And Then We Danced (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A passionate queer dance drama set in Georgia

Georgian drama film “And Then We Danced” presents a familiar tale of art, passion, and love via its specific cultural subject to observe and appreciate. As calmly observing its hero’s emotional/artistic journey, the movie lets us understand more of his daunting environment which has suppressed him in more than one aspect, and we are touched to see how he eventually advances a little further thanks to a passionate romance forbidden by his conservative society.

The hero of the movie is a young traditional Georgian dancer named Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), and the early part of the movie establishes his mundane daily life in Tbilisi bit by bit. When he is not training and studying along with other young dancers under the stern tutelage of their teacher Aleko (Nona Kakha Gogidz) at the National Georgian Ensemble, he has to work as a part-time employee at a local restaurant for earning the money for him and his family, but that is not often enough for them, and Merab frequently finds himself short of cash because of that.

Merab seems to be talented enough to become as prominent as his parents and grandmother once were, and he is surely eager to join the main ensemble someday, but his dream still seems to be out of reach at present. While his grandmother and mother sincerely support his aspiration, his divorced father, who has worked at a local market since he quit dancing a long time ago, does not have much hope on his son due to understandable reasons, and Merab’s older brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli), who is also a dancer, pays more attention to having fun and drinks although, according to Aleko, he is actually more talented than Merab.

Anyway, Merab keeps trying along with his usual dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili) for impressing their teacher more, and then there comes a little change into their class via Irakli (Bachi Valishvili), who belatedly participates in the class as a replacement dancer. When Irakli later demonstrates his strong and confident dance skills, he surely impresses not only Merab and other dancers but also Aleko, and we are not so surprised when he is subsequently included in the list for the upcoming audition for filling a vacant spot in the main ensemble due to the very unfortunate departure of one of its members.

Merab also happens to be included in the list, so he comes to practice more during the early morning along with Irakli, who does not mind at all honing his skills along with one of his competitors. As training more and more together, they become quite close to each other, and Irakli also becomes a good drinking buddy for David, who often takes him to the bedroom shared by him and Merab whenever they are too drunk.

Meanwhile, we gradually come to sense that Merab has felt more than mere envy and admiration toward Irakli, and cinematographer Lisabi Fridell’s camera palpably conveys that to us as frequently observing Irakli from Merab’s viewpoint. Although it seems that he does not have much problem with his homosexuality, homosexuality is not tolerated that much by his conservative society, so he has no choice but to suppress his growing attraction toward Irakli, though he cannot help himself during a few private moments such as when he sniffs a bit at Irakli’s shirts alone in a locker room.

Not so surprisingly, there eventually comes a crucial narrative point where Merab and Irakli face the emotional undercurrent swirling around them, and the movie handles the following carnal moments well with enough sensitivity and restraint. Both of them know too well that their mutual feeling can ruin their life and career forever, but they are heedlessly swept into desire and passion once their bodies click with each other, and Merab feels happier and more confident than before.

Of course, as many of you have already expected, their sexual consummation is soon followed by several doses of their harsh reality. While Merab’s private life gets messier thanks to David’s constant misdeeds, Irakli also turns out to have personal matters to deal with, which consequently make him more distant to Merab later in the story.

The screenplay by director/writer/co-editor Levan Akin, a Swedish filmmaker who has been quite familiar with the cultural background of the movie thanks to his Georgian family, loses its focus to some degree when it wildly dives into the local community of sexual minority people along with its hero during its last act, but then it soon comes to regain its narrative momentum, and then it gives us a spellbinding dance scene to remember. Thanks to the skillful job of Akin and his crew members, this moment feels thrilling and galvanizing to say the least, and it surely helps that Levan Gelbakhiani, who is engaging in his unadorned non-professional acting, is actually a professional modern dancer in real life.

Although it does not feel that provocative or daring to many of us, “And Then We Danced” faced lots of objection and controversy when it was shown at several movie theaters in Georgia in last November, and that surely reminds us that many parts of our world still do not accept or tolerate sexual minority people much. Along with its hero who comes to fully embrace and express his sexual/artistic identity, the movie takes a small but bold gesture in the end, and I sincerely wish that will open the door to more local queer stories to be presented on the screen someday.

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Antigone (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A provocative modern adaptation of one classic tragedy

Canadian film “Antigone”, which won the Toronto International Film Festival Award for Best Canadian Film in last year, was an interesting experience for me in more than one aspect. While I sometime felt frustrated with its young heroine’s inexorable stubbornness, I came to understand more of how fiercely she is driven by her personal belief, and I came to observe her inevitable arrival point with a mix of pity and resignation.

After the brief opening shot showing its heroine under a very serious situation, the movie, which is based on the famous Greek tragedy of the same name by Sophocles, shows us how things have been fairly good for her and her dear North African immigrant family. When Antigone (Nahéma Ricci) was very young, she and her three older siblings had to leave their country along with their grandmother Méni (Rachida Oussaada) after losing both of their parents, and, so far, they have settled pretty well together in Montreal, Canada as shown from how cheerfully they share a meal together in their small but cozy residence. In addition, Antigone has been a promising high school student who surely deserves an opportunity for better life, and her family members wholeheartedly rejoice over her receiving a big scholarship for her college education,  

However, we sense a trouble right from when the camera looks at one of Antigone’s two older brothers. While he is liked by not only Antigone but also the other family members, it is pretty apparent that Polynice (Rawad El-Zein) is heavily involved in a local criminal organization of their neighborhood, and Antigone understandably has some reservation when her brother suddenly comes home with a very expensive music player set, which he claims was simply bought from somewhere at a cheap price.  

And then something really serious finally happens not long after that. While Polynice is hanging around with others including his older brother Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi), they are ambushed by police officers, who come to the scene for arresting Polynice. While the police officers try to arrest Polynice, Étéocle attempts to intervene in this situation, and that turns out to a very unwise choice, which eventually gets himself killed by one of the police officers at the scene.

While grieving a lot on Étéocle’s death during the following aftermath, Antigone and his other family members receive another bad news. Although Antigone and her family have stayed in Canada for several years, none of them has gotten citizenship yet, so Polynice, who incidentally has a long criminal record, will be soon deported back to their country. While the public opinion on the incident has been sympathetic to Étéocle’s death, it looks like there is no way to stop Polynice’s immediate deportation at all, and Antigone’s aging grandmother is certainly quite heartbroken by this cold fact.            

Because family is more important than anything else in her viewpoint, Antigone fatefully decides to do something very drastic for saving Polynice. First, she prepares a bit for looking more like Polynice, and her disguise, which is polished further by some help from her grandmother and her older sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria), looks mostly good enough to buy enough time for letting Polynice escape from the prison and then run away to somewhere beyond the reach of the police.

Polynice successfully escapes shortly after he and Antigone switch their appearance and clothes while nobody is looking at them except their grandmother during a prison visit, but Antigone’s disguise is inevitably exposed, and the second half of the movie focuses on her stubborn stand against the legal system already ready to suppress her. She promptly pleads guilty without hesitation, but her trial turns out to be quite longer than expected, and she is also reminded again of how she has turned a blind eye to what her older brothers did behind their back.

While keep getting cornered by the system, Antigone also receives considerable help and support from several outside characters who really care about her and her case. While her public defender turns out to be more helpful than expected, her handsome boyfriend is willing to drag his politically influential father more into the situation, and her case gets a lot of public exposure as reflected by a montage sequence full of various social media activities, which amusingly function as, yes, the Greek chorus of the story.  

And there is also a subplot involved with a facility where Antigone is incarcerated along with a group of female juvenile delinquents. Although her first day at the facility is rather rough, it does not take much time for her to show more defiance and then earn admiration from her fellow jail mates, and there is a little poignant moment when they show some solidarity to her at one point later in the story.

Of course, the story eventually heads to more ordeals and heartbreaks for its young heroine as demanded, and that is where the screenplay by director/writer Sophie Deraspe, who also served as the co-editor/co-cinematographer for her film, becomes less convincing while going all the way for full-blown melodrama. The result is a bit jarring at times, but newcomer Nahéma Ricci’s unadorned but powerful lead performance firmly holds the film together, and she is utterly devastating when fate throws a big blow which almost destroys her character’s spirit and determination.           

On the whole, “Antigone” deserves to be commended for transferring its old classic tragedy well to its modern background coupled with some thought-provoking contemporary issues. I must admit that I often observed its story and characters from the distance mainly due to its adamantly fateful classic narrative without much choice, but, seriously, what can you possibly expect more from the adaptation of a Greek tragedy?

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Call (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Sorry, Right Number

South Korean film “Call”, which was initially supposed be to be released in South Korean theaters early in this year but eventually got released on Netflix two days ago, is an increasingly tense and chilling thriller film coupled with a bit of fantasy element. While it is automatically compared with other similar films such as “Frequency” (2000) in my mind during my viewing, the movie is an efficient genre piece which skillfully toys with our expectation and prediction, and it is also supported well by two different strong performances from its two lead actresses.

At first, the movie, which is based on the 2011 Puerto Rican film “The Caller”, establishes the current situation of a young woman named Seo-yeon (Park Shin-hye) in 2019. Since her father died 20 years ago, Seo-yeon has lived with her widow mother, but she and her mother are not particularly close to each other for a reason associated with her father’s death, and Seo-yeon’s feeling toward her mother is not changed much even though her mother is about to have a very risky brain surgery for removing a tumor.

Feeling bitter and lonely, Seo-yeon returns to her big family house located in some rural area, and then she happens to discover something odd about the house as staying there for a while. It turns out that there is a hidden entry behind one of the walls on the second floor of the house, and this entry leads to an underground space which is dark, shabby, and ominous to say the least. As innocently looking around this space, Seo-yeon finds an abandoned box full of personal items, and she naturally becomes curious about their owner.

In the meantime, another strange incident happens to her. Not long after Seo-yeon installs an old telephone in her bedroom, she receives a call, and it seems to be from some desperate young woman around her age. When that young woman calls again, Seo-yeong thinks it is just a prank call, but she is later unnerved to find that the address told by that young woman on the phone actually belongs to her family house.

As that young woman continues to call her, Seo-yeon gradually comes to realize something quite improbable is happening to her. That young woman is really in Seo-yeon’s family house, but her time period is 1999. Her name is Young-sook (Jeon Jong-seo), and she has lived alone with her stepmother, who was the owner of the house before Seo-yeon and her mother moved into the house shortly after her father’s death.

Although Young-sook cannot believe Seo-yeon’s words at first, she eventually comes to realize that Seo-yeon did not lie to her at all, and she and Young-sook subsequently have a series of friendly conversations during which they tell each other a lot about themselves as well as their respective time periods. At one point, Seo-yeon informs her new friend on the upcoming comeback of a certain popular local pop star, and that and a certain kind of commercial snack made me a bit nostalgic a bit.

Meanwhile, along with Seo-yeon, we get to know more of the dark and disturbing sides of Young-sook’s daily life. Because of her stepmother, she has been mostly confined in her bedroom which will incidentally become Seo-yeon’s, and her stepmother has been quite harsh and strict to her. She firmly believes that Young-sook must be cured of something by any means necessary, and Seo-yeon indirectly witnesses another bad incident between Young-sook and her stepmother at one point.

As feeling quite sympathetic to her new friend, Seo-yeon wants to help her new friend as much as she can, especially after Young-sook takes some risk for her. Thanks to Young-sook’s timely action in the past, Seo-yeon’s surrounding environment is dramatically changed as a result, and the movie becomes a bit sentimental when she experiences something she has yearned for years.

However, it later turns out that Young-sook has not been totally honest to her new friend. When she finds that Young-sook is soon going to be murdered by her stepmother, Seo-yeon hurriedly warns Young-sook on that, and that saves Young-sook’s life, but then, alas, it is revealed that Young-sook is not a merely miserable and disturbed girl at all. Aghast at the following severe consequence of her well-intentioned action, Seo-yeon tries to prevent another grave consequence, but it seems that there are not many options for her, while Young-sook is already quite ready to strike her and her life from 1999 as much as she can.

Steadily throwing dark plot turns to jolt us, the movie dexterously dials up and down the level of tension, and director/writer Lee Chung-hyun and his crew members including cinematographer Jo Young-jik and editor Yang Jin-mo, who recently got Oscar-nominated for Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” (2019), did a competent job of accumulating suspense and dread on the screen. Although Lee’s screenplay feels contrived from time to time, it handles well the dynamic development of its two main characters’ relationship along the plot, and that is one of the main reasons why the expected climactic sequence works on emotional level.

Above all, the movie is held tight by a compelling duo performance from Park Shin-hye and Jeon Jong-seo. While Park Shin-hye, who was unfortunately wasted in “#Alive” (2020), demonstrates more of her acting range during several key moments in the film, Jeon Jong-seo, who has been mainly known for her haunting supporting turn in Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” (2018), has lots of fun with her wild and unnerving role, and their convincing interactions on the screen bring a considerable amount of fresh air to the familiar genre territories of the story, which also decidedly places their characters and several other female characters above a few male characters.

On the whole, “Call” is entertaining for not only its good direction but also two terrific performances to be appreciated, and it is certainly one of better South Korean films of this year. Although it is probably more fun to watch it at a movie theater considering that some of its suspense is based a lot on what you hear from the soundtrack, I am glad that it is widely available via Netflix at least, and I recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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The Way I See It (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The way he photographed the Obama Presidency

Dawn Porter’s documentary film “The Way I See It” looks deep into those memorable still photographs shot during the Obama Presidency via one ordinary professional responsible for them. Yes, he was simply doing his job as required during that time, but he really did a heck of a job of recording not only many historic moments but also those admirable human qualities of Barack Obama, and many of his still photographs certainly remind us again of what an exemplary president Obama was – especially compared to that rude and deplorable scumbag who still refuses to concede to the rightful result of the 2020 US Presidential election even at this point.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Pete Souza, an acclaimed photojournalist who worked as the Chief Official White House Photographer during the Obama Presidency. Having observed how the respectable public image of the White House has been considerably tarnished by President Donald J. Trump during last few years, Souza decided to be more outspoken about his critical view on the Trump Presidency, and he surely drew lots of attention as posting many of his still photographs from the Obama Presidency on Instagram for emphasizing how bad Trump and his administration are in many aspects.

And these still photographs of Obama and others around him are quite illuminating to say the least. At one point, Souza, who was constantly required to be around the president just like his predecessors, photographed Obama being quite pensive right before making some important decision, and you can clearly sense how much he was aware of the considerable impact of his decision on the world outside. As Souza and other interviewees tell us, Obama was always open to more advises and arguments from his people before making his final decision, and it goes without saying that he is indeed a man with the right stuffs for occupying the highest political position in the world.

The documentary also focuses on Souza’s professional career before the Obama Presidency. After becoming interested in photography during his college years, Souza embarked on pursuing the career of a photojournalist, and, after going through a number of prominent newspapers and magazines such as Chicago Sun-Times and Time, he found himself getting hired as a photographer for the White House in 1987. Although he was reluctant when the job was offered to him, he did his best along with his fellow photographers in the White House anyway, and he eventually came to admire President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy a lot even while being quite critical of many mistakes and faults of the Reagan administration.

After the end of the Reagan Presidency in 1988, Souza kept working here and there during next two decades, and then there came an unexpected opportunity in 2007. Since he delivered a stunning public speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama quickly became a new exciting political star to watch even though he was merely a young US senator entering his first term at that time, and Souza was assigned to following and then capturing Obama on his cameras as Obama announced his candidacy for the upcoming US Presidential election. Although initially being regarded as a long shot at that time, Obama swiftly rose to the top of the competition among him and several other notable competitors including Hilary Clinton, and Souza eagerly tells us about his several still photographs which reveal to us a lot about what Obama might felt and thought during his incredible political journey.

When Souza subsequently came to work again at the White House, Obama jokingly promised to him that they would have lots of fun together during next several years, and Souza did have lots of fun as frequently being around Obama as a constant chronicler of the Obama Presidency. Besides those important moments including when Obama and his staff members were cautiously monitoring the process of a certain famous secret operation associated with the climactic part of “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), there were also many different intimate personal moments to be captured on Souza’s cameras, and many of you surely remember well that famous still photograph of Obama generously bending over for a little African American boy to touch his head and feel something common between them. Seriously, can you possibly imagine Trump being as kind, decent, and humble as that?

Besides being a cool and intelligent leader, Obama was also quite capable of compassion and empathy like any good politician, and Souza recollects those deeply moving moments when he and his camera observed how considerate and empathetic Obama was to devastated people in the need of consolation and support. For instance, he showed constant attention to a solider struggling to recover from his serious battlefield injury after meeting him at a military hospital, and that certainly makes a big contrast to Trump’s callous apathy toward to those brave American soldiers sacrificing themselves for their country. When the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting incident happened in 2012, Obama did not hesitate to show his genuine sadness in front of the press reporters at the White House, and he also directly consoled the parents of one of the young victims in private.

As becoming more vocal about his political stance against the Trump Presidency in public, Souza started to present more of his photographs from the Obama Presidency via his frequent public presentations. Although he may never be regarded as a merely ‘apolitical’ photojournalist because of that, he does not regret at all, and he did not stop even when the situation became far worse than he and others imagined due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has been infuriatingly exacerbated further by the sheer incompetency and ignorance of the Trump administration.

In conclusion, “The Way I See It”, which happened to be released in US shortly before the 2020 US Presidential Election, is an engaging tribute to not only Obama and his presidency but also Souza’s significant contribution as a chronicler of that uplifting period at the White House. Although I still have some reservation on some of his political choices and decisions, Obama and his administration surely showed the best sides of the American society, and I sincerely hope his legacy will last quite long just like that of Reagan and many other famous American presidents, regardless of whatever will happen in US during next several years.

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Mosul (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Their intense personal fight against ISIS in Mosul, Iraq

Netflix film “Mosul”, which was released two days ago, is admirable to some degree but also notably flawed in some aspects. Inspired by Luke Mogelson’s 2017 New Yorker article “The Desperate Battle to Destroy ISIS”, the movie attempts to give us a close personal viewpoint on the ongoing geopolitical mess in Iraq via a bunch of local military characters, and you may appreciate its considerable attention to its local background and details, but the story itself is flat and insipid from time to time despite a number of vivid and intense moments to remember.

At the beginning, the movie gives us a brief piece of background knowledge on how much Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, was ravaged by the battle between ISIS and the allied forces during 2016-2017. Although the battle is eventually coming to the end with the apparent defeat of ISIS while local resistance forces including armed police officers come to take the control over the city step by step, many areas of the city remain to be dangerous warzones, and the opening shot of the movie calmly looks over those ruined buildings and streets as succinctly conveying to us a grim sense of danger hovering over here and there in the city.

And then the movie promptly moves onto a perilous clash between a group of ISIS terrorists and several local police officers who happened to capture a couple of ISIS members. The situation initially looks pretty hopeless for a young police officer named Kawa (Adam Bessa) and a few other police officers who have managed to survive so far, and they soon come to brace themselves for what will be their last stand, but then, what do you know, there comes a bunch of local SWAT guys lead by an ex-cop named Jasem (Suhail Dabbach), who swiftly wipe out those ISIS terrorists within a few minutes.

As already told to us at the beginning, Jasem and his SWAT team guys are quite ruthless just like their opponents in addition to having no qualms on doing whatever is necessary for surviving on the dangerous streets and allies of Mosul day by day. Once they confirm that those two ISIS members held by Kawa and other police officers are on their list, they mercilessly execute them right in front of Kawa’s eyes. Because of their rather fragile status at present, they always need money, arms, bullets, and any other valuable commodities which can be traded with whatever they will need someday, so they do not hesitate at all taking money and some other things from their dead opponents.

Kawa feels awkward and uncomfortable about Jasem and his SWAT team, but then he finds himself being recruited by Jasem because of two reasons which make him qualified for being a new team member. He was injured a bit during that desperate showdown with those ISIS terrorists, and, above all, he lost one of his close family members, who was also a police officer and unfortunately got killed during that showdown. Although he is reluctant at first, Kawa cannot say no to Jasem mainly because he is still very angry about the death of that close family member of his.

We assume that Kawa will function as our surrogate character along the story, and Jasem and his SWAT team members including Waleed (Is’Haq Elias) are willing to teach their new team members a bit, but they never specify to him on their latest mission at all. Along with Kawa, we gradually come to gather that Jasem and his SWAT team have been trying to reach to a certain spot of the city which has been still occupied by ISIS, but the purpose of Jasem and his SWAT team members’ latest mission remains frustratingly vague and elusive, and it is no wonder that Kawa come to lose some of his patience later in the story.

In the meantime, the movie steadily maintains the level of tension around its main characters via a series of tense and gritty moments popping up here and there around them, and director/writer Matthew Michael Carnahan, who has been known mainly for his screenplays for several notable films such as “The Kingdom” (2007), “World War Z” (2013), and “Dark Waters” (2019), did a competent job of presenting these moments with palpable uneasiness and anxiety. At one point, Jasem and his SWAT team members let themselves loosen a bit while watching a TV soap drama from Kuwait, but we can sense that they are still watchful for what may happen around them at any point, so we instantly become nervous when something subsequently happens outside.

Carnahan’s screenplay often falters in character development, and it also feels heavy-handed especially during the scene where Jasem and his SWAT team members encounter another local military group led by an Iranian colonel, but his main cast members often compensate for these and other weak aspects of the film thanks to their good performance. While Adam Bessa holds the ground as your average rookie character, Suhail Dabbach is commendable with his quiet but forceful intensity, and he and the other main cast members including Is’Haq Elias are believable as comrades who have fought together for their common cause for a long time.

Overall, “Mosul”, which is co-produced by Joe and Anthony Rosso, shows some respect and sincerity to its main subjects, and that aspect is clearly reflected by having all of its dialogues delivered in Arabic as well as its authentic casting choices, but it did not engage me enough for its several notable flaws including its weak anti-climactic finale, Yes, it is surely refreshing to see a major American film presenting the ongoing geopolitical problem in Iraq mainly via the viewpoint of local characters, but I wish it could do something more than reminding us again that war is indeed hell.

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Freaky (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Freaky Friday the 13th

“Freaky”, which is incidentally released “Freaky Deathday” in South Korean theaters, is a little fun horror comedy film which accomplishes its tasks as well as intended in its small genre playground. Although its juxtaposition of two familiar story promises is not exactly very fresh in my humble opinion, this latest offering from the Blumhouse Productions works enough to entertain us thanks to its clever subversion of genre elements, and I will not deny that I chuckled more than once during my viewing.

After the obligatory opening sequence where several adolescent characters are murdered by a mysterious figure one by one at a place where they happen to spend together at the night of November 11th, Wednesday, the movie moves onto the very next morning as its young heroine, Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), begins another usual day along with her mother and older sister. While her mother tries to be cheery and caring, both Millie and her older sister know well that their mother still does not get over the recent death of her husband, and that is why Millie has been conflicted about whether she can leave their home for her college education.

Anyway, things are miserable for this shy and introverted girl as usual when she goes to her high school. Although she has two good friends who have usually stood by her, Millie is often ridiculed and tormented by some mean students, and she is also bullied by one of her teachers, a stiff and obnoxious prick who has no qualms on humiliating her in front of other students in her class just because she happens to fail to meet his expectation.

Because the school is having its homecoming week, a big American football game is held during the following evening, and Millie attends the game as she has to perform there as the school mascot. Not long after she happens to be left alone in front of the field after everyone else is gone, a masked stranger suddenly appears in front of her, and, of course, she soon finds herself desperately running away from this apparently dangerous figure.

And then a very weird thing happens. When the figure, who is the very dude who committed all those horrible murders during the opening sequence, finally catches Millie and then promptly attempts to stab her with an ancient dagger he happened to acquire at the end of the opening sequence, both of them are suddenly thrown into a strange magical happening, and then his attempt to kill Millie is quickly thwarted by her older sister, who happens to be a local police officer and luckily arrives at the scene in time. After going through several necessary procedures under her older sister’s care at a local police station, Millie, who is still dumbfound due to her very traumatic experience, goes back to her home and then sleeps, and then, in the very next morning, she wakes up to find herself inside the body of the man who attempted to kill her at last night. 

What follows after that is a series of comic moments involved with Millie’s clumsy attempts of getting accustomed to being inside the body of the killer. Although quite panic and disoriented, Millie tries to find any possible way for getting her body back, but the situation is quite disadvantageous for her in more than one aspect, and it certainly takes lots of efforts for her to convince her two friends to help her regaining her body. Thanks to their subsequent help, it turns out that there is indeed a way to reverse the body swap between her and the killer, but that should be done before the upcoming midnight, and she will be trapped inside the killer’s body forever if she fails in the end.    

While he is initially rather bland as a murderous lunatic despite having shown us his more intense sides during recent years, Vince Vaughn goes all the way for comic modes once he begins to play the heroine of the film, and he did a hilarious job of channeling her awkwardness with her current physical status. As two good friends willing to help their best friend, Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich have a good comic timing with Vaughn during their scenes, and Osherovich later gets a funny self-conscious line which may amuse you a lot.

On the opposite, Kathryn Newton, who previously appeared as the murdered daughter of Frances McDormand’s heroine character in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), has a ball with handling two very different modes. As a nice high school girl with some personal issues to deal with, she is likable enough to hold our attention during her early scenes, and Katie Finneran and Dana Drori are also believable as her character’s mother and older sister. When she later has to balance her performance well between bloody horror and absurd comedy, Newton boldly goes for a number of big moments including the one when she confidently walks into the school with lots of change in attitude and appearance, and I guess we will probably see more of her considerable talent during next several years.

Overall, “Freaky” does not bring that much to its overlapped genre territories, but it is at least one or two steps up from director/co-writer Christopher Landon’s previous horror comedy film “Happy Deathday” (2017), which also tried to mix comedy and horror but was not that successful in comparison despite some good moments for laughs. Although I must point out that there are several notable flaws including the rather contrived finale, the movie is a little better than expected, so I will not grumble for now. 

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Hillbilly Elegy (2020) ☆☆(2/4): Looking back at his messy hillbilly upbringing

Netflix film “Hillbilly Elegy”, which was released on Netflix on this Tuesday after being released in theaters a few weeks ago, is so mild and bland that you may feel sorry for its several main cast members whose efforts are mostly wasted here in this insipid piece of work. While it surely intends to present some vivid slices of life from the poor Caucasian working class people of the Appalachian area, the movie is utterly deficient and problematic in terms of storytelling and characterization, and I only found my interest dwindling second by second as observing more of its many artificial aspects without much care or attention.

The movie, which is based on the acclaimed memoir of the same name by J.D. Vance, is mainly about how Vance grew up during those hard and difficult childhood years with his Appalachian family in Ohio. During the opening scene, we see young Vance, played by Owen Asztalos, spending the last day of a family meeting held in some rural area of Kentucky, and the narration from older Vance, played by Gabriel Basso, tells us a bit about the long history of his grandparents. They left the area not long after his grandmother got pregnant, but they have never forgotten their origin nonetheless, and that is probably the main reason why young Vance has felt like being connected with the area, even though he is still an outsider as reflected by a brief scene where he is cruelly bullied by several local kids.

When young Vance later returns to Ohio along with his close family members, we come to see how problematic his family has been for many years. While his grandmother Mamaw (Glenn Close) divorced and has lived separately from her husband since that, his mother Bev (Amy Adams), who was once quite promising during her high school years as she often emphasizes, has struggled with not only her poor economic status but also a lifelong addiction problem, and his older sister Lindsay (Haley Bennet, who looks quite mundane compared to her unnerving breakthrough turn in “Swallow” (2019)) certainly does not want to end up being just like her mother, though she has already been bound to be stuck in their neighborhood for the rest of her life.

Although things are not always bad for him, young Vance frequently finds himself in situations where he has to endure her mother’s worst sides fueled by her downward spiral into the bottom of addiction, and there is a painful scene where their initially cheerful moment is suddenly turned into a very disturbing circumstance, which eventually leads to his mother being temporarily arrested by the local police. Because he still cares about his mother, he decides to give another chance to her, but, like many other addicts, she soon lets down him as well as her other close family members, and that breaks his heart again.

We later get some understanding of Bev’s personal demons originated from her deeply unhappy childhood associated with her parents’ toxic and violent relationship, but the movie does not delve that deep into her struggle, torment, and guilt without any insight or empathy, and she only comes to us as nothing but a wretched bundle of clichéd behaviors we can expect from addict characters. While Amy Adams did a good job of immersing herself into one of the most unlikable roles in her admirable acting career, the movie sadly does not provide her any genuine human depth to be expressed and conveyed to us, and she only gets stuck in her shrill caricature role in the end.

On the opposite, Glenn Close is a bit better as a fragile but tough old lady with no-nonsense attitude. Discerning that her dear grandson deserves a chance for better life, Mawmaw forcefully takes young Vance away from his increasingly irresponsible mother, and she surely imbues some disciplines into her grandson as they start to live together in her residence. Although she is saddled with several blatantly sentimental moments in the film, Close lifts up these badly written scenes via her sheer talent and presence in addition to being the best thing in the movie, and that reminds us again of what a wonderful actress she has always been since she burst into the screen with her Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “The World According to Garp” (1982).

Thanks to his grandmother’s support and correction, Vance eventually becomes a promising Yale Law School student around 20 years later, but then his family remains to be a big problem in his life. After notified that his mother has just hit another bottom of addiction again, he has no choice but to go back to his hometown even though he may soon have an important job interview offered by some prestigious law firm, and he surely feels conflicted more and more as also coming to see that there is really nothing he can do for his mother.

The screenplay by Vanessa Taylor attempts to generate some dramatic contrast as alternating between Vance’s past and present, but, though Asztalos and Basso are flawlessly connected with each other in their acting, Vance is not a particularly interesting figure to observe while merely functioning as a blank backdrop for other characters. In addition, the subplot involved with his Indian American girlfriend is quite redundant to say the least, and Freida Pinto is unfortunately tasked with literally phoning in her performance throughout the film.

On the whole, “Hillbilly Elegy” is not as bad as I feared after encountering many negative reactions from critics, but this is inarguably one of the lowest points in the filmmaking career of director Ron Howard. Yes, he has been rather underwhelming these days, but let’s not forget that he is a competent Hollywood filmmaker who made a number of far better films such as “Apollo 13” (1995) and “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and I recommend you to watch them instead of this regrettable misfire.

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Run (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little thriller set between mother and daughter

You probably should know nothing at all before watching “Run”, a little thriller film which turns out to be quite smarter than it seems on the surface. Right from its very first scene, you will come to have a pretty good idea on what you are going to get, but, though it may not surprise you that much, the movie provides enough thrill and excitement to hold your attention during next 80 minutes, so I strongly suggests you not to read the following paragraphs if you really want to be entertained as much as possible.

The story of the movie mainly revolves around a woman named Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) and her adolescent daughter Chloe (Kiera Allen), and the early part of the movie quickly establishes how much Diane has been occupied with raising her daughter. As directly conveyed to us at the beginning of the film, Chloe has been suffering from a number of illnesses including asthma for years, and Diane has been paid lots of motherly attention to her daughter’s wellbeing in many aspects. Besides her daughter’s routine medication, she has willingly taken care of many other domestic matters including the healthy daily diet for her daughter, and she has also taught her daughter a lot of things via her exemplary homeschooling.

Although she is mostly bound to her wheelchair and home due to her physical disability, Chloe has been content and happy within her little cozy environment, and we observe what a good daughter she is to her mother. She has been a pretty good student under her mother’s thoughtful teaching, and she is now aspiring to be enrolled in a state university where she can pursue her dream of becoming a prosthetics engineer someday.

As a matter of fact, Chloe has been waiting for the reply from that state university since she sent her application form some time ago, but there has not been any letter sent to her yet. Whenever Diane checks the latest mails sent to their residence as usual, she assures to Chloe that she will promptly notify Chloe on anything important for her, and Chloe initially trusts her mother’s words, but then doubt grows in her mind after she notices something quite suspicious from her mother at one point.

Of course, this shadow of doubt in Chloe’s mind becomes larger as she comes to notice more strange things from her mother. For instance, she is perplexed to discover that one of several different pills she has taken everyday is prescribed to her mother instead of her, and her suspicion only grows more even after her mother gives her a seemingly plausible explanation on that. When she later attempts to get to the bottom of this matter, she becomes more aware of how firmly and ominously her mother has been standing between her and the world outside, and that accordingly leads to a subtly tense moment between them on the very next day.

Although what has been lurking beneath the relationship between Chloe and her mother is exposed sooner than you might expect, the screenplay by director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian, who also produced the film along with Natalie Qasabian, did a skillful job of dialing up and down the level of suspense along the increasingly disturbing battle of wits between its two main characters. Both of them are clever enough to sense and guess what they do not reveal to each other on the surface, and the movie deftly toys with our expectation during a number of key scenes including the one associated with Chloe’s attempt on the identification of that questionable pill.

During its second half, the movie comes to lose a bit of its narrative momentum as having nearly all of its cards unfolded to us, but it still keeps engaging us nonetheless, and we accordingly become more emotionally involved in what will eventually happen between its two main characters. While the expected climatic moment is a little too predictable in my inconsequential opinion, the movie deftly delivers an effective dramatic punch for us at least, and you may also like a little nasty touch in the following epilogue scene.

Because it is basically a two-hander piece, the movie surely depends a lot on the presence and talent of its two lead performers, who dexterously complement each other as their conflicting characters push or pull each other throughout the film. While Sarah Paulson, who has been always dependable since her breakthrough turns in TV series “American Horror Story”, has a lot of fun with her character’s shifty aspects, newcomer Kiera Allen, who is actually a physically disabled person as shown in the film (She is the first female wheelchair-using actress to appear in a suspense film since Susan Peters in “The Sign of the Ram” (1948), by the way), does more than holding her own place well in front of her seasoned co-star, and I sincerely hope that the movie will lead her to more good opportunities in the future.

On the whole, “Run” feels less refreshing and surprising compared to Chaganty’s debut feature film “Searching” (2018), but this is a smart and efficient genre piece which handles its familiar story promise quite well. In contrast to pushing one fascinating story device all the way in “Searching”, Chaganty attempts here something quite plain and basic to the core, and he admirably succeeds in addition to confirming to us that he is indeed a good filmmaker who does know how to engage and thrill us. Yes, I clearly saw through it from the beginning, but I did not mind that at all as savoring its suspenseful moments enough, and I assure you that you will appreciate the efforts and skills packed into it.

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Radioactive (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A scattershot biopic on Marie Curie’s life and career

I remember well when I came to learn about the life and career of Marie Curie from a little biography book for children around 30 years ago. Although life was pretty hard and difficult for her because of a number of obstacles in front of her, this extraordinary Polish woman persisted anyway as stubbornly following her endless passion toward science, and she eventually became one of the leading scientists in her field in addition to receiving no less than two Nobel Prizes for her enormous academic contribution.

That is why I had some expectation on Marjane Satrapi’s new film “Radioactive”, which attempts to look here and there around Curie’s scientific career and contribution. As a biopic, the movie surely tries something different via its unconventional storytelling approach, and that intrigued me for a while during my viewing, but, despite the commendable performance from its lead actress, the overall result is rather scattershot and middling while not showing much beyond what I already know about its main subjects.

After the prologue scene in 1934, the movie moves back to 1893, when Curie, played by Rosamund Pike, was a young and headstrong student studying science in Paris. When Curie, who was Marie Skłodowska at that time, fiercely protests about how her ongoing study has been constantly interrupted by her insensitive male laboratory colleagues, the professor of her laboratory fires her without any hesitation, and now she has to search for any other laboratory to hire her, but, not so surprisingly, nobody is particularly willing to provide a space for her current scientific research.

While Curie becomes quite frustrated about this situation, there comes an unexpected opportunity via Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), a promising scientist who happens to have his own laboratory and turns out to be quite interested in Curie’s research. As they talk more with each other, she and Pierre find themselves clicking well with each other, and it does not take much time of her to come to work and study in Pierre’s laboratory. Although his laboratory is rather small and shabby, Curie is delighted to find where she can freely study and work at last, and Pierre, who later marries her, always stands by her as her No.1 supporter and collegue.

Their common scientific interest is focused on the possible existence of some unknown radioactive element in uranium ore, and we accordingly see how Curie and her husband diligently working on the detection and purification of that radioactive material in question. First, they needed to crush and pulverize tons of uranium ore, and the following sequence shows us how demanding this research of theirs was in more than one aspect.

However, the movie moves onto their eventual success too quickly without conveying to us much of their Herculean efforts for the successful purification of two new radioactive elements, and it also stumbles in the depiction of the relationship between Curie and her husband. Although Sam Riley did a fairly good job of supporting Pike during their several key scenes, he is mostly limited by his bland character, and that is the main reason why Pierre’s unexpected death in 1906, which was caused by a very unfortunate accident, does not feel that devastating to us.

Moreover, the screenplay by Jack Thorne, which is based on Lauren Redniss’s acclaimed graphic novel “Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout”, frequently alternates between its main narrative and the visual presentation of several historical incidents associated with Curie’s research on radioactivity, and that is often distracting instead of widening our perspective on her scientific contribution. For example, Pierre’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech is intercut with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, and then we later see Curie’s growing awareness of radioactive sickness being juxtaposed with the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, but these and other similar scenes feel blatant and artificial while not generating much dramatic effect.

In case of Curie’s affair with her fellow scientist Paul Langevin (Aneurin Barnard), the movie gives Pike opportunities to express more of her character’s strength and vulnerability, but this part unfortunately fizzles as the movie hurriedly moves onto her significant contribution during the World War I. Although she does not like hospital much due to her persona reason, Curie comes to apply her scientific knowledge on those injured soldiers on battlefields after persuaded by her older daughter Irene (Anya Taylor-Joy, who shines as usual despite her underwritten supporting role), and there is also a small amusing moment when Irene introduces her future husband to her mother, who is not initially amused but then instantly approves of him once she discerns how willing he is to study radioactivity along with her daughter (As many of you know, Irene and her husband also won a Nobel Prize later).

Although it has more style and personality compared to the 1943 biopic film “Madame Curie”, “Radioactive” is not successful enough in my trivial opinion due to several glaring flaws including its weak narrative structure. The movie surely has all the right stuffs for its main goal, but, to our disappointment, it is no more than an admirable failure, and that is a shame considering the sincere efforts from Satrapi and her cast and crew members.

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Mank (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As he writes “Citizen Kane”

David Fincher’s new film “Mank”, which is released here in South Korea today and will be available on Netflix early in December, presents a personal perspective from the writer who co-wrote the screenplay for Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), which is incidentally one of the greatest works in the history of cinema. As a guy who has slowly come to admire “Citizen Kane” more and more after the first viewing in 1996, I certainly observed the movie with keen interest right from the first shot, and the movie does not disappoint me at all with its admirable style and mood, even though it occasionally feels distant and detached in its bitter and sardonic presentation of some very unpleasant sides of Hollywood during the 1930-40s.

The screenplay by late Jack Fincher, who is Fincher’s father, alternates between two time periods, one of which is when Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is sent to a ranch in Victorville, California in early 1940 for writing the screenplay for Welles. While he is still recovering from the injury from a recent car accident and also struggling with his alcoholism as before, Mankiewicz is willing to meet the rather early deadline set by Welles, and Welles’ close associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton) is understandably nervous about whether Mankiewicz can pull it off in the end, even though Mankiewicz will be assisted and supported by his German nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann) and his British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) during his stay at the ranch.

Mankiewicz’s difficult struggle for what can be his comeback work is often intercut with a series of flashback scenes from the 1930s, when he was one of the most prominent screenplay writers working in the MGM Studios. When his fellow writer Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) comes to Hollywood after receiving Mankiewicz’s invitation, Mankiewicz gladly shows him here and there inside the MGM studios, and there is a dryly humorous moment when Lederer, Mankiewicz, and other MGM staff writers attend a meeting with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), the head of the MGM Studios. Once one story idea is suggested, it is embellished step by step by Mankiewicz and his colleagues, and it goes without saying that Lederer gets an unenviable job of providing a finishing touch.

While Hollywood is surely a place where Mankiewicz and other writers can freely wield their talents especially after the introduction of talkies, the movie also incisively observes the less glamorous sides of Hollywood along with its hero. As the Great Depression is still continuing outside, Mayer emphasizes to a group of many different employees of his that they all should sacrifice to some degree as a, uh, family, but Mankiewicz clearly sees through the empty words in Mayer’s speech, though he just cynically observes without saying much.

Meanwhile, Lederer introduces to Mankiewicz a certain MGM star actress who happens to be Lederer’s aunt. She is Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and she and Mankiewicz quickly befriend each other during the shooting of her latest film, whose production is financed by Davies’ lover William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Besides being quite rich, Hearst is very influential around the country due to his newspapers, and it goes without saying that he is not someone Mankiewicz or others in Hollywood can mess with at any chance.

Through his connection with Davies, Mankiewicz is subsequently invited to Hearst’s huge mansion, which is, as many of you know, the main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane’s mansion in “Citizen Kane”. When Mankiewicz happens to stroll along with Davies outside Hearst’s mansion at one point, they come to have a sincere and honest conversation, and this little sweet moment is enhanced further by the surprisingly sensitive orchestral score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who try here something quite different from their stark and aggressive electronic scores for Fincher’s previous films.

During the second half of the film, the gradual completion of the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” is bitterly juxtaposed with Mankiewicz’s growing disillusionment with Hollywood. For stopping a certain famous left-wing figure running for the California gubernatorial election, Mayer, who is closely associated with Hearst, is ready to do anything, and we later get a chillingly relevant subplot involved with one of Mankiewicz’s close colleagues, who comes to feel quite remorseful after making a virulent propaganda film not so different from those fake news in our time.

In case of Welles, who is embodied well by a brief but pitch-perfect performance from Tom Burke, he comes to clash a lot with Mankiewicz later in the story as arguing with him over whether Mankiewicz’s name is put on the screenplay along with Welles’. This will surely remind you of that infamous controversy on the authorship of “Citizen Kane” ignited by Pauline Kael many decades ago, but the movie sidesteps that while mostly siding with Mankiewicz.

Because of firmly sticking to Mackiewicz’s weary viewpoint, the movie is constantly accompanied with a dry sense of detachment which may frustrate you along with its rather slow narrative pacing, but it is still an impressive piece of work thanks to Fincher, who has never made a film looking bad and lousy, and his crew members. The production design by Donald Graham Burt and the costume design by Trish Summerville are top-notch in their authentic period details, and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt serves us a number of gorgeous moments as distinctively evoking the visual textures of old classic Hollywood films during the 1930-40s.

As the center of the story, Gary Oldman, who will probably garner another Oscar nomination in the next year for this film, deftly balances his character among wit, humor, and pathos, and he is also surrounded by a bunch of good performers who dutifully fill their spots as demanded. While Charles Dance is formidably regal as Hearst, Amanda Seyfried brings considerable warmth and spirit to her rather underdeveloped role, and Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Charles Lederer, Jamie McShane, Toby Leonard Moore, Monika Gossmann are well-cast in their respective supporting roles.

On the whole, “Mank” will require some patience from you for several good reasons, but it is a mostly rewarding experience I am willing to examine again sooner or later. Although I am not sure whether it is another career peak in Fincher’s filmmaking career after “The Social Network” (2010) and “Gone Girl” (2014), I still admire this beautifully dispassionate work a lot despite some reservation, and it is certainly one of the most notable films of this year.

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