The Death of Stalin (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A political satire set in the Soviet era

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Some black comedies dare to generate laughs from dark, ghastly subjects, and “The Death of Stalin” is one of such interesting cases. Focusing on the human absurdities and inhuman horrors inside one of the most infamous totalitarian regimes in the 20th century history, the movie alternatively chills and tickles us through its ruthless black humor rivaling “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), and the result is one of the funniest films of this year.

Mainly set in Moscow, the Soviet Union around early 1953, the movie opens with the live radio broadcast of a performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.23 in A Major (K. 488). Everything seems to be going well, but then a guy supervising the radio broadcast receives a phone call during the middle of the performance, and he is soon thrown into panic as the performance is about to be finished. The call comes from none other than Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), and he demands a recording of the performance, which, unfortunately, is not being recorded.

What follows after that is pretty absurd to say the least. For recreating the exact same performance, audiences are hurriedly brought back to the studio while orchestra members are ready for their second performance, but there come two big problems. While so nervous about what may happen if he does not pull it off well, the conductor gets himself knocked out by accident, and the pianist, who does not like Stalin much for a personal reason, is not so eager to play for him.

This farcical moment is juxtaposed with a chilling sequence depicting the daily horror under Stalin’s dictatorship. As soon as Stalin approves of another list of people to be incarcerated or executed, the secret police headed by his righthand guy Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) instantly goes outside for arresting them all. Knowing that they can be arrested at any moment, everyone in the country is constantly watchful of their words and behaviors, and that is particularly true in case of the members of Stalin’s inner circle. When they have a drinking time with Stalin at his dacha outside Moscow, they look jolly and drunken on the surface, but they are also nervous about their powerful and ruthless leader, and they are all relieved when their another evening with Stalin is over without any serious trouble to get any of them eliminated.

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However, something quite unexpected happens not long after that. When he finally receives the recording of that concerto performance in question and then reads a note sent along with it, Stalin is collapsed on the floor of his office due to sudden cerebral haemorrhage, and this serious health state of his is belatedly discovered only after a maid comes into the office in the next morning. Once he is notified of this serious situation, Beria immediately goes to Stalin’s dacha, so do Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buschemi) and the other members of the Central Committee.

The movie, which is adapted from graphic novel “La mort de Staline” by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robindeal by director Armando Iannucci and his co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows, gives us numerous acerbic moments of ironies and absurdities as its apparatchik characters clumsily try to deal with this urgent circumstance they have probably never imagined. At one point, they try to get doctors to examine Stalin, but then they are reminded that they executed most of good doctors in Moscow, and a bunch of doctors they later manage to gather are understandably reluctant to examine Stalin.

Once Stalin eventually passes away, the situation becomes more complicated due to the following conflict between Beria and Khrushchev. Although Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) fills Stalin’s empty position for now, he is utterly ineffectual and spineless without much presence or leadership to hold the Central Committee under his control, and both Beria and Khrushchev try to manipulate him as well as other several key figures for their ultimate political goal. Besides Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) and other Central Committee members, they also have to deal with Stalin’s two children Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) and Vasily (Rupert Friend), and there is also Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a volatile World War II hero who forcefully struts into the ongoing circumstance as quite determined to do something about it.

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Wryly depicting the silliness of this absurd power struggle, the movie never overlooks the atrocities casually committed by its main characters’ monstrous political system, and Iannucci deftly balances his story and characters between humor and horror. While we get lots of laughs from how silly and petty its main characters are, what is being at stake in their inner world remains quite serious nonetheless, and we are often chilled by how their political chaos mercilessly affects the world outside.

Rather than using fake Russian accent, the performers in the movie speak with each own natural English accent, and this wise acting choice makes them more fluent and effortless in their line delivery and timing. While Steve Buscemi, who is the last performer you can imagine playing Khrushchev, is superlative in his role, Simon Russell Beale is effectively despicable, and the other main cast members including Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, Rupert Friend, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Paddy Considine, and Jason Isaacs have each own moment to shine.

Like Iannucci’s previous work “In the Loop” (2009), “The Death of Stalin” is a smart, intelligent political satire which distinguishes itself with its sharp, uninhibited sense of black humor, and you will be simultaneously amused and chilled by its barbed insights on dictatorship and accompanying sycophancy. They say anything can be a subject for comedy, and this bitingly funny movie surely proves that with truly dark laughs to be savored and appreciated.

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Ready Player One (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Ready for entertainment?

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Steven Spielberg’s new film “Ready Player One” is an exhilarating eye candy stuffed with various goodies to enjoy and appreciate. Although this is not something as sublime as Spielberg’s great blockbuster films such as “Jaws” (1975) and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), it is still quite entertaining nonetheless as bouncing from one spirited visual moment to another, and I was enthralled by that process as appreciating Spielberg’s undeniable mastery of special effects and storytelling. While it goes overboard for its digital fun around the expected climactic finale, the movie never loses its jubilant sense of entertainment at least, and I eventually came out of the screening room with lots of excitement and satisfaction.

Based on the SF novel of the same by Ernest Cline, who adapted his novel with Zak Penn, the movie is mainly about the adventure of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), an adolescent orphan boy living with his aunt in a poor trailer neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio. It is 2045, and the world has become your average dystopia due to overpopulation and many other unspecified social/geopolitical problems during last two decades. Rather than coping with the daunting hardships in their daily life, many people choose to spend most of their time in virtual reality (VR), and the opening scene of the movie amusingly shows us many of Wade’s neighbors occupying themselves in VR as Wade climbs down along a stack of trailers, which is just one of many stacks in his neighborhood.

Within an auto junkyard near his residence, Wade has his own private place for VR experience. In a vast VR world called the OASIS, he is represented by an avatar named Parzival, and we get some glimpses into this seemingly boundless fantasy world as he shows and tells us about some of its most exciting places. While freely roaming here and there in the OASIS, he and many other VR users always have more fun and excitement everyday, and that certainly feels better than their mundane and depressing real world out there.

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The OASIS was originally owned by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a brilliant programmer/entrepreneur who co-created it with his friend/partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg) many years ago. Shortly before he died in 2040, Halliday hid three keys somewhere in the OASIS and then announced in public that whoever wins in the quest for these keys will receive the sole ownership of the OASIS. That surely made many VR users eagerly search for any possible clue which may led to these keys, but nothing significant has been found yet during next five years, and they accordingly become less enthusiastic as time goes by.

However, Wade still does not give up the hope of finding a clue someday. As your typical nerdy geek, he has accustomed himself to the numerous details in Halliday’s life and career, and that is how he accidentally comes upon a small but crucial clue to the first key of the quest. As soon as he is announced as the first one to acquire the first key, he instantly becomes far more famous and popular than before, and he also draws the attention of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), a well-known VR user to whom he has recently been attracted.

While Wade simply wins the quest, Art3mis turns out to be far more serious than him. Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), Halliday’s former employee who is currently the CEO of a competing company named Innovative Online Industries (IOI), has been trying to win the quest by any means necessary, and Art3mis and several other rebellious VR users have tried to outsmart Sorrento and his countless employees, many of whom have been his miserable VR slaves as bound by their financial debts to his company (Isn’t it amusing that the movie seemingly delivers anti-corporate messages while apparently being a big corporate product?).

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As Wade inevitably gets involved into the conflict between IOI and the rebellion group, the movie keeps things rolling through a series of exciting sequences which are packed with many notable cultural references from the 1970-90s. I will not spoil your fun here in this review, but I guess I can tell you that there is a direct reference to “Back to the Future” (1985), and I must confess that I chuckled a lot when the movie tries something quite surprising through a certain classic horror film from the 1980s. The production design by Adam Stockhausen, who won an Oscar for Spielberg’s previous film “Lincoln” (2012), is bountiful in styles and details, and the score by Alan Silvestri, who worked here instead of Spielberg’s usual collaborator John Williams, is also very good while holding its own place among a number of period pop songs from the 1980s.

However, the movie feels a bit superficial in terms of story and characters while also being a little too long. Wade is rather bland compared to relatively more colorful characters surrounding him, and it is a shame that the movie does not delve enough into the existing difference between the OASIS and the real world, though it generates some amusement from how Wade’s fellow VR users actually look in the real world. In case of the finale sequence, it is surely overpowering as pouring lots of different elements onto the screen, but it also feels numbing at times with excessive CGIs, and we accordingly become less involved in what is being at stake for the characters in the film.

Nevertheless, in many aspects, “Ready Play One” is a commendable blockbuster film a lot better than many other ones out there, and I observed its world and details with curiosity and excitement. Along with “The Post” (2017), the movie demonstrates to us Spielberg’s immense talent and skill, and it is certainly nice to see again that he still can thrill and excite us as he did many times before. He simply wants us to be entertained, and we gladly go along with that as he dexterously pulls strings as usual.

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The Greatest Showman (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Schmaltzy but energetic

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“The Greatest Showman” is willing to bet almost everything on song and dance as throwing itself into its saccharine show business story which is supposedly inspired by the life and career of P.T. Barnum, an infamous showman known for promoting various hoaxes and human curiosities such as the Feejee mermaid and General Tom Thumb. While its attempt is not entirely successful due to its thin narrative and characterization, and I was also often bothered by its schmaltzy treatment of its subject matters, the movie is still an energetic musical film thanks to its spirited soundtrack and solid performance, and I came to admire its gamely efforts despite reasonable reservation.

After opening with its first musical number “The Greatest Show”, the movie goes back to its hero’s early years. As the son of a poor tailor, Young Barnum (Ellis Rubin), does not look like a suitable match for a rich pretty girl named Charity (Skylar Dunn), but something instantly clicks between them when he and his father come to her father’s big house, and they soon come to spend lots of time with each other. Even after Charity is later sent away to her finishing school, they keep corresponding with each other during next several years, and Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman from this point, eventually marries Charity, who is now played by Michelle Williams, and then raises their two cute daughters along with her in New York City.

While he is happy in his modest family life, Barnum wants to achieve a lot more as an ambitious dreamer, and then there comes a big change which gives him an unexpected chance. A shipping company where he has worked is suddenly shut down, and, as trying to find any possible way to support his family, he decides to do something quite risky. After managing to get a big bank loan, he buys a shabby wax museum located in Manhattan and then promotes it as much as he can, but not many people come to the museum despite his efforts, and that is certainly daunting for not only him but also his supportive family.

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When one of his daughters suggests that he should present something ‘alive’, Barnum goes all the way with that idea as assembling a group of ‘freaks’ including a bearded lady named Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a dwarf who is later nicknamed General Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), and a black trapeze artist named W. D. Wheeler (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his sister/colleague Anne (Zendaya). Many of them are understandably reluctant at first, but Barnum persuades them all to appear in front of their audiences to be shocked and amazed, and we are served with another lively musical number “Come Alive”.

As his freak show draws more money and attention in spite of considerable disdains from many people including prominent newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), Barnum comes to want some respectability, so he approached to Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), a young hotshot playwright who is also the member of a respectable high society family. Carlyle is not so interested at first when Barnum offers him partnership, but then, what do you know, he finds himself being swiftly persuaded by Barnum. Like Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron is no stranger to song and dance, so we get a fun musical moment as they smoothly sing and dance together in “The Other Side”.

After Carlyle joins Barnum’s business, Barnum and his freak show become more popular than ever (Don’t ask me how that happens). They are even invited to the royal court of Queen Victoria of England, and that is where Barnum comes across a beautiful Swedish singer named Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). Smitten by her beauty, he brings Lind to US for promoting her talent, and she does not disappoint him and others at all during her first concert performance in US.

Feeling all the more exalted by his continuing rise, Barnum becomes distant to not only his family but also the members of his freak show. This is certainly a predictable plot turn, but it leads to a showstopper moment coupled with Oscar-nominated song “This is Me”, and Keala Settle, a veteran Tony-nominated actress, did a commendable job of imbuing this moment with real passion and sincerity.

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In the meantime, the movie pays some attention to the growing affection between Carlyle and Anne. At one point, they are painfully reminded of their racial difference, but then they are reminded again of how much they love each other as singing “Rewrite the Stars”, which is definitely another memorable highlight in the soundtrack by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who previously won an Oscar for “City of Stars” in “La La Land” (2016).

While I must point out that P.T. Barnum in real life was a sleazy, exploitative guy in many aspects, the movie does not try to be a realistic biography drama from the very beginning, and it actually flaunts its artificial sides right in front of our eyes and ears with all those flashy musical sequences in the film. As busily hopping from one musical sequence to another, the movie often suffers from plot contrivance and half-baked characterization, but director Michael Gracey did a fairly good job of maintaining narrative momentum during its rather short running time (104 minutes), and I was seldom bored during my viewing.

I do not think that “The Greatest Showman” is as good as it aims to be, but it is still a recommendable musical film which is relatively less cumbersome than “Mamma Mia!” (2008) and “Les Misérables” (2012), and, above all, it mostly works as an enjoyable showcase of Hugh Jackman’s undeniable musical talent, which, unfortunately, has not been used that frequently for many years. Considering the considerable box office success of “The Greatest Showman”, he may get another good chance to show off his talent, and I sincerely wish that will happen as soon as possible.

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Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): More Jaegers – and more Kaijus

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“Pacific Rim: Uprising” is as good as you can expect from a conventional but serviceable blockbuster product. While it is not as ambitious or spirited as its predecessor, the movie provides enough amount of action to entertain you, and I must admit that I was not that bored during my viewing although it does not have enough energy and personality to engage me.

The prologue part of the movie explains to us what happened after the big climactic ending of “Pacific Rim” (2013). During the next 10 years, the humanity has gradually recovered from the damages resulted from its long war with huge alien monsters called ‘Kaiju’. and the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) and its big robots called ‘Jaeger’, which were crucial in the victory of the war, have become far less necessary than before. While the PPDC is still maintained, some of Jaegers became retired and abandoned, and the following scene shows an attempt to steal some important component from one of those abandoned Jaegers.

To Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of legendary war hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), Jaegers once meant a lot to him when he was a PPDC trainee during the war, but he has been a small-time scrapper stealing and selling components from Jaegers since he was kicked out of the PPDC for some disagreeable incident. When he tries to steal that important component from the abandoned Jaeger, it is just another opportunity to earn money, but then he finds himself getting involved with a teenager girl named Amara Namani (Caliee Spaeny), who needs that component for building her own Jaeger. In the end, they are arrested together, and Jake’s adopted sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who is currently the leader of the PPDC, gives him an offer he cannot refuse; instead of going to prison, he will go back to the PPDC as a training instructor, and Amara will accompany him as a new trainee.

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Right from their first day at the PPDC headquarters near Hong Kong, the situation does not look that good for both Jake and Amara. While she cannot help but enthusiastic as looking around a number of Jaegers in the PPDC headquarters, Amara soon faces a serious difficulty as going through the training along with other trainees, and she also has to cope with an aggressive trainee who is rather harsh and hostile to her. In case of Jake, he has to work with his old friend and colleague Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and it is pretty clear that there are some bad feelings remained between them.

Meanwhile, the PPDC comes to face a possible change which is not welcomed much by Mako and some others in the PPDC. Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), an ambitious entrepreneur who is the CEO of a big global technology company, proposes the replacement of Jaegers with her drone robots developed by her technicians including Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), and Mako may not be able to stop this change no matter how much she tries.

And then, of course, there comes a sudden unexpected threat, and, yes, Jake and other characters around him surely come to see that they must band together for stopping another big crisis of the humanity. After a major action sequence unfolded in Sydney, the movie keeps trying one thing after another for entertaining us, and everything eventually culminates to a long action sequence featuring no less than three Kaijus and four Jaegers.

While being as big and loud as required, the action sequences in the movie are skillfully handled on the whole, but I was somehow not very impressed by that. Sure, “Pacific Rim” also has many similarly bombastic action sequences, but these sequences are presented with not only skills but also personality and style under Guillermo del Toro’s spirited direction, and I also admired his considerable attention to mood and details. In contrast, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” looks less distinctive and passionate as mechanically moving from one narrative point to another, and the result is less memorable in comparison despite its well-made aspects.

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In addition, the screenplay by director Steven S. DeKnight and his co-writers Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin often stumbles in its clumsy attempt to provide engaging story and characters. Besides Amara and Jake, the other characters around them are mostly flat and underdeveloped, and the dramas generated among them are not engaging enough to hold our attention. While “Pacific Rim” is also rather weak in terms of storytelling and characterization, many of its characters are presented with distinctive personality at least, and that was the main reason I could care about what is being at stake for them.

The main performers in the movie fill their respective roles as much as they can. While John Boyega, who has been more notable thanks to recent Star Wars film, is reliable as before, Caliee Spaeny is as plucky as demanded, and Scott Eastwood and Jing Tian acquit themselves well in spite of being stuck with their thankless roles. In case of Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman, they merely function as plot elements, and that reminds me of how much they were better in the previous film.

Overall, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is one or two steps below “Pacific Rim”, so I give it 2.5 stars, but I must tell you that it is a better alternative to those dreadful Transformer movies. Although I still think it could be better with more style and substance, I am actually relieved to see that it is not as bad as I feared, and I sincerely hope that the possible next sequel will fix that problem.

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Being There (1979) ☆☆☆☆(4/4): Still being there

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Although more than 35 years have passed since it came out, “Being There”, which is based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name, remains as a brilliant satire with timeless insights on media and celebrity. Gently strolling along with its adamantly elusive hero, the movie is funny and absurd as he quickly and unbelievably rises from obscurity to nationwide fame, and I could not help but chuckle during my recent viewing as admiring again how it slyly makes sharp points on its subjects via inspired comic moments to be cherished.

Its hero is an illiterate gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers), and the movie opens with how he begins another usual day of his insulated daily life within a cozy house located somewhere in Washington D.C., where he has lived for many years since he was brought by the owner of the house when he was very young. He wakes up shortly after a TV alarm in his bedroom is set off, and then he goes through his morning routines including taking care of plants in the greenhouse, and then he waits for breakfast to be brought by an old black maid, while passively watching whatever is shown on a small TV on the table.

When the maid comes to Chance, she is visibly disturbed as she has just found that the owner of the house, called ‘the old man’, is dead, but, to our small amusement, Chance does not respond much to this sad news. Even when he later goes upstairs and then sees the dead body of the old man, he does not look like feeling anything except, probably, curiosity, and then he occupies himself in watching TV. From this odd behavior of his, anyone familiar with autistic spectrum will get some idea of how his simple mind works. He just sticks to what he likes most, not interested much in the situation which may be beyond his understanding.

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He continues to do his gardening work as usual, but there soon comes an inevitable change. Two lawyers handling the old man’s estate come to the house, and they notify to him that he should leave the house. Chance acquiesces without any complain; he packs his suitcase on the next day, and then he walks out of the house for the first time in his life while wearing the old man’s suit as before. As he walks around the surrounding neighborhood areas of Washington D.C., the movie makes a humorous nod to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) through the pop version of Richard Strauss’ “Also sprach Zarathustra”, and Chance’s child-like attitude is instantly linked with the image of the Star Child of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in our mind. Everything looks new and wondrous to this manchild, and there is a priceless moment of self-recognition when he sees himself on a displayed TV connected with a video camera and then tries to have some fun with that.

And that is when he happens to encounter Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine), who is the wife of Benjamin Rand (Melvyn Douglas), a dying old man who is also one of the most powerful industrialists in the country. Due to his minor leg injury caused by Eve’s car, Eve brings Chance to a huge manor where she and her husband live, and, after accidentally mishearing his name, she introduces him as ‘Chauncey Gardiner’ to her husband and others in the manor. Just because of how his mild, courteous attitude and dapper appearance. Chance is mistaken for a man of substance, and Rand, who comes to like Chance a lot after having a dinner with him, is willing to give some boost to his new friend as a prominent kingmaker with many strings to be pulled. In fact, he is a very close friend of the US President, and the President is about to visit him for having a serious conversation on the current problems of national economy.

This is surely a classic case of mistaken identity which has been utilized in countless comedy films, and we get lots of wry fun as the situation surrounding Chance becomes more absurd step by step. When he is asked about an economic policy by the President, Chance gives a plain response consisting of bland horticultural terms (“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.”), but the President and Rand interprets it as a wise, no-nonsense comment on national economy, and the President even embellishes it further when he makes a speech at the following public conference. Once he mentions Chauncey Gardiner during his speech, everyone is curious about who the hell is Chauncey Gardiner is, and Chance soon becomes a new celebrity in the town as touted as a brilliant and interesting man to watch.

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Director Hal Ashby, an idiosyncratic filmmaker who had a remarkably productive period during the 1970s with a string of acclaimed works including “The Last Detail” (1973), “Bound for Glory” (1976), and “Coming Home” (1978), trusts us to get this hilarious irony for ourselves. He and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel steadily maintain a calm, muted tone throughout the film, and everything on the screen is presented with phlegmatic realism. Like its hero, the movie sticks to its neutral position without telling us how to respond to it, and many comic moments generated from Chance’s unbelievable social/political ascent subtly deliver biting messages along with a sly sense of humor. As a cipher doling out simple, banal words with no apparent inclination, Chance is a perfect blank figure for not only media but also politics, and he is even considered as a strong candidate for the upcoming US Presidential election later in the story. This might look silly in the 1970s, but it does not look that outrageous these days considering the absurd superficiality of George W. Bush, and our reality recently surpassed fiction with the horrifying rise of Donald Trump, who, as many people pointed out, frequently talks like an evil twin of Chance nurtured by those hateful right-wing media companies.

From time to time, the movie goes for broader farcical moments, which are not as successful as subtler ones in the film. A subplot involved with the President’s sexual dysfunction caused by the prospect of Chance being his possible political rival is rather underdeveloped, and the one associated with Eve’s increasing sexual obsession with Chance feels too blatant at times compared to the serene ambiance of the movie, though it is uproarious to watch her going all the way with her another misinterpretation of Chance’s words. In case of a brief scene where that old black maid throws an acerbic comment on Chance’s TV appearance, it makes its point on race a little too directly to us, but I must admit that it still rings true even at present (“Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.”)

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Anyway, the movie keeps its overall tone mostly intact thanks to Peter Sellers, who was deservedly Oscar-nominated for his committed performance. As a chameleon-like performer of anonymous comic persona (He once said, “When I am not playing a role, I am nobody.”), he instinctively saw that Chance is a role he was born to play when he encountered Kosiński’s novel, and he gave what would be remembered as the final great performance in his distinguished career. Yes, his acting in the film is essentially one-note, but it is a finely calibrated one-note performance which ably carries the movie from the beginning to the end, and his character comes to function as a sort of mirror to project not only others around him but also ourselves. We are amused to observe how other characters vastly overestimate Chance as believing whatever they want to see from him, but then we are also reminded that we may not be so different from Chance, considering how often we mindlessly absorb those endless streams of soundbites from media everyday.

The other performers in the film are credible in their comic interactions with Sellers on the screen. While Shirely MacLaine brings warm humanity to her rather broad character, and Jack Warden is convincing as his character feels confounded and then threatened by Chance, and Melvyn Douglas, who won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, is poignant especially during a crucial dramatic scene, where we possibly observe a brief glimpse of genuine emotional response from Chance.

Although it goes on a bit too long with its one-joke premise and is occasionally hampered by its minor flaws, “Being There” is still a great comedy film worthwhile to be watched and discussed, and its thought-provoking finale will linger on you for a long time, even though the spell of this confounding moment is broken to some degrees by a series of outtakes shown during the following end credits. Is it merely another unbelievable moment of sheer luck? Or, does it mean that Chance is actually a lot more than what we have observed from him? Regardless of how we should interpret it, he will simply be there as usual.

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Microhabitat (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As she sticks to her simple pleasures

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Alternatively funny and melancholic, South Korean comedy film “Microhabitat” presents an unconventional heroine to remember. Here is a young, resourceful woman determined to stick to her simple pleasures as much as she can, and the movie is often amusing as generating a number of humorous moments between her and other characters around her, but it is also quite poignant at times as we come to see how adamantly she tries to maintain her modest happiness in her tough daily life.

When we meet Mi-so (Esom) for the first time during the opening scene, she is in the middle of her cleaning work in the house belonging to some affluent girl around her age. Although the money she earns everyday from cleaning several places is not that much, that has been more than enough for paying the monthly rent for her shabby one-room residence located somewhere in Seoul, and she usually spends the rest of her earnings on cigarette and whiskey, which have been the only joy in her life besides her nice boyfriend Han-sol (Ahn Jae-hong).

However, the situation becomes more difficult for Mi-so when the new year arrives. The price of cigarettes is increased as a part of governmental non-smoking policy, and then her landlord notifies to her that she will have to pay more money for her rent. As checking her account book, she soon comes to see that she must decrease her spending in one way or another, and then she makes a rather drastic choice; instead of quitting cigarette and whiskey, she decides to be homeless for a while, and she instantly packs her suitcase and then leaves her current residence.

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All Mi-so needs is now someone willing to provide her a place to stay temporarily, and it initially seems that she can get such persons easily. While her boyfriend cannot do that as he currently resides in a factory dormitory, there are five old friends who were very close to her during those fun days of their college band, and all of these friends happen to live in Seoul, though there has not been much correspondence among them since their good old college years.

As Mi-so drifts from one place to another, we meet her five friends one by one. After flatly rejected by Moon-yeong (Kang Jin-ah), Mi-so goes to Hyeon-jeong (Kim Gook-hee), and she is wholeheartedly welcomed by Hyeon-jeong, but Hyeon-jeong’s home turns out to be not a very good place to stay for her. Living with not only her husband but also her parents-in-law, Hyeong-jeong has felt bitter about her disappointing married life, and there is a tender scene between her and Mi-so when they become a bit nostalgic about their college years.

In case of Dae-yong (Lee Sung-wook), his apartment looks better in comparison, but he has recently been daunted a lot by his separation from his wife, and it does not take much time for Mi-so to see how messy his life has been. After cleaning his apartment, she also cooks a breakfast for him, and he certainly appreciates her kindness despite still being depressed as before.

The funniest moment in the movie comes from Mi-so’s odd encounter with Rok-i (Choi Deok-moon) and his parents. Right from when she arrives in their house, his parents greet her a little too enthusiastically, and the circumstance later becomes hilariously weirder when Mi-so belatedly comes to realize what they really want from her (No, this is not the South Korean version of “Get Out” (2017)).

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When she eventually comes to Jeong-mi (Kim Jae-hwa), Mi-so feels more comfortable than before because Jeong-mi is your average affluent housewife who has a very big house thanks to her rich parents-in-law, but then she somehow begins to feel uncomfortable. In the end, there comes a hurtful conversation scene between her and Jeong-mi, who has not been that pleased about Mi-so’s casual lifestyle.

Meanwhile, the relationship between Mi-so and her boyfriend is seriously tested when he makes an important decision after getting frustrated more and more with his life going nowhere. While Mi-so is not very glad about that, she decides to respect his choice anyway, and we subsequently get a small touching scene in which she reminds him that he should not give up his aspiration just because of that decision.

As lightly gliding around these and other episodic moments, the screenplay by director Jeon Go-woon did a commendable job of fleshing out its heroine and other characters. While Mi-so comes to us as a vivid, likable human character to watch, the other substantial characters in the movie are depicted with considerable humor and personality, and its main cast members are all wonderful in their respective roles. While Esom, who previously played a supporting character in “The Queen of Crime” (2016), ably carries the film with her charming performance, Ahn Jae-hong, Kang Jin-ah, Kim Gook-hee, Lee Sung-wook, Choi Deok-moon, Kim Jae-hwa, and Jo Soo-hyang have each own moment to shine around her, and I particularly enjoyed the unaffected screen chemistry between Esom and Ahn Jae-hong, who has been one of new interesting South Korean performers since his lively breakout performance in “The King of Jokgu” (2013).

Overall, “Microhabitat” is an impressive comedy film balancing itself well between hilarity and poignancy, and I especially admire unexpected poetic moments during its final act. To be frank with you, I have often wondered whether South Korean movies are actually going downhill these days due to their serious lack of diversity, but there are still some excellent ones out there, and I can assure you that “Microhabitat” is one of such fabulous films.

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The Midwife (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): A midwife and her father’s mistress

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While it is basically a conventional drama, French film “The Midwife” is an enjoyable experience for several good reasons. Yes, its story is predictable at times, but its two contrasting main characters are vivid and engaging enough to hold our attention, and the movie is simply delightful as intimately observing what is happening between them. In addition, these two characters are incidentally played by two of the best actresses in France, and, in my inconsequential opinion, that makes the film worthwhile to watch at least.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Claire (Catherine Frot), a middle-aged midwife who has worked at a maternity clinic for many years. Although the circumstance has been not very bright for her and her several colleagues as the clinic will soon be shut down, they keep diligently working as usual, and the opening scene of the movie shows Claire handling another case of delivery with compassionate professionalism.

Outside her workplace, Claire has led a plain, uneventful private life alone since her son moved out from her residence, but then it is disrupted by an unexpected phone call from a figure in her old past. The figure in question is an old woman named Béatrice (Catherine Deneuve), and she was the mistress of Claire’s dead father, who killed himself not long after Béatrice suddenly left him and young Claire.

Of course, Claire is not so eager to meet Béatrice, but she agrees to meet her anyway, and Béatrice reveals that she may not live long due to brain cancer. As your average free spirit, she casually talks about her illness, but it made her look back on her wild, messy life, and now she wants to have sort of reconciliation with the daughter of a man whom, as she admits to Claire at one point, she loved more than any other guys in her life.

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Although she still does not like Béatrice much, Claire gradually lets Béatrice coming into her life. When Béatrice later happens to lose her current residence, Claire allows Béatrice to stay at her apartment, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Béatrice brings some lively spirit into Claire’s apartment when she feels relatively better. She is surely well aware of that there may not be many days left for her, but that still does not stop her from reaching for joie de vivre as before, and Claire comes to enjoy being with Béatrice more than before.

While its plot feels clichéd on the surface, the screenplay by director Martin Provost, who previously impressed me a lot with “Séraphine” (2008), takes time in establishing its main characters with details and nuances, and there are a number of nice human moments which let us get to know more about Claire and Béatrice. As we observe more of Claire’s work at the clinic, we sense how much she is dedicated to her profession, and we later get a sweet, poignant moment when she encounters someone who really appreciates her work for a personal reason. Although she is often capricious and self-absorbed, Béatrice comes to us as a complex human character nonetheless, and, as observing how she firmly keeps her spirit high despite her increasingly precarious life, we come to care about her as much as Claire does.

In contrast, the other parts of the movie do not work as well as intended. For example, a subplot involved with Claire’s son does not go anywhere once he tells Claire about an important decision for his life and career, and the same thing can be said about Claire’s attempt to get a new job later in the film. In case of her romantic involvement with the son of one of her neighbours, it feels rather redundant from time to time, and Olivier Gourmet, a Belgian actor who has usually been reliable since I saw him in the Dardenne Brothers’ great film “The Son” (2002), is under-utilized in his thankless role.

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Nevertheless, the movie remains to be entertaining thanks to its two main performers. While she drew my attention for the first time through her hilarious performance in “Marguerite” (2015), Catherine Frot is actually a veteran movie actress who has worked for more than 35 years since she appeared in Alain Resnais’ “My American Uncle” (1980), and the movie shows me again that she is indeed an interesting performer to watch. Steadily maintaining her no-nonsense character’s staid façade, Frot did a good job of conveying different emotions inside her character, and her low-key performance effectively functions as a solid ground for her co-star’s relatively showier acting.

On the opposite, Catherine Deneuve instantly exudes her indelible star quality right from the beginning. While her peak period represented by many notable films such as “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1964), “Repulsion” (1965), and “Belle de Jour” (1967) has already passed, Deneuve can still grab our attention as shown from her recent films such as “A Christmas Tale” (2008) and “The Brand New Testament” (2015), and she gives another fine performance here in this film as effortlessly complementing Frot on the screen.

In conclusion, “The Midwife” is not entirely successful, but it is still an intimate female drama to be appreciated for its earnest storytelling as well as its two commendable lead performances, and I was mostly satisfied with its overall result even while recognizing its weak aspects during my viewing. Its achievement may be modest, but I still had a good time mainly thanks to Frot and Deneuve, and you will probably enjoy the movie as much as me if you are familiar with either of them.

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