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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Phantom (2023) ☆☆☆(3/4): Catch the Spy

South Korean film “Phantom” surprised me more than expected. At first, the movie presents itself as a taut mystery mainly unfolded within a limited background, but then it suddenly shifts itself onto a very different genre mode later in the story. Although its second half is relatively less compelling mainly because almost all of its hidden cards are shown to us, the movie still engages us as deftly delivering its expected big finale, and I was certainly energized enough when I watched it with my sleepy eyes at a local movie theater at last night.

The story is set in Korea around the 1930s, which was the midpoint of the Japanese colonization era. When one prominent Korean Independence organization failed to assassinate the new Japanese governor-general of Korea in Shanghai, China shortly before he comes to Gyeongseong (It is the old name of Seoul during that period, by the way), the government-general understandably becomes quite watchful, and then there comes a big chance to undermine that organization once for all. It is apparent that there is a secret spy working for that organization somewhere inside the government-general, and Kaito (Park Hae-su), a Japanese captain assigned to the mission of flushing out this “Phantom”, is quite determined to accomplish his mission by any means necessary – especially when the Japanese governor-general of Korea manages to survive another assassination attempt not long after his arrival in Gyeongseong.

Kaito subsequently has certain five Korean persons gather at a big hotel located at some remote spot outside Gyeongseong, because these five people happen to draw his attention as likely prime suspects. They are 1) a Korean-Japanese police officer who may have chosen Korea over Japan; 2) a charming young secretary who has worked under the governor-general; 3) a nerdy cryptogram expert working in the communication department of the government-general; 4) a young female employee also working in the same department; 5) a young man who happens to be one of her co-workers.

Once these persons are assembled before him, Kaito makes his plan quite clear to all of them. Very confident that there is the spy among his prime suspects, he promises that he will eventually flush out the spy around the end of the day. If any of them does not come forward for revealing the identity of the spy before the day is over, he is going to “interrogate” them one by one, and that will certainly be very unpleasant for everyone.

Instead of toying with the numerous possibilities surrounding these five main figures, the movie reveals to us a bit more about some of the main characters in advance. This may feel a bit disappointing to you at first, but the screenplay by director/writer Lee Hae-young, which is based on Chinese writer Mai Jia’s novel “Sound of the Wind” (It was already made into Chinese film “The Message” in 2009, by the way), steadily accumulates suspense on the screen as the deadly cat-and-mouse game is continued among its several main characters. Under the constant treat from Kaito and his soldiers, each of his prime suspects tries to deal with their tricky situation in each own way, and the movie occasionally gives us some expected moments of humor including the brief but amusing one involved with a pet cat photograph.

Around the end of its second act, almost everything in the story is revealed in front of us, and then the movie goes for lots of sound and fury, but we remain engaged thanks to its good mood and storytelling. I particularly enjoyed how a couple of well-known Hollywood classic films are utilized in the story in addition of being nice period details to decorate the screen, and I also appreciate how the movie has a lot of unexpected fun with two certain main characters gradually coming to bond with each other despite lots of danger and uncertainty surrounding them.

The finale sequence is a little too long in my inconsequential opinion, but the movie is packed with a substantial amount of fun and entertainment at least. Although lots of things happen here and there across the screen, we still care about what is being at stake for several main characters at that narrative point, and the movie does not disappoint us at all in case of the cathartic payoff moment to be delivered.

The main cast members of the film are well-cast on the whole. While Sol Kyung-gu brings considerable intensity to his seemingly thankless part, Lee Hanee and Park So-dam remind us again of why they are two of the more interesting movie actresses working in South Korea at present, and I also enjoyed the solid supporting performances from Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-hee, Esom, and Park Hae-soo, who functions well as an effective opponent whenever his character clashes with Sol’s character along the story.

Overall, “Phantom” is a well-made genre piece which has enough style, mood, and personality to be savored, and Lee Hae-young, who drew my attention for the first time with his likable debut film “Like a Virgin” (2006), and his crew and cast members deserve to be commended for that. Although the first month of 2023 is not over yet, here comes the first good South Korean film of this year, and that certainly makes me a bit more hopeful about whatever South Korean cinema will give us during the rest of this year.

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The Point Men (2023) ☆☆(2/4): A hollow hostage thriller flick

It was hard for me to care that much about what was going on in South Korean film “The Point Men”, which is incidentally inspired by the true events of the 2007 South Korean hostage crisis in Afghanistan. Sure, I and many other South Korean people would be much more horrified if all those South Korean Christian missionaries were killed in the end, but I remember too well how insensitive and thoughtless these misguided people were from the very beginning. After all, what is the point of going to Afghanistan if your main purpose is dying as a martyr for your god and then going to the heaven? Isn’t it exactly the same thing which drives those extreme religious fanatics around the world?

And, I tell you now, these people were truly willful and senseless in many aspects. Although the South Korean government did not allow any civilian to go to Afghanistan after the 9/11 incident, they managed to find a loophole and then go there without any preparation at all, and they did not even listen to any advice or warning from the start when they arrived there. For example, it was quite dangerous for them to travel together on a big bus, but they insisted that they should travel together, and they surely drew lots of attention due to their blatant missionary activities with no understanding or respect on those local people and their culture. Furthermore, even after they were eventually saved, they and their church did not show any substantial appreciation to the South Korean government, and this impertinent attitude certainly made a very bad impression on me and others in South Korea.

Anyway, the movie is mainly about two fictional characters assigned to the negotiation for saving these hostages: Jung Jae-ho (Hwang Jung-min) and Park Dae-sik (Hyun Bin). Once the news about the hostages came to the South Korean government, Jae-ho and his fellow diplomats are quickly sent to Afghanistan, but things have already been quite complicated for them. While they surely want to rescue the hostages as soon as possible, Jae-ho and his colleagues are soon sandwiched by the local government figures and the Taliban soldiers holding the hostages, both of whom are not so willing to step back a bit more for the ongoing negotiation.

That is why Dae-sik, a weary but handsome National Intelligence Service (NIS) agent comes into the picture as a hostage negotiation expert. While still haunted by one big devastating failure in Iraq, Dae-sik is ready to do as much as possible for the hostages despite his initial reluctance, but he only comes to clash a lot with Jae-ho due to their different viewpoints on the situation. Dae-sik believes that they must be prepared to do anything for saving the hostages, but Jae-ho is also concerned about the public image of their government even though he does care about saving the hostages. After all, negotiating with those Taliban soldiers will make the South Korean government look rather bad, and following their demand is nearly impossible to say the least.

Anyway, the situation becomes a bit better when Dae-sik comes with a possible solution for that. As assisted by a Korean con man who turns out to be useful as a translator, Dae-sik and Jae-ho approach to someone who may influence the ongoing hostage negotiation to some degree, and the mood becomes a little relaxed as they are invited to a local tribe party later as a part of their urgent mission.

Of course, things do not go that well for them later, and both Dae-sik and Jae-ho become all the more desperate just like several South Korean officials around them. As the clock keeps ticking, it is apparent to both of them that they need to do something quite risky to say the least, and the story eventually culminates to the narrative point where they confront those Taliban soldiers for themselves.

It goes without saying that the movie is an exaggerated and simplified fictional version of whatever happened during that urgent time, but it is still difficult to care because it is bland and superficial in terms of story and characters. While both of its two lead characters are flat archetypes without much human quality to engage us, many of supporting characters around them are more or less than plot elements or the mere parts of the background, and I also do not like the apparent whitewashing of the hostages, who are presented as almost blameless victims in the film.

The main cast members of the film do as much as they can do with their cardboard characters, though they are often limited by their respective roles. Despite looking intense and desperate as required, Hwang Jung-min seems to be stuck on autopilot as he has often been during last several years, and I only remember how frequently he raises his voice throughout the film. On the opposite, Hyun Bin tries to bring some gravitas to his taciturn character, but he only comes to look uninteresting on the whole, and Kang Ki-young, who plays the aforementioned interpreter, is unfortunately demanded to function as a rather distracting comic relief in the story.

“The Point Men” is directed by Yim Soon-rye, who previously made “Little Forest” (2018). Compared to that gentle film, “The Point Men” looks and feels quite different in many aspects, and I guess Yim wants to demonstrate here that she can also make a thriller film, but the result is rather tepid with a number of flaws which annoyed me a lot during my viewing. Let’s hope that she will soon move onto better things to come.

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Sick of Myself (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A morbid comedy of narcissism

Norwegian film “Sick of Myself” will often make you cringe and wince for good reasons. Here is one narcissistic lass willing to go all the way for getting more attention from others, and the movie follows her pathological behaviors with detached humor and fascination while also gradually immersing itself in her increasingly warped viewpoint.

At the beginning, the movie quickly establishes the unhealthy relationship between Signe (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and her artist boyfriend Thomas (Eirik Sæther), who has a bad habit for creating his artworks. He usually steals one furniture after another just because he needs them for his artistic activities, and this unwholesome habit of his is continued even when he later comes to draw lots of attention as a new emerging artist in the town.

While Thomas is enjoying all the attentions he has received, Signe has just stood by him without much to do, but then something happens to her on one day. When she is working at a local bakery as usual, a horrible incident occurs right in front of the bakery, and she finds herself enjoying lots of attention as she later talks about the incident to others around her. After virtually addicted to feeling like being at the center of the world, she goes further for that, and there is a little amusing scene where she casually lies that she has a certain kind of allergy and then pretends to have a serious allergic reaction in front of her boyfriend and others.

As Thomas, who does deserve her considering how he is as narcissistic as his girlfriend, is just annoyed with her attention-seeking behaviors, Signe eventually decides to do something much more drastic than before. After learning about a certain Russian drug with serious side effects, she instantly obtains that drug in question via a young drug dealer who is your average pathetic momma’s boy, and then she soon gets what she wants. As showing a very serious medical symptom, she naturally draws much more attention than before, and she continues to make her medical condition worse and worse because, well, she is still craving for more attention from others including her doctors and her friends.

The most humorous moment in the film comes from when Signe is later transferred to a medical facility recommended by her mother. During her stay, she joins a group meeting attended by various patients not so different from her in terms of attitude and behavior, and we get more laughs as their counselor sincerely tries to help them while quite oblivious to how morbid and twisted his patients really are.

Although it seems that her medical condition is quite irrevocable, Signe is more excited when she subsequently gets an unlikely chance to pursue a modeling career. She is approached by a modeling agency interested in damaged or deformed people in the name of inclusion, and she does not hesitate to say yes as proudly showing off her medical condition as before.

However, things begin to get really worse for Signe in the meantime. It looks like that drug has more side effects than she thought at first, and her health condition becomes more deteriorated than she wants. In addition, as craving for lots of attention as much as her, Thomas becomes a lot pettier than before, and that certainly puts more strain on their problematic relationship.

Steadily maintaining its detached attitude as usual, the screenplay by director/writer/editor Kristoffer Borgli often has a fun with its heroine’s deluded state of mind. We are frequently caught off guard as a number of certain scenes turn out to be dream or delusion, and we even come to wonder whether Signe’s worsening condition later in the story is actually a part of another attention-seeking behavior of hers. As she goes deeper to the bottom of her madness and delusion, we naturally become more disgusted with her pathological behaviors, but she remains as a compelling cast study to observe from the distance, and we continue to watch her as more interested in how far she will really go in the end.

The movie depends a lot on Kristine Kujath Thorp, who is thoroughly uncompromising in her vicious comic performance. We do not feel that sorry for Signe even when everything is inevitably crashing down upon her later in the film, but Thorp ably conveys to us what makes her character tick, and we come to have some pity and understanding on Signe even during her most pathetic moments in the movie. On the opposite, Eirik Sæther is suitably obnoxious as Signe’s equally self-absorbed boyfriend, and several supporting performers including Fanny Vaager, Andrea Bræin Hovig, and Henrik Mestad are also effective in their small but substantial parts (You may also enjoy the cameo appearance of Anders Danielsen Lie, who was excellent in Oscar-nominated Norwegian film “The Worst Person in the World” (2021)).

On the whole, “Sick of Myself”, which was recently released in South Korea as “Hashtag Signe”, is certainly not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but I enjoyed how it handles its many uncomfortable moments with acerbic wit and sharp insight. The movie willingly tackles some unpleasant sides of human nature for generating some dark laughs, and you may go along with that even though you become quite disturbed from time to time.

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