Tove (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): The early life of Tove Jansson

“Tove”, which was selected as the Finnish entry for Best International Film Oscar in last year, presents the early life of Tove Jansson, a Swedo-Finnish author and illustrator who has been mainly known for her lovely comic strip featuring the adorable creatures named the Moomins. Although it is more or less than your average biopic, the movie is fairly engaging on the whole thanks to its good direction and enjoyable performances, and you may find yourself interested in getting to know more about Jansson’s life and career.

The story begins in 1944, when Finland was fighting with the Soviet Union while the rest of the world was turned upside down by the World War II. Helsinki, the capital of Finland, has been frequently damaged by air raids, but Jansson, played by Alma Pöysti, continues to pursue her artistic career nonetheless while hoping to be prominent enough to be recognized by her stern father someday, who has incidentally been quite respectable for his acclaimed sculpture works. Although he does not look like regarding her works that highly even after she becomes more independent as an artist, Jansson is not daunted by that at all, and she eventually begins to live apart from her parents after deciding that she really needs her own place where she can focus more on her artistry.

Around that time, Jansson becomes romantically involved with a journalist/politician named Atos Wirtanen (Shanti Roney). Although Wirtanen is married at present, both Jansson and Wirtanen do not care about that at all while having no illusion about whatever will happen between them next, and Wirtanen later gives Jansson a small but interesting opportunity. His newspaper happens to need a cartoonist who can provide some amusement for children, and Jansson looks like the right person for that, because she has occasionally drawn amusing caricatures including the one satirizing the grim current situation of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Germany.

As her father often disregarded those simple caricatures of hers, Jansson is not particularly serious about what has gradually become her main source of income, but then there comes an important change into her life and career. On one day, she happens to befriend a young playwright/socialite named Vivica Bandler (Krista Kosonen), and it does not take much time for Jansson to become quite attracted to Bandler, who also likes her a lot while also admiring her works a lot. Although she remains to be very close to Wirtanen, Jansson allows herself to get romantically involved with Bandler, and Bandler later suggests to her lover that she should go further with the Moomins and several other cartoon characters of hers.

However, Bandler turns out to be a very lousy lover for Jansson as your typical free spirit. Not long after she goes to Paris alone in the late 1940s, she returns with some other woman, and that certainly hurts Jansson’s feeling a lot, but she chooses to collaborate with Bandler on a play based on the Moomins nonetheless. Although Bandler breaks her heart again, Jansson does her best as the author of the play to the end, and the play turns out to be a smashing success as embraced by both adult and young audiences.

During next several years, Jansson becomes more famous and popular thanks to the Moomins, but her private life remains as complicated as before. While her heart is still attracted to Bandler, Bandler keeps letting down Jansson, and the situation becomes all the more complicated when Wirtanen proposes to Jansson after finally divorcing his wife. He really loves Jansson, and Jansson cares about him a lot, but she cannot help but have doubt on their possible future even after saying yes to his proposal.

As Jansson hesitates between Wirtanen and Bandler, there comes another possibility when she comes to Paris along with her artist friends, who later introduce Jansson to a woman who is evidently interested in getting closer to Jansson. Speaking more with this lady, Jansson becomes more attracted to her, but then she is reminded again that she is not totally free from her relationship with Bandler yet.

Jansson’s eventual decision for her life will probably not surprise you much especially if you know about a certain aspect of her life, but the screenplay by Eava Putro, who also played one of the supporting characters in the film, keeps holding our attention via its sincere and earnest storytelling. In case of one crucial scene which is involved with Jansson’s father, this feels rather clichéd in my humble opinion, but it still feels touching as coupled with enough sincerity, and we can sense how that moment contributes to more artistic/personal growth for Jansson.

As the heart and soul of the film, Pöysti diligently carries the film as required, and she is supported well by several other cast members assembled around her. While Krista Kosonen and Shanti Roney are effective as two very different lovers in Jansson’s life, Robert Enckell and Kajsa Ernst are also fine as Jansson’s parents, and so is Joanna Haartti, who draws our attention as soon as she enters later in the story.

In conclusion, “Tove” may be a bit disappointing for you if you want to see more about the Moomins, but its presentation of Jansson’s early life is still interesting enough to hold our attention at least. Yes, this is predictable and conventional in many aspects, but it did its job as well as intended with care and respect, so I will not complain for now.

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I’m Your Man (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Is he really the one for her?

German science fiction film “I’m Your Man”, which was recently selected as the German entry for Best International Film Oscar, cheerfully and thoughtfully plays with its familiar but endlessly compelling story promise. Although it understandably falters a bit as reaching to its conclusion, the movie is still a delight in many aspects, and I really wonder how it will look to us as we go through more technological advance during next several decades.

At the beginning, the movie promptly focuses on its heroine’s extraordinary situation. Mainly because she was promised to get some substantial support on her ongoing academic research, Alma (Marren Eggert), a recently divorced archaeologist, agreed to be a participant in the evaluation of a custom-made android model for companionship, and she is quite impressed right from when she is introduced to her android, who is named Tom (Dan Stevens). While there is some inherent awkwardness due to not only his deliberate English accent but also his unflappably courteous attitude, Tom does look like a real guy on the surface, and there is more surprise for Alma as she comes to learn more of how the company which manufactured Tom considered almost everything from the very start.

Although she still has some reservation, Alma eventually agrees to have Tom in her residence for next three weeks while occasionally monitored by a supervisor played by Sandra Hüller, a wonderful actress mainly known for her memorable comic performance in Oscar-nominated German film “Toni Erdmann” (2016). Hilariously ever-cheerful on the surface, Hüller ably suggests that there is something more behind her seemingly thankless character, and she is very amusing as her character ebulliently describes to Alma on how the company tries its best for helping Alma during her following evaluation period.

Nevertheless, Alma’s first days with Tom feel strained to say the least. Although Tom is already willing to be quite intimate with Alma, Alma still regards him as an object she has to accommodate for a while, and Tom has no problem with that while doing his best for Alma as an entity specifically programmed for comforting her. For example, he dutifully fills the role of a caring companion in the very next morning, and there is a brief but uproarious comic moment as he did some reverse action when Alma is not so pleased with his little cleaning job on her residence.

Mainly because her mind has mostly been occupied with her ongoing academic project, Alma prefers to interact with Tom as little as possible, but then she cannot help but a bit touched by his programmed acts of care and affection. He can patiently wait for her outside while she is doing her work as usual, and he has no problem with being presented as her new colleague to others around her, though he turns out to be too efficient and knowledgeable as your average artificial intelligence.

Of course, there eventually comes a point where Alma finds herself crossing the line set by herself from the beginning, and the mood accordingly becomes a little warmer and gentler than before. As coming to care about Tom much more than expected, Alma begins to struggle with her consequential emotional dilemma, and the screenplay by director Maria Schrader and her co-writer Jan Shomburg accordingly comes to reflect more on how we should regard the relationship between Alma and Tom. Sure, Alma can say that what she is feeling toward Tom now is indeed real, but, as shrewdly pointed out later in the story, Tom is more or less than the walking reflection of her yearning and desire, and that makes her more conflicted than before as the time for final evaluation is approaching.

During its last act, Schrader and Shomburg’s screenplay attempts to give the conclusion to the questions it has raised along the story, but its delivery of answers is not exactly satisfying. The subplot involved with Alma’s increasingly senile father is rather unnecessary except reminding Alma of how she may age and die alone without no one to lean on, and the movie seems to hesitate a bit to go further along with its two main characters around the point where Alma finally makes her own conclusion while also recognizing the counterargument for that.

Anyway, the two lead performers of the film are constantly engaging in their effortless comic chemistry. Marren Eggert, who deservedly won the Best Leading performance award when the movie was shown at the Berlin International Film early in this year, is simply fabulous in her character’s quiet but palpable emotional journey along the story, and her jaded attitude is complement well by the clean-cut appearance of her co-star. As already shown from his hysterically exaggerated comic supporting turn in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (2020), Dan Stevens has considerable comic talent, and, besides handling his German dialogues in the film fairly well on the whole, he wisely plays straight as much as possible during many of his key comic scenes with Eggert.

Overall, “I’m Your Man” may not reach to the level of “Her” (2013) or “Ex Machina” (2014), but it is still a delightful piece of work which deserves to be compared with other similar films including “Making Mr. Right” (1987), a small little gem which is also about the odd but intriguing relationship between a woman and a male android. In my inconsequential opinion, that film and “I’m Your Man” will make a nice double feature show, and I recommend you to try that someday.

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I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): What happens to Ruth

Netflix film “I Don’t Feel at Home This World Anymore” is a little dark comedy which becomes more absurd and violent than expected as bouncing from one point to another along with its two main characters. We are tickled at times as observing how they try to deal with a situation which turns out to be way over their heads, and then we also come to cringe a lot as how their situation becomes messier along the story.

Melanie Lynskey plays Ruth Kimke, a nursing assistant who has been quite depressed and frustrated about how things are usually bad around her. At one point early in the film, Ruth tries to give some comfort to a dying old lady on her deathbed, but this old lady only says nasty words before eventually succumbing to death, and Ruth is certainly embarrassed when the surviving family members of this old lady later ask about her last words.

Quite unhappy and depressed as usual, Ruth returns to her house where she has lived alone, and then she belatedly discovers that somebody broke into the house and then stole several valuable stuffs including her laptop computer and the silverware set from her grandmother. Of course, she instantly calls the police, and her house is subsequently investigated as a crime scene, but the cop assigned to her case does not look that particularly enthusiastic about helping her, and that makes her more frustrated than before.

Eventually, Ruth decides to take care of the matter for herself. She attempts to find any clue and witness from here and there around the neighborhood, and that is how she comes across Tony (Elijah Wood) again, who previously had a rather awkward encounter with her due to a minor matter involved with dog excrement. Because he looks like someone who may help her private investigation, Ruth later calls for his help when she happens to find the exact location of her stolen laptop computer, and he gladly joins her private investigation just because he has been angry and frustrated as much as she has been.

Of course, both Ruth and Tony turn out to pretty clumsy as facing one trouble after another during their little pursuit of justice, and we accordingly get a series of vicious but funny moments to be savored. While they manage to retrieve that stolen laptop computer in the end, Ruth still needs to locate where her grandmother’s silverware set is, and that consequently leads her and Tony into a certain shady spot near their neighborhood. Understandably quite nervous, both of them try to be as careful as possible, but there inevitably comes a point where our heroine resorts to a bit of violence, and then we get another naughty laugh as a result.

Meanwhile, the screenplay by director/writer Macon Blair, who has been known for his excellent performances in several notable films including Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin” (2013), also shows what is going on among the very criminals who broke into Ruth’s house, and we are amused again as observing how they are as pathetic as Ruth and Tony. During one certain scene, they try to deal with some dangerous thug, but it is apparent from the beginning that they are no match for this thug at all, and one of them consequently gets a painful lesson.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these criminals and our two main characters will fatefully converge at some narrative point later in the story, but the movie keeps engaging us as deftly balancing itself between comedy and thriller. In case of an absurd scene where Ruth and Tony are trying to get more clues from a certain character who happens to be quite drunk, it later catches us off guard with an unexpected development, and the mood becomes more absurd as Ruth and Tony are reminded again of how they have been out of depth from the beginning.

During the eventual finale, the movie becomes more intense and violent as things get out of control for Ruth and Tony as well as some other substantial characters in the story, but the movie does not lose any of its sense of black humor even during this part, and Blair and his crew members did a good job of delivering laughs and shocks alternatively. While we are horrified along with Tony and Ruth, we also chuckle at times as discerning the sheer absurdity of their increasingly chaotic circumstance, and the movie even throws a bit of sentimentality into that around the end of the story.

As the mismatched comic duo in the film, Lynskey and her co-star Elijah Wood effortlessly interact with each other on the screen. While Lynskey ably handles her character’s neurotic sides for good laughs, Wood is equally good as a guy as troubled as his accidental partner, and they are also supported well by a number of colorful supporting performers including Devon Graye, David Yow, Jane Levy, Robert Longstreet, Christine Woods, and Gary Anthony Williams, who has a small amusing scene where his detective character happens to have a sort of mental breakdown in front of Ruth.

In conclusion, “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore” is a modest but commendable feature film debut by Blair, who incidentally received the Grand Jury Prize when the movie had a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival early in 2017. At present, he is making the reboot of “The Toxic Avenger” (1984), and, considering his achievement in “I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore”, I think I can have some expectation on his next film.

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Little Boxes (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): As they are trying to settle in a suburb

“Little Boxes” is a mild comedy about one family trying to settle in their new neighborhood. Although the result is less edgy and satiric than it could be while not showing anything particularly new about its familiar main subjects, we get several small moments of humor as its three main characters clumsily try to adjust themselves to their new environment, and its three main cast members carry the film well together on the whole even when the movie spins its wheels from time to time.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Gina McNulty-Burns (Melanie Lynskey) and her African American husband Mack Burns (Nelsan Ellis), who are soon going to leave their Brooklyn neighborhood in New York City along with their son Clark (Armani Jackson) because Gina recently accepted a position in some college located in Washington State. Gina hopes that this will be the new beginning for her artistic/academic career, and Mack expects to have a more peaceful environment for his writing, but Clark is not so happy about this change as he will be far away from his school friends.

Anyway, when they finally arrive in a small suburban area near the college where Gina is going to work, everything looks promising on the surface. She bought a big house which will give them more space than before, and they are soon welcomed by one of their new neighbors, who cheerfully encourages Clark to hang around with other kids in the neighborhood.

However, there is a problem which turns out to be more annoying than expected. Many of stuffs belonging to them are somehow stuck somewhere in the delivery route, so the house remains to be mostly empty as before, and Gina and her family cannot help but feel uncertain about whether they can settle in their new neighborhood, which surely feels quieter but less eventful than their old Brooklyn neighborhood. At least, Gina has some new colleagues on whom she can lean in her workplace, but Mack often feels bored and frustrated as his writing process is not improved much on the whole, and the same thing can be said about Clark, who comes to spend more time with two young girls in the neighborhood because, well, there is nothing to do for him before the new semester begins in his new school.

The most humorous moments in the film come from the dryly wry observation of how these main characters slowly let themselves mired in the ennui of their suburban neighborhood. Although she will surely have to prepare a lot for the upcoming semester in the college, Gina does not say no when her new colleagues suggest that she should have more fun along with them outside. As a result, she later finds herself pretty drunk during one night, and she comes to wonder whether her life and career reach to a dead end,

In case of Mack, he finds himself aimlessly walking here and there around his new neighborhood after getting more frustrated with his writing process. When he happens to draw the attention of others as a new local writer in the town, he is not so happy because he does not have anything to show off besides his first and only book published some years ago, and, as one of a few colored residents in the neighborhood, he also has to tolerate an insensitive remark from one Caucasian neighbor at one point.

Meanwhile, Clark becomes more interested in getting closer to one of the two girls with whom he has been hanging around for days, though he is well aware that these two girls are curious about him mainly for his racial background. There is a little absurd moment when he and they talk a bit about those contemporary rappers, and we come to wince more as observing how they are often unintentionally insensitive to Clark.

As its three main characters struggle more and more with their respective situations, the screenplay by Annie Howell gradually increases the level of anxiety and discontent among them, though it does not always succeed in my humble opinion. For instance, a part involved with a certain hygiene problem in the house is a bit too blatantly symbolic, and the last act feels heavy-handed as eventually fizzling out without much dramatic impact.

The movie is still worthwhile to watch to some degree mainly due to the diligent efforts from its three main cast members. Melanie Lynskey, who has been one of the dependable actresses since her unforgettable breakout turn in Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” (1994), subtly expresses her character’s increasingly anxious state of mind, Nelsan Ellis, who unfortunately died not long after the movie was released, complements his co-start well with his seemingly calm and reserved attitude. As another crucial part of the story, Armani Jackson holds his own place well between Lynskey and Ellis, and Oona Laurence is also solid as a carefree young girl interested in Clark for a wrong reason.

“Little Boxes”, whose title is evidently derived from that famous satiric song of the same name, is dissatisfying compared to other acclaimed suburban films such as, yes, “American Beauty” (1999), but it is not a total dud at least thanks to the competent direction of director Rob Meyer and his good main cast members. I was not bored during my viewing, but I still think it could do more beyond being merely amused by suburban ennui.

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Malignant (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A nutty outrageous horror thriller film by James Wan

James Wan’s new film “Malignant” is so relentlessly nutty and outrageous that I am still scratching my head on how to evaluate whether it works. While I did get a fair share of laughs and thrills from this rather deranged but well-made piece of work, I also observed its loony plot development from the distance without much care, and I am still debating over whether it is “so-bad-so-good” intentionally or unintentionally.

After the gloriously overblown opening scene unfolded inside a big, imposing mental hospital on a steep seaside cliff, the movie moves forward to 28 years later, and we meet a young married woman named Madison “Maddie” Lake-Mitchell (Annabelle Wallis), who lives with her husband in an old shabby house looking like your average haunted spot. Although Maddie is the one who has earned their living despite being pregnant for months, her husband, who seems to be unemployed at present, does not appreciate this at all, and we are not so surprised when he cruelly abuses Maddie later.

Not long after that, something terrible happens in their house. Her husband is suddenly killed by some mysterious figure, but the two detectives subsequently assigned to the case are baffled as there is no clue to identify the killer, and Maddie cannot help them that much because she happened to lose her consciousness shortly after the killer murdered her husband and then swooped down on her.

However, it does not take much time for Maddie to realize what is really going on around her. Her mind is somehow linked with the mind of the killer as the killer continues the killing spree, and that makes her to look back into her old forgotten past. Before she was adopted by her foster parents 28 years ago, she was in that mental hospital for some unknown reason, and the killer, who looks like a cross between that murderous ghost in Japanese film “Ring” (1998) and those insane killers in giallo flicks, seems to be very angry about several certain figures associated with the killer as well as Maddie.

I will not dare to go into details on who the killer is, but I can tell you instead that I was often amused by how the film goes all the way along with this mysterious figure. Besides looking spooky and menacing as demanded, the killer also has some supernatural ability of making electronic equipments go amok (I particularly like a nasty moment involved with a pacemaker), and this dude also seems to be quite invincible in physical aspects. At one point, one of the two aforementioned cop characters shoots many times toward the killer while chasing after the killer, but the killer does not look injured at all while demonstrating pretty incredible physical flexibility.

As the movie becomes more and more preposterous along the plot, Wan and his crew members including cinematographer Michael Burgess boldly push the movie into sheer excess. Besides that mental hospital, many locations in the film look deliberately artificial and stylish, and I was especially impressed by the vast and stark interior of a police station where our two cop characters work. The movie frequently unnerves us via various visual ways including tilted shots, and the resulting anxious mood is further amplified by the jumpy score by Joseph Bishara.

In case of character development, the movie is incoherent at best and nonsense at worst. Most of main characters in the film are more or less than plot elements to be manipulated in one way or another, and that is the main reason why we are not so scared of whatever will happen to and around our unfortunate heroine, who is quite hysterical around the point when she is cornered more and more by her homicidal opponent. In case of the other main characters besides them, they are not particularly developed well, and we do not care that much about whether they will be killed or not along the story.

However, I will not deny that I got sort of guilty pleasure as the movie struck me harder and harder with more blood and outrageousness. I enjoyed watching Maddie’s plucky younger sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) doing some detective work a la Nancy Drew, and the movie gives us some good chills as she eventually discovers a dark secret literally hidden behind her older sister, which somehow makes sense with the bizarre aspects of the killer. In case of a certain sequence during the last act, the movie throws lots of crazy and bloody moments of action onto the screen, and you will not be disappointed all if you are willing to go along with its over-the-top approach.

The main cast members in the film play their respective characters as straight as required, though their good efforts are hampered by weak characterization at times. While Mckenna Grace dutifully holds the center, George Young and Michole Briana White are mostly stuck in their functional roles, and Maddie Hasson brings some life and personality to her seemingly thankless role.

On the whole, “Malignant” tries to be something wilder and crazier than Wan’s previous works including “Insidious” (2010) and “The Conjuring” (2013), and I appreciate that to some degree, but it is still not better than them in my inconsequential opinion. Considering that I gave both “Insidious” and “The Conjuring” 2.5 stars out of four, I give “Malignant” 2.5 stars, but it was not a waste of time for me at least, and I think you will probably be more generous than me if you enjoyed Wan’s works more than I did.

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The Best Years of a Life (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Still Living (and Loving)

Claude Lelouch’s latest film “The Best Years of a Life” is a sentimental epilogue which frequently takes us back to the nostalgic memories of its two main characters, who passionately fell in love in Lelouch’s Oscar-winning film “A Man and A Woman” (1966). Although it is more or less than a footnote to that lovely classic film, the movie is often enhanced by the undeniable chemistry between its two lead performers, who still shine together although they were near 90 around the time when the movie was made.

The story starts at a cozy facility for old people where Jean-Louis Duroc (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is currently living. While he looks mostly okay on the surface, Jean-Louis has been struggling with the late onset of dementia, and he often finds himself lost in the memories of his old times whenever he is left on a couch installed in the lawn in front of the facility. As you can surely remember if you have ever watched “A Man and A Woman”, Jean-Louis was a dashing and promising car racer at that time, and Trintignant is quietly poignant whenever his current fragile appearance is contrasted with how handsome and confident he looked at that time.

In that movie, Jean-Louis happened to come across a young widow named Anne Gauthier (Anouk Aimée), whose daughter happened to be the same boarding school which his son. As they subsequently came to spend more time with each other, a certain mutual feeling was developed between them, and, despite Anne’s grief associated with her dead husband, they eventually became more passionate about each other with Francis Lai’s catchy score frequently played in the background, and it looked like they would be never apart from each other as they openly embraced each other at the end of that film.

However, as Anne frankly admits to us at the beginning of the film, she and Jean-Louis subsequently became separated from each other because their almost perfect romance was eventually tarnished mainly due to Jean-Louis’ indiscretion, and they have never met each other again for more than 50 years. Lelouch actually made a sequel titled “”A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later” (1986), but he thankfully erases that uneven misfire from the timeline of his two main characters, and, if you dislike that film as much I did, you will gladly go along with that change without much problem.

At present, Anne is running a small shop alone in a small town of Normandy mainly for living closer to her daughter Françoise (Souad Amidou, who incidentally played young Françoise in the 1966 film), who works as a horse veterinarian there. When Jean-Louis’s son Antoine (Antoine Sire, who also appeared in the 1966 film as young Antoine) comes to the shop for asking her to meet his father, she is understandably reluctant, but she eventually decides to visit that facility for old times’ sake.

When Anne finally meets Jean-Louis again, it does not take much for her to realize how foggy his mind has been these days. While recognizing her at all, he cannot help but ramble about his precious memories of his romantic relationship with her, and she listens to him with care and compassion while not saying much about her. Although many years have passed since they appeared together in 1966 and 1986, Trintignant and Aimée effortlessly interact with each other on the screen, and these two living legends of French Cinema poignantly remind us again that they have lost none of their talent and presence yet despite their old age.

However, Lelouch cannot help but become sentimental about those glory days of him and his two lead performers, and the movie frequently goes back to those highlight moments of the 1966 film. Yes, we see again how Jean-Louis and Anne came to fall in love as talking with each other in his car. Yes, we revisit that undeniably romantic moment on a beach. Yes, we watch again that bittersweet intimate lovemaking scene between them unfolded within one room of a nearby hotel.

In addition, Lelouch also tries no less than two dream sequences where Anne allows herself to join Jean-Louis’s nutty escapade. These sequences are playful with some amusing moments to be savored, but the movie seems to be going anywhere beyond that, and I am not so sure about whether a certain key scene featuring Monica Bellucci is real or not.

Anyway, Trintignant and Aimée still carry the film well together, and I would not complain at all if Lelouch simply lets these two very engaging performers talk and talk with each other throughout the 90-minute running time of his film. Since I belatedly came to notice him via Krzysztof Kieślowski’s last film “Three Colors: Red” (1994), Trintignant has been always interesting to watch, and the same thing can be said about Aimée, who was constantly terrific in many notable films including Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” (1960) and “8 1/2” (1963). They always click quite well together from the beginning to the end, and it is a shame that the movie does not go further with them to give us something as sublime as, say, Ingmar Bergman’s “Saraband” (2003), a sequel to his great film “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973).

In conclusion, “The Best Years of a Life” is no more than a sappy tribute to “A Man and A Woman”, but it is still worthwhile to watch mainly for its two great performers who surely deserve to be commended for trying their best with the material given to them. If you like the 1966 film, you should check it out someday, and I assure you that you will humming again its theme song.

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Worth (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): What Is Life Worth?

“Worth”, which was released in South Korean theaters several months ago while released on Netflix in US a few weeks ago, attempts to examine what is really fair and just in evaluating the individual worth of many different human lives lost in one of the most devastating incidents in US during last 20 years. While its initially calm and objective stance eventually is tilted toward emotions and sentiments as expected, the movie did a fairly admirable job of handing its human matters with care and attention, and I appreciate a number of quietly touching moments glimpsed from the long and frustrating legal struggles depicted in the film.

The story of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of Kenneth Feinberg (Michael Keaton), a senior partner of one prominent law firm in Washington D.C. In the early morning of September 11th, 2001, he is going to the city along with many others via a commuter train as usual, but then many cellular phones suddenly ring here and there around him when they are about to arrive in the city, and he and others around him soon come to learn of those terrible terrorist attacks which just happened in New York City and Washington D.C.

Around two weeks later, the country and its citizens are still reeling from the enormous shock of the 9/11 incident, but the US government and its high-ranking officials are already focusing on handling the messy aftermath as soon as possible, and one of their immediate issues is how to compensate fairly to each of thousands of citizens who lost their respective loved ones during the incident. While it goes without saying that all lives equally matter in theory, they cannot possibly have the same amount of money allotted to all of those various victims ranging from a poor janitor to a rich company executive, so somebody must set the rules and boundaries to dictate how much they should pay in each case.

Because of seeing not only an interesting legal challenge associated with his expertise but also a valuable opportunity to help his country and government, Feinberg volunteers to be the one who will do that tricky job, and he and his senior partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) promptly embark on this legal project along with several interns at their law firm. Feinberg is confident that they will be able to persuade at least 80% of applicants to side with his plan before the deadline incidentally set around the end of 2003, but he and his team soon come to see how daunting their job is in many aspects. Many of applicants are regarding his plan with suspicion and distrust, and some of them have already hired lawyers, who are ready to go for the lawsuits for getting any possible damages from the US government or those airline companies.

Fortunately, there is a guy who may persuade most of these numerous applicants to be more sensible and reasonable with what Feinberg is going to propose, though he does not particularly approve of Feinberg’s plan right from the beginning. He is Charles Wolf (Stanley Tucci), and he genuinely cares about what should done for him and many other applicants out there, so it does not take much time for him to draw more attention from his fellow applicants than Feinberg.

While understanding more of the position of Wolf and many other applicants, Feinberg tries to be neutral and objective as much as he can, and he and his team are reminded again and again of how that is nearly impossible for them because, well, they are also human beings just like the people they are handling at present. Wisely avoiding any cheap tear or sentimentality, the movie simply listens to a series of harrowing human stories from some of the applicants at one point, and that is more enough for us to feel a bit of the immensely tragic aspects of the 9/11 incident.

The screenplay by Max Borenstein, which is based on Feinberg’s nonfiction book “What Is Life Worth?”, becomes a little tense when Feinberg and his team try much harder for accomplishing their seemingly impossible goal within a short time, but the movie still maintains its dry low-key tone under the competent direction of director Sara Colangelo, who previously made “The Kindergarten Teacher” (2018). Although Borenstein’s screenplay overplays a bit in case of a grieving widow whose dead husband later turns out to have a very complicated private life, the film still does not lose its balance even during that part, and it does not overstep at all when it arrives at the expected finale, which is pretty somber and anti-climactic but leaves lots of things for us to reflect on.

The cast members of the film dutifully fill their respective spots as required. Michael Keaton, who also served as one of the producers of the film, is dependable as usual, and it is engaging to observe how he gradually dials down his distinctive presence along the story as his character becomes more personally involved in the human aspects of his project. As Keaton’s counterpart in the story, Stanley Tucci brings considerable humanity and decency to his character, and he is particularly good when his character happens to have a honest and meaningful discussion with Feinberg later in the story. In case of the other substantial cast members including Shunori Ramanathan, Tate Donovan, and Amy Ryan, they are rather under-utilized in their functional supporting roles, but Ryan did a bit more than constantly looking concerned beside Keaton at least.

On the whole, “Worth” does not delve that deep into its main subjects, but it is sincere and thoughtful enough to hold my attention nonetheless. Although it does not answer to its moral questions that well, these moral questions are surely something worthwhile to muse on, so I recommend it despite some reservation on whether it works as well as intended.

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Respect (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A conventional biopic starring Jennifer Hudson

“Respect” is a thoroughly conventional musician biopic whose glaring flaws are occasionally compensated by the strong performance from its lead actress. Whenever the movie lets us down during its rather long running time (145 minutes), she always lifts it up via her undeniable presence and talent, and she certainly handles her real-life character with care, passion, and, yes, lots of respect, even though her commendable acting is often hampered by those many weak aspects of the movie.

That real-life character in question is none other than Aretha Franklin, a legendary African American singer whose reputation and legacy have still been growing even after her death in 2018. I must confess that I did not know a lot about her before hearing about her death and then watching Sidney Pollack’s exceptional music documentary film “Amazing Grace” (2018), but I still vividly remember when I was blown away by her scene-stealing musical scene in John Landis’ “The Blues Brothers” (1980) many years ago, and many of her songs appearing in “Respect” surely remind me again of how much I have been familiar with them without knowing her life and career that much.

Unfortunately, the movie does not tell me more about Franklin’s life and career as duly doling out one genre cliché after another. While it does not disappoint me in case of its several good musical moments, the movie often suffers from scattershot narrative and thin characterization as covering too much of the 20 years of Franklin’s life, and we are only left with the vague impression of her artistic greatness without getting to know her that much.

Anyway, there are some parts which do work as well as intended, and one of them is the early part showing the childhood years of Franklin in Detroit, Michigan during the 1950s. Even when she was only 10 years old, young Franklin, who is played with considerable pluck and confidence by young performer Skye Dakota Turner, showed considerable potential as a singer, and both of her parents are certainly willing to encourage her more. As an influential local pastor connected with many different famous African American figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Dinah Washington, her father C.L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker) was already ready to prepare her for professional musician career, and her mother Barbara (Audra McDonald) welcomed that because she had worked as a professional singer for years, though she did not see her daughter that often after her divorce.

After showing two incidents which broke young Franklin’s heart a lot, the movie soon moves onto the 1960s. Now becoming a young lady singer, Franklin, who is played by Jennifer Hudson from this point, is eager to go for professional success, and her father is certainly determined to support her as much as he can, but she soon finds herself not so happy with her father’s management of her career. Although he helps her get a contract with Columbia Records in New York City, her career still goes nowhere despite releasing several albums, and she naturally comes to feel more need to go her own way and then find her own voice to distinguish herself.

And then there comes a seemingly good opportunity for that via Ted White (Marlon Wayans, who looks as serious as when he appeared in Darren Aronofsky’s great film “Requiem for a Dream” (2000)), a handsome dude Franklin came across in Detroit several years ago. Although White is not exactly trustworthy, Franklin decides to take a chance with White despite the warning from her father, and things soon get much better for her career once he helps her getting a new contract with Atlantic Records. Once she releases her first hit song, everything goes quite well for her within a few years, and she is soon regarded as a new rising talent to watch in her field.

Of course, like many of musician biopics out there, the movie later throws lots of small and big troubles into the story, and that is where the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson, which is based on the story by Wilson and her co-writer Callie Khouri, begins to stumble. Too frequently going up and down along with its heroine, the story feels rather uneven and contrived without bringing enough depth to its heroine, and a bunch of supporting characters around her are more or less than flat plot elements to accompany her. At least, Forest Whitaker and Audra McDonald manage to overcome their thankless roles to some degree, and Whittaker is particularly good in conveying to us his character’s complex emotional relationship with Franklin.

Anyway, Hudson, who finally gets a chance to fully utilize her natural talent and charisma after many years since her show-stopping Oscar-winning turn in “Dreamgirls” (2006), is utterly committed to say the least, and she did an admirable job of channeling Franklin’s personality and talent. In case of the expected redemptive finale associated with the making of “Amazing Grace” in 1972, Hudson is quite captivating in her intense presentation of spiritual elevation, and I did not sense much awkwardness or disparity when I subsequently saw the epilogue video clip showing real Franklin performing in front of hundreds of audiences including President Barack Obama.

Directed by Liesl Tommy, “Respect” is not a total failure at least mainly thanks to Hudson’s sincere and diligent efforts, but it does not have enough life and personality compared to those acclaimed musician biopic films such as Taylor Hackford’s “Ray” (2004) or James Mangold’s “Walk the Line” (2005). Somewhere in the film, there is a more effective story which would serve Hudson better, and I wish I could watch it instead.

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In the Same Breath (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Another important documentary of the COVID-19 pandemic era

HBO documentary film “In the Same Breath” is another important record of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic era. Mostly sticking to personal stories to show and tell, the documentary calmly and harrowingly observes how things went wrong in China and then US during last year, and you may come to fear for what will possibly happen next if we do not learn anything from the devastating outcomes of the pandemic at present.

At the beginning, director/co-producer/co-editor Nanfu Wang, who previously drew my attention for her acclaimed documentary “One Child Nation” (2019), shows us how everything looked fine and normal in Wuhan, China on the first day of 2020. As many people in the city were celebrating the New Year’s Day outside, the state-controlled media reported on the arrest of 8 people for spreading unsubstantiated rumors about a new strain of coronavirus on the same day, but that news looked insignificant to the citizens of Wuhan as well as Wang, who happened to visit her hometown, which is incidentally not so far from Wuhan, along with her American husband and their two-year-old daughter around that time. During next two weeks, the Chinese government and its media outlets kept assuring to the public that there was nothing to fear as everything was under control, and Wang and her husband were not particularly concerned when they left for US while letting their daughter stay with her grandmother a bit longer.

However, as we all know, things got pretty worse around the end of January 2021. As Wuhan was subsequently quarantined from the world outside by the Chinese government, many other cities in China were also alerted to take actions against the growing number of COVID-19 infection cases, and, of course, many other countries began to take notice of this medical emergency at last. Quite worried about her daughter, Wang managed to have her daughter brought back to US, but then she was quite concerned about her mother and other family members in her hometown.

While trying to discern what was exactly going on in Wuhan, Wang came across numerous online writings and video clips posted from the city, and that was the beginning of her documentary project. She contacted several cameramen willing to record as much as they were permitted, and what they recorded on their cameras is not so far from “76 Days” (2020), an Emmy-winning documentary which presents raw glimpses into the lockdown period of Wuhan. While we often see empty streets, we also watch many hospital workers trying their best despite their daunting circumstance, and we later meet several local people willing to talk a bit about their personal loss and grief caused by COVID-19.

Many of the Chinese interviewees in the documentary prefer to remain anonymous or speak nothing at all against their country and government, and the documentary sharply points out how the Chinese government tried to protect itself by any means necessary. At first, it simply tried to cover up the epidemic as expecting the epidemic to be over within a short time. Once the situations turned out to be much more serious, it quickly changed the position while also spreading “positive” propaganda about its mighty efforts against the epidemic, and Wang cannot help but show her sardonic amusement on that.

Around the time when Wuhan was freed from lockdown, it was reported that around 3,300 people died of COVID-19 during the lockdown period, but, not so surprisingly, that is another lie from the Chinese government, which was already ready to move onto the future while further solidifying its power from Chinese people. According to one anonymous interviewee working in one of several public cemeteries in Wuhan, more than 20,000 people actually died during the lockdown period, and those countless tombstones shown at one point speak volumes to us about how much the city and its people were devastated during that time.

Despite watching how things got worse and worse in China during the first two months of 2020, Wang was not concerned that much when the first case of COVID-19 was reported in US, but then she and many others in US saw how the situation got quickly worse during next several months thanks to the mishandling of the situation by the US government, which was unfortunately led by that orange-faced bastard at that point. Thanks to heaps of misinformation spread by that irresponsible prick and his deplorable cronies and followers, the American society was soon turned upside down, and Wang helplessly observed how the situation could also go quite wrong in the opposite way in contrast to China.

In addition, Wang interviewed several American medical workers who were quite serious about the epidemic from the beginning, and their personal experiences are not so different from their Chinese counterparts. They all saw and experienced lots of deaths despite their best efforts, and the resulting emotional tolls on them feel palpable to us when they cannot say more in front of the camera. Watching their emotional moments, I could not help but muse on the enormous efforts of those local medical workers in South Korea at present, and I certainly support any good policy to help and relieve these people more.

On the whole, “In the Same Breath” is worthwhile to watch for its achingly human moments as well as its sobering observation on how the COVID-19 pandemic was disastrously mishandled by both the Chinese and US governments, and, probably because I was vaccinated just before watching the documentary, I came to reflect more on what Wang points out around the end of the documentary. Yes, things will never be the same even after we do not have to wear mask anymore, but will people really learn from this ongoing pandemic? I am not so sure, and that surely makes me as concerned as Wang.

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Dreaming Cat (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Save those stray cats

To be frank with you, I cannot possibly be objective about South Korean documentary film “Dreaming Cats”, which is about many different cats living in abandoned neighborhoods to be demolished sooner or later. As a guy who does not have any pet cat yet but has heaps of cat photographs saved in his smartphone, I could not help but look at those cats in the documentary with curiosity and endearment, and I was certainly quite touched by the decent human efforts for saving and helping them.

Looking around several different abandoned neighborhoods in South Korea, the documentary closely and calmly observes the daily activities of cats living in these neighborhoods. Not knowing at all that their neighborhoods will be soon demolished, these cats keep leading their daily life as usual, and some of them are actually quite friendly to humans as expecting any chance of eating. In case of one chubby cat, this cat surely knows how to appeal to humans, and I must confess that I could not help but smile a bit as watching this cat rolling its body a bit on the ground.

Because it is highly likely that the cats in these abandoned neighborhoods may not survive once their neighborhoods start to be demolished, they really need to be sheltered and relocated as soon as possible, and the documentary gives us a close look on the sincere efforts of a number of cat lovers. In addition to feeding cats from time to time, they also try to catch cats as many as possible via various means including cage traps, and we later see how captured cats are handled at animal shelters and hospitals. As spending lots of time outside without much help, many of captured cats are riddled with injuries and diseases, and that certainly reminds us again of why we need to pay more attention to stray cats as well as other stray animals out there.

One of the notable stray cats in the documentary is a tuxedo cat with lame hind legs, and the documentary focuses a bit on its medical treatment and following recovery. Although its lame hind legs turn out to be a congenital defect, this disabled cat soon begins to get better as time goes by, and we subsequently see it having a fairly comfortable time with several other rescued cats in some nice shelter for them.

We also see several other shelters, and one of those shelter owners gladly talks about her passion and affection toward those rescued cats under her care. Once they are recovered, many of them will be returned to safer places to inhabit outside, but some of them are allowed to live in the shelter for understandable reasons, and the shelter owner does not mind taking care of all of these remaining cats everyday at all.

Meanwhile, the efforts for catching and saving strayed cats are continued as usual. In case of one abandoned neighborhood, there is not much time left, so those animal rescue people try really hard for catching cats, but there are still many cats left – and many of them are much smarter than expected. For instance, these smart cats find how to eat the baits without getting caught in the cage traps for them, and the animal rescue people cannot help but impressed despite their increasing frustration.

In the end, many of abandoned neighborhoods shown in the documentary are demolished step by step, and it is rather devastating to see these neighborhoods turned into barren flat areas for new buildings to be built someday. We see a few stray cats still living around these demolished areas, but many stray cats probably did not survive during those demolition processes, and you will be reminded of how inconsiderable we often are to many other species on the Earth as mostly occupied with our inconvenience. As mentioned at the end of the documentary, there are around 3,000 areas to be demolished in South Korea, but animal rescue operations are done in only around 1% of them.

This is indeed a gloomy fact to say the least, so it is a bit comforting to see that there are many people who really care about helping and saving stray cats. In case of one young couple, they became interested in stray cats shorty after beginning to raise their little pet cat, and we see them cheerfully going around here and there in their neighborhood for giving some food to those stray cats in their neighborhood. Although it was not so easy for them at the beginning, they subsequently got the approvals from many of their neighborhood, and they even installed a number of little cozy spots for stray cats to rest and eat.

Overall, “Dreaming Cats”, which is directed by Ji Won and Kang Min-hyun, did an admirable job of presenting its feline subjects with considerable care and affection, and it deserves to be compared to other recent notable feline documentaries such as “Kedi” (2017), a very adorable piece of work about various stray cats living in Istanbul, Turkey. Although it is understandably not as joyful as “Kedi”, “Dreaming Cats” will still make you feel amused and tickled by its many different stray cats who have each own adorable quality to be savored, and I certainly recommend it to you especially if you watch cute cat video clips on YouTube as frequently as I have these days. Yes, I sometimes think cats can be pretty haughty and ungrateful, but my cranky heart is always melted by their genuine cuteness, and the documentary reminds me again that I should keep being nice to those stray cats in my old college campus.

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