather how problematic her life has been during last several years. After her mother was killed by her father, she bounced from one foster home to another while causing lots of troubles, and she also committed a lot of minor crimes, which eventually resulted in her incarceration in the juvenile detention center for a couple of years.

On the surface, Angel seems to be ready to make a new start outside. During the interview with her parole officer, she shows some eagerness for a better life, and her parole officer is willing to help her although he shows jaded skepticism at first. Although she does not have any close family member, she has a girlfriend who may let her stay in her residence for a while, and she is also going to meet her younger sister Abby (Tatum Marilyn Hall), who has currently been in a foster home along with other kids.

However, it turns out that Angel is planning to kill her father, who was recently been released as his sentence was considerably reduced due to a legal excuse. She tries to find where he is currently living, but, of course, she is not allowed to access to that information, and it seems that the only possible way for her is getting some help from Abby, who previously went to their father’s current residence.

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When she comes to the foster home where Abby lives along with several other young kids, Abby is certainly delighted to see her older sister again, and the mood becomes a little gentler as they spend some time together inside the foster home. While the bedrooms for Abby and other kids are stuffy and shabby, the bedroom of their foster mother’s daughter looks pretty bright and clean in contrast, and we come to learn a bit about how Abby and other kids live day by day in this rather poor environment.

As the night comes, Angel goes to where her girlfriend lives, but, as they talk with each other outside, she is only reminded of how much she and her girlfriend have been distant to each other. While there is no hard feeling between them, Angel’s girlfriend cannot afford to let Angel stay in her residence, and we accordingly get a harrowing scene where Angel tries to sleep on the ground floor of some building.

Once everything is established in the story, the movie moves onto the next act, which revolves around Angel and Abby’s journey to where their father possibly lives. When they happen to be stranded on the road thanks to Abby’s certain biological matter, they fortunately get some help from a group of girls, and that leads to a nice scene where they and these girls cheerfully hang around with each other in the house where one of these girls lives.

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However, Angel finds herself feeling more urge for revenge than before. As shown from an earlier scene, she already obtained a gun, and the gun is now being hidden in her bag, but she becomes more conflicted as more anger and anxiety are accumulated inside her. Not so surprisingly, Abby later comes to realize what her older sister is probably going to do, and there comes a very hurtful moment between them as Abby reveals something she did not tell Angel from the very beginning.

When the story finally arrives at its expected narrative point, the movie keeps maintaining its calm attitude even though the mood becomes a little too melodramatic. The resulting finale may feel rather anti-climactic at first, but it is presented with some human compassion and understanding, and that is why the last shot of the film works with considerable dramatic resonance.

It helps that the movie is anchored well by the strong lead performance by Dominique Fishback, who recently played a supporting character in “The Hate U Give” (2018). Even when her character does not say much, Fishback deftly depicts her character’s confused and conflicted emotional state, and she is also supported well by several other main cast members including John Jelks, Max Casella, James McDaniel, Nastashia Fuller, and Tatum Marilyn Hall, who does a lot more than holding her place well beside Fishback.

“Night Comes on” is the first feature film by director/co-writer Jordana Spiro, who has been mainly known for her acting works in a number of movies and TV series (She has recently been one of the main cast members in acclaimed TV series “Ozark”, by the way). Considering its realistic mood and details as well as its unadorned storytelling and performance, Spiro is another good filmmaker to watch in my humble opinion, and I guess we can have some expectation on what may come next from her in the future.

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Ash Is Purest White (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As she embodies a certain way of life

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Chinese film “Ash Is Purest White”, the latest work from Jia Zhangke, is a dry but compelling crime melodrama which fascinates us via its deft mix of personal drama and social background. Although it takes some time for establishing its story and characters before getting things rolling, the overall result is another interesting work from one of the most prominent filmmakers in China, and I admire it more as reflecting more on its strong aspects.

The early part of the movie is set in an old mining city named Datong, and we observe the daily life of Zhao Qiao (Zhao Tao) and her small-time gangster boyfriend Guo Bin (Liao Fan). It is 2001, and the economy of the city has been going downhill as the price of coal is getting dropped, but Bin and his associates are eager to move along with the ongoing social change in the country, which is exhilaratingly represented at one point by a nightclub dancing scene accompanied with a certain recognizable Western pop song.

And then there comes a trouble to Bin. His older associate, who has been doing a legitimate business of his own, complains about an annoying business problem, and, as a guy serious about the code of honor and loyalty represented by Chinese word ‘jianghu’, Bin is willing to take care of that problem, but then an unexpected incident happens. While trying to handle the aftermath, Bin also prepares for advancing further in his underworld as expected, but then he finds himself thrown into a tuft war, and that is when Qiao comes to do something she has probably never imagined before.

Thanks to her unexpected courage and gumption, Qiao saves Bin, but she subsequently faces the consequence of her action, and, without telling anything against her boyfriend, she willingly lets herself incarcerated in a prison for next five years. Although Bin never comes to see her, she does not give up her hope at all, and we soon see her released from the prison five years later.

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However, Bin is not there for Qiao, and, still believing in their relationship, she goes to Fengjie, a city located near the Yangtze River which is going to be changed a lot due to the ongoing process of the Three Gorges project. Before arriving at the city by a cruise ship, she happens to get all of her money stolen, but she is not easily daunted by that, and we later watch how she gets some cash in an amusing criminal way.

In the meanwhile, Qiao keeps trying to contact and then meet Bin, but it is already clear to us that Bin is not particularly eager to see her. Not so surprisingly, he has a new girlfriend, and there is an awkward moment when Qiao comes to have a little talk with Bin’s new girlfriend, who directly reminds Qiao of what has been changed since she was sent to the prison.

Eventually, Qiao meets Bin after virtually forcing him to pick her up at a police station (How she manages to do that is another little amusing moment in the film, by the way), but she is only reminded again of how much she and Bin have become distant to each other, and we accordingly get a calm but emotionally intense scene between them. As discerning more of how much her man has been changed, Qiao becomes saddened and devastated, but she keeps maintaining her phlegmatic appearance nonetheless, and Zhao Tao, who has been one of Jia’s main collaborators, did a wonderful job of conveying to us complex feelings and thoughts churning behind her character’s seemingly passive façade.

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And the story keeps moving on along with its heroine. Quite hurt about being abandoned by Bin, Qiao later gets on a train, and the movie gives us a number of breathtaking landscape shots as her journey back to Datong takes an unexpected turn. She happens to encounter a guy who introduces himself as a businessman developing a local tourism company in Shinjang, and it looks like he may be someone she can lean on, but then she changes her mind not long after deciding to accompany him.

The last act of the film, which is set around the end of 2017, shows Qiao and Bin under a very different situation. He is sent back to Datong due to his deteriorated physical condition, and Qiao, who is now running a gambling place to which she and Bin frequently went, takes care of him even though, as she casually admits later, she does not have much feeling toward him at present. She simply follows what she should do as a woman fully and fiercely embodying that code of honor and loyalty, and that certainly makes him ashamed and humiliated at times. Liao Fan, who drew my attention for the first time with his unforgettable performance in Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” (2014), is an effective counterpart to his co-star, and he and Zhao are particularly good when their characters have a bittersweet private time at a remote spot outside the city.

Like Jia’s previous films such as “A Touch of Sin” (2013) and “Mountains May Depart” (2015), “Ash Is Purest White” is demands some patience from you in the beginning, but it is an admirable piece of work on the whole, and, in my trivial opinion, it is more successful compared to “Mountains May Depart”, which was interesting to some degree but does not wholly work mainly due to its weak last act. Thanks to Jia’s skillful direction and Zhao’s strong performance, the movie comes to us as a rough but powerful tale of personal growth and social change, and its open-ended final shot lingers on your mind for a while. Whatever will happen next to her, she will endure as before – and she will prevail, of course.

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Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Confusion amid dreams and memories

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Chinese film “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”, which is not associated at all with Eugene O’Neill’s classic play of the same name (Its original title is “Last Day on Earth”, by the way), is often frustrating and confusing for good reasons. While the first half of the movie is strewn with fragmented pieces of memories and dreams, the second of the movie is equally elusive and disorienting even though it is presented in a more continuous way, and, to be frank with you, I am still scratching my head as wondering whether I really understand everything shown on the screen.

At the beginning, we meet its hero, named Lou Hongwu (Huang Jue), and his narration tells us a bit about his current state. He left his hometown many years ago, but now he returns to his hometown for his recently diseased father’s funeral, and he cannot help but haunted by the memories of his past. He recalls an old friend who was killed after frequently causing troubles due to gambling, and he also reminisces about a woman named Kaizhen (Tang Wei), who disappeared away from him around that time although they seemed to be passionately in love with each other.

As obtaining a few things which may lead him to Kaizhen, Lou Hongwu tries to find her as much as he can, but he only finds himself in more confusion and frustration. He encounters a number of folks who may help him, but what they respectively tell him only reminds him that he did not know her much from the beginning. For example, it seems Kaizhen is not her real name, and Lou Hongwu also comes to learn a bit about her seedy past.

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Nevertheless, he remains haunted by his memories of her, and the movie throws at us a series of flashback scenes, which may not be entirely true as reflected by its stylish mood and details. There is a wonderful nocturnal scene showing a sort of Meet Cute moment between Lou Hongwu and Kaizhen in a tunnel, and her alluring beauty is as mesmerizing as her emerald green dress. There is also a noirish moment when they later come to plan something dangerous for getting out of their miserable world, and we get an impressive unbroken shot as he is about to execute their plan at a movie theater.

However, the movie keeps being vague and elusive about the relationship between Lou Hongwu and Kaizhen. While it does not show or tell us whether that risky plan of theirs was successful in the end, it also does not reveal much about how they subsequently came to be separated from each other, so we only become more confused and frustrated just like our hero.

Furthermore, director/writer Bi Gan, who previously made a feature film debut with “Kaili Blues” (2015), adamantly maintains his slow, austere approach reminiscent of the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, which actually influenced him a lot during his college years. As the camera of cinematographers Yao Hung-i, Dong Jinsong, and David Chizallet calmly and steadily maintains its continuous movements, the movie constantly demands considerable focus and patience from us, and you may find yourself becoming quite impatient from time to time.

Nevertheless, the movie gradually becomes more interesting as serving us a number of haunting scenes to linger on our mind. During the scene where Luo Hongwu visits a prison for meeting someone who may tell a bit about Kaizhen’s past, the camera slowly comes to focus on that person in question, and the mood becomes a little poignant as that figure phlegmatically recollects her past with Kaizhen. In case of the scene involved with a man who once lived with Kaizhen for a while, the movie becomes a little humorous in the beginning, and then we come to feel some bitterness and wistfulness as he talks to Luo Hongwu about his past with her.

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During the second half of the film, Luo Hongwu happens to spend some time in a shabby movie theater where a 3-D movie is being shown, and that is when we get the main technical highlight of the movie: a 59-minute 3-D sequence shot in one unbroken shot. As the camera fluidly moves or flies along with our hero from one spot to another, we get to sense more of his yearning toward Kaizhen, and the movie engages us more with some stylish visual touches, though I must point out that its dialogues often feels a bit too static and contrived for me (“Clock is a symbol of eternity.” – “Firework is a symbol of transience.”).

Although the move did not entertain me a lot, I admired its technical aspects at least, and I also appreciated the good performances from its few main cast members. While Huang Jue holds the center with his earnest performance, Tang Wei, who has been more notable since her courageous breakout turn in “Lust, Caution” (2007), is simultaneously attractive and ambiguous as hovering over the film, and Sylvia Chang is also effective in her brief appearance as the mother of Lou Hongwu’s dead friend.

In conclusion, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is an unconventional piece of work which mostly depends on mood rather than narrative, and, though it may look languid and ponderous to you at first, it will be a rewarding experience if you are open to something different and challenging. I felt distant to what it is about, but I was fascinated nonetheless with how it is about, and that is enough for recommendation for now.

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Manifesto (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): 13 Manifestos delivered by Cate Blanchett

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You should know in advance what you are going to get from “Manifesto”, a challenging but thought-provoking arthouse film presenting a bunch of many different ideas and messages via a series of manifestos. While it goes without saying that you can casually watch it for entertainment, the movie is constantly interesting thanks to its dexterous mix of text and visual, and it surely helps that it is anchored by another virtuosic turn from one of the greatest actresses of our time.

Here in this film, Cate Blanchett plays more than 10 figures for delivering 13 manifestos, nearly all of them are the textual collages of around 60 manifestos selected by director/producer/writer Julian Rosefeldt. The selected manifestos are from various figures ranging from Karl Max to Jim Jarmusch, and, as an inconsequential amateur film critic, I certainly was amused by a section titled “Film”, whose manifesto consists of the words from not only Jarmusch but also Lars von Trier and Werner Herzog.

In the section titled “Situationism”, Blanchett appears as an angry homeless guy who has a lot to say about capitalism, and she is impressive to say the least while completely immersing herself into her role. After all, she previously amazed us as playing one of several personas of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007), and I was not so surprised to learn later that Rosefeldt actually discussed with her on her uncanny performance in that film while meeting her for his project.

And then she keeps impressing us more as deftly moving from one section to another. In “Futurism”, she appears as a cool-headed stockbroker, and there is a wonderful visual moment to behold after the manifesto of this section is phlegmatically delivered by her on the soundtrack. In case of “Architecture”, she looks quite dowdy in comparison as a woman working in a garbage incineration plant, and the mundane work process in the garbage incineration plant makes a rather ironic contrast to the accompanying manifesto.

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In case of the section involved with a scientist, titled “Suprematism/Constructivism”, it provides a couple of interesting visual moments to reflect on. At one point, we observe Blanchett and others walking around in some big research facility, and we later get a surreal moment which is apparently inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). As watching that moment, I was a bit baffled, but, at least, I appreciated how willing the movie is to try anything to intrigue and engage its audiences.

While you may often struggle to absorb and understand those numerous statements on art and ideology in the film, Rosefeldt keeps things rolling with a bit of humor, and that is particularly exemplified well by “Pop Art”, the most droll section of the film which is solely based on the manifesto by an American sculptor named Claes Oldenburg. At the beginning, we see an affluent upper middle-class housewife played Blanchett preparing for a dinner for her and her family, and then the mood becomes quite absurd as she uses Oldenburg’s manifesto for the prayer before the dinner. As she keeps enumerating many things associated with art, her husband and children understandably come to feel awkward, and this section eventually ends with a deliciously naughty moment to be savored.

In case of “Stridentism/Creationism”, Blanchett goes for a little more wildness while appearing as a sour punk rock musician, and she later goes for more chuckles while appearing as a fastidious choreographer with a campy foreign accent in “Fluxus/Merz/Performance”. Although the mood becomes more somber when she appears as a puppeteer in “Surrealism/Spatialism”, Blanchett strikes the right balance between humor and poignancy, and you may also enjoy watching a bunch of various puppet figures in the background.

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I also like the wryly comic mood of “Conceptual Art/Minimalism”, where Blanchett plays not only a TV anchor but also a reporter reporting on conceptual art. I must confess that I do not know that much about conceptual art, but I was tickled nonetheless by Blanchett’s double performance in this section nonetheless, and that somehow led to me to some reflection on art.

Although I continued to struggle a lot to understand everything presented in the movie, it still held my attention when it eventually arrived at “Film”, to which my mind quickly responded with eagerness because of its subject. In a classroom pack with little boys and girls, Blanchett sternly but warmly lectures a bit about filmmaking, and her utmost serious attitude brings extra hilarity to this section.

Overall, “Manifesto” is the cerebral tapestry of many different artistic/philosophical/ideological perspectives, so it certainly requires some patience from you, but it is still worthwhile to watch on the whole thanks to not only Rosefeldt’s skillful direction but also Blanchett’s undeniable talent. Since she drew our attention for the first time with her Oscar-nominated breakthrough turn in Shekhar Kapur’s “Elizabeth” (1998), she has been always compelling to watch during last two decades, and “Manifesto” is certainly another interesting moment in her exceptional career. If you have admired her career and talent like I have, this is surely something you should not miss at any chance, and I assure you that you will not regret at all.

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Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): The Diva of the Century

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Documentary film “Maria by Callas: In Her Own Words” attempts to present the glimpses of humanity and personality from Maria Callas, one of the most extraordinary opera singers in the 20th century. Mainly consisting of various archival photographs and footage clips nearly all of which have never been shown to the public, the documentary is entertaining to watch especially when it focuses on numerous glorious moments in Callas’ artistic career, but, unfortunately, it eventually falters and meanders when it tries to show us who she was as a human being, and that was particularly disappointing to me.

At the beginning, the documentary gives us a brief summary of Callas’ early years. Born to a Greek immigrant family living in New York City, 1923, she already showed considerable talent as a singer even during her childhood years, and she was eventually sent to Greek by her mother for more study and training when she was only 13. Although she could not enjoy her childhood years much thanks to being constantly pushed by her mother, young Callas did not feel so bad about that, and she soon came to show more of her considerable talent and potential under the tutelage of her lifelong mentor Elvira de Hidalgo.

Shortly after the World War II, Callas took the first steps for her professional singing career, and a series of archival footage clips showed us her meteoric ascent to stardom during next several years. In many of her successful opera performances, she came to her audiences as a force to reckon with, and she frequently drew attention from the public and the media as performing here and there around the world.

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However, as often told to us via the reading of her personal letters by opera singer Joyce DiDonato, Callas was not particularly happy in her personal life. As she experienced more success, she became more estranged from her husband, and that eventually led to a civil lawsuit between them as she decided to end their marriage. In addition, she got some notoriety for being difficult and tempestuous, and she found herself becoming the target of public ire in Italy when a big opera performance of hers had to be canceled at the last minute due to a unexpected case of bronchitis, which not only affected her singing ability but also caused a sort of stage fright.

It looked like her career was going downhill as she kept facing troubles on her way, but Callas steadily maintained her public appearance with calm grace. After a brief period of hiatus, she successfully came back to stage around the early 1960s as impressing her audiences more than ever, and several archival footage clips show us her being at the peak of her career. While I must confess that I winced due to my sensitive aural nerves whenever she hit high notes on the screen, I could also see nonetheless why she still remains to be a legend even at present, and I came to consider listening to more of her performances.

However, mainly because these archival footage clips of her performances inevitably steal the show, the documentary inevitably becomes less engaging whenever it tries to focus on Callas as a human being, and, unfortunately, it does not have many interesting things to show and tell us during that section. Even though it courteously steps aside for letting Callas talk about herself and her life via her archival interview clips and personal letters, Callas still remains a rather distant figure as often restraining herself from fully revealing her feelings and thoughts, and that is the main reason why the documentary often seems a little too shallow at times.

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The documentary does not delve much either into Callas’ long relationship with Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who became quite close to her not long after their first encounter in 1957. Around the time when her marriage was over, Onassis was the guy she could lean on, so it seemed that they would marry sooner or later, but then he suddenly came to marry Jackie Kennedy in 1968. While that certainly hurt Callas’ feelings a lot, her relationship with Onassis is not presented with enough depth or insight in the documentary, and that is the main reason why a part involved with their subsequent reconciliation does not resonate as much as intended.

During its last 20 minutes, the documentary merely shows what happened during the last several years of Callas’ life and career, and that is where it loses more of its narrative pacing. While it is surely touching to see how she made a triumphant comeback in the early 1970s, the documentary unfortunately skimps on a part involved with her collaboration with filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in “Medea” (1969), and it is a shame that the documentary does not explore much how these two different but equally wonderful artists worked with each other.

In the end, Callas remains to be as elusive as before, so I left the screening room with lingering disappointment, but “Maria by Calls: In Her Own Words” is not a total failure at least. While handling his human subject with care and respect, director Tom Volf did a competent job of presenting a number of big moments of Callas’ artistic career, and I was not so surprised when I hear one audience giving a brief applause in the middle of the screening. Although I cannot wholly recommend it, the documentary is enjoyable to some degree, and you may be entertained more than I was if you simply expect to watch Callas as an artist.

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Midsommar (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Horror Under the Sun

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Ari Aster’s second feature film “Midsommar” is one hell of horror film. Alternatively unsettling and spellbinding from the beginning to the end, the movie dexterously lures us into the weird and disturbing circumstance surrounding its main characters, and then it serves us a series of bizarre moments which are not only striking for sheer terror and madness but also morbidly entertaining for a dark, vicious sense of humor.

During the prologue sequence, we are introduced to Dani Ardor (Florence Pugh), a young college student who becomes quite concerned about one of her close family members after receiving a rather unnerving e-mail on one cold winter day. As time goes by without any success in her continuing attempt to find what is really happening, her fear begins to grow second by second, and there eventually comes an utterly devastating moment of loss and grief you should see for yourself.

Several months later, Dani looks a bit better on the surface, but she is still struggling with her grief over what happened on that terrible day, and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) does not help her much although he has stayed around her despite their increasingly estranged relationship. As already shown to us during the prologue sequence, he and his friends have been planning a travel to a commune located somewhere in the Northern region of Sweden, but he has not told anything about that to Dani yet, and the mood becomes quite awkward between them when Dani accidentally comes to learn of that while spending some fun time with Christian and his friends.

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Anyway, Dani subsequently decides to go to Sweden along with Christian and his friends, and we soon see them arriving at a remote spot in the Northern region of Sweden. Although feeling a bit more relaxed than before, Dani cannot help but conscious of an alien environment surrounding her and others, and then she experiences something alarming not long after she and others ingest a certain kind of hallucinogenic substance.

While Dani remains to be disturbed by her hallucinogenic experience, she and others eventually arrive in that commune in question, and they are sweetly welcomed by the commune members, who are about to begin their big traditional summer festival. During next several days, these people will go through a number of rituals based on their own pagan belief, and, as graduate students majoring in anthropology, Christian and his friends are quite eager to observe these rituals and other cultural elements of the commune.

When the festival begins on the next day, everything seems to be joyful and peaceful in the commune, but the movie steadily accumulates the sense of fear and dread beneath its bright and sunny atmosphere. There is a calm but unnerving moment as the camera slowly moves across to reveal something rather uncomfortable step by step, and then we later see a certain commune member in deformed appearance, and there is also a big triangular wooden building, which outsiders are not allowed to enter at any chance.

As noticing these and other odd things in the commune, Dani becomes more nervous day by day, but Christian and his friends are willing to stay more in the commune – even after they are quite shocked by what happens during one of the festival rituals. As he becomes more interested in the cultural aspects of the commune, Christian becomes more distant to Dani, and we are not so surprised when he seems to be seduced by one of young female commune members.

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Under Aster’s confidence direction, the movie keeps holding our attention as relentlessly pushing its story and characters toward the inevitable finale, and its technical aspects are superlative to say the least. While the editing by Lucian Johnston, who previously co-edited Aster’s debut feature film “Hereditary”, is precise and impeccable, the cinematography by Pawel Pogorzelski, who also worked in “Hereditary”, is often stunning for fluid camera movement and meticulous scene composition, and the score by the Haxan Cloak is effective while bringing some extra creepiness to the screen.

Above all, the movie depends a lot on the talent and presence of Florence Pugh, a wonderful British actress who drew our attention via her diabolical breakthrough turn in “Lady McBeth” (2016) and then has showed more of her versatility in BBC TV miniseries “The Little Drummer Girl” and family comedy drama “Fighting with My Family” (2019). Thanks to her strong performance here in this film, her character’s gradual descent into fear and madness along the story is constantly engaging even when we observe that from the distance, and she is also supported by well by a number of good supporting performers including Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper, and Jack Reynor, who does not flinch at all from whatever is demanded by his role.

On the whole, “Midsommar” is another impressive genre work from Aster, and its commendable overall result confirms to us again that he is indeed a very talented filmmaker who really knows how to engage and terrify us. Although its running time is a little too long (147 minutes), I was never bored while appreciating its rich mood and details a lot, and it looks more amusing as I reflect more on its numerous morbid moments including the one featuring a truly deranged case of empathy. In short, this is another very interesting horror film of this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you if you are looking for any good horror film to watch.

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