The Half of It (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A refreshing coming-of-age drama by Alice Wu

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To be frank with you, I did not expect much when I watched the trailer of Netflix film “The Half of It”, which received the Founders Award at the Tribeca Film Festival before released on Netflix in last week. While its story premise is pretty familiar as clearly influenced by Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, the movie not only sidesteps its genre conventions but also feels quite refreshing in terms of story and characters, and the overall result is another recent notable breakthrough in the presentation of Asian characters in American films after “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (2018).

The story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis), a Chinese American high schooler who has lived in a small remote rural town named Squahamish. As being the only Asian kid in the town, Ellie has been a lonely outsider in her school, but this shy but intelligent and independent girl does not mind that at all, and we see how she takes care of many daily matters for herself instead of his father, who is the station master of the train station of the town but has been quite inert and depressed since he lost his dear wife several years ago.

For earning some extra money, Ellie has often done homeworks for many other kids in her school, and then there comes an unusual request from Paul Munsky (Daniel Diemer), a school jock who is a member of their high school football team. He has had a crush on a popular girl named Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire), and he has yearned to get her affection even though she is officially in a relationship with some other school jock. While Ellie is not so eager to do that because she finds herself attracted to Aster after their accident encounter at the school, she eventually agrees to help Paul mainly because she needs the money for paying the electricity bill right now, and she soon works upon love letters to be sent to Aster as coaching Paul a bit on how to talk with Aster during their date.

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One of the main surprises in the movie is that Aster turns out to be more sophisticated and sensitive than expected. Through her sincere replies to the letters written by Ellie, she reveals some hidden sides she has never shown to her peers as well as her current boyfriend. She really wants to make a meaningful human connection with Paul, so Ellie has to make Paul go through more preparations. In addition to having him reading several good books including the ones written by a certain famous Nobel Prize winner, she also teaches him on how to talk well in front of Aster, and we accordingly get a humorous scene where she trains him as playing ping-pong with him.

While helping Paul more and more, Ellie naturally becomes conflicted as feeling more attracted to Aster than before, but she also comes to care a lot about Paul, who is certainly not that smart but sincerely appreciates what Ellie has done for him. At one point, he defends her when she happens to be insulted by some rude kids as usual, and he also saves her from a very humiliating situation caused by a mean prank during her music performance in front of the student body.

Now you may have a pretty good idea about where the story and characters are heading, but the screenplay by director/co-producer/writer Alice Wu, who has been mainly known for her debut feature film “Saving Face” (2005), keeps surprising us while leisurely handling its story and characters with care and attention. As its three main characters try to deal with their respective matters of heart, the movie often catches us off guard with unexpected moments of tenderness and poignancy, and I especially like one certain scene where Ellie happens to spend some private time with Aster, who, though she still has no idea on what is going on among her, Ellie, and Paul, is willing to get closer to Ellie for getting to know Paul more.

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The story eventually arrives at a narrative point where its three main characters have to make each own choice (Is this a spoiler?), but the movie thankfully does not push them into cheap resolution while reminding us of how much they have been changed in the end – and how much they may go further after that. The movie also pays some attention to Ellie’s father, and there is an expected but undeniably touching moment later in the story when he convinces his daughter to do what is really the best for her life and herself.

The three main performers of the movie are engaging and convincing in their respective characters’ narrative arches. Constantly appealing with her natural charm which makes us instantly root for her character, Leah Lewis deftly conveys her character’s complex thoughts and feelings to us, and she is complemented well by Daniel Diemer and Alexxis Lemire, both of whom did a solid job of bringing considerable personality and humanity to their seemingly simple characters. While Collin Chou provides some gravitas as Ellie’s melancholic father, Becky Ann Baker has a little acerbic fun as a jaded but caring teacher who has recognized Ellie’s bright potentials, and she certainly made me quite amused via her excellent comic timing around the finale.

On the whole, “The Half of It” is a lovely coming-of-age drama to be appreciated, and its numerous good moments have grown on me since I watched it yesterday. It is a shame that Wu was not that active for more than 10 years after “Saving Face”, but she demonstrates here that she is still a talented filmmaker, and I really hope “The Half of It” will lead to more stories to be presented by her.

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The Willoughbys (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Funny, Colorful, and a bit naughty

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Animation feature film “The Willoughbys”, which was released on Netflix a few weeks ago, is funny and colorful as cheerfully going all the way with its exaggerated animation style and naughty sense of humor. While you may wince a bit during some of those dark and nasty moments in the film, you will be also delighted by numerous spirited moments to be savored, and you will surely come to root for its young main characters, who happen to go through a series of unfortunate moments as reaching for what they need most.

The young main characters of the films are the four children of Walter and Helga Willoughby (voiced by Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, respectively). As a husband and a wife, Walter and Helga have been inseparable to each other while deeply and adamantly in love with each other, but they have been pretty crummy parents to their children, and their sheer negligence often nearly approaches to abuse and mistreatment. They are annoyed and enraged whenever their children dare to distract them from their romantic time, and their eldest son Tim (voiced by Will Forte) is usually the one to be blamed and then kicked down into the coal bin for that.

Anyway, things are not always bad for Tim and his three siblings. While having been stuck in the upper part of their old-fashioned house located right in the middle of a big modern city, each of them has grown up fairly well despite their harsh parents, and we see how each of them usually spends time in their private place which is filled with books and many other stuffs. While Tim is obsessed with becoming as great as his many glorious ancestors someday, his younger sister Jane (voiced by Alessia Cara) yearns for adventures out there as frequently singing alone, and their little twin brothers, both of whom are voiced by Seán Cullen, are precocious kids with considerable engineering skill and knowledge.

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And then, as their pet cat who functions as the narrator of the film has already announced to us, there comes an unexpected change to them during one dark and stormy night. Thanks to that happening, Tim and his three siblings subsequently find themselves outside their house, and that eventually leads to their first encounter with a big candy factory outside the city, which belongs to a dude who looks as ridiculous as Willy Wonka.

After their first adventure outside their house, Tim and Jane come to feel the need to be emancipated from their parents more than ever, and they soon come upon a clever idea for getting rid of their parents and then becoming orphans in the need of good parents. They concoct a tour plan consisting of very dangerous places around the world, and their parents, who are not so bright in contrast to their children, are easily manipulated to accept this outrageous tour plan because, well, they want to be away from their children as much as possible.

Before leaving the house, Helga and Walter hire a nanny at a fairly cheap price, so Tim and his siblings do not expect much from the beginning, but, what do you know, their nanny, voiced by Maya Rudolph, turns out to be a lot more amiable and caring than they expected. As coming to learn more about how Tim and his siblings have been neglected and ignored, the nanny comes to pay more attention and affection to them, and she also helps them befriending that candy factory owner, who turns out to be less hostile than he seemed at first.

Of course, the situation becomes problematic as Tim and his siblings belatedly come to realize the serious consequence of their innocent plan. While they may lose their house forever because of their parents’ reckless and thoughtless decision, there are also a bunch of menacing social service workers, who are quite ready to take them away because, well, they are officially orphans now.

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Briskly bouncing from one narrative spot to another, the screenplay by director Kris Pearn and his co-writer Mark Stanleigh, which is based on the book of the same name by Lois Lowry, steadily provides uproarious moments for good laughs, and Pearn and his technical crew members did a good job of imbuing the film with distinctive mood and style. While this is a digital animation film, the texture of its characters and backgrounds often evokes that of stop-motion animation film, and that is particularly exemplified well by the woolly impression of the hairs of the Willoughby family members (It is no wonder that Helga makes her husband’s facial hairs into threads to be knitted by her).

The main cast members of the film are all effective in their respective voice performances. While Will Forte, Alessia Cara, and Seán Cullen put lots of personality and spirit into their respective parts, Maya Rudolph is warm and sincere as required, and Terry Crews is constantly brimming with joviality in his eccentric role. In case of Martin Short and Jane Krakowski, they certainly have a ball with their amusingly obnoxious characters, and Ricky Gervais is sardonic as usual as the narrator of the film.

Overall, “The Willoughbys” is another distinctive animation film from Netflix after its two recent Oscar-nominated animation films “Klaus” (2019) and “I Lost My Body” (2019), and you will appreciate it especially if you enjoyed reading those naughty works of Roald Dahl such as “James and the Giant Peach”, which is incidentally mentioned in the film. It may look modest, but it distinguishes itself well on the whole, so I gladly recommend it to you.

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A Secret Love (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A longtime couple who finally comes out

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Netflix documentary film “A Secret Love”, which was released in last Wednesday, is an intimate portrayal of a longtime couple who endured and prevailed together for many years as deeply loving each other in secret. While their long story of love is certainly touching to say the least, it is also poignant to observe how they try to move onto what will be the last chapter of their life, and I must say that I was moved particularly by what is shown around the end of the documentary.

In the beginning, we are introduced to Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, two old ladies who have lived with each other for more than 60 years. Although Terry and Pat prefer to continue to live in a house where they have resided together for more than 20 years, Terry’s physical condition has unfortunately been worsening due to Parkinson’s disease, and it is clear that Pat may not be able to take care of her lifelong partner someday. They actually consider moving back to Terry’s hometown in Canada, and that looks like a good choice considering that they will be near where Terry’s family members live, but Pat is not so eager about that mainly because of its cold weather.

In contrast, Terry and Pat do not hesitate after deciding that they should tell Terry’s family members about what they have not revealed for many years. To many of Terry’s family members including Terry’s favourite niece Diana, Pat has simply been a very close friend of hers who just happens to live with her for convenience and companionship, and Terry even denied her romantic relationship with Terry when Diana asked her about that a long time ago, but, as seeing how things have changed during last six decades, she and Pat finally choose to come out of their closet.

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Not so surprisingly, not only Diana but also Terry’s other family members do not have much trouble with accepting what they never knew about Terry and Pat, and then we hear about how things were quite hard and difficult for them and many other homosexual folks in the past. Around the time when Terry and Pat came across each other for the first time and then instantly fell in love with each other, homosexuality was widely regarded as sin or crime, and Terry and Pat had to be very careful about their relationship during that time. When Terry introduced Pat to her parents, they certainly did not say anything about their relationship, but Terry later tells us that her father, who was quite warm and generous to Pat as if she had been another daughter of his, probably knew what was going on between his daughter and Pat.

Both Terry and Pat were eager to escape their rural hometowns in Canada as entering adolescence, and we hear a bit about how they came to have a chance for that. Not long after the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was established in US in the middle of the World War II, Terry, who was a very good softball player, came to join one of the female professional baseball teams, and she was in fact one of those distinguished female baseball players who became the source of inspiration for, yes, “A League of Their Own” (1992). She also later tried ice hockey, and that was how she met Pat, who was also an athlete with considerable skill and potential at that time.

Although they were initially not so sure about what they felt between themselves, Terry and Pat eventually got far closer to each other, and they subsequently moved together to Chicago, where they could have more freedom despite still being as discreet as before. On the surface, they were merely two co-workers who also happened to be roommates, and they reminisce about how they had to look normal as much as possible for hiding their relationship behind their backs in front of others around them.

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While skillfully presenting Terry and Pat’s long history via the mix of archival photographs and grainy home video clips, director Chris Bolan, who is one of Terry’s great nephews, also focuses on how Terry and Pat cope with the inevitable change in their remaining years. As Terry’s physical condition becomes more deteriorated day by day, Diana naturally becomes quite concerned about Terry and Pat, so she tries to help them find a suitable nursing home, but then she finds herself conflicting a lot with Pat, who still does not want to go to a nursing home even though she also gets older and more fragile just like Terry. At one point, she and Diana happen to clash with each other in front of the camera, and both of them certainly look hurt while Terry is helplessly stuck between them.

In the end, Pat and Terry come to move to a nearby nursing home, where they incidentally happen to be the first lesbian residents. As they subsequently adjust themselves to their changed status, they become more comfortable about their relationship in front of others, and we accordingly get a sweet and sincere moment as they finally become a legitimate couple while congratulated by their family members and friends.

On the whole, “A Secret Love” is a moving documentary which presents its two main human subjects and their loving relationship with lots of respect and affection, and it is one of more engaging documentaries presented by Netflix. To be frank with you, I always appreciate good documentaries about good people, and this is surely a prime example I am willing to present to you.

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Ema (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Odd, opaque, but fascinating anyway

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Pablo Larraín’s latest work “Ema”, which is going to be released on MUBI in UK, Ireland, and India this week, is often odd and opaque in its clinical character study, but it is still a fascinating experience I will probably not forget for a long time. Because I only watched its trailer without any knowledge, I struggled a bit to discern what it is about at first, but I was drawn to how it is about at least, and I came to admire its mood, storytelling, and performance more even while feeling impatient at times.

The story of the movie is mainly told through the viewpoint of Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo), a young female dancer who also works as a dance instructor from time to time. She has been one of the main members of a dance troupe led by her choreographer husband Gastón (Gael García Bernal), and the early part of the movie often shows her and other troupe members performing together in front of their audiences under Gastón’s direction. As the astronomic image of the sun is glowing in different colors behind them, she and other troupe members dynamically express themselves on the stage, and that is certainly a sight to behold.

Meanwhile, we come to gather what has been troubling the relationship between Ema and Gastón. Some time ago, they adopted a young boy after struggling a lot with their infertility problem, but they turned out to be pretty lousy in taking care of their adopted son, who eventually committed something quite serious as yearning for care and attention from his new parents. While trying to deal with the following consequence, Ema and Gastón promptly decided to give up the boy, but now Ema comes to regret their hasty decision.

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However, it looks like there is nothing she can do for now. When Ema tries to approach to a social worker who may help her, the social worker coldly rejects her while also sharply pointing out why she and her husband should have not tried adoption from the beginning. As she becomes more occupied with how to find the boy and then make amends to him, her relationship with her husband accordingly becomes more strained than before, and her husband comes to reveal more of his nasty sides as clashing with her at their residence.

Not so surprisingly, Ema eventually decides to leave Gastón, and that is the beginning of her odd emotional journey which initially feels rather aimless but gradually becomes more focused step by step. Once she leaves where she has lived with her husband, she comes to the house belonging to one of her close colleagues, and she and her close colleagues subsequently become quite rebellious. At one point later in the film, they come to conflict with Gastón when he and they are going through an artistic improvisation process together, and then she and her close colleagues begin to dance freely outside without Gastón, who is surely not so pleased about that while showing more of his pettiness.

Feeling quite free from Gastón, Ema also willingly hurls herself into a wild sexual experiment, and the movie calmly observes her exploration process which is undeniably associated with her growing sense of artistic freedom. In addition, she has a fun time with a flamethrower which was originally acquired by Gastón for some artistic purpose, and we are accordingly served with several impressive fiery moments, which are vividly and beautifully captured on the screen by cinematographer Sergio Armstrong.

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In the meantime, two outsiders happen to come into Ema’s sexual adventure. She visits a certain female lawyer on one day, and she initially discusses with that female lawyer on how to handle her upcoming divorce process, but it becomes quite clear to us that Ema is more interested in the other thing, as she does an impromptu dance right in front of that female lawyer, who does not reject this move of hers at all and then, mainly thanks to some help from Ema’s gangs, becomes quite close to Ema in the end.

In case of a guy who works as not only a fireman but also a bartender, he happens to encounter Ema shortly after her first naughty trial with that flamethrower. At first, she simply seems to be toying with the possibility of getting her bad deed exposed to this guy, but then it turns out that Ema approaches to this guy as well as that female lawyer with a hidden personal motive behind her back, which incidentally makes the movie veer toward the territory of pulpy psychological thriller films and then arrive in a rather absurd resolution to tickle you.

Never making clear to us what its heroine feels or thinks, the movie continues to move from one curious moment to another under its ambiguous mood, which is occasionally disrupted by a number of brief but lively dance scenes. In addition to holding our attention well via her seemingly detached but endlessly compelling performance, Mariana Di Girolamo is quite captivating in these dance scenes, which are often electrifying as accompanied with the score by Nicolás Jaar.

Overall, “Ema”, which won the UNIMED Award when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in last year, may require considerable patience from you due to its dry storytelling approach and glacial narrative pacing, but it goes without saying that it is another interesting work from Larraín, who previously gave us “No” (2012), “Neruda” (2016), and “Jackie” (2016). Although I am not so enthusiastic about it unlike some other critics, the movie is a distinctive piece of work nonetheless, and you may give it a chance especially if you are looking for something different.

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Extraction (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A tense and brutal action flick as good as intended

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When I saw the trailer of Netflix film “Extraction” a few weeks ago, I immediately had a pretty good idea on what and how it would be in terms of story and characters, and it turns out that my guess was pretty correct. Yes, what we get here is another action flick about your average lone white tough guy determined to accomplish his latest mission by any means necessary, but the movie is fairly entertaining for a number of good elements to be savored, so you may come to forgive its weak aspects to some degree just like I did when I watched it early in this morning.

Chris Hemsworth, who also participated in the production of the film along with Anthony and Joe Russo, plays Tyler Rake, a former Australian Special Air Service Regiment solider who has worked as a mercenary to hire during recent years. When he is introduced to us around the beginning of the film, it is pretty evident that Tyler has some serious emotional issue to deal with, and we can easily guess the reason right from a brief flashback showing a bit of his sunnier days in the past.

When his partner Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) later comes to his shabby house located somewhere in a rural area of Australia, Tyler is not exactly in his best condition, but he does not hesitate at all when Nik asks him to participate in one urgent mission to be accomplished as soon as possible. Several hours ago, the adolescent son of a powerful drug lord in Mumbai, India was kidnapped by the boss of a rival drug organization in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Tyler and his fellow mercenaries including Nik must rescue and then extract that teenager boy from Dhaka before it is too late.

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When Tyler arrives in Dhaka and then embarks on the mission along with his colleagues, everything seems to be going well for them at first. They quickly come to find where the boy is being held by a bunch of nasty criminals working for that rival of the boy’s father, and we are soon served with a brutal physical action scene where Tyler surely shows those criminals that he is definitely not someone they can mess with.

Of course, things soon get quite more complicated after Tyler succeeds in rescuing the boy. Once notified of what has just happened, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli), the aforementioned rival of the boy’s father, naturally becomes quite enraged, and he instantly orders not only his men but also many local policemen and soldiers on his payroll to track down Tyler and the boy at any cost. As a result, the city, which is incidentally surrounded by the river, soon gets blocked from its surrounding, and Tyler must be far more careful than before for himself as well as the boy – especially after the extraction plan goes wrong due to the unexpected interference from Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda), who is the right-hand guy of the boy’s father and turns out to have a desperate reason behind his actions against Tyler.

Occasionally stopping for quieter moments for building up its story and characters more, the movie steadily provides very intense moments of actions and movements, and director Sam Hargrave, who previously worked as the stunt coordinator of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019), and his technical crew members skillfully handle these moments as generating enough thrill and excitement to hold our attention. In case of a breathtaking single-take sequence, it fluidly glides from one gritty action to another while busily switching from one perspective to another, and I heard that Hargrave willingly put himself into risky positions for shooting this impressive moment.

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I must point out that Joe Russo’s screenplay, which is based on the graphic novel “Ciudad” by Ande Parks, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo, and Fernando León González, is often hampered by its rather thin narrative and superficial characterization. For example, Tyler is not so different from countless stoic but troubled Caucasian action heroes we have seen before, and the main villains and numerous bad guys in the film are more or less than broad caricatures who surely look deserved to get shot or beaten by Tyler, though the screenplay tries to compensate this flaw via the growing emotional bond between Tyler and the boy, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to be more than a helpless figure to be rescued and extracted.

In case of the main cast members, they look convincing as demanded. While Hemsworth dutifully carries the movie with enough presence and gravitas, Rudhraksh Jaiswal holds his own place well besides Hemsworth, and he and Hemsworth somehow overcome several clichéd moments between their characters including the very last shot of the film. Randeep Hooda, Golshifteh Farahani, and Priyanshu Painyuli are also well-cast in their respective functional roles, and David Harbour, who recently drew more attention from us via his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in Netflix drama series “Stranger Things”, provides a bit of respite and humor as Tyler’s former colleague who happens to be residing in Dhaka.

In conclusion, “Extraction” does not feel particularly fresh on the whole, but it works better than I expected, and it is surely worthwhile to watch for its commendable action scenes. It simply follows the footsteps of its many senior action flicks out there, but it accomplishes its familiar mission with considerable skill and confidence at least, so I will not grumble for now.

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Time to Hunt (2020) ☆☆(2/4): They mess with a wrong target, of course

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South Korean film “Time to Hunt”, which was originally scheduled to be released in South Korea movie theaters around the end of this February but then, after some last-minute legal dispute, was instead released on Netflix in last week due to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19, grabbed my attention with a number of striking visual moments to be appreciated but then, sadly, let me down a lot in the end. While I admired the considerable technical efforts put onto the screen, I also constantly felt distant to the story and characters often devoid of spirit and personality, and it is really a shame considering how much I and many other audiences expected from it before its eventual release.

The movie is set in a near-future dystopian version of South Korea society, which has been seriously collapsed due to some huge financial crisis which suddenly happened a few years ago. While the streets and alleys of Seoul look nearly unrecognizable as looking dirty and shabby in its gray gloomy atmosphere, thousands of citizens have been hopeless and homeless after losing their homes and jobs, and the value of the local currency has been decreased so much that only dollar is accepted in many business spots.

And that is a really bad news for Jun-seok (Lee Je-hoon), an ex-con lad who is recently released after serving three years for the robbery committed by him and his two friends Jang-ho (Ahn Jae-hong) and Ki-hoon (Choi Woo-shik). For protecting his friends/accomplices as well as their root, Jun-seok did not say anything to the police, but Jang-ho and Ki-hoon belatedly inform him that their root has become almost valueless thanks to the financial crisis, and that certainly frustrates and exasperates Jun-seok, who has been dreaming of getting out of the country through their root someday.

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However, it does not take much time for Jun-seok to concoct another criminal plan for him and his friends. When they happen to spend some time at a secret gambling spot run by some local criminal organization, Jun-seok notices the considerable amount of money being transacted at the gambling spot, and he also comes across a young employee named Sang-soo (Park Jung-min), who turns out to have a rather disagreeable past between him and Jun-seok. After bullying Sang-soo a bit, Jun-seok coerces him to help the plan for robbing the gambling spot, and Jang-ho and Ki-hoon also join Jun-seok despite some reluctance because, well, they feel indebted to Jun-seok and, after all, they have been hoping for escape as much as Jun-seok.

What follows next is a series of obligatory scenes expected from any heist flick. Jun-seok and his cohorts visit a rather generous arms dealer willing to provide them a bunch of firearms and bullets in addition to bulletproof jackets, and they also work on how to rob their target within a few minutes without leaving any incriminating trace, though we do not get much detail on that as the movie briskly hops from one mandatory moment to another without much inspection.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Jun-seok and his cohorts successfully snatch lots of money from their target, and you will also probably not so surprised to see that their situation subsequently becomes quite more dangerous than they have ever imagined. There soon comes a mysterious man into the picture, and this lone figure, who turns out to be quite ruthless and single-minded, is already ready to track them down to the end for resolving his business trouble once for all.

As a result, the mood becomes far more tense and nightmarish than before, and the movie accordingly unfolds a series of stylish sequences as Jun-seok and his cohorts struggle to evade their dangerous chaser, who, for some twisted reason, lets them run away for a while during the first confrontation between him and them. As being more aware of that this guy is virtually unstoppable, Jun-seok and his cohorts are thrown into more panic and desperation, and their chance of survival and escape keeps getting decreased.

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We are supposed to be more emotionally involved in this increasingly intense and desperate circumstance, but the movie does not have enough human depth to hold our attention. While its dystopian background often provides impressive visual moments mainly thanks to cinematographer Lim Won-geun and production designer Kim Bo-mook, the movie does not go beyond the mere details of its fictional world, and it is also deficient in terms of storytelling and characterization. While the story itself is pretty predictable without bringing anything new to its genre territory, the main characters in the movie are mostly flat in addition to being stuffed with clichés, and we consequently come to observe their circumstance from the distance without much care or attention.

At least, the main cast members try as much as they can with their cardboard roles. While Lee Je-hoon and Park Jung-min, who previously collaborated with director/writer Yoon Sung-hyun in “Bleak Night” (2010), acquit themselves well, Choi Woo-shik, who recently appeared in Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), and Ahn Jae-hong, of whom I have grown fond since his comic breakthrough turn in “The King of Jokgu” (2013), are also fairly solid, and Park Hae-soo looks creepy and chilling as required by his psychopathic role.

Overall, “Time to Hunt” is commendable in several technical aspects, but it is quite disappointing compared to Yoon’s unforgettable debut feature film “Bleak Night”, which is one of the best South Korean films of the last decade in my trivial opinion. It is certainly nice to see that he got a chance to direct another feature film after almost 10 years of absence, but the overall result is more or less than a case of sophomore slump, and I can only hope that he will soon move onto better things in the future.

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Circus of Books (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Her parents’ unconventional business

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Netflix documentary film “Circus of Books”, which was released on last Wednesday, tells an interesting personal story revolving around an old gay porn shop in California and its unlikely owners. As they admits to us at one point in the documentary, they never considered staying that long in their naughty business field, but then they found themselves closely associated with sexual minority community as doing their business for many years, and it is alternatively amusing and touching to watch how they have tried to balance themselves between their business and private life.

At first, we are told about how Karen and Barry Mason, the parents of director/co-writer/co-producer Rachel Mason, were rather clandestine about their job in front of their three children. Although Mason and her two brothers gradually came to learn that their parents were the owners of a well-known local gay porn shop named Circus of Books, Karen and Barry never talked about their business at their family home, and the children simply used to tell others that their parents ran a bookstore.

Now quite more honest about their business than before, Karen and Barry gladly talk about how they happened to meet each other and then get involved with gay porn business. While Karen was a plucky journalist who eventually came to consider working as a freelance writer, Barry was a technician who actually participated in the post-production of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), and they instantly fell in love with each other when they came across each other at one evening party. Not long after they got married, Barry had an unexpected business success through his accidental invention, but then they unfortunately found themselves tumbling into a difficult financial circumstance, and then they found a seemingly good business opportunity from a newspaper advertisement from Larry Flint, who is, yes, the notorious founder of Hustler and was looking for any local distributor willing to distribute his sex magazine in California at that time.

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Because no major distributer in California or many other states in US was eager to be associated with Hustler, Barry and Karen could easily strike a deal with Flint, and their distribution business soon got more successful than expected. When they were subsequently offered the ownership of a little gay porn shop named Book Circus, they did not mind at all just because it looked like another good business deal, though they did not know anything particular about its main customers.

After renaming and then reopening the shop, Karen and Barry came to interact a lot with a big local gay community surrounding the shop. As shown early in the documentary, the shop happened to be located in the middle of an urban area which had attracted many different sexual minority people, and Karen and Barry’s shop soon became another important spot for many of their customers and employees. Regardless of what they thought of sexual minority people before, Karen and Barry treated their customers and employees without any contempt or condescension, and they even came to produce a number of gay porn videos once they saw another lucrative business chance from that.

However, things got quite dark for Karen and Barry as well as their customers and employees during the 1980s. During that gloomy period, the American queer community was considerably devastated by the AIDS epidemic, and Karen and Barry still remember how many young people around them succumbed to AIDS. In case of one gay employee of theirs, Karen reached to his parents when he was about to die at a hospital, but they promptly refused to see him, and their heartless refusal certainly shocked her a lot.

Meanwhile, Karen and her husband came to face a serious legal problem as the US government launched a pretentious war with obscenity in public, which naturally threatened them and many other distributors handling adult stuffs. When they later had to deal with a federal obscenity prosecution, Karen and Barry seriously consider pleading guilty, but they were advised to fight more, and that led to a far lighter punishment than they worried at first.

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However, as time went by, Karen and Barry found their longtime business slowly faded into the past because the tide was turned due to the rise of adult business on the Internet. They try as much as possible for staying in business, but it becomes more evident to them that their good time is over now, and they eventually decide to close the shop.

Vividly and humorously illuminating the business history of her parents, Mason sometimes looks into their fairly conventional family life, and the most poignant part of the documentary comes from how Karen and Barry came to accept the homosexuality of one of their three kids. Mainly due to her conservative religious background which somehow did not clash much with her business activities, Karen initially struggled to deal with her son’s homosexuality, but, thanks to her lifelong interactions with sexual minority people, she came to support him along with her husband, and she went further as joining a support group for parents with LGBTQ kids.

On the whole, “Circus of Books” is both informative and entertaining as providing another interesting viewpoint on the American queer history, and I was constantly amused or touched throughout its 86-minute running time. Things have surely changed a lot for sexual minority people out there during last 40 years, but they still need support and compassion even at present, and I personally hope that my parents, who still disapprove of my homosexuality, may learn something important from Karen and Barry – if I ever manage to have them watch this wonderful documentary.

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