White Noise (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A whimsical misfire from Noah Baumbach

Noah Baumbach’s latest film “White Noise”, which is released in South Korean theaters in this week and then will be on Netflix around the end of this month, does not click that well with me. The movie, which is based on the novel of the same name by Don DeLillo, surely tries a lot throughout its 135-minute running time, but the overall result feels rather hollow and superficial on the whole, and this is a major letdown compared to many of Baumbach’s recent acclaimed works including “Marriage Story” (2019).

At the beginning, we are introduced to a college professor named Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) and his colorful suburban family. Although things are usually messy in their house, Jack and his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) mostly get along well with their four children, and we see how they cheerfully start another usual day in their neighborhood which often looks like a low-key version of Wes Anderson movies (As many of you know, Baumbach worked with Anderson in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” (2004), and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009)).

The main focus of Jack’s academic work is the history of Adolf Hitler, though he actually does not know how to speak or write German. I have no idea on how he managed to become a fairly good Hitler expert despite that, but he seems to be pretty respectable enough to be invited to an academic conference, so he tries to get some help from a German guy who is willing to teach the other thing besides German.

At his campus workplace, Jack is surrounded by a bunch of colorful professors who are mostly occupied with each own academic interest. Whenever they gather together for lunch, they surely talk a lot about what they are interested in, but they do not look like really interacting with each other at all, and we just observe the aimless verbal cacophony among them from the distance.

Meanwhile, Jack becomes more concerned about his wife’s mental health. While she is cheerfully vivacious on the surface, it seems that she has been on a certain unknown type of medication, and one of their children urges Jack to delve into this matter more, though both of them still cannot identify what kind of medicine Barbette has been supposedly taking.

Around the end of the first act, the movie becomes a bit more interesting due to a sudden disaster which occurs at a spot not so far from Jack’s neighborhood. As a considerable amount of certain toxic chemical is spread toward the neighborhood, everyone is thrown into panic and worry, and there eventually comes a moment when Jack and his family must evacuate from their neighborhood as soon as possible.

As Jack and his family try to go to a nearby shelter, the movie provides a series of bizarre moments to baffle and confuse you. At one point, Jack and his family see something frightening on the sky along with many others on the road, and the score by Danny Elfman surely swells as much as expected during this weird moment.

While Jack tries to process and understand what is going on just like many others around him and his family, the movie puts us into more confusion and bafflement. Lots of words about the ongoing disaster are hurled around here and there, but none of them gel together well to form something coherent and understandable, and it sometimes looks like all we get is nothing but sound and fury.

After the abrupt end of the second act, the story focuses on the marital problems between Jack and Babette again. While struggling with the fact that he may die sooner or later due to being exposed to that toxic chemical, Jack becomes all the more concerned about his wife, and then there comes a crucial moment as both of them tell all to each other.

We are supposed to be more emotionally involved in their problematic situation, but Baumbach’s screenplay fails to develop them into believable human figures, and we keep observing them and other characters around them from the distance without much care or attention. In the end, the movie arrives at the finale with some good cheer, but that does not mesh that well with the rest of the film, and we are consoled a bit by what is joyfully presented during its end credits, which is its best part in my inconsequential opinion.

The main cast members of the film try to sell their broad characters as much as possible. While Adam Driver, who previously worked with Baumbach in “Marriage Story”, dutifully carries the film to the end, Greta Gerwig is often limited by her uneven character, and Raffey Cassidy, André Benjamin, Jodie Turner-Smith, Bill Camp, and Don Cheadle manage to leave some impression despite their caricature supporting roles.

On the whole, “White Noise” is a disappointing misfire despite the efforts from Baumbach and his cast and crew members, and it only makes me more interested in reading DeLillo’s novel, which, as far as I heard from others, has been regarded as “unfilmable” since it came out in 1985. I could somehow sense how the story and characters may work on pages, but, sadly, they do not work at all on the screen, and maybe Baumbach deserves some pat on his back for trying something quite impossible from the beginning.

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The Menu (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): They surely won’t forget this dinner, you know

You may have some ideas on what “The Menu” is going to serve, and it will occasionally surprise you as serving as much as you can expect. After all, this is a pungent satire on class and culinary business, and you will surely savor some dark fun and amusement as the movie cheerfully and ruthlessly pushes its story and characters toward more outrageousness and viciousness.

The setup of the story is quite familiar to the core. 12 people are invited to a tiny island where a renowned celebrity chef named Julian Slowik (Ralph Fiennes) has run a small but prestigious restaurant, and almost everyone is curious about what Slowik is going to serve this time. After all, they pay no less than $1,250 per person just for their upcoming dinner, and Slowik will not disappoint them as a man who has been at the top of his field for years.

As they go to the island, we get to know a bit about each of Slowik’s latest customers. Besides two young people named Tyler (Nicholas Hoult) and Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy), there are a middle-aged rich couple who turn out to be his most frequent customers; a trio of tech company executives who incidentally work for the owner of Slowik’s restaurant; an arrogant actor who is accompanied with his assistant; a notorious food critic and her editor; and a quiet old woman who turns out to be quite crucial for Slowik’s dinner plan.

While Tyler cannot help but become enthusiastic as your average gourmet, Margot, who is incidentally brought here unexpectedly at the last minute, is not so impressed to say the least as observing how others including Tyler are quite ridiculous about what they are going to get from Slowik – and how Slowik rigidly and fastidiously runs his staff members in his kitchen. He really wants everything served as exactly as he planned from the beginning to the end, and his staff members, led by his right-hand lady Elsa (Hong Chau), always follow his orders and instructions without any doubt or hesitation.

For not spoiling any of fun and entertainment for you, I now should be more careful about describing what is going to be served to Slowik’s guests, but I guess I can tell you that the screenplay by Seth and Reiss and Will Tracy has lots of morbid fun with how Slowick and his loyal staff members present each course of the dinner with unflappable seriousness. Some of the dishes served by them feel more like insults instead of real ones, and that is why Margo becomes more baffled and exasperated. Quite oblivious to the sheer ridiculousness of the situation, others including Tyler are willing to go along with that just because they want to have prestigious experiences to remember, and they surely expect to be full and satisfied at the end of the dinner.

Of course, things become much more serious around the middle point of the dinner, where Slowik gradually reveals the real purpose of his very special dinner time. Yes, he is indeed a crazy person, and he is quite determined to have all of his special customers go all the way to what is going to be a liberating finale for him, and his customers belatedly comes to realize what they unwittingly get themselves into.

As the most sensible person in the bunch, Margo emerges as someone we may care about, while the rest of her fellow customers become the delicious targets for more satire. Most of them deserve to get what Slowik and his staff members serve to them, and there are several very humorous moments involved with that infamous food critic, who still manages to find something to criticize from Slowick’s almost perfect dinner courses. In case of Tyler, we get to know more about how pathetic and obnoxious he really is, and Slowik surely has something to serve only for Tyler later in the story.

The movie steps back a bit around the last part of the dinner, but it is still held together well under director Mark Mylod’s competent direction, and Ralph Fiennes’ intense comic performance holds everything to the end. As intimidating and charismatic as required by his role, Fiennes delightfully delves into his character’s obsession and lunacy with gusto, and he also did a good job of generating some bitter pathos to his character while never asking for any pity or sympathy, especially during a certain impromptu cooking scene which may be appreciated a lot by Nicholas Cage’s chef hero in “Pig” (2021).

On the opposite, Anya Taylor-Joy, who has been one of new talented actresses to watch during last several years, is also fun to watch as her character instantly sees through the hypocrisy of others around her, and she is also surrounded by several notable performers who have each own moment to shine. While Nicholas Hoult is utterly hilarious as we observe more of his character’s unpleasant sides along the story, Janet McTeer, John Leguizamo, Reed Birney, and Judith Light are also solid in their respective supporting parts, and Hong Chau brings some extra creepiness with her character’s seemingly courteous attitude.

In conclusion, “The Menu” is an entertaining satire which will keep you on the edge in addition to making you chuckle a lot at times. Although it will not make you feel that hungry, you may come to appreciate to some degree that simple pleasure of eating a certain common dish, and I must confess that I willingly sought for that not after the movie was over. After all, simplicity always rules, doesn’t it?

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The Woman King (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Viola Davis rules – and so do other ladies

Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” is a tough and forceful action period drama to be admired and savored. While its main historical subject is interesting enough to engage us, the movie works a compelling piece of entertainment thanks to its distinctive mood and details in addition to a number of gritty action sequences, and it is also anchored by several strong performances from its female cast members at the its center.

The story is mainly set in the West African kingdom of Dahomey in 1823, which is now Benin at present. Dahomey has been in conflict with the Oyo Empire for years as the soldiers of the Oyo Empire have often kidnapped lots of people in Dahomey for the ongoing slave trade, and the opening sequence shows General Nanisca (Viola Davis), the leader of the all-female warrior group called “the Agojie”, and her soldiers swiftly attacking a village in the Oyo Empire at one night for retrieving those kidnapped women.

When Nanisca and her soldiers return to the palace, they are wholeheartedly welcomed for the success of their latest mission, and King Ghezo (John Boyega), a young man who recently became the next one to occupy the throne thanks to the considerable support from Nanisca, has a plan for Nanisca. As Nanisca advises, he is willing to stop slave trade in addition to standing up against the Oyo Empire, and he is also considering giving Nanisca a certain honorable promotion, which will put her right next to him in the rank of power.

Meanwhile, the story also focuses on a strong-willed young girl named Nawi (Thuso Mbedu). When she defiantly rejects a suitor who is evidently not so appropriate for her. her angry father promptly takes her to the palace because there is the only one option for her now. Once she enters the palace which is mostly female-dominant, she goes through a military training period along with many other young women for becoming a member of the Agojie, and her irrepressible spirit and personality soon come to draw attention from not only Nanisca but also several other veterans including Izogie (Lashana Lynch), who gives some helpful advice to Nawi during the first day of her training.

Although she struggles more than once during the first several days of training, Nawi gradually shows more of her potentials as a warrior as befriending some of her fellow trainees. When there eventually comes a time where she and other trainees are put into the final test which will determine the rest of their life, she surely tries her best, and she also impresses Nanisca and other spectators a lot as doing what she believes is the right thing to do without any hesitation.

As Nawi and other Agojie members are ready for the upcoming war under their general’s command, Nawi comes to gain more trust from Nanisca, but Nanisca still puts some distance between her and Nawi even though she sees a lot of herself from Nawi, and she also has to cope with the old pain from her past. As a survivor of atrocious sexual violence, she has something she has kept to herself besides her lasting trauma from that horrible time, and she is only consoled by her second-in-command Amenza (Shelia Atim), who has always stood by her with care and understanding for many years.

The situation becomes melodramatic with several other things including Nina’s unexpected relationship with a Brazilian lad whose mother was taken from Dahomey a long time ago, but the screenplay by Dana Stevens, which is developed from the story by Stevens and his co-writer Maria Bello, keeps things rolling as usual, and Prince-Bythewood and her crew members including cinematographer Polly Morgan let us delve more into vivid and colorful cultural mood and details. I will not be surprised if the production design by Akin McKenzie and the costume design by Gersha Phillip get Oscar-nominated in next year, and the same thing can be said about the terrific score by Terence Blanchard, which does much more than galvanizing the action scenes in the film as required.

As shown from her previous film “The Old Guard” (2020), Prince-Bythewood is no stranger to action at all, and she skillfully handles several key action sequences in the movie. Thanks to the competent editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire, these action sequences are presented with considerable clarity and impact, and we can sense that the performers in the film really hurl themselves into tough actions unfolded onto the screen.

While her strong presence has always impressed us during last two decades, Viola Davis, who incidentally participated in the production of the film along with Bello, demonstrates another side of her sheer talent here in this film, and her action-packed performance surely reminds us that she is really too good to play that thankless supporting role in recent DC Extended Universe flicks. On the opposite, Thuso Mbedu, who was unforgettable in Barry Jenkins’ acclaimed Amazon Prime TV miniseries “The Underground Railroad”, is equally stellar as another strong emotional center of the film, and Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega are also effective in their respective supporting roles.

In conclusion, “The Woman King” is another commendable work from Prince-Bythewood, who has steadily advanced since her first feature film “Love & Basketball” (2000). Although I must point out that the movie is not so historically accurate (Dahomey was actually quite more active in slave trade compared to how it is depicted in the film, by the way), I enjoyed it as a top-notch genre piece which works as well as, say, “Braveheart” (1995), and I also appreciated its good story as well as its abundance of strong female characters. Davis and her fellow actresses surely rule here, and that is certainly more than enough for recommendation.

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Aftersun (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): That summer with her father

There is always some distance between parents and their children, and “Aftersun” sensitively illustrates the growing distance between the father and daughter at the center of its intimate character drama. Nothing much seems to happen on the surface, and they surely look like having a good time together, but we also come to sense how their close relationship is going to be changed in one way or another – especially as the main viewpoint of the movie gradually emerges along the story.

When we are introduced to Calum (Paul Mescal) and his 11-year-old daughter Sophie (Frankie Corio) at the beginning, they are going to some tourist spot in Turkey, and we slowly gather bits of personal facts about them. While Calum was separated from his wife some time ago, Sophie is still quite close to her father despite that, and she is certainly looking to forward to having a wonderful summer vacation along with her father.

Once they arrive in their hotel, they begin to spend their free time here and there, and the movie simply presents one leisurely episodic moment after another as their sunny vacation days go by. They are incidentally not the only guests in the hotel, and there is a little amusing scene where Sophie happens to befriend a boy around her age who is also spending his vacation along with his family.

Whenever they have nothing much to do except getting relaxed in their hotel room, Calum and his daughter playfully interact with each other, and we are reminded again of how much they are close to each other. Paul is always ready to pay attention to his dear daughter just like any good dad would, and Sophie is simply happy to talk with her father, who sometimes feels like a big brother as reflected by one humorous scene between them and two lads who happen to play a game with them.

However, we also come to discern what Sophie cannot see that well from her father. While he is usually kind and generous besides showing some eccentricity, it looks like there is something Calum is keeping to himself, and that sometimes puts a bit of strain on Calum and Sophie’s relationship. At one point, Sophie attempts to cheer them up via an impromptu karaoke singing, but Calum refuses to join her for no apparent reason while becoming unexpectedly sullen and harsh, and he only watches her clumsy singing from the distance.

The movie does not specify at all whatever is churning behind Calum’s gentle façade, because, as implied by the occasional brief shots of older Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall), the main viewpoint of the movie is from older Sophie looking back on her good time with her father. With many video clips shot by her or her father at that time, she reflects more on her father who is probably dead now, but there are always the areas beyond her reach, and it is apparent that she will never fully know who exactly her father was.

As frankly recognizing Calum’s elusive sides, the screenplay by director/writer Charlotte Wells, who made several short films before making feature film debut here, steadily rolls its two characters along its free-flowing narrative course, and we accordingly get a number of modest but sublime moments to observe and appreciate. I like a small scene where Calum and Sophie visit a local carpet shop full of patterns and histories, and I also enjoy when Sophie becomes more aware of her ongoing maturation in terms of body and mind as hanging around a bit with older boys and girls. She is still innocent, but she comes to open her eyes more to growing up, and we can clearly see that will bring some inevitable change to her relationship with her father.

In case of Calum, there later comes a point where he cannot help but driven by some kind of personal demons inside him, and we naturally come to wonder more about whatever is really eating him inside his mind. All we can know is that, despite that emotional low point of his, he continues to be a good father to Sophie during the rest of their vacation, though she has already come to sense his unspecified personal matters to vague degrees.

Everything in the movie depends a lot on its two different main performers, While Paul Mescal, who previously played a supporting role in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first feature film “The Lost Daughter” (2021), ably holds the ground with his nuanced performance, newcomer Frankie Corio is often compelling in her unadorned debut performance, and she and Mescal are constantly convincing in their several key scenes in addition to vividly conveying to us their characters’ long relationship history. At the fringe of the story, Celia Rowlson-Hall holds her own little space besides being flawlessly connected with Corio, and she is effective when older Sophie is reminded again of her ever-existing distance from her father around the end of the film.

In conclusion, “Aftersun” may require some patience from you due to its slow development of story and characters, but it eventually becomes quite a rewarding experience thanks to not only the terrific work from its two lead performers but also the top-notch efforts from Wells and her crew members including cinematographer Gregory Oke, who did a commendable job of imbuing the screen with a warm and sunny sense of intimacy. In my humble opinion, this is one of the most impressive debut films of this year, and I sincerely recommend you to check it out as soon possible.

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Bones and All (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Love and Cannibalism

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film “Bones and All” is an odd mix of two very different things which somehow work together fairy well despite lots of disparity between them. On one hand, we have a gory and disturbing coming-of-age tale associated with cannibalism. On the other hand, we have a tender and sensitive love story packed with a surprisingly amount of lyricism. Although the overall result is rather jarring as often swinging back and forth between these two contrasting parts, the movie is still interesting to watch thanks to its good mood, storytelling, and performance, and I admire how it manages to strike a right balance in the end.

In the beginning, the movie, which is supposedly set in US in the 1980s, introduces us to its adolescent heroine and her unspeakable nature. Like her mother who left a long time ago, Maren Yearly (Taylor Russell) was born with a cannibalistic urge inside her, and her father Frank (André Holland) has tried his best for preventing his daughter from getting into any trouble because of that, but, alas, she inadvertently causes another trouble when she goes out to spend some time with other girls. As a result, Maren and Frank have no choice but to leave their latest residence as soon as possible, and then we see them settling in some other place far from there.

On one day, Frank is suddenly disappeared probably because he thinks he cannot possibly have his dear daughter and her horrible urge under control anymore, and he left two things for Maren before leaving her. One of them is an envelope containing some money and her birth certificate, which incidentally gives her a clue to where she may can find her mother. The other one is a cassette tape, on which he poured lots of personal thoughts and feelings on her and their difficult father and daughter relationship.

Because she is 18 now, Frank believes that his daughter can take care of herself as well as her cannibalistic urge, but Maren soon comes to realize how vulnerable she can be. It turns out that there are other people who are also inherently cannibals just like her, and she happens to come across one of such people in the middle of her journey to her mother’s hometown in Minnesota. That figure in question is an old man named Sully (Mark Rylance in his most unnerving mode), and he shows her some kindness and compassion as a fellow cannibal, but Maren cannot help but feel disturbed by how creepy he is in many aspects. He usually puts some chilling distance between himself and those unfortunate victims of his, and that bothers Maren a lot even though she cannot resist an offer to eat his latest victim along with him.

As Sully told her, cannibals can smell a lot from each other, and that is how Maren comes to sense a lad named Lee (Timothée Chalamet) not long after getting away from Sully. While he is not so willing to befriend her, Lee lets himself accompany Maren just because he has no particular direction in his ongoing wandering at present, and, of course, it does not take much time for them to develop certain mutual feelings between them as they share their common repulsion about their cannibalistic urge.

Nevertheless, they still find themselves driven by their cannibalistic urge, and the movie does not pull any punch when they follow that without any hesitation at one point. They feel guilty when they get to know a bit more about their victim later, and they become all the more remorseful as discerning how they cannot help themselves no matter how much they try.

In the meantime, the movie allows them to have some quiet peace as they drive by one wide landscape after another, and that may take you back to those lyrical moments of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (1973), which is also about one dangerous young couple wandering here and there among vast landscapes. Along with his cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan, Guadagnino, who is no stranger to visual lyricism as shown from his previous films “I Am Love” (2009) and “Call Me by Your Name” (2017), vividly presents a series of stunning landscape shots on the screen, and that further accentuates how desperately Maren and Lee hold each other in their isolated status.

The movie also depends a lot on the low-key chemistry between its two lead performers, and they show admirable commitment as their characters go back and forth between horror and romance. While Taylor Russell, who previously drew our attention for her wonderful supporting performance in Trey Edward Shults’s “Waves” (2019), is convincing in her character’s gradual growth along the story, Timothée Chalamet, who already collaborated with Guadagnino in “Call Me by Your Name”, humbly complements his co-star without overshadowing her, and their good performances support the film well even when it stumbles more than once during its last act.

Around Russell and Chalamet, a number of various notable performers come and go as having each own moment to shine. André Holland, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jessica Harper, Chloë Sevigny, and Mark Rylance are dependable as usual, and David Gordon Green, who is mainly known for his directorial works such as “George Washington” (2000) and “Joe” (2013), surprises us as holding his own place pretty well besides Stuhlbarg during their brief but undeniably insidious appearance.

Overall, “Bones and All” is certainly not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is another engaging film from Guadagnino at least, and I recommend it with some caution. As far as I remember, I winced more than once during my viewing, but I kept watching it with enough interest and care, and that says a lot about its effectiveness.

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She Said (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): How they exposed Weinstein

“She Said” presents a compelling real-life investigation journalism story which was one of the main starters of the #MeToo movement in 2017. While it is often chilling and infuriating to see how one very deplorable (and powerful) man had got away with his sex crimes for many years, the movie also shows how its two real-life heroines came to expose his sex crimes in public thanks to lots of support and solidarity, and we are surely reminded again that women will be not silent about abuse and mistreatment anymore.

That man in question is Harvey Weinstein, who was one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood for many years before being exposed by the New York Times investigation by Jodi Kantor, Megan Twohey, and Rebecca Corbett. As many of you know now, he sexually exploited numerous actresses and female employees and then ruined their careers for more than 20 years, but nobody dared to speak about that due to his considerable power and influence. To be frank with you, I was not so surprised because even I had often heard about his notoriously aggressive personality, but I was shocked nonetheless just like many of you as learning more of what an atrocious bastard he really was.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s screenplay, which is based on not only the New York Times investigation itself but also the subsequent nonfiction book of the same name by Kantor and Twohey, quickly sets the tone as depicting how things were quite depressing for Twohey, played by Carey Mulligan, in late 2016. Although she exposed more deplorable aspects of Donald J. Trump via her diligent investigation work, that did not stop that despicable fraud at all from being elected as the President of the United States, and she understandably became quite depressed in addition to struggling with her subsequent postpartum depression.

Anyway, Twohey eventually returns to the New York Times in the next year, and, as recommended by her editor Corbett, played by Patricia Clarkson, she begins to work along with Kantor, played by Zoe Kazan. As many women including Hollywood actress Ashley Judd start to speak out against sexual abuse and mistreatment much more than before, Corbett instructs Twohey and Kantor to delve more into how toxic the movie industry in Hollywood has been to women, and Twohey and Kantor soon come to focus on what has been said about Weinstein by Judd and a few other notable female figures such as Rose McGowan.

The movie calmly follows how Twohey and Kantor become more serious about their latest job as they come across one obstacle after another. For example, they try to contact with a number of women who once worked under Weinstein but then left with no apparent reason, but many of these women are not so willing to talk with them for good reasons. Weinstein and his company have already prevented these women from speaking out via several legal measures including non-disclosure agreement, and we later learn more about how unfair non-disclosure agreement is for these women in many aspects. Because nobody listened to them at all, they usually had no choice but to accept non-disclosure agreement, and that legally forced silence and compliance upon them.

Fortunately, Twohey and Kantor eventually come across a few other women willing to tell more besides Judd and McGowan. In case of Zelda Perkins (Samantha Morton), this former Weinstein employee is ready to tell not only what she witnessed but also how she could not stop Weinstein, and she also leads Twohey and Kantor to another figure who may also tell a lot to them. In case of Laura Madden (Jennifer Ehle), she feels quite conflicted as coping with her recent serious illness, but she eventually agrees to reveal everything in public mainly because, unlike many survivors of Weinstein’s sex crimes, she is luckily not limited by non-disclosure agreement.

Meanwhile, Twohey and Kantor and many others in the New York Times become more aware of their powerful opponent, who is apparently ready to stop the investigation as much as possible. While often emphasizing how impertinent he was at that time, the movie wisely does not pay any attention to him even when he visits the New York Times not long before the article is eventually published, and the camera simply focuses on Twohey’s face from the distance as Twohey silently but resilently endures her very disagreeable meeting with Weinstein and his associates.

Although we already know how the story ends, the movie continues to hold our attention under the skillful direction of director Maria Schrader, who recently won an Emmy for her acclaimed German Netflix TV series “Unorthodox”. Like Tom McCarthy’s Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” (2015), it admirably steps aside for its story and characters to develop and advance without getting too dramatic at all, and Schrader also draws stellar performances from its main cast members. While Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan earnestly hold the center, Patricia Clarkson, Andre Braugher, Jennifer Ehle, and Samantha Morton are also solid in their respective key supporting roles, and Ashley Judd, who plays herself in the film, has a poignant moment when she comes to make a brave decision which helps Twohey and Kantor a lot at the last minute.

In conclusion, “She Said” is worthwhile to watch for its efficient storytelling and good performances, and I appreciate how it handles its important main subject with enough care and respect. Although it does not reach to the level of “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men” (1976), the movie did an exemplary job on the whole, and you should check it out especially if you care about good journalism.

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Nobody’s Lover (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Messy and Lonely

South Korean independent film “Nobody’s Lover” is about one adolescent girl who is often lonely and desperate in her messy private life. While you may shake your head more than once due to her several unwise choices along the story, you will also come to worry and care more about her as getting to know and understand the emotional needs behind her plain appearance, and that is why it is a little consoling to see a bit of hope around the end of her bumpy emotional journey.

At the beginning of the story, the movie observes how things have not been that good for Yoo-jin (Hwang Bo-un). Because her single mother has been mostly occupied with her current romantic relationship, this teenage girl is usually left alone in their shabby house, and we also come to gather that she does not have much social life outside the house. At one point, especially if you a Korean audience, you will notice a considerable dialect gap between her and several schoolmates who ostracize and ridicule her, and that always seems to remind her of her status as a social outsider among other students.

When she is not in the school, Yoo-jin does part-time jobs for earning a bit for herself, and her latest job turns out to be better than expected. She begins to work at a little local pizza restaurant, and its owner/manager is a kind and understanding man who even comes to Yoo-jin’s house for persuading her not to quit her job just because of one very unpleasant incident. In addition, there is a young delivery man around her age, and we can easily sense that this lad is attracted to her right from their first encounter.

However, Yoo-jin’s attention is drawn to someone else. When one college student who once worked in the pizza restaurant happens to drop by on one day, it does not take much time for Yoo-jin to become attracted to him, and he turns out to be willing to get closer to her although he is several years older than her. As they spend more time together, Yoo-jin comes to want more affection and attention from him, and he seems to have no problem with that for a while, but then, not so surprisingly, he is not so eager about presenting her to others around him.

This problematic situation of Yoo-jin is alternated with what is going on in her mother’s private relationship. After suddenly getting pregnant, Yoo-jin’s mother expects her lover to be more serious about their ongoing relationship, but her lover turns out to be much less reliable than he seems on the surface. She tries to be patient and understanding despite that, but she cannot even hide her problem from her daughter, who is not so shocked about her mother’s problem but becomes exasperated with her mother’s rather passive attitude.

Meanwhile, things also get pretty messy for Yoo-jin herself. When that college student lets her down a lot, she comes to lean on that delivery guy, and he cannot possibly say no to her due to his longtime crush on her. He eventually takes her to his house without being noticed by his parents, and she unwisely allows him to get much closer to her than before just because of her desperate emotional urge.

Of course, Yoo-jin cannot help but drawn again to that college student when he comes to her again later. As she struggles more with her increasingly complicated matter of heart, the movie sticks to its non-judgmental viewpoint while also showing some care and understanding toward her. She keeps making one wrong choice after another, but we understand why she is driven to such wrong choices, and we come to feel more compassion toward her when she comes to face the inevitable consequences of her unwise actions later in the story.

In addition, the movie is supported by the solid lead performance from its lead actress. While never making any excuse on her character’s human flaws, Hwang Bo-un steadily carries the film to the end via her unadorned but strong acting, and she is especially wonderful during a number of small intimate moments when the movie observes more of her character’s emotional vulnerability. Although this is her first film, she demonstrates here with considerable confidence that she is another new talented actress to watch, and I will not be surprised if she advances much more during next several years after this excellent breakthrough turn.

Around Hwang, director/writer Han In-mi assembles a bunch of good performers to notice. As Yoo-jin’s equally problematic mother, Seo Young-hee, whom you probably remember for “The Chaser” (2008) and “Bedevilled” (2010), is effective in her several key scenes with Hwang, and she is particularly touching when her character shows more care and affection to Hwang’s character in the end. As several substantial male figures in the story, Jun Suk-ho, Woo Ji-hyun, Hong Xa-bin, and Kim Min-chul are well-cast in their respective parts, and Park Jeong-yeon is also fine in her small but crucial supporting role.

Overall, “Nobody’s Lover”, whose Korean title is incidentally “Everybody’s Lover”, is a modest but engaging mix of character drama and coming-of-age tale, and Han In-mi makes a commendable feature film debut here after directing several acclaimed short films. This is certainly another notable South Korean film of this year, and I guess I can have some expectation on whatever will come next from her.

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Till (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The harrowing story of Emmett Till’s mother

“Till” is a very harrowing experience to say the least. As attempting to present one of the most atrocious cases of American racism during the late 20th century, this modest but undeniably powerful film does not look away from the horror and sadness of the case at all, and it also shows considerable restraint and thoughtfulness while strongly supported by one of the best movie performances of this year.

At the beginning, the movie establishes how things were fairly okay for Mamie Till (Danielle Deadwyler) and her 14-year-old son Emmett (Jalyn Hall) in Chicago, 1955. Although they sometimes experience racism for being African Americans as shown from one early scene in the film, that is relatively mild compared to those Southern states, and that is why Till cannot help but worry a lot when her son is about to visit his cousins in a small rural town of Mississippi. She often reminds him that he really needs to be careful down there, and her son assures that he will keep that in his mind, but she is still quite concerned day by day after his son leaves for Mississippi.

And then, alas, her worst fear comes true. As enjoying some free time along with his cousins, Emmett happens to drop by a local shop run by a Caucasian woman named Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), and his innocuous words and gesture toward this despicable racist lady ultimately leads to his horrible death a few days later. Once he is kidnapped by two angry Caucasian guys, he is brutally tortured and beaten before his death, and the movie thankfully restrains itself without resorting to any sensationalism.

When she hears that her son is kidnapped, Till is certainly shocked a lot, and she becomes all the more devastated when her son’s dead body is eventually discovered in the Tallahatchie River. At least, she is supported by not only her family members and friends but also those activists from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NACCP), and that is how she can have her son’s mutilated body sent to Chicago as soon as possible.

As lots of public attention is drawn upon her son’s death, Till clearly discerns the opportunity to show the world more of the atrocity inflicted upon her son, and, while still coping with her immense grief and sadness, she makes a very bold choice for that. Rather than not showing her son’s mutilated body at all, she chooses to show that all to not only those reporters but also many people who come to the open funeral ceremony for Emmett, and that naturally draws a considerable amount of criticism.

During this part, the movie also does not look away just like its heroine, and that will certainly make you uneasy and uncomfortable for good reasons. As far as I can remember, the movie directly shows Emmetts’s mutilated body twice, and this is surely quite difficult to watch while on the verge of being rather exploitative, but the movie still sticks to its restrained attitude while making a very clear point to us. It is horrible indeed, but we should not look away nonetheless, and Till, who died in 2003, might have approved of this.

The second part of the movie revolves around the following trial on Emmett’s case, and the screenplay by director Chinonye Chukwu and her co-writers Michael Reilly and Keith Beauchamp wisely avoids any dramatic overkill as steadily maintaining its low-key tone as before. While never overlooking that Southern racist atmosphere, the movie also focuses a bit on how many local activists including Medgar Evans (Tosin Cole) and Dr. T.R.M. Howard (Roger Guenveur Smith) kept trying during that difficult and dangerous time, and there is a brief but touching scene where Evans’ wife Myrlie (Jayme Lawson) confides to Till on how often she worries about not only herself and her husband but also their children (As some of you know, her husband was assassinated right in front of his family and children several years later).

Right from the first day of the trial, it is quite evident to Till and her supporters that they will not get any justice for her dead son in the end, but she keeps going with dignity – up to a certain point where she decides that enough is enough. When she is later on the witness stand, she is virtually insulted and ridiculed by the lawyer representing those deplorable killers of her son, but she remains firm and dignified despite that, and the movie respects that as the camera never looks away from how she bravely holds herself.

There are many other moments where the movie depends a lot on its lead actress’ talent and presence, and Danielle Deadwyler, who deservedly received the Gotham Independent Film Award for Outstanding Lead Performance a few days ago, is utterly magnificent as quietly but powerfully illustrating her character’s emotional journey along the story. She is also surrounded by a number of good performers including Frankie Faison, Haley Bennett, Whoopi Goldberg, Jayme Lawson, Tosin Cole, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Roger Guenveur Smith, and the special mention goes to young actor Jalyn Hall, who holds his own small place well besides Deadwyler during the early part of the film.

On the whole, “Till” skillfully handles its important social/historical subject with enough respect and thoughtfulness, and it is surely another excellent work from Chukwu, who previously drew my attention for her overlooked gem “Clemency” (2019). Considering how the American society is still riddled with racism problems, the movie feels all the more relevant, and it will certainly make you reflect more on why there should be more changes even at this point.

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Tár (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A dry but complex character study from Field and Blanchett

Todd Field’s latest film “Tár” fascinated me a lot for how it is about. While this is basically another familiar tale about art, fame, and personality, the movie is deliberately dry and restrained as patiently doling out a number of interesting variations of conventional story elements during its 158-minute running time, and it ultimately works as a supremely compelling character study to be savored and admired for many reasons.

During the opening part featuring a public interview by Adam Gopnick, the movie succinctly establishes its heroine’s legendary status in her artistic field. As a world-famous female composer-conductor who is also the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at present, Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has been simply peerless for her very distinguished professional career. As mentioned by Gopnick himself, she has garnered many various industry awards including Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony, and she is now approaching to another highlight in her long and illustrious career as preparing for the live recording of one of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies along with her orchestra.

After observing how Lydia effortlessly captivates her interviewer and others with her wit and charisma, the movie alternates between her work and private life. She has lived with her wife Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss) and their little adopted daughter, and Sharon has also worked as the concertmaster for her. While Sharon takes care of Lydia’s private life, Lydia’s young assistant Francesca Lentini (Noémie Merlant) handles many things in Lydia’s busy schedule, and we come to gather that Sharon and Francesca have done more than merely providing help and assistance to Lydia for years.

One unadorned but undeniably impressive long-take scene shows what an unflappably confident lecturer Lydia is, while also provoking some thoughts on whether art can really be separated from artist. When one of the students attending her lecture says he does like the works of J.S. Bach much due to Bach’s rather misogynistic life, Lydia promptly makes a series of counterarguments for why art should be regarded for art itself, and that makes an interesting contradiction. She is surely a pioneering female artist who reaches to the top of a male-dominant field, but she does not seem to regard herself as a feminist as shown from her interview with Gopnik, though she recognizes and respects all those famous female artists before her.

In the meantime, things slowly begin to fall apart in Lydia’s seemingly perfect life and career. At first, she just seems to be annoyed by some young woman who was involved with her some time ago, but it gradually turns out that the situation is much more serious than it looked at first. No matter how much Lydia gets things under control as before, her life and work keep disrupted by more discords to come, and we are not so surprised when there eventually comes a sort of breaking point.

Even at that narrative point, the movie remains distant and detached as before, and Field’s screenplay wisely avoids any unnecessary melodrama or gratuitous sympathy as further examining its heroine’s contradictory sides. Because of being a woman, she is probably criticized much more than many other famous real-life male artists who got exposed at last mainly thanks to the #MeToo movement, but it goes without saying that she has indeed wielded her fame and influence just like them, and that is evident especially when she finds herself attracted to one certain young female member in her orchestra later in the story.

Although the movie stumbles more than once during its rather choppy last act, everything is still held together well by another stunning performance from Cate Blanchett, who deservedly received the Best Actress award at the Venice International Film Festival a few months ago and will surely add another Oscar nomination to her tremendous movie acting career. The movie has numerous small and big scenes where Blanchett is supposed to support and then carry to the end, and she does not disappoint us at all without making any excuse or compromise for her complex human character. We understandably become more distant to her character along the story, but Blanchett continues to hold our attention via her sheer charismatic presence, and that is why the last scene works as a bitter mix of irony and humor.

Around Blanchett, Field assembles several notable performers who hold each own place well around her. While Julian Glover, Mark Strong, and Allan Corduner represent the male-dominant aspects of Lydia’s professional field, Nina Hoss and Noémie Merlant are effective in their respective supporting roles, and Hoss is particularly terrific when her character reveals how much she has put up with Lydia for many years.

In conclusion, “Tár” is another interesting work from Field, who previously directed two films during last 21 years. Despite making a stunning debut with “In the Bedroom” (2001), he has been quite dormant after his second film “Little Children” (2006), and it is certainly nice to see that he is still a talented filmmaker to watch. Although it is challenging to some degree because of its slow narrative pacing and long running time, this is one of the best films of this year in addition to having one of Blanchett’s best performances, and I sincerely recommend you to check it out as soon as possible.

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The Night Owl (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): He saw what he was not supposed to see…

South Korean film “The Night Owl” is a well-made period drama thriller which mixes fact and fiction a bit better than I expected. While its story and characters are inherently limited by the story from the beginning, the movie still engages us as its fictional hero desperately tries to do the right thing in front of increasing perils around him, and we come to care about not only him and but also a few other characters around him.

The story is mainly set in Korea, 1645, and the opening part of the movie introduces us to Kyeong-soo (Ryu Jun-yeol), a blind common lad who has distinguished himself well via his exceptional acupuncture skills. When he happens to get the attention of the palace doctor on one day, he is immediately employed, and he is certainly happy about that because this will improve the living condition of him and his sick younger brother, though his younger brother is not so pleased about not seeing Kyeong-soo during next several weeks.

Anyway, it does not take much time for Kyeong-soo to draw lots of attention in the palace thanks to his first-rate professional skills. When Crown Prince So-hyeon (Kim Sung-cheol), who was taken hostage by the Qing Dynasty of China at the end of the Second Manchu invasion of Korea in 1636, returns to the palace, Kyeong-soo quickly gains the trust of the crown prince as handling the sick body of the crown prince, and the crown prince subsequently shows some generosity after coming to learn more about Kyeong-soo at one point.

Meanwhile, the crown prince is determined to bring some change into his kingdom, but he frequently finds himself in conflict with his father King Injo (Yoo Hae-jin). Still reeling from his wounded pride around the end of the Second Manchu invasion, King Injo strongly objects to his son’s suggestion for more changes including how they should deal with the Qing Dynasty, but, to his disturbance and annoyance, his son gains more political support day by day, and it becomes more possible that his son will succeed him much earlier than expected.

However, as already told to us right from the beginning of the film, the crown prince does not live that long. At one night, his physical condition is suddenly deteriorated a lot, and Kyeong-soo is hurriedly brought along with the palace doctor, and that is when he comes to see something he is not supposed to see. While he cannot see at all during daytime, he can actually see in the dark for some unspecified medical reason, and, due to one small coincidence, he witnesses the crown prince being poisoned before his eventual death.

At first, Kyeong-soo considers keeping this horrible secret to himself because he may get himself killed for that, but he eventually decides to tell it to a few people in the palace he can trust. Once she comes to learn of the truth from Kyeong-soo later, the wife of the crown prince is surely willing to do anything for justice as well as her and her young son’s safety, and there are also a bunch of high-ranking officials who are ready to help her and her son once Kyeong-soo’s testimony is firmly confirmed.

However, things soon get quite more complicated as the palace is completely shut down from the outside world as ordered by the king. It seems that he will simply cover up everything for protecting his political position, and Kyeong-soo consequently finds himself running away from those palace soldiers. If he is not very lucky, he may not survive the night, and the truth will certainly be buried along with him in the end.

Steadily paying attention to what is being at stake for Kyeong-soo and several other main characters, the screenplay by director/writer Ahn Tae-jin keeps things rolling with enough tension and suspense. In case of a tense moment where Kyeong-soo must look absolutely blind in front of a certain kind of threat he can clearly see in the darkness, it feels rather clichéd, but it is still effective enough to make us brace for ourselves, and I also like a certain wordless moment between Kyeong-soo and the wife of the crown prince when both of them suddenly come to realize who is really behind the death of her husband.

If you know a bit about the history of King Injo and his son like me, you already know well how the story eventually ends, but the movie continues to hold our attention before arriving at its predestined finale because of the strong acting from Ryu Jun-yeol, who is sometimes poignant as his character is driven more by his conscience and loyalty. While there is really nothing much he can do in the end, Kyeong-soo keeps trying nonetheless to the end, and you may appreciate some fictional poetic justice in the epilogue part of the story.

Several performers surrounding Ryu in the film are also fine in their respective supporting parts. Choi Moo-sung, Cho Seong-ha, Park Myung-hoon, Kim Sung-cheol, Ahn Eun-jin, Jo Yoon-seo, and Yoo Hae-jin have each own moment to shine, and Yoo surely has some showy moments as his character, who has been regarded as one of the crummiest kings in the history of Joseon Dynasty, shows more ruthlessness and pettiness along the story.

In conclusion, “The Night Owl” is a standard period drama stuff in many aspects, but it works fairy enough to entertain us thanks to its efficient storytelling and several good performances. It did not surprise me much on the whole, but it accomplishes as much as intended despite the unavoidable limits in terms of story and characters, so I will not grumble for now.

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