The Children Act (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): An intelligent adult drama on law and ethics

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“The Children Act” is an intelligent adult drama which actually made me muse on its subjects during my viewing. While thoughtfully presenting a difficult legal/ethical matter of life and death during its first half, the movie lets us understand how its heroine comes to make a hard decision on that matter in question, and then it becomes more interesting with her tricky emotional situation during its second half. Although it is not entirely without flaws, the overall result is still fairly absorbing thank to its smart screenplay, competent direction, and solid performance, and its several powerful moments will linger on you for a while after it is over.

The heroine of the movie is a middle-aged judge named Fiona Maey (Emma Thomspon), who has worked at the High Court of Justice of England and Wales for many years. During the opening scene, we see her focusing on her latest case, which is about whether a separation surgery on two conjoined twin brothers should be allowed or not. While both of them will eventually die if the surgery is not performed on them, one of them will definitely die because of the surgery, and their parents believe that it is not right to perform the surgery on them. As the case has drawn lots of attention from the media and the public, Fiona certainly feels lots of pressure, but she sticks to her firm legal belief in the end, and she soon moves onto other cases to be handled.

And then there suddenly comes an urgent case which must be handled as soon as possible. It is about a 17-year-old leukemia patient named Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead), and he has been refusing a blood transfusion because he and his parents are Jehovah’s Witness followers. Although blood transfusion is absolutely necessary for treating his severe case of leukemia, Adam remains adamant about his decision, and his parents respect their son’s decision even though they do not want to lose their dear son.

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While presiding over the case, Fiona makes an impromptu move at one point. For confirming what is really best for him, she decides to meet Adam for herself, so she soon goes to a hospital where he is at present. At first, their conversation feels strained as Adam keeps sticking to his position as before, but then the mood becomes a little softened as he plays guitar and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens”, whose lyric comes from a poem by William Butler Yeats.

After her meeting with Adam, Fiona eventually makes a decision. Judging that children’s welfare comes first above all things, she grants Adam’s blood transfusion, and Adam immediately receives a blood transfusion. When he approaches to Fiona some time later, he looks much better, and he shows some gratitude to her, but it also seems that he wants something from her. Clearly confused about his new life, he keeps coming to Fiona as emphasizing how meaningful their meeting was to him, and Fiona gradually feels nervous as trying to cope with this unexpected complication.

And she has other problem to deal with. As she has been constantly busy with her work for years, Fiona’s relationship with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci) has been quite estranged, and he even suggests that she should allow him to have an affair. Although he is stuck in a thankless role, Tucci ably supports his co-star during their scenes, and we can sense many years of life between their characters even when they do not say much.

As Fiona feels conflicted about her growing private matters, the movie slowly dials up the level of emotional tension on the screen, and its drama eventually culminates to a crucial moment later in the story. While Fiona is attending a meeting held in Newcastle, Adam comes to her again, and she comes to see more of how Adam feels about her. As she steadily maintains her usual unflappable appearance, he tries hard to articulate whatever is churning inside his mind, but he only comes to make the situation more complicated in the end, and she is not so pleased about what just happens between them.

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The movie is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, who also adapted the novel for the film. I have not read the novel yet, but his adapted screenplay is mostly engaging with considerable wit and intelligence, though there are several parts which do not work as well as intended. Besides its rather underdeveloped supporting characters, his screenplay is often hampered by some ham-fisted moments such as the one associated with a silly joke which is not that funny to me.

Anyway, the movie is supported by its two excellent main performances. Emma Thompson, a wonderful actress who has always delighted us for many years, is superb in her nuanced acting, and she is particularly terrific when her character cannot help but swept by her emotion in the middle of an important annual event. Fionn Whitehead, who drew our attention for the first time via his breakthrough turn in “Dunkirk”, is devastating when his character makes a certain active choice around the end of the story, and he confirms here again that he is a new talented actor to watch.

“The Children Act” is directed by Richard Eyre, who previously directed “Iris” (2001) and “Notes on a Scandal” (2006). Like these two previous films of his, “The Children Act” is a good film equipped with strong performances worthwhile to watch, and it is too bad that the movie was quickly forgotten shortly after it was released in US during last month. It is not flawless at all, but it is more interesting than many of those superficial blockbuster films out there, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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In the Fade (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): After her terrible loss

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The first two acts of German film “In the Fade”, which won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film early in this year but did not get nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar despite being included in the category’s short-list in last December, is so absorbing that it is disappointing to see the movie fizzling out during its middling third act. I like how the movie steadily builds up its emotional tension via a number of harrowing moments of raw emotions during its first two acts, but I am dissatisfied with how it stumbles with blatantly contrived moments during its third act, and that is a shame considering its strong lead performance, which surely deserves a better film in my trivial opinion.

Diane Kruger, a German actress who has been mainly known for appearing in several major Hollywood films including “Troy” (2004), “National Treasure” (2004), and “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), plays Katja Şekerci, a married German woman who has lived happily with her ex-con husband Nuri (Numan Acar) and their young son Rocco (Rafael Santana). As shown from their wedding video, she and Nuri had to have their wedding in a prison where he was incarcerated for his drug crime, but that inconvenience did not matter to both of them as they were deeply in love with each other, and Nuri subsequently changed himself a lot. After getting a college degree and then being released from the prison, he has been a model citizen running a legitimate business in Hamburg, and he has also been a good husband and father to his dear family.

When Katja drops off their son at Nuri’s office and then spends some free time with her close friend, things look all right as usual, but, when she is returning to his office several hours later, she belatedly comes to realize that a horrible incident happened while she was away from her husband and son. Not long after she left Nuri’s office, a homemade bomb, which was hidden in the travel compartment of a bicycle, was exploded right in front of the office, and both Nuri and their son were killed as a consequence.

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Quite devastated by this sudden terrible loss, Katja becomes more morose and sorrowful day by day. As she does not get much support or help from her mother or her Turkish parents-in-law, she tries to numb her growing pain through drugs, but drugs alleviate her pain only for a while, and she eventually goes down and down to her bottom of despair while becoming more distant to everyone including her close friend.

And then there comes a good news from the police. Two suspects are arrested, and, as Katja suspected from the very beginning, these two suspects turn out to be Neo-Nazi members. In addition, one of these two suspects is a woman whom Kajta witnessed parking that bike right in front of Nuri’s office shortly after she left Nuri’s office.

Katja is certainly ready to testify at the upcoming trial, but the trial becomes more complicated than expected. Although Katja tries to look calm as much as possible, she cannot help but agitated as watching two people who are apparently responsible for her husband and son’s death, and she becomes all the more agitated as the lawyer defending them ruthlessly undermines the arguments of the prosecution step by step. While constantly emphasizing that there is not any strong evidence against his clients, he presents their alibi via a rather shady guy, and then he thoroughly tarnishes Katja’s testimony as pointing out the police record of her recent drug use.

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As her character trembles more and more behind her barely composed façade, Kruger fully demonstrates her considerable acting ability to us, and it is no surprise that she won the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival in last year. While quite convincing in her character’s dramatic emotional arc along the story, she is also superlative in a number of small moments in the film, and I particularly like a brief scene showing her character’s accidental encounter with a witness who willingly testifies against two suspects. The mood between her and that witness in question is awkward to say the least, but they show some understanding and compassion to each other, and the result is one of the most poignant moments in the film.

As eventually entering its third act, the movie attempts to shift its gear onto a different mode, but its attempt is not successful because the screenplay by director Fatih Akin, which is based on the story he wrote with his co-author Hark Bohm, hesitates to go further along with its heroine around that narrative point. As feeling the need for justice more than before, Katja comes to decide to do something drastic for herself, and we certainly come to wonder what will happen next, but we are just served with several glaring moments of plot contrivance, which only lead to a half-baked finale which does not resonate much with what is told to us before the end credits.

On the whole, “In the Fade” does not work as well as intended, but it is not a total failure at least, and it will be probably regarded as a curious misfire in Akin’s admirable filmmaking career. I must confess that I only watched “The Edge of Heaven” (2007) and “Soul Kitchen” (2009), but these two different films were more than enough for me to see that Akin is a very interesting filmmaker, and, to be frank with you, I am now considering revisiting both of them someday.

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Support the Girls (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Let’s cheer for Lisa!

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As a little comedy drama revolving around a “sports bar with curves”, “Support the Girls” is more thoughtful and humorous than you may expect. Mainly focusing on one eventful day of its heroine who works at that sports bar, the movie gives us a number of funny moments coupled with some sharp insights to muse on, and the overall result is entertaining enough to forgive its several notable flaws including its rather uneven last act.

When we meet Lisa Conroy (Regina Hall) in the beginning, she is crying in her car for some unknown reason, but then she stops crying and then regains her composure because she is soon going to be pretty busy as the general manager of a sports bar named Double Whammies. Besides doing her usual jobs including managing and checking other employees in this modest sports bar, she has to interview and then educate several young women who want to work there, and she is also going to hold a little fundraising event for one of current employees working under her, though her boss will not approve of that.

Not so surprisingly, things do not go very well right from the beginning. Not long after Lisa starts her working hour at Double Whammies along with other employees including Maci (Haley Lu Richardson) and Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), they hear a cry for help from somewhere, and it turns out that some guy attempted to break into the place for stealing money but then only found himself stuck in a ventilation duct for the whole night. He is subsequently rescued and then arrested by the police, but that process inadvertently damages TV cables around the ventilation duct, and Lisa must take care of this big problem before customers come.

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While trying to get TV cables fixed as soon as possible, Lisa gives those new potential employees a brief lecture on how to behave properly around customers, and that is one of the most frank and insightful moments in the film. Clearly recognizing the sexual aspect of their service job, she also emphasizes what is allowed and what is not allowed at all, and she surely makes a good example when she later happens to handle a customer who was rude to one of new employees.

As Lisa busily works on one thing after another, we come to see more of how good Lisa is at handling people around her. When Janelle happens to need a little help from her, Lisa helps her without hesitation, and then she asks Janelle to help her a bit for buying a home theater system at a cheaper price from a nearby store. All Janelle has to do is going to that store along with Lisa for persuading a guy working there, and we accordingly get a small funny moment as that guy eagerly demonstrates the home theater system to Lisa and Janelle.

When Lisa and other employees of Double Whammies begin their fundraising event, the result turns out to be as good as she hopes, but then she finds herself facing another trouble when her boss happens to drop by Double Whammies. As talking more with her boss, Lisa only gets frustrated more than before, and that is the point when the movie takes a sudden narrative turn along with her.

Around that point, the movie loses some of its narrative momentum, but it remains firmly anchored by the strong lead performance from Regina King, a veteran actress who has been mainly known for her notable performances in several popular comedy films including “Scary Movie” (2000) and “Girls Trip” (2017). While deftly handling many humorous moments in the film with flawless comic timing, King brings lots of life and personality to her character, and we come to root for Lisa a lot as watching her trying to cope with her accumulating frustration and exasperation. Although I still remember well that hilarious movie theater scene in “Scary Movie”, the movie shows me an unexpectedly serious side of King’s acting talent, and I certainly wish that we see more of that in the future.

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The other main cast members in the movie are also solid in their respective supporting roles. While Haley Lu Richardson, who has been more prominent thanks to her breakthrough turn in “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016), has her own moment when her character entertains her customers while TV cables are fixed, Dylan Gelula gives a number of little deadpan moments to be savored, and I like how they instantly establish a strong sense of sisterhood along with King right from the start. As we observe more of the dynamic interactions among these three good actresses on the screen, the bond among their characters feels more palpable to us, and that is the main reason why the last scene of the movie works well despite a few narrative hiccups preceding that scene. As Lisa’s unlikable boss, James Le Gros gives a small but effective supporting performance, and Lea DeLaria, who has played one of various female prisoner characters in TV series “Orange Is the New Black”, steals the show as a longtime patron of Double Whammies.

“Support the Girls” is directed and written by Andrew Bujalski, who previously made “Results” (2015). I was mildly impressed by that film, but I had a fairly good time thanks to the nice comic performances from Guy Pearce, Cobie Smulders, and Kevin Corrigan, and I accordingly became a little more interested in the filmmaking career of Bujalski, who, according to Wikipedia, has been called the “Godfather of Mumblecore”.

Although I think its last act could be polished more for more fluid narrative flow, “Support the Girls” is still an enjoyable work for many good reasons including King’s lively performance, and I was cheered up a lot by its considerable spirit and optimism. It is ‘flawed’ indeed, but it surely earns its emotional moments, and you will come to cheer for Lisa a lot in the end.

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The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Poetry and obsession

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The heroine of “The Kindergarten Teacher”, which was recently released on Netflix in US, is very unhappy for a reason most of us are familiar with. While she has aspiration for what she likes to do, she unfortunately lacks talent for that, and she knows that too well. When she happens to discover someone far more talented, she cannot help but obsessed with the talent of that person in question, and the movie later becomes darker than expected as she is further driven by her evidently unhealthy obsession.

The movie opens with another usual day of Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a kindergarten teacher working in a neighborhood area of New York City. After carefully preparing for her time with the kids in her kindergarten class, she handles them with care and attention while usually accompanied with her assistant teacher, and we come to see that she is a good professional who does know how to interact with kids.

After her working hour is over, Lisa goes to an evening poetry class taught by a teacher named Simon (Gael García Bernal). As watching her listening to every helpful word from Simon, we come to sense how much she aspires to write good poems, but, alas, she has been struggling to write anything good enough to impress her teacher and classmates. When she recites the result of her latest attempt, it only gets criticized by her classmates for what it lacks, and she naturally feels daunted and frustrated as returning to her suburban home.

At her home, Lisa does not have anyone to talk with her on poetry. Her husband Grant (Michael Chernus) is a nice guy, but he does not seem to be much interested in poetry, and neither do her two teenage children, who are mostly occupied with each own private matter and do not interact a lot with their parents. At one point, we see them having a pizza dinner with their mutual friend while their parents look at them from the distance, and we can feel the growing generation gap between them and their parents.

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One day, Linda happens to witness something extraordinary at her kindergarten. When one of the kids under her supervision, a boy named Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak), is being left alone in the classroom due to the late arrival of his divorced father’s girlfriend, he casually mutters some words, and Linda instinctively recognizes that he has just made a poem for himself. I must confess that I do not have enough understanding of poetry, but his poem is so simple and beautiful that I can still remember it now: “Anna is beautiful/Beautiful enough for me/The Sun shines her yellow house/It is almost like a sign from God”

Impressed by Jimmy’s natural talent for poetry, Lisa comes to feel the need to get more from him, and she also becomes determined to get his talent more promoted and nurtured, but she only comes to see that Jimmy does not get much support from others close to him. While his father’s girlfriend does not pay much attention to Jimmy, his father is usually busy with his nightclub business, and he simply wants his son to enjoy more ordinary things like baseball.

Lisa decides to draw some attention and support from Simon, but she chooses to do that in a wrong way. At the poetry class, she presents Jimmy’s poem as her latest one, and she certainly impresses not only Simon but also others in the class. Surprised by her unexpected ‘talent’, Simon wants to get more from Lisa, so she steals more from Jimmy, who comes to trust her a lot as she shows him more care and attention than before.

Lisa eventually gets invited to a poetry recital meeting, but the situation becomes disturbing as she becomes more fixated on Jimmy’s talent. Later in the story, she crosses the line without any hesitation just because she wants to show Jimmy’s talent to people who will probably appreciate his talent as much as her, and we later get an alarming moment as she lets herself driven further by her obsession.

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Although her character accordingly becomes less sympathetic than before, Maggie Gyllenhaal, who also participated in the production of the film, keeps engaging us as before, and the result is another solid performance from a wonderful actress who has consistently impressed us with numerous good performances including her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Crazy Heart” (2009). As she subtly conveys to us her character’s thoughts and feelings, we come to understand her character more even when we observe her character’s wrong deeds from the distance, and Gyllenhaal is particularly good when her character struggles with conflicting emotions at the aforementioned poetry recital meeting.

In case of several substantial supporting performers surrounding her, Michael Chernus and Gael García Bernal are also fine in their respective roles, and young performer Parker Sevak holds his own place well besides Gyllenhaal while functioning as another crucial part of the movie. Like many smart kids, Jimmy can clearly discern what is going on around him, and we are not so surprised when he does what should be done for him around the finale.

Thanks to the competent direction of director Sara Colangelo, who also wrote the screenplay which is adapted from the acclaimed Israeli film of the same name, “The Kindergarten Teacher” is a small but absorbing character drama, and I enjoyed its many sharp, sensitive moments. Its achievement is modest, but it distinguishes itself with thoughtful storytelling and commendable performance, and that is more than enough for recommendation in my opinion.

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The Happy Prince (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Last years of Oscar Wilde

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“The Happy Prince” is a somber and melancholic drama about last years of Oscar Wilde, a famous Irish poet and playwright who was fallen to the bottom of misery and destitution just because of his love. While it is not that pleasant to watch him slowly lurching down to the end of his ruined life, the movie works as an elegiac tale of loss and despair, and I admire its several poetic moments although I observed its story and characters from the distance.

In the beginning, the movie gives us a little piece of background knowledge on how Wilde’s life was ruined by a scandalous legal trouble in 1895. Around that time, Wilde, played here in this film by director/writer Rupert Everett, was in a romantic relationship with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Colin Morgan), and Lord Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, was certainly not so amused by what was going on between his son and Wilde. When the Marquess of Queenbeery accused Wilde of sodomy in public, Wilde had him prosecuted for criminal libel, but that only led to the humiliating public exposure of Wilde’s homosexuality, and he was subsequently arrested and then sentenced to two years of hard labour.

After released in 1897, Wilde left for France, and the opening part of the movie shows us how desperate his situation becomes a few years later. His health condition has been quite bad, but he frequently drinks while often depending on the kindness of strangers including a British lady who happens to recognize him and then gives him some money. While he gladly accepts it from her, their brief encounter only reminds him of what is gone forever from his life, and that leads him to more bitterness and, yes, more drink.

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The movie subsequently flashes backward to when his situation was relatively better. While many of Wilde’s friends and colleagues abandoned him after the scandal, Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas), his literary executor who was once his lover, and Reggie Turner (Colin Firth), an author who was a very close friend of Wilde, have tried as much as they can for their ruined friend, and they provide Wilde a place to stay when he arrives in France as Sebastian Melmoth, an alias derived from Saint Sebastian and “Melmoth the Wanderer”, a gothic novel incidentally written by Wilde’s great uncle Charles Maturin,

As days go by, it seems Wilde may be able to restore his life to some degree while also continuing his writing career. Although still feeling quite hurt about his ‘gross indecency’, his affluent wife Constance (Emily Watson) provides him some weekly allowance while also hoping for his repentant return, and Wilde is willing to do that for reuniting with his two young sons, for whom he used to tell fairy stories including that famous one about a swallow and the statue of a prince.

However, Wilde soon comes to change his mind when Lord Douglas comes to see Wilde again. As one his loyal friends, Ross sincerely warns to his dear friend that Lord Douglas will bring nothing but trouble as before, but Wilde is adamant about meeting Lord Douglas again because, well, he is still helplessly in love with Lord Douglas despite what happened because of their romantic relationship. While looking handsome as required, Colin Morgan brings considerable sexual charge into his scenes, and we can understand why Wilde still yearns for Lord Douglas even though it is apparent that his lover is your average narcistic prick who usually cares about himself above all things.

When Lord Douglas suggests to him that they run away together to Italy, Wilde is initially reluctant, but, of course, he cannot possibly say no to his lover. As they begin to stay in some beach area of Italy, Wilde feels happy and content, and they often throw themselves into hedonistic moments including an amusing orgy scene with a bunch of local young guys.

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Not so surprisingly, their fun time does not last that long as they come to run out of money. Just for regaining his affluent and comfortable lifestyle, Lord Douglas comes to leave Wilde in the end, and Wilde becomes bitterer than ever as being tumbled into more despair and misery. He eventually goes back to France, and that is the beginning of his long, miserable progression to death.

While it becomes less interesting around that narrative point, the movie is still held well together by Everett’s diligent lead performance. Although I must point out that his screenplay often trudges mainly due to its pedestrian narrative pacing which is further exacerbated by non-chronological storytelling, he did a fairly good job of establishing a nice period atmosphere to engage us, and I also appreciate how ably his performance conveys his character’s deteriorating status while never resorting to begging for pity and sympathy from us.

Everett also assembles several good performers around him. While Morgan is alternatively charming and despicable as demanded, the other supporting performers in the film including Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Edwin Thomas, and Tom Wilkinson are cast well in their respective roles, and Watson has a few juicy moments as bringing life and personality to her seemingly thankless role.

Overall, “The Happy Prince”, which was in fact Everett’s passion project for no less than 10 years, is an arthouse film driven by mood and emotion rather than plot, and I think you will enjoy it more if you have some background knowledge on Wilde’s life and career. Sure, the movie was not exactly entertaining to me, but it was an interesting experience at least, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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First Man (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Inside Neil Armstrong

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“First Man” is an ambitious but curiously detached drama about an elusive man who took one small step which was also a giant leap for mankind. While there are superlative moments vividly showing what he went through during his long progress culminating to that monumental moment of the human history, the movie sometimes loses its focus as trying to draw a big historical picture surrounding its adamantly distant hero, and it is rather dissatisfying at times as we do not get much insight on what makes him tick.

The movie looks around several years of the life and career of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling), who was, yes, the first man who walked on the Moon. In 1961, Armstrong was just one of many test pilots willingly risking their lives during those highly risky test flights, and the opening sequence, which is alternatively exciting and terrifying, shows him in the middle of his latest test flight. As his career seems to be going nowhere after that test flight and he and his wife struggle to cope with the early death of their dear young daughter, Armstrong decides to try a new start, so he grabs an opportunity to participate in the Project Gemini of NASA in the next year, and we soon see him and several other trainees preparing for their mission step by step under the supervision of Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), a no-nonsense guy who is the Chief of the Astronaut Office.

While things do not look exactly good as their country is still behind Russia in the ongoing space race, Armstrong and other members of Project Gemini do their best anyway, and the movie pays considerable attention to their slow but steady progress during next several years. We get a very dizzy scene involved with a certain big training device which made me cringe for good reasons, and then we get a brief moment showing how much they study for their mission, and then we eventually watch Armstrong and his partner put into Gemini 8 before its launch.

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Throughout the following launch sequence, the movie steadily sticks to Armstrong’ viewpoint, and the result is quite intense from time to time. With frighteningly realistic sound details including creaking metallic sounds, the movie did a commendable job of immersing us into every risky moment Armstrong and his partner have to deal with, and we are relieved a bit when the movie later gives us an understated lyrical moment which is clearly influenced by that famous scene in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

The movie also focuses on a number of problems and setbacks Armstrong and others in NASA faced during that time. There is a scary scene where Armstrong and his partner are thrown into a sudden danger around the end of their mission, and it surely reminds us of how things can go wrong in the space at any moment. Fortunately, Armstrong and his partner managed to handle well that perilous situation, and NASA moved onto Project Apollo with more confidence, but then there came a tragic accident which caused the death of its three astronauts on January 27th, 1967.

We subsequently get some glimpse into how the public opinion on space programs became more negative than before due to that disastrous accident, but the movie does not delve much into that. It only gives us a series of short moments showing the negative opinions on space programs during that time, and these moments feel rather superficial while not being mixed quite well along with the rest of the film.

Furthermore, the movie is often frustrating as constantly maintaining its distance from Armstrong, who rarely allows himself to express whatever is churning behind his calm, reserved appearance. It is clear that he is deeply hurt by the loss of his dear daughter, and the movie indirectly suggests that his quietly focused professionalism is his own way of driving himself away from grief, but we never feel like getting to know him even though cinematographer Linus Sandgren’s handheld camera frequently stares into his face.

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Nevertheless, Ryan Gosling, who previously collaborated with director Damien Chazelle in “La La Land” (2016), is commendable in his nuanced performance which subtly embodies his character’s decency and humanity without any unnecessary emphasis. At one particular point during the expected climactic part involved with the Apollo 11 mission, Gosling gives us a small but masterful example of low-key acting which poignantly implies his character’s private feeling, and that reminds us again of why he is one of the most versatile performers working in Hollywood.

Although the other characters surrounding Armstrong is underdeveloped in comparison, they are mostly played well by a bunch of notable performers including Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian d’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ethan Embry, and Ciarán Hinds. While Stoll, who has been more prominent since his supporting performance in the first season of TV series “House of Cards”, steals the show as Buzz Aldrin, Chandler and Hinds are dependable as usual, and Foy, who recently rose to stardom thanks to her acclaimed performance in TV series “The Crown”, is also solid as Armstrong’s supportive wife.

While it did not excite me as much as “The Right Stuff” (1983) and “Apollo 13” (1995), I recommend “First Man” for its considerable technical achievement. To be frank with you, I still feel distant to its detached storytelling to some degrees, but I enjoyed many of its highlights anyway, and it certainly deserves to be appreciated via big screen. It could be more compelling and revealing in my trivial opinion, but it is admirable at least.

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Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): More than books

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Frederick Wiseman’s documentary film “Ex Libris: the New York Public Library” is an experience both challenging and engaging. Like many of Wiseman’s notable works, the documentary simply observes without providing any background information to us during its long running time (206 minutes), and you may get quite frustrated with its clinical approach, but it is at least interesting to watch how it gradually presents its big picture as looking into one of the best public libraries in the world.

Mainly shot inside the main building and many other places of the New York Public library for 12 weeks, the documentary shows us various activities inside this huge institute which has served the public for more than 120 years. In the beginning, it shows us a public interview with Richard Dawkins at the lobby hall of the main building of the library, and then we look at the mundane daily work of several library employees, and then we observe a management meeting among the director of the library and his colleagues.

As listening to the words being exchanged among the director of the library and his colleagues during their management meeting, we come to learn a bit about how the library has been stably funded for many years. While the library depends a lot on its government funding, the private funding is equally important because it can not only provide more money for the library’s many different programs but also stimulate further the financial support from the government, so it is always important for the library to maintain this positive financial feedback. While focusing a lot on getting more private and public funding, the director of the library and his colleagues also pay lots of attention to what they can possibly do with their annual funding, and we can sense their passion and dedication from their long discussion.

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Besides providing many people books to read, a library does other public services, and we see how the New York Public Library has played a very important role in public education via numerous programs. During a small class at one of branch sites of the library, a teacher tries to generate curiosity and interest from young kids via a computer game, and kids certainly have a fun with that. At the branch in Chinatown, a group of old people learn how to use computers, and that reminds us that a good library is always open to anyone willing to learn more.

The library provides many opportunities for the public to get closer to art and knowledge. One lecturer gives an informative lecture on Islam and slavery in Africa during 18-19th century, and that moment later resonates with a subsequent lecture scene where a curious association between slavery and Marxism is mentioned. At one point, we watch a guy reciting his rap poem during his lecture, and the camera lingers on him for a while as he enthusiastically delivers every verse of his rap poem.

In the meantime, many different prominent figures are invited to the library, and they surely have a lot of things to talk about in front of their audiences. We see Elvis Costello entertaining his audiences as talking about some of his songs, we see acclaimed poet Yosef Komunyakaa explaining a bit why his artistic work is inherently poetical, and we see Ta-Nehisi Coates, the renowned author of “The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood” and “Between the World and Me”, sharing his thoughts on social/racial problems with his audiences.

These notable moments are intercut with more mundane activities inside the library and its branches. There is a brief moment showing how old books are carefully photographed page by page, and then there is a short but wonderful scene which shows how returned books are systemically handled one by one. In case of the newspaper archive section of the library, we get a glimpse into its long history as watching people checking microfilms containing old newspaper articles ranging from New York Post to New York Times, and we come to appreciate more of the importance of public library functioning as an archive of history.

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Around the end of the documentary, there is a scene which shows a community meeting held at a small branch site located in one of black neighborhoods of the city, and that is one of memorable moments in the documentary. As several residents of this black neighborhood express each own thoughts and opinions, we come to understand more of what they and their neighborhood really need, and we are also reminded of how a public library can provide a platform for public opinion.

As observing how all these and other things in the documentary are fluidly presented during more than 3 hours, I admired Wiseman’s effortless handling of his subject, but the overall result is less impressive than his recent previous films such as “At Berkeley” (2013) and “National Gallery” (2014). While those two documentary films make a lasting impression on us via their more tangible narrative flow and focus, the documentary feels rather scattershot at times, and I must confess that I often felt impatient during its last hour.

Nevertheless, “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library”, which received the FIPRESCI Prize at the Venice Film Festival in last year, is still a good work on the whole, and I am certainly glad to see that Wiseman, who is soon going to have his 89th birthday, is keeping on as usual. Since his first documentary film “Titicut Follies” (1967), he has constantly impressed us during last 51 years, and, as a matter of fact, he has already moved onto his latest work “Monrovia, Indiana” (2018). He is one of the best documentary filmmakers of our time, and I hope he will go on as much as he can.

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