House of Gucci (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A brand to kill for

Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci”, which is another new film from Scott in last year after “The Last Duel” (2021), is neither classy nor pulpy to my disappointment. While it is too superficial to be a serious drama about ambition and deterioration, it is also not trashy enough to be an enjoyable camp about greed and folly, and we accordingly come to observe its uneven and sprawling narrative without much care or attention despite all the hard works done by its leading actress.

The story mainly revolves around Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga), and the early part of the movie shows us how she came to marry Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) in Milan, 1978. When she happens to come across Maurizio at one evening party, she does not hesitate to get closer to him mainly because he is an heir to the Gucci fashion house, and it does not take much time for her to win his heart, but there is one problem. Maurizio’s father Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), who owns the half of the family business, does not approve much of Patrizia because she is just the daughter of some middle-class family man running a small local trucking company, and he even threatens to disinherit his only son, but Maurizio and Patrizia come to marry in the end once Maurizio makes it clear to his father that he is not so interested in running or inheriting their family business.

After disinherited by his father, Maurizio comes to depend a lot on Patrizia and her family due to his penniless status, and he does not mind at all working in his father-in-law’s company, but there comes a chance for both him and his wife a few years later. His uncle Aldo (Al Pacino), who owns the other half of the Gucci fashion house, is willing to let Maurizio join the family business mainly because he has been quite disappointed with his incompetent son Paolo (Jared Leto), and, despite his initial reluctance, Maurizio comes to accept his uncle’s offer as being urged by Patrizia, who is certainly delighted about going higher along with her husband at last.

After that point, things go fairly well for Patrizia and her husband for a while as they enjoy some glamour and luxury inside and outside Italy, but, of course, there comes a very complicated circumstance in their family business. As pushed more by his wife, Maurizio comes to clash a lot with Aldo over how to run and maintain their family business, and Patrizia is willing to do anything for making her husband have the total control over the Gucci fashion house. As a result, the situation becomes quite messy for everyone, and that also affects Mauricio and Patricia’s marriage, which becomes more deteriorated as he becomes more distant to her due to a number of personal and business matters.

As the story is eventually heading to what happened on March 27th, 1995, we are supposed to be more engaged around this narrative point, but the movie somehow fails to generate much interest or fascination for us. It surely tries to dazzle us as using many showy stuffs ranging from a bunch of fashionable attires to a number of recognizable pop songs from its period background, but the movie keeps fizzling just like Paolo’s disastrous fashion show at one point, and it only gets enlivened to some degree when a certain famous fashion designer enters the picture for saving the Gucci fashion house later in the story.

Above all, the main characters of the movie are not particularly interesting figures to observe. The screenplay by Becky Johnston and Roberto Bentivegna, which is based on Sara Gay Forden’s nonfiction book “The House of Gucci: A Sensational Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed”, does not provide much insight or depth to Patrizia and the other main characters in the story, and they all come to us nothing more than broad caricatures destined to failure or disgrace from the beginning. While we come to understand Patrizia’s ambition to some degree at least, the movie does not delve much into what makes her tick, and the same thing can be said about the other main characters including her husband, who remains a vapid and blank figure even at the very end of the story.

Anyway, Lady Gaga, who already demonstrated her considerable acting talent in her recent Oscar-nominated turn in “A Star Is Born” (2018), tries really hard in her admirably committed performance which more fluidly oscillates between drama and camp than the movie itself. While her rather exaggerated Italian accent is initially distracting, Gaga fully embodies her character’s ambition and ferocity, and that is why her performance is entertaining to watch even when she deliberately goes for overacting.

Unfortunately, the movie does not support Gaga’s diligent efforts much, and neither do many of the main cast members, who are only demanded to fill each own spot without many things to do. It is certainly nice to see Al Pacino and Jeremy Iron sharing the screen during one brief scene, but these two great actors are just required to look tired and hammy, and that is all for us to see here. While Adam Driver is hopelessly stuck in his flat thankless role, Jared Leto, who is barely recognizable in his heavy makeup, gives another worst acting in his career after “Little Things” (2020), and Salma Hayek and Jack Huston manage to acquit themselves well despite being thoroughly under-utilized.

In conclusion, “House of Gucci” is quite disappointing for not going all the way with its sensational story materials, and I found myself becoming more bored and disaffected during its second half after trying to enjoy it during its first half. At least, Scott gave us “The Last Duel” right before this misfire, and I think you should watch that fairly good film instead.

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France (2021) ☆☆(2/4): An inane satire on media and journalism

Bruno Dumont’s latest film “France” works best whenever the camera focuses on its leading actress’ undeniably beautiful face. I must point out that the movie itself is limp and hollow as a satire on media and journalism, but its leading actress does try her best to sell whatever her increasingly distant character is going through, and it is a shame that the movie does not support her diligent efforts enough on the whole.

Léa Seydoux, who has been one of the most interesting French actresses since she drew our attention for the first time via her supporting turn in “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011), plays France de Meurs, a TV reporter who has been quite famous for years thanks to her popular TV news show. At the beginning, we see her entering a very important press conference along with her close friend/colleague Lou (Blanche Gardin), and the movie gives us a little amusing moment as she boldly throws a supposedly important question to the current president of France, whose archival footage is seamlessly incorporated into this scene.

We subsequently see how France works inside and outside her TV studio. Whenever she is not doing her TV show, she often goes to anywhere to draw the attention of millions of viewers out there, and we observe how she and her crew do some manipulation when they are their work at some remote spot of Northern African region. It seems that all she cares about is how to present her report clip more, uh, entertaining, but that will not probably surprise you much if you are already well aware of how unreliable media has become during last several years.

At her TV studio, France does some discussion with invited figures on TV, but none of them seems to know well what they are talking about. At one point, a certain invited guest tries to make his point with lots of words, and he fails to make his argument more convincing in the end, but then he throws a vicious sexist comment at France after the show is over.

That surely hurt France’s feelings, but there is no one for her to lean on except Lou, who just provides some banal pep talk whenever France feels bad. In her big and expensive apartment which looks like a museum instead of a residence, France does not interact much with her write husband or their young son, and we sense more of the distance between her and her husband when they are having a dinner with a few friends of theirs.

And tgeb another thing happens to cause more turmoil in France’s private life. On one day, her car clashes with a young motorcyclist, and that consequently causes lots of public fuss around her as she and Lou try to get things under control. She subsequently visits that young motorcyclist, and he and his family willingly accept her apology and some compensation from her, but we cannot help but wonder about what she actually thinks and feels. She indeed looks troubled, but, in my humble opinion, she seems to care more about her life and career as wallowing in self-pity.

Anyway, she eventually decides to have a break. Shortly after announcing that on TV, France goes to a sanatorium located in the Alps, and we accordingly get some lovely snowy landscape shots as she tries to bring some calmness to her mind. Although she is still not totally free from her fame and reputation, she comes to befriend some handsome lad, and it does not take much time for them to get closer to each other than before.

The movie subsequently takes a left turn just for bringing its heroine back in action, but it simply meanders as before without enough satiric edge. In case of the sequence involved with a bunch of refugees fleeing from some war zone, it feels shallow without any comic or dramatic effect, and we are only served with a small absurd moment of cheap laugh when France is showing her viewers what she and her crew shot at that time. While there comes a sudden moment of shock later in the story, it is contrived in addition to looking gratuitous for a good reason, and we do not sense any emotional devastation from that because the movie seriously lacks depth in terms of story and characters. As a result, we come to observe its heroine from the distance more than before, and that is one of the main reasons why the finale does not work at all as merely being one more scene to be added to the movie.

Anyway, Seydoux is sometimes engaging to watch as usual. She is particularly good whenever we get the glimpses of her character’s superficial personality, and she certainly looks good whenever her character has to present herself well in front of the camara. In case of several other main cast members surrounding Seydoux, they are unfortunately stuck in bland supporting roles, and Blanche Gardin does not have many things to do besides throwing some banal sarcastic lines drenched in cynicism.

In conclusion, “France” is a dull and blunt misfire which bores us as not having anything new to say about its familiar subject besides failing to work as an edgy satire, and this is a major letdown compared to Dumont’s previous notable works including “Camille Claudel 1915” (2013). That film can be quite dry for some of you, but it is much more interesting in comparison, and I would rather recommend you to watch it instead of this disappointing dud.

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That Day, on the Beach (1983) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Edward Yang’s first feature film

During last several years, I and South Korean audiences were lucky to watch several works of Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang including “A Brighter Summer Day” (1991), which I belatedly watched in December 2017. Although I initially braced myself for the 4-hour long running time of that great film, it did not take much time for me to get absorbed into the vivid and palpable sense of time and life felt from the screen, and I came to appreciate more of what a great filmmaker Yang really is as subsequently watching his several other works including “Yi Yi” (2000).

In case of “That Day, on the Beach”, I did not expect much mainly because it was just his debut feature film preceding “The Taipei Story” (1985) and “The Terrorizers” (1986), but, what do you know, the movie turned out to be much more interesting than expected. Although he just started his filmmaking career with a segment in the seminal Taiwanese New Wave omnibus film “In Our Time” (1982) at that time, the movie is as distinctive and recognizable as Yang’s next films in terms of mood and storytelling, and I am happy to report to you that I found myself gladly following Yang’s masterful narrative during its 166-minute running time.

The movie begins with the arrival of a renowned pianist named Tan Weiqing (Terry Hu) in Taipei, who has been mostly lived abroad for more than 10 years. After hearing about the news about her visit to Taipei, her old friend Jiali (Syvia Chang) instantly tries to contact with Weiqing, and Weiqing promptly meets Jiali for getting to know how she has been during all those years.

As Jiali starts to talk about that, the movie shows us how Jiali happened to befriend Weiqing in the past. They met each other via Jiali’s older brother who was incidentally Weiqing’s boyfriend, and they soon became close to each other, but then there came a sudden change into their life. Although Jiali’s older brother was really serious about his relationship with Weiqing, his doctor father had already expected him to marry the daughter of one of his old colleagues in addition to following his footsteps, and he eventually came to conform to his father’s order despite some protest.   

After showing us how this rather unpleasant change consequently put the distance between Jiali and Weiqing, the movie moves onto how Jiali finds herself in a similar situation several years later. While going through her college years, she comes to fall in love with a male student named Cheng Dewei (David Mao), but then her father makes it very clear to her that she is supposed to marry someone else instead. When she becomes quite conflicted about this circumstance, her older brother, who has been not so happy with his married life as reflected by one brief scene, gives an indirect advice on what she should do, and she eventually goes for what she wants without any hesitation.

When Jiali subsequently marries Dewei without her parents’ permission, the future does not look that bright for both of them, but then, what do you know, things get a lot better for them mainly thanks to one of Dewei’s college friends, who later has Dewei work in his lucrative company along with many college friends of theirs. As a result, Jiali does not have to work anymore, and she tries to get accustomed to her changed environment full of affluence, but she cannot help but feel discontent and dissatisfied day by day mainly because of her husband’s frequent absence due to his company work. 

Although there eventually comes a moment of emotional outburst between Jiali and her husband, the movie still maintains its calm and leisurely narrative flow as slowly revolving around a certain incident associated with its very title. The more we get to know about Jiali’s hard and difficult struggle with her increasingly crumbling married life, the more important this incident becomes in the story, and I will let you feel for yourself the considerable dramatic effect waiting for you at the end of her emotional journey. 

In the meantime, the movie also pays some attention to a number of different figures in Jiali’s life, and I particularly like a modest but poignant scene which serenely conveys to us how much Jiali’s mother tolerated her husband for many years – and how she is totally in peace with whatever she suffered and endured during all those years. In case of Jiali’s old college friend who also has a fair share of life issues, she provides Jiali some relief and consolation as they often spend time together, and Jilali later finds herself tempted to have an affair with some guy introduced to her via her friend.

As all these and other elements in the story are thoughtfully presented on the screen one by one, the movie effortlessly immerse us into its realistic atmosphere, and Yang and his cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who incidentally made a debut here thanks to Yang’s persistent insistence to hire him despite the objection from the production company of the film, did a commendable job of vividly capturing the urban ambiance of Taipei in the early 1980s. As a matter of fact, the movie often feels like a living time capsule packed with considerable sense of time and life, and that is why it still engages us just like “The Taipei Story” and “The Terrorizers”, which also function quite well as the vivid windows into the life and people in Taipei in the 1980s.

In conclusion, “That Day, on the Beach” is much more than being the mere opening chapter of Yang’s admirable filmmaking career. Although he made only seven feature films before he died in 2007, he is still influencing many other filmmakers out there as shown from two recent great South Korean films “House of Hummingbird” (2018) and “Moving on” (2019), and I will be certainly delighted if “A Confucian Confusion” (1994) and “Mahjong” (1996) are also released for me and other South Korean audiences later.

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Sing 2 (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): They’re back with a bigger task…

Animation film “Sing 2”, which is incidentally released as “Sing 2gether” in South Korean theaters, is as effective as its predecessor, and that is all I could say in this review. Just like “Sing” (2016), the film is simply all about musical performances to be embraced by its target audiences, and you may forgive its weak narrative and broad characterization more than me, if you are just fine with these fairly enjoyable musical moments in the film.

The story begins not long after where the story of the previous film ends. Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), a koala who is the owner of the New Moon Theater, and those various animal musicians working with him have had a fairly good success in their local theater since their bumpy adventure in “Sing”, but, as your typical ambitious showman, Moon has wanted more success for him and his musicians. As shown from the opening sequence, he is eager to impress a talent scout from some bigger town who may give a big opportunity for him and his musicians, but that talent scout in question does not seem to be that impressed by their latest show, and Moon is certainly daunted by this.

However, of course, Moon soon becomes more determined to get what he wants for himself and his musicians, and he subsequently persuades them to join his journey to that bigger city, which looks as big and flashy as Las Vegas in many aspects as being full of many prominent stage shows to dazzle numerous audiences. At the center of the city, there is a big and powerful entertainment business company run by an arctic wolf dude named Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), and Moon and his musicians must find a way to sneak into Crystal’s office at the top of the high-rise company building.

Anyway, Moon and his musicians eventually succeed in approaching to Crystal when Crystal happens to be looking for any possible fresh chance to draw more audiences out there, but, not so surprisingly, there is a big catch. While Crystal allows Moon to have the full control over whatever Moon is planning to present during the upcoming show, he insists that Moon should bring Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), a legendary rock star lion who has been leading a reclusive life since a tragic personal incident which occurred many years ago. Due to his lack of knowledge on Calloway, Moon is initially confident that he can accomplish this mission, but, of course, Calloway turns out to be someone who cannot be easily approached or persuaded at all.

Meanwhile, Moon and his musicians keep focusing on what they can do right now, though that also turns out to be not as easy as expected. Although Moon manages to concoct the main concept of the show in the last minute, his musicians are not so sure about whether they can handle many challenging aspects of their new show. While Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a teenage gorilla who can sing as well as we can expect from the star of “Rocketman” (2019), must learn some complex dance moves, Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a pig who has been enjoying her entertainment career along with a dancer named Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), must overcome her fear of height for a certain crucial action in her part, and Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly) must know more about love before performing a romantic song well along with some popular but self-absorbed singer.

And things become more complicated when Porsha (voiced by Halsey), Crystal’s spoiled daughter, later enters the picture. Although she is not terrible at all in case of singing and dancing at least, Buster has no choice but to have Porsha cast as the lead performer of the show just because he must make Crystal pleased as much as possible, and that leads to more doubt among Buster and his musicians.

All these and other plotlines in the screenplay by director/writer Garth Jennings, who also provided the voice performance for one of the supporting characters in the film as before, eventually culminates to the climactic part which is packed with lots of songs and dances in a very predictable fashion. Sure, Buster and his musicians certainly come to rise to the occasion despite Crystal’s bullying tactics, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Calloway is persuaded to end his hiatus at last and then will come to realize that he is still good enough despite all those many years of his absence. While his character’s dramatic arc is not exactly effective, Bono does not disappoint us at all during his character’s eventual big moment later in the story, and that certainly makes his casting one of a few inspired things in the film.

In case of the other main cast members, Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlet Johansson, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, and Tori Kelly simply fill their familiar roles as they did before, but they still have some fun with their respective roles as before. Bobby Cannavale, Eric André, Letitia Wright, Halsey, and Pharrell Williams are mostly okay in their supporting parts, and I was a bit surprised to learn later that a certain comic supporting character in the story is performed by a certain well-known Oscar-winning director.

On the whole, “Sing 2” has some enjoyable parts, but I also could help but notice its many shortcomings popping here and there, so I am still hesitating to recommend to some degree. Although this is not a bad animation film at all thanks to all those nice musical moments in the film, it looks a rather passable and colorless product compared to several notable animation films of 2021 such as “Flee” (2021), “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” (2021), “Luca” (2021), “Encanto” (2021), and “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), and I especially recommend you to watch “Flee” right now, which is a seemingly plain but undeniably extraordinary work in my humble opinion. Believe me, this exceptional animation film will haunt your mind a lot longer than “Sing 2”, and you will thank me for my inconsequential recommendation.

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Sing (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): It surely serves you lots of familiar songs

It is hard to be cranky about animation film “Sing”, which uses a bunch of various good songs like linoleum to cover up lots of its notable shortcomings on the floor. Sure, I could see through its many clichéd and predictable aspects right from the beginning, and my interest was always considerably decreased whenever the movie stops singing, but why should I grumble if it does eventually deliver what it promises to its audience?

The story, which is set in a city full of many small and big animal characters ranging from snail to whale, is mainly about one desperate attempt of a koala dude named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McCounaughey). Many years ago, he opened a big local theater with full of hope, but, alas, his theater business has been going down and down during last several years, and his beloved theater will be soon foreclosed by a local bank unless he can find any possible way to boost his business right now. In the end, he decides to hold a big singing competition, and he promptly has this event advertised all over the town, but there is one serious problem. Due to a little accident, the prize of the competition in the advertisement is changed from one thousand dollar to one hundred thousand dollar, and that surely draws lots of attention before he belatedly comes to realize that serious typo.

Anyway, lots of different animal figures come to the following audition, but we already know which one will be selected by Buster. They are 1) Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a teenage mountain gorilla more interested in singing than participating his father’s criminal activities; 2) Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a frustrated housewife pig willing to pursue her old dream of being a singer; 3) Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a teenage crested porcupine punk rocker eager to go her own way instead of being the second banana to her rocker boyfriend; 4) Mike (voiced by Seth MacFarlane), a cocky white mouse white singer quite confident about winning the prize; and 5) Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), a shy teenage Indian elephant in the serious need of overcoming her stage fright for demonstrating her considerable singing talent.

After a series of amusing musical moments during Buster’s audition, these animal characters and a few selected others including a group of young Japanese vixens quite enthusiastic about singing and dancing go through the following rehearsal period, but, of course, things do not go that well for them and Buster right from the first day. While Johnny has to balance himself between the rehearsal and his, uh, family business, Rosita also must find a way to handle her domestic matters associated with her 25 piglets, and this smart lady soon concocts a rather ingenious solution for that. In case of Ash, she feels awkward about performing the songs selected by Buster, and her situation later becomes more complicated when she later finds out that her boyfriend is cheating on her behind his back.

Meanwhile, Meena, who managed to be hired as a stagehand instead despite disappointingly failing in the audition, becomes more nervous when she subsequently becomes a replacement singer during the late stage of the rehearsal period. She surely wants to sing as getting all the encouragement from Buster, but she still has to overcome her emotional obstacle, and she naturally hesitates when Buster and others attempt to give a preview performance for a certain wealthy figure who may provide the necessary financial support for the song competition.

Around that narrative point, you can clearly see through where the screenplay by director/writer Garth Jennings, who also provided the voice performance for one of the supporting characters in the film, is heading. Yes, Johnny certainly comes to disappoint his father as focusing more on the rehearsal. Yes, Ash shows that she is much more fantastic when she sings her own song. Yes, Rosita discovers that she can dance quite well along with her flamboyant partner Gunter (voice by Nick Kroll). Yes, Meena eventually finds enough inner strength to overcome her fear. Yes, Buster comes to let down others a lot when everyone finally comes to learn of how poor he is.

Nevertheless, you will probably forget all these and other flaws of the film once Buster and his singers successfully put their shown on the stage in the end (Is this a spoiler?), and the songs selected for this part are performed fairly well on the whole. I particularly enjoyed Mike’s very committed performance of a certain classic song immortalized by Frank Sinatra, and I also appreciated some genuine poignancy in Meena’s expected showstopper moment.

In addition, the voice cast members of the film bring some extra colorfulness via their game efforts. While Matthew McConaughey dutifully holds the ground, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, and Tori Kelly have each moment to shine, and John C. Riley, Jay Pharoah, Nick Offerman, and Jennifer Saunders also have some little fun at the fringe of the story.

In conclusion, “Sing” is not that impressive compared to several notable animation films of 2016 including “Zootopia” (2016), “Moana” (2016), and “Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016), but it is not a total waste of time thanks to its lively voice performances and a number of nice musical moments. This is a passable product which is not good enough for recommendation, but it is not entirely without fun and entertainment at least, so I will not complain for now.

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Mogul Mowgli (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A Pakistani British rapper in double crisis

“Mogul Mowgli” is a curious piece of work which alternatively baffled and intrigued me. While this is essentially a familiar tale of personal/artistic crisis, it dynamically swings around many different elements including professional integrity and cultural identity, and the result is not entirely satisfying in my humble opinion, but it is still anchored on the ground fairly well thanks to another strong performance from one of the best movie performers in our time.

Riz Ahmed, who has been more prominent thanks to his recent Oscar-nominated turn in “Sound of Metal” (2019), plays a Pakistani British rapper named Zed, and the opening part of the film shows his latest public performance in front of many audiences. Although he starts his rap song rather quietly, it does not take much time for him to galvanize his audiences, and we later see him enthusiastically promoting himself more via social media.

Nevertheless, Zed has not been that famous or successful for more than 10 years, and that has certainly frustrated him at lot, but then there comes a big opportunity thanks to Vaseem (Anjana Vasan), who is a close friend of his besides having worked as his manager for a long time. He is requested to do the opening for the upcoming European tour of some popular rapper, and it looks like he is finally going to get a big break he has yearned for many years.

However, his personal life is not that fine in contrast. After having a rather petty argument with them, Zed and his girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) come to see that there is not much affection left between them, and that inevitably leads to their eventual breakup. As they sleep together for the last time, Zed comes to do an impromptu rap performance for himself, and we observe how much he is determined to reach for success while sacrificing many other things in his life including love.

Because his girlfriend reminded him of how much he has been estranged from his parents during last several years, Zed decides to drop by his parents’ residence in London, and the mood between him and his parents is awkward to say the least. While certainly proud of how her son has been doing fairly well outside these days, his mother Nasra (Sudha Bhuchar) does not ask much about his career, and she is rather hesitant about using a new dishwasher bought by him just because she is still fine with her old kitchen equipments. In case of his father Bashir (Alyy Khan), he does not approve much of his son’s rapper career, but he does not say anything bad mainly because he is not a very admirable patriarch for failing in a series of small businesses in the past.

During the following Ramadan dinner among Zed and his family members, the movie delves a bit into Zed’s mixed viewpoint on his ethnic/cultural background when he and one of his family members happen to argue with each other about that. While he has not hidden his racial identity at all throughout his career, he still prefers to use his English stage name instead of his real name, and his ambiguous position on his ethnic/cultural background is further amplified when he and his father are later praying along with many other Muslims at a local mosque. Not long after that, he comes across a Muslim lad on an alley, and their following conversation becomes rather amusing when it turns out that this lad mistook Zed for a certain other Pakistani British rapper who has incidentally been despised by Zed for good reasons.

When he is subsequently taken to a local hospital for suddenly becoming ill for no apparent reason, Zed is not particularly concerned at first as believing that he will recover within a few days before that European tour, but then there comes a very bad news. It turns out that he has been suffering from a degenerative muscular autoimmune disease, and, to his shock and devastation, his doctor tells him that this will only get worse and worse day by day.

As Zed tries to cope with his worsening physical condition, his mind dives into the realm of unconsciousness at times, and the movie freely moves back and forth between reality and dream. We often see the fragments of his past memories including the one involved with his father’s disastrous restaurant business, and we are also served with a series of recurring images involved with a certain painfully important historical fact in his parents’ past. While his mind and body become more confused and exhausted due to the following experimental medical therapy which may cure him in the end, Zed frequently confronts a mysterious man wearing a sehra (It is a traditional flower headdress worn by Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi men at their weddings, by the way), and we come to sense more of whatever he has been looking away from for many years as focusing more on his career success.

Although the movie does not clarify or explain to us much of these and many other things in the story, Ahmed’s harrowing performance keeps us engaged from the beginning to the end. Yes, he already played another musician character struggling with a sudden serious medical circumstance in “Sound of Metal”, but Ahmed, who also wrote the screenplay with director Bassam Tariq besides co-producing the film, is an actor too intelligent to recycle his previous work, and his electrifying acting keeps holding everything together even when the movie seems to stray a bit too much from time to time. In addition, he is also supported well by several other main cast members in the film including Alyy Khan, Sudha Bhuchar, Nabhaan Rizwan, Aiysha Hart, and Anjana Vasan, and Khan is particularly touching when his character comes to bond more with Zed around the end of the film.

Overall, “Mogul Mowgli” will certainly require you to have some background knowledge first on many cultural/historical things ranging from the Partition of India in 1947 to Pakistani writer Saadat Hasan Manto’s 1955 short story “Toba Tek Singh”, but its raw emotional moments will linger on your mind for a while thanks to Tariq’s competent direction and Ahmed’s good performance. I still do not think I understand everything in the film, but it intrigued me enough to do some online research on its cultural background, and that says a lot about how it worked for me on the whole.

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The Policeman’s Lineage (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A tepidly murky police procedural

South Korean film “The Policeman’s Lineage” is probably one of the most tedious police procedurals I have ever encountered at movie theater during several recent years. While I did not care much about its main characters mainly defined by their rote genre clichés and conventions, I was frequently confused as it often failed to clarify to me on what is exactly going on among its main characters, and I only became more aware of numerous plot holes and contrivances strewn throughout the movie.

After the opening scene showing an incident which I still do not understand that well for its rather murky aspects, the movie begins the story with Min-jae (Choi Wooshik), who is your average rookie cop who has no doubt on his duty and principles. As one trial, he does not hesitate to give a testimony against his older partner because he did witness his older partner’s dirty tactics as they arrested one certain criminal some time ago, and that certainly makes him quite unpopular in his police department.

While he is initially ordered to stay low for a while, Min-jae is subsequently called by his direct boss in private, and his direct boss requests him to take a very sensitive internal case inside their organization. His direct boss and the internal affairs division have been focusing on a prominent superintendent named Kang-yoon (Cho Jin-woong) because they believe Kang-yoon is actually a dirty cop despite a series of high-profile achievements on the surface, and they are going to have Min-jae infiltrate into Kang-yoon’s team as its latest member.

Considering his current circumstance, Min-jae does not look like an ideal candidate for the infiltration into Kang-yoon’s team, but his direct boss chooses Min-jae for a certain personal reason. Min-jae has always been trying his best in the name of his dead policeman father, and his direct boss offers a reward he cannot possibly refuse. There is a confidential police file on what exactly happened when his father died, and his direct boss promises to Min-jae that he will give Min-jae that file once their covert internal investigation is over.

As Min-jae accordingly begins his first day in Kang-yoon’s team, he sees lots of suspicious things from Kang-yoon and several cops working under him. While these cops often look more like thugs, Kang-yoon does not hesitate at all to show his rather showy lifestyle to his new team member. Besides his expensive vehicle and attires, he also lives alone in a neat modern apartment, and that apartment is full of numerous expensive stuffs except one room where he has been working on a certain big case.

That certain big case is involved with some big-time drug kingpin who is about to introduce the latest kind of drug into the country, and Kang-yoon looks quite determined to stop this big criminal by any means necessary, but there is something quite suspicious about his ongoing investigation. It seems that Kang-yoon has been associated with this big criminal’s chief competitor for a long time, and it is quite possible that he is actually helping that competitor behind his back. After all, where did he possibly get all that money for his suspiciously luxurious lifestyle?

As suspecting Kang-yoon more and more, Min-jae keeps searching for any incriminating evidence against Kang-yoon, but, to his bafflement, he only finds himself at the dead end again and again. It looks like Kang-yoon has been protected and sponsored by some powerful people somewhere up in their organization, and things becomes more complicated for Min-jae as discovering how much Kang-yoon has been actually associated with Min-jae’s father, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to be not as clean as his son has believed.

The movie, which is based on Japanese novel “Blood of the Policeman” by Joh Sasaki, attempts to juggle these and many other story elements together, but, unfortunately, it miserably fails as merely trudging from one predictable moment to another. While there are a few unexpected plot turns, they are not delivered well enough for generating dramatic impacts, and several actions scenes in the film are rather sloppy and distracting due to shaky camerawork and scattershot editing. Distracted more and more during my viewing, I often scratched my head as trying to discern its several main characters’ motives behind their actions, and I felt more urge to check out that Japanese novel, which, as far as I know, is much more complex in its far wider scope.

Although Cho Jin-woong and Choi Woosick are surely good actors, they are hopelessly stuck in their flat archetype roles, and that is particularly disappointing for Choi, who recently got a big career boost thanks to appearing in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019). In case of several other notable cast members in the film including Park Hee-soon, Kwon-yul, and Park Myung-hoon, they are also regrettably under-utilized, and Park Myung-hoon, who incidentally also appeared in “Parasite”, is sadly forced to look too silly and crazy everytime he appears on the screen.

On the whole, “The Policeman’s Lineage” is a dissatisfying failure for more than one reason, and I was further depressed by the fact that this is incidentally the first South Korean film of this year for me and many other South Korean audiences. At least, we are only going through the first week of this year now, and I really hope that we will soon get better South Korean films for forgetting this passable dud.

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Red Rocket (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A porn actor returns to his hometown

Sean Baker’s new film “Red Rocket” is alternatively amusing and cringe-inducing for good reasons. Here is an incorrigibly sleazy and pathetic dude who is still driven by his hubris and selfishness even while his life is hitting another bottom, and the movie surely delivers a series of moments of uncomfortable laughs as phlegmatically observing how he reaches for another possible opportunity to benefit himself without thinking twice at all.

The movie, which is incidentally set in late 2016 when a certain orange-faced prick was rising to the top of the American political world to our shock and disbelief, is mainly about Mikey Davies (Simon Rex), an ex-pornography actor who has just returned to his hometown city in Texas. 17 years ago, he proudly left the city for a much bigger career success in California, but it is quite apparent that his good old time is gone now as the camera briefly looks at his bruised face and shabby appearance.

Due to his nearly penniless status, Mikey attempts to get some help from his estranged wife Lexi (Bree Elrod), who was also a pornography performer before coming back to the city earlier than him. For whatever happened between them before their separation, Lexi does not welcome Mikey much, but she ends up allowing him into her small residence due to Mikey’s persistence coupled with some charm and fast-talk, and, what do you know, he comes to stay in her residence much longer than expected as promising to pay his rent to her and her aging mother, who have also really been in the need of some extra money.

For paying the rent, Mikey must find a job as soon as possible, but, of course, that turns out to be not so easy as he has to explain to his potential employers about his last 17 years in pornography industry. Understandably, everyone is not particularly willing to hire him due to his former occupation, and he has no choice but to go to a local marijuana dealer, who certainly does not have any problem with his past. Although he is not trusted that much at first, Mikey sells his portion of marijuana faster than expected, and it looks like he may depend on this illegal business for a while before moving onto whatever will come next for him.

And that comes to him sooner than expected when he goes to local donut shop on one day along with Lexi and her mother. There is a pretty young girl working there, and her lively beauty instantly captures Mikey’s attention. In his unwholesome mind, he discerns some certain potential from this girl, and he subsequently approaches to her while often selling marijuana in and around the donut shop.

Considering that Raylee (Suzanna Son) is about to have her 18th birthday and Mikey is probably more than 40, his gradual approach to her is surely creepy to say the least, but it soon turns out that she is not born yesterday at all. While quite charmed by his ingratiating fast talk, she is also very willing to go further with him, and there is a little funny dramatic moment when she casually reveals that she has no problem at all with his past.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Mikey eventually moves onto the next step of his unwholesome relationship with Ralyee, but the movie wisely avoids being too sensational or gratuitous in the depiction of their carnal moments, and we come to focus more on the absurd aspects of how Mikey willingly exploits not only Ralyee but also Lexi, who does not say no at all despite her remaining bitter feelings toward her husband. In addition, the movie also often makes a fun of how Mikey tries to remain, uh, virile as before via a certain pill, and that accentuates more how silly and superficial he really is.

As the screenplay by Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch, who previously collaborated with Baker in “Tangerine” (2015) “The Florida Project” (2017), leisurely moves from one episodic moment to another, the movie slowly immerses us in its plain but palpable local atmosphere, which is wonderfully captured on the grainy 16mm film by cinematographer Drew Daniels. The characters surrounding Mikey really look and feel like they have been inhabiting in their world for a long time, and Baker shows again how skillfully and effortlessly he can present a little but vivid and unadorned slice of life on the screen.

Simon Rex, who incidentally had some experience in pornography industry during his early career period, boldly hurls himself into his character’s sheer indecency and opportunism without any excuse at all, and his excellent performance makes the movie work as an uncomfortably fascinating character study of arrested development like Jason Reitman’s “Young Adult” (2011). While deftly handling her several tricky scenes with Rex, newcomer Suzanna Son holds her own place well besides Rex, and Bree Elrod, Brenda Deiss, Judy Hill, and Brittney Rodriguez are also solid as several other crucial female characters in the story.

In conclusion, “Red Rocket” is another interesting work from Baker, and its enjoyable elements including the game efforts from his cast members make it worthwhile to watch despite its inherent uncomfortable aspects. It is a bit too long in my inconsequential opinion, but it is mostly engaging on the whole, and I particularly appreciate the ironic aspect of its last scene, which may catch you off guard as much as the last scene of “The Florida Project” but works in a very different way. Now I am reminded of that famous quote from Orson Welles’ immortal masterpiece “Citizen Kane” (1941): “If it was anybody else, I’d say what’s going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you’re going to need more than one lesson. And you’re going to get more than one lesson.”

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Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little Christian family birthday party

“Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” is a modest but engaging drama mainly revolving around the family birthday party for its sexually repressed adolescent hero. While simply hanging around him and a bunch of Christian characters around him during one long day, the movie generates a series of genuine emotional moments to observe, and we come to understand these mundane characters more than expected as accepting their human issues and shortcomings with some amusement.

During the opening scene, the movie shows us the titular hero talking with one of his male friends in his bedroom before they sleep. On the surface, the boys are simply talking about girls and sex, and it gradually becomes apparent to us that Henry (Cole Doman) is a gay, and it was rather amusing for me to see him excited much more about masturbating along with his friend than what they are supposed to imagine together in their minds. To be frank with you, the first sexual experience of my old adolescent years was not so different from that – except that I and that boy ended up, uh, stimulating each other’s phallus a lot during that memorable night of January 1997.

The next day is the 17th birthday of Henry, who, according to him and his family, was born exactly at 10:02 AM on that day. As his parents, Bob (Pat Healy) and Kat (Elizabeth Laidlaw), prepare the breakfast, Henry and his friend cheerfully talk with his parents and his older sister Autumn (Nina Ganet), and it looks like they will all have a pretty fun time along with a number of guests to come to the upcoming birthday party for Henry.

Henry’s birthday party is soon held around the swimming pool inside his family residence, and some of Henry’s friends and his parents’ close neighbors come to the party. As Henry and other young people are casually spending time together in the pool, we get to know a bit about them, and then we come to sense that one of the boys is actually interested in getting closer to Henry, though he is not so willing to respond to this boy’s indirect signal.

However, to our little surprise and amusement, many of the Christian characters turn out to be more flexible than expected. Yes, one of the adult characters in the story seems to have watched those nutty right-wing conservative new channels too much, but it is clear that the other adult characters in the story do not pay much attention to whatever this character says while merely pretending to listen to this character. In case of Henry and other younger characters in the story, homosexuality is not a taboo at all, and we later see them have some frank conversation about faith and tolerance, though they are still limited by their rather narrow worldview.

And we come to observe how secular the adult Christian characters in the story are in more than one way. It is no secret among them that Bob and Kat have been estranged from each other, but they are still trying their best for maintaining their status quo while also supported by their fellow churchgoers. In addition, they are not hypocrites at all when they come to feel more need to have some fun as the day is being over. When Bob shows a certain hidden stuff to one of the party guests at one point, they make a fairy good justification for enjoying that a bit (If Jesus had no problem with that, why not?), and, of course, the mood of the party eventually becomes much looser as they come to share that along with almost every adult at the spot.

The screenplay by director/writer/co-producer Stephen Cone, who also unofficially served as the editor of the film, subsequently takes a dark turn via a certain supporting character who looks quite troubled to say the least right from the beginning, but the movie continues to glide around its characters as before, and cinematographer Jason Chiu deftly captures a considerable degree of spontaneity and verisimilitude on his camera. I have no idea on how much the final result is actually close to Cone’s screenplay, but Cone and his crew members, who shot the film during only 18 days, did a good job of immersing us into the characters’ ongoing situation, and we often feel like one of the guests as coming to pay more attention to the story and characters.

The cast members are all convincing in their unadorned appearance. While Cole Doman’s earnest acting humbly holds the center as required, Pat Healy, who has been one of the most dependable American independent movie performers since his chillingly nasty supporting turn in Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012), quietly conveys to us his character’s understandable emotional issues, and Elizabeth Laidlaw and Nina Ganet have a calm but poignant scene where Autumn and Kat happen to have a sincere and honest conversation about Autumn’s recent personal problem. As frankly admitting when she let herself feel better in a certain way some time ago, Kat gives a sensible practical advice to her daughter, and Autumn certainly appreciates that a lot besides feeling much better than before.

In conclusion, “Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party” alternatively amused and touched me with human depth and insight observed from its Christian characters. In my trivial opinion, they are surely better people than those loud and superficial Christian zealots with zero tolerance for others out there, and I sincerely hope that people are indeed changing along with the world as suggested by this small but wonderful film.

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The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Rise and Fall of the Black Panthers

Stanley Nelson’s documentary film “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” shows a lot more about the Black Panthers than you may expect. To be frank with you, I once regarded the Black Panthers as nothing but a pesky and violent political organization in US during the 1960-70s thanks to a certain cartoonish scene in “Forrest Gump” (1994), but the documentary considerably changed my misguided opinion on the Black Panthers along with Tanya Hamilton’s overlooked feature film “Night Catches Us” (2010), and it is still worthwhile to watch considering how racial injustice remains as a serious social issue in the American society even at this point.

During the early part, the documentary gives us the overview on the establishment of the Black Panthers in the early 1960s. Founded by Huey P. Newton and several other colleagues of his including Bobby Seal in Oakland, California, the Black Panthers was initially a small local African American organization influenced a lot by the Civil Rights Movement and the following social backlash, and several former members gladly tell us about how they and other members functioned as a sort of local vigilantes against the police abuse and brutality on their African American neighbors. As they grew bigger and more influential under Newton’s leadership, they drew more attention from the public and the media, and then there came a breakthrough when they successfully interrupted the outdoor press conference of California governor Ronald Reagan in Sacramento, California in 1967.

After that point, the Black Panthers was spread more all over the country during next few years, and the organization was further fueled by more anger from millions of African Americans after the killings of several notable activists including Dr. Martin Luther Jr. It looked like they really needed more aggressive tactics for freedom and civil equality, and their forceful public images were further accentuated by their distinctively militarized attires.

Of course, those powerful people in the US government were naturally alarmed more about the quick rise of the Black Panthers. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his agents had been quite watchful about any possibility of another ‘black messiah’ as influential as Dr. King, and they were ready to stomp on any potential target. First, they arrested and then sent Newton to prison, and they also put Seale on that infamous trial of the Chicago 7 even though he did not have any direct connection with the Chicago 7 except that he simply happened to be around them for his own purpose.

Nevertheless, the leaders and members of the Black Panthers tried their best for not only fighting against the system but also helping their African American neighbors. While it has been mostly remembered for its militarized appearance, the members of the Black Panthers also paid lots of attention to the social welfare of those numerous African American communities, and they even provided free food and education for more support and solidarity.

While the Black Panthers reached to its peak period in 1969, there came a young charismatic figure who could have done a lot more if it were not for his tragic early death, and that person in question is Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. As a natural charismatic leader of sheer charisma and eloquence, he always galvanized and inspired others around him whenever he gave those big speeches, and it did not take much time for him to be targeted by Hoover and FBI.

If you saw Shaka King’s recent Oscar-winning film “Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021), you surely know well what happened next. Hampton’s personal bodyguard Bill O’Neal was actually an FBI informant, and he helped FBI and the Chicago police ambush upon Hampton and his colleagues including his wife at one night. Hampton’s wife still vividly remembers that dreadful night which ended with his death, and a number of archival photographs show us how brutally they and other Black Panthers members were attacked at that time.

And that was just one of many political blows thrown upon the Black Panthers by FBI and the Police. Around the 1970s, the Black Panthers started to be imploded inside due to the growing conflict between Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, who was another key leader of the organization but then had to leave the country when he might be arrested and then imprisoned just like Newton. As they came to conflict more with each other, FBI gladly used more insidious tactics for more conflicts and divisions inside the Black Panthers, and the organization eventually came to lose its prominent social/political influence when Newton and Cleaver finally decided to go each own way without never looking back. As these two figures went downhill, Seale tried to re-ignite the organization while going back to its root via his bold attempt on the mayoral election in Oakland, but, sadly, that turned out to be the last glorious moment for the organization.

On the whole, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution” is both informative and enlightening in the solid presentation of its main subject, and Nelson, who recently made “Attica” (2021), did a commendable job of mixing various archival records and interview clips to convey to us the historical significance of the Black Panthers. As many of you know, their social issues still matter, and that surely makes this documentary as fresh and relevant as before.

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