The United States vs. Billie Holiday (2021) ☆☆(2/4): She suffered and suffered….

Lee Daniels’ latest film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”, which was released on Hulu in this February, is utterly trite and disappointing in many aspects. While surely intended to be a sincere tribute to the life and career of one of the greatest African American singers in the 20th century, the movie unfortunately does not have provide much insight or empathy on the long and miserable plight of its real-life human subject, and the overall result is depressingly unpleasant and mediocre despite having one of the most notable breakthrough performances of this year.

After giving us some brief historical background of its story at the beginning, the movie instantly moves onto how things were quite hard and difficult for Billie Holiday (Andra Day) in 1947. While she was quite popular and famous as one of the best blues singers in US around that time, she caused considerable noises as often singing a certain song about the horror of Southern lynching upon African Americans, and that accordingly turned her into a target to be investigated and cornered by FBI, who surely had lots of stuffs to be used against her due to her long history of drug addiction.

Ordered by a high-ranking FBI official named Harry J. Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), an African American agent named Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) approaches to Holiday as a young World War II veteran, and Holiday and her inner circle members soon let him into their world just because she happens to be interested in this dashing dude. Although she is currently married, that is not much of a problem to both her and her present husband because he mostly cares more about getting a bit of whatever she will earn, and we later come to learn that she has also been particularly quite close to a well-known actress named Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne) (As some of you know well, she was once rumored to be the main source of inspiration for Bette Davis’ unforgettable heroine in “All About Eve” (1950)).

While it seems that Fletcher is also attracted to Holiday despite believing that arresting and then sending her to jail is the right thing to do for his boss’ ongoing war against drug, the situation is turned upside down as she is finally arrested with incriminating evidences on her drug abuse. Holiday certainly feels betrayed after belatedly coming to learn of who Fletcher really is, and then she is sentenced to more than one year of incarceration at her following trial.

In the meantime, though he receives some good words from his boss, Fletcher becomes conflicted about whether he is actually on the right side, and then he is ordered to approach to Holiday again not long after she is eventually released. Due to losing her license to perform at clubs and cabarets in New York City, she has no choice but to perform here and there around the country, and she and her colleagues are naturally followed by Fletcher, who is soon welcomed again into their world despite what he did to her.

As Fletcher comes to know more about Holiday and then care more about her, the screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, which is based on Johann Hari’s nonfiction book “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs”, tries to develop emotions between Holiday and Fletcher, but it often falters and stumbles due to its scattershot storytelling and weak characterization. As trying to handle numerous incidents in Holiday’s life and career within 2-hour running time, Parks’ screenplay ends up merely scratching the surface, and it does not generate any genuine sense of life and personality to be felt from Holiday and several other main characters including Fletcher. As a result, the subsequent romance between Holiday and Fletcher feels contrived at best and gratuitous at worst, and, to make matters worse, Fletcher remains more or less than a functional plot element without much human quality or motivation to discern.

As he previous did in his several works including “Precious” (2009), Daniels attempts to bring some bold style and energy to lift and spice up the story and characters, but, sadly, his efforts only lead to more distraction and annoyance. For example, the deliberately unrealistic sequence where Holiday shares the horror of Southern lynching with Fletcher is surely striking on the surface, but this feels rather hollow due to not having enough narrative momentum and characterization to support it, and the same thing can be said about the finale, which is supposed to be sad and tragic but only comes to be soapy and phony instead.

It is a shame that many notable cast members of the film are mostly wasted in their thankless roles. While Trevante Rhodes helplessly struggles with his under-developed role, Natasha Lyonne, Garrett Hedlund, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Tyler James Williams, and Rob Morgan simply come and go as required without utilized that well, and you know there is really something wrong in the movie if a dependable trouper like Morgan does not leave much impression to us despite being one of the supposedly substantial characters in the film.

Anyway, the movie is not a total failure at all thanks to Andra Day, who recently received the Golden Globe Award in addition to receiving an Oscar nomination for her performance here in the film. She surely tries her best, and the result is as commendable as Diana Ross’ Oscar-nominated turn in another Billie Holiday biopic “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972), which, despite all its flaws and weaknesses, is relatively more entertaining besides supporting Ross’ impressive acting well.

In conclusion, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is redeemed to some degree by its lead actress’ committed acting, but it also often bored and annoyed me due to its superficial story and characters as well as its misguided storytelling approach. In short, this is a rather wretched misfire which will definitely waste your time, so I recommend you to invest your free two hours to “Lady Sings the Blues” instead.

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Nobody (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Bob Odenkirk with a particular set of skills

“Nobody” is exactly what I expected from its trailer, and it did its job well enough to satisfy and entertainment me despite not surprising me that much. Again, we are served with a shamelessly brutal and violent action flick about a guy who, turns out to have, yes, a particular set of skills, but it is a competent action film peppered with some wit and humor, and it is also anchored well by the presence and talent of its engaging lead actor.

Bob Odenkirk, who drew my attention for the first time via his enjoyable supporting performance in acclaimed TV drama series “Breaking Bad”, plays Hutch Mansell, who is presented as a plain suburban family guy via the amusing opening scene rapidly depicting his mundane and predictable daily life cycle. Although he has lived fairly well with his wife and their two kids in their cozy house, he and his wife have been rather estranged from each other, and he has also been disregarded by his brother-in-law and father-in-law at his workplace, which is incidentally owned by his father-in-law.

And then something happens at one night. After hearing some strange sounds inside the house, Hutch wakes up and then goes downstairs, and, what do you know, there are a couple of burglars who have just invaded his house. Although he could be a bit more active in taking care of this dangerous situation, Hutch sticks to his usual passive mode as before, even when his teenage son tries to fight against one of these two burglars.

After police officers eventually come for investigation, Hutch is ready to continue his daily life as usual, but it seems something is being awakened inside him, and then he finally comes to reveal his hidden sides when it looks like those burglars took away a kitty bracelet belonging to his dear little daughter. He already spotted a certain clue from those burglars at that time, and he is surely ready to retrieve that kitty bracelet by any means necessary.

I will not go into details into what happens next, but I can tell you instead that Hutch’s impromptu personal mission accidentally leads to a very unpleasant encounter between him and a bunch of drunken young thugs who happen to get on a bus not long after he did. Watching these nasty lads attempting to bully a young woman on the bus, he instantly decides to take care of them, and he surely shows them that he is not someone with whom they should not mess from the beginning. As already shown a bit via the trailer, the following action sequence unfolded within the bus is pretty violent to say the least, but it is skillfully presented with palpable energy and impact, and Odenkirk willingly hurls himself into demanding physical actions in addition to conveying well to us his character’s understandable vulnerability.

After having this liberating moment of ventilation, Hutch goes back to his usual plain daily life while not saying much to his family, but, as most of you have already guessed, that turns out to be not so easy at all. One of those young thugs happens to be a younger brother of a very notorious Russian mob boss, who is naturally quite furious about what happens to his younger brother. It does not take much time for this ruthless Russian mob boss to identify and track down Hutch, and Hutch soon comes to learn that he inadvertently causes a far bigger problem just for that damn kitty bracelet.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that there will be lots of shooting and explosion, and director Ilya Naishuller, who previously directed “Hardcore Henry” (2015), and his crew members do not disappoint us at all. No matter how many goons his vengeful opponent sends to him, Hutch is ready to take care of all of them for himself, and we consequently see a lot of extras and stuntmen getting shot or maimed throughout the second half of the film.

Needless to say, this part is often excessive in its depiction of violence and action, but the screenplay by Derek Kolstad, who is incidentally the write of “John Wick” (2014) and its two sequels, never forgets that it is basically a one-joke action comedy. While the plot itself is predictable to the core, the movie efficiently hops from one narrative point to another as continuing to throw more actions upon the screen, and it also shows some morbid sense of humor at times. While we come to care a bit about Hutch and several other characters close to him, we observe all those mayhems in the film from the distance with mild amusement, and you may find yourself concerned more about the safety of a certain valuable artwork appearing in the movie.

Steadily carries the film with enough gravitas and presence, Odenkirk, who also participated in the production of the movie, is apparently having lots of fun here, and he also shows good comic timing during several absurd moments including the one when Hutch boldly confronts his opponent at one point. As Hutch’s main opponent, Aleksei Serebryakov, a Russian actor whom you may remember for his gloomy lead performance in Oscar-nominated film “Leviathan” (2014), gleefully and savagely chews every moment of his in the film, and Christopher Lloyd and RZA also have each own little fun as two other crucial supporting characters in the story.

In conclusion, “Nobody” is simply another variation to be compared with many other similar action flicks ranging from “Taken” (2008) to “John Wick”, but it generates enough fun and excitement within its genre territory, and it surely demonstrates that Odenkirk can be an action movie hero as good as, say, Liam Neeson. He is approaching to 60 at present, but, considering how much Neeson kicked asses even during his 60s, I guess Odenkirk will probably be able to do that too.

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Concrete Cowboy (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): Into the world of urban riders

Netflix film “Concrete Cowboy”, which was released on last Friday, brings us into a small African American urban community quite unfamiliar to many of us. While the story itself is your average coming-of-age drama coupled with typical father and son issues, the movie is packed with a vivid and authentic sense of locations and people, and we come to observe its interesting juxtaposition of two very different main elements with constant curiosity and interest.

The story begins with the latest trouble of Cole (Caleb McLaughlin), a 15-year-old boy who has lived with his single mother in Detroit, Michigan. At his school, he got involved with another violent incident due to his temper problem, and his mother finally decides that enough is enough. After she comes to the school for picking him up, she promptly drives to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and then she simply leaves him on the doorstep of a shabby residence belonging to his father Harp (Idris Elba), whom Cole and his mother have not seen for years since Cole was very young.

Because Harp happens to be not at his residence, Cole soon comes to look for his father, and then he (and we) beholds an unorthodox lifestyle of Harp and his colleagues in their urban neighborhood. Sticking to their long but mostly forgotten tradition of African American cowboys and horse riders, Harp and his colleagues have maintained their own small stable for horses in one nearby spot, and, to Cole’s surprise and displeasure, Harp even keeps his own horse in his residence, which looks more like a stable than a home in many ways.

Naturally, Cole wants to get away from his father and then go back to Detroit as soon as possible, but it goes without saying that he has no choice from the beginning. While an old friend of his, who is now a local drug dealer, is willing to help him a bit, it does not take much time for Cole to realize that there is no other place to stay besides his father’s residence, so he eventually agrees to follow whatever is demanded by his father after his rather rough night at that stable belonging to Harp and his colleagues.

What follows after that is Cole’s struggle to get accustomed to his changed circumstance. As his father instructs, he begins to work in the stable under the guidance of Harp’s colleagues including a middle-aged lady named Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint, who is dependable as usual), who incidentally knew Cole when he was very young. Getting rid of horse manures and other kinds of waste everyday is difficult for Cole to say the least, but he slowly comes to learn of the value of labor discipline while helped by Harp’s colleagues from time to time.

As Cole spends more time with Harp and his colleagues, we get to know more about their way of life, and the screenplay by director Ricky Staub and his co-writer Dan Walser, which is based on Greg Neri’s book “Ghetto Cowboy”, lets us immerse gradually into their small community. As Harp and his colleagues, most of whom are played by the real-life members of the Fletcher Street Urban Riding Club in Philadelphia, talk with each other during their evening meeting, we come to sense their passion and dedication to horse riding, which has been one of a few good things onto which they have held in their glum ghetto environment. Later in the story, they provide something special for a member who has not been able to ride horse due to his unfortunate injury, and that is one of the most poignant moments in the film.

Cole comes to appreciate more of what Harp and others show and teach him, but, not so surprisingly, he is also tempted by a life of crime represented by his aforementioned old friend. While this subplot is rather predictable because we can clearly see where it is heading right from the beginning, Jharrel Jerome is engaging at least as a lad who is not so different from what Harp was once, and his functional character is allowed to have some humanity when he shows Cole what he has yearned for years.

Although its third act is a little artificial in generating dramatic tension as required, the movie still engages us as never losing its focus on the father and son relationship between Harp and Cole. While these two different main characters eventually arrive at a touching moment of reconciliation and reconnection as expected, it is delivered with a considerable amount of sincerity and sensitivity, and there is a wonderful moment when they and other riders do some horse riding around their ghetto neighborhood while others are watching them with awe and fascination.

The story depends a lot on the dynamic relationship development between Cole and Harp, and Idris Elba and Caleb McLaughlin did a commendable job of conveying that to us. Quite charismatic as usual despite his shabbier appearance, Elba, who also participated in the production of the film, effortlessly embodies his character on the whole, and Caleb McLaughlin, who has been mainly known for his performance in Netflix drama series “Stranger Things”, holds his own place well next to Elba.

Overall, “Concrete Cowboy” is often predictable in terms of story and characters, but it still works thanks to its competent direction and good performances, and its anthropologic moments are certainly worthwhile to watch. Its package is pretty familiar on the surface, but its contents are quite interesting, and you will probably want to look more into its main subject after the movie is over.

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The Wife of a Spy (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A dry but compelling historical drama by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s latest film “The Wife of a Spy”, which won the Silver Lion award at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, is a dry but compelling historical drama set in Japan during the World War II. While it takes some time to generate enough tension and momentum to engage us, the movie gives us a number of effective suspenseful moments once everything is set and ready in the story, and we become more emotionally involved in what is being at stake for its main characters as the story eventually arrives at its inevitable ending.

During the first act, the movie depicts how everything looks fine and well in the daily life of Satoko Fukuhara (Yū Aoi) and her businessman husband Yūsaku (Issey Takahashi). It is 1940, and things have been much more unstable and uncertain inside and outside their country due to the World War II, but they have been leading a comfortable life of luxuries in their big house nonetheless. It seems that everything will remain all right for them as usual no matter what will happen in the near future, and, needless to say, the current political situation of their country is the last thing to worry about in Satoko’s viewpoint, though she is concerned a bit when her husband later goes to Machuria for some business matter and then gets delayed there for a while.

However, we come to gather that there is something fishy going on around Yūsaku. At the beginning of the story, there is a serious matter involved with a longtime British business partner of his, and Taiji Tsumori (Masahiro Higashide), a military investigator who is incidentally a longtime childhood friend of Satoko and still seems to have some feelings toward her, summons Yūsaku for interrogation. Although Yūsaku’s British business partner is eventually released for the lack of incriminating evidence, he soon comes to leave Japan for being suspected of espionage activities, and Tsumori later warns Satoko that she and her husband should be more careful and discreet than before.

While she does not pay much attention to this sincere warning from her old childhood friend, Satoko soon finds herself becoming more aware of her husband’s rather elusive sides – especially after he returns from Manchuria. When she welcomes her returning husband at the port, there is a young woman who may be associated with him, and Satoko’s suspicion on her husband is gradually increased when that young woman in question is found murdered some time later.

Because of the very title of the film, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Yūsaku has been secretly planning to commit a serious act of treason because of what he accidentally discovered in the middle of his trip in Manchuria. There is a secret Japanese military facility where many heinous medical experiments have been done on prisoners (As many of you know, such facilities did exist in Manchuria), and he is quite determined to deliver the incriminating documents and records on that to the US government – even though this will surely bring his country into the war with US.

When she belatedly comes to learn of what her husband has been hiding behind his back, Satoko is understandably shocked and then scared about what may happen next to them because of that, but then there comes a crucial point where she must make a decision for herself after facing those atrocities hidden from Japanese people as well as the outside world. The camera simply looks at Satoko’s expressionless face for a while, but that is more than enough for us to understand her following actions, which inevitably bind her more to her husband later in the story.

As Satoko becomes far more active than before, the screenplay by Kurosawa and his co-writers Ryūsuke Hamaguchi and Tadashi Nohara begins to accumulate suspense while occasionally giving us a number of tense moments. There is a restrained but undeniably chilling scene where Tsumori, who comes to suspect Yūsaku more than before, flatly demonstrates to Yūsaku how far he is willing to go for what is necessary for the country in his firm belief, and that is why we come to brace ourselves more when Yūsaku and Sakoto embark on a considerably risky escape plan for accomplishing their mission.

Using a small number of plain sets and locations, the movie often feels like a modest chamber drama, and it certainly depends a lot on the talent and presence of its three main cast members. While Issey Takahashi and Masahiro Higashide hold the ground in their opposite positions, Yū Aoi is quite effective in a number of dramatic key scenes in the film, and she is particularly good when her character serenely beholds the eventual outcome of the war poured upon her world. Even though we are not so sure about her character’s state of mind at that point, Aoi is simply magnificent in her following delivery of emotional devastation, and this feels all the more harrowing as the movie subsequently delivers its phlegmatic epilogue.

In conclusion, “The Wife of a Spy”, which was originally produced as a local TV movie, may look milder compared to Kurosawa’s recent works such as “Creepy” (2016), but it is still a well-made period drama equipped with good mood and solid performance, and its highlights certainly enlivened me a bit when I watched it at last night. Its achievement may be modest on the whole, but it is certainly another interesting work from Kurosawa, and I am glad to see that he is still proficient as before.

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Shades of the Heart (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A series of ambiguous episodes around one writer

It is a bit difficult for me to describe to you on South Korean independent film “Shades of the Heart”. When I saw this little modest film for the first time a few days ago, I was not so sure about what it exactly is about due to its many ambiguous aspects, and then I decided to give it another chance mainly because my physical condition was not so good at that time (Full disclosure: I somehow got quite drowsy more than once throughout my first viewing). After I saw it again yesterday, I am still scratching my head on its deliberately opaque narrative, but I appreciate its subtle handling of mood and emotion at least.

First, let met describe the prologue part of the film, which mainly revolves around two different young people who look like happening to encounter each other at a small cafe for no apparent reason. Probably because she was asleep for a while and still feels befuddled a bit, Mi-yeong (IU, who is also known as Lee Ji-eun) does not seem to remember why the hell she is there or why a lad is sitting across her table right now, and the lad, who turns out to be a writer, generously reminds her that they were supposed to be introduced to each other via a mutual acquaintance of theirs.

As these two characters talk more with each other, the movie makes us wonder more about what is exactly going on between them. Is the lad really who he is supposed to be? Is there any hidden reason for Mi-yeong’s inexplicably black state of mind? When he engages Mi-yeong (and us) via an impromptu tale of his, this merely looks like a small attempt to amuse her a little, but then it is followed by a revelation on who they are in fact – and what exactly he is doing with her at present.

After that, the movie gives us a little more information on the lad as he walks outside alone. His name is Chang-seok (Yeon Woo-jin), and we come to gather that he has been going through an emotionally difficult time since he came back from abroad, though the movie does not explain much on the reason behind his current emotional struggle except suggesting that it also caused the separation between him and his wife.

At least, things are not entirely bad for Chang-seok as reflected by his subsequent meeting with Yoo-jin (Yoon Hye-ri), a young female employee of his publishing company who gladly notifies him that she and her co-workers decided to publish his latest novel. While their meeting is supposed to be strictly for business, Chang-seok and Yoo-jin come to spend more time with each other as walking in a nearby park, and then, for no apparent reason, Yoo-jin confides to him on some bitter facts of her current life. As dusk falls upon them, whatever is churning beneath their phlegmatic conversation becomes more ambiguous to us, and this moment still captivates us nonetheless as the camera keeps focusing on their darkening appearance.

During the next part which is unfolded at another small cafe, Chang-seok is approached by a middle-aged photographer named Seong-ha (Kim Sang-ho), who turns out to be struggling with his own difficult personal problem behind his seemingly jovial appearance. After showing Chang-seok a small vial of lethal chemical material he has been carrying these days, Seong-ha rambles on how sad and desperate he was about that issue of his before getting a small glimpse of hope for him, but then that is subsequently revealed to be a cruel joke of fate, and Chang-seok does not know what to tell him, while taking away that small vial in question.

It is more apparent to us that Chang-seok has been suicidal due to whatever has been tormenting him for a while, but he remains introverted while not signifying much to us, and he does not tell much even when he spends some time at a local bar being tended by a young woman named Joo-eun (Lee Ju-young). As they talk a bit with each other, she says that she usually collects the memories of others because she does not have many memories of herself due to an unfortunate accident which resulted in several serious injuries of hers, and he gladly offers a piece of memory of his, though we can never be sure about whether he is really serious in his offering.

Anyway, their conversation eventually leads to Joo-eun’s impromptu moment of poetry, and the mood becomes a little soothing around them, though that does not lift Chang-seok much from his gloomy state of mind. We see him walking alone again, and then he decides to make a phone call, though it is quite possible that this little private moment of his happens only within his deeply depressed mind.

Even during the following last act, the screenplay by director Kim Jong-kwan, who previously drew my attention with his two good films “Worst Woman” (2016) and “The Table” (2016), does not clarify much what is really going on around and inside its taciturn hero, but it somehow finds an appropriate finale for what has been presented during the rest of the film. To be frank with you, I have no idea on its exact meaning, but I can tell you that it somehow feels touching nonetheless.

As your typical arthouse flick, “Shades of the Heart” will certainly require some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing, but it is an interesting work to be admired for its deft storytelling and solid performances at least. Although I felt distant to what it is about, I observed how it is about with some curiosity and amusement, and that is enough for me for now.

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The Book of Fish (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): The Book of Bromance

Maybe I should have expected less before watching South Korean film “The Book of Fish”, which, to my dissatisfaction, turns out to be more about its two main characters’ relationship instead of how that old but famous real-life marine biology book in question was made. In my humble opinion, the movie could be more interesting if its partially fictional drama focused more on the latter instead of giving us a predictable bromance tale between two typically different characters, and I must confess that I could not help but sense a better story somewhere inside in its rather trite narrative.

During its opening scene, the movie gives us a succinct presentation of the historical background surrounding Jeong Yak-jeon (Sol Kyung-gu) and his two younger brothers around the beginning of the 19th century. Although they were prominent government officials and brilliant scholars under King Jeongjo of the Joseon dynasty, they were arrested for their connection with Christianity shortly after King Jeongjo died in 1800, and, instead of being executed like one of his younger brothers who refused to deny his Christian belief, Yak-jeon was eventually exiled to Heuksando, a remote island located near the south coast of the Korean Peninsula.

When he arrives in Heuksando after a long journey, Yak-jeon encounters a number of island residents, who welcome him anyway despite his current status as an exile banished by the king and his government. As settling in a house which has been taken care of by a perky widow who does not mind serving him at all, he comes to pay more attention to the environment surrounding the island, and that is how he becomes interested in writing a book about fishes and other marine organisms.

Although he is a practical scholar with some scientific knowledge, Yak-jeon still needs someone to guide and teach him on marine organisms, and, fortunately for him, there is a right guy for him in the island. He is a young fisherman named Chang-dae (Byun Yo-han), and this smart lad is not so interested in helping Yak-jeon at first, but then he eventually agrees to help Yak-jeon mainly because Yak-jeon can teach him how to read those sophisticated philosophy books which may give Chang-dae a chance of upward social mobility someday.

Once Chang-dae officially becomes Yak-jeon’s pupil, Yak-jeon begins to share his considerable academic knowledge with Chang-dae, and Chang-dae shows lots of what he has learned for years as working on and around the sea day by day. Thanks to Chang-dae, Yak-jeon experiences and observes new stuffs he has never seen before, and, as learning more and more from his mentor, Chang-dae becomes more driven to attain what he has yearned since his childhood years.

Unfortunately, the screenplay by director/writer Lee Joon-ik does not delve that deep into this interesting case of knowledge exchanges. While Yak-jeon certainly has lots of things to tell his pupil, Chang-dae’s contribution to Yak-jeon’s marine biology book is flatly depicted via several short moments, though I will not deny that I was amused by a bit by the one involved with a huge specimen which Chang-dae happens to catch via an unlikely bait.

In addition, the movie often falters as trying to cover many different things within its 2-hour running time, and this weak aspect is evident especially during the last act where Yak-jeon and Chang-dae melodramatically become estranged from each other as expected. Around the end of the story, there naturally come some tears to be shed, but we observe this moment from the distance while not feeling that much of the historical importance of Yak-jeon’s book, and that is the main reason why the sentimental final scene of the film does not work as well as intended.

I also must point out that most of other characters in the film besides Yak-jeona and Chang-dae are more or less than underwritten plot elements. For instance, a subplot involved with Chang-dae and one feisty young woman in the island particularly feels too hurried and contrived, and the same thing can be said about the relationship between Yak-jeon and the widow character, who eventually becomes his lifetime partner as taking care of him a lot.

Anyway, the movie is not entirely without good elements to engage us. Lee and his crew members ably fill the screen with vivid period mood and details to be cherished, and cinematographer Lee Eui-Tae, who previously collaborated with Lee in “Sunset in My Hometown” (2018), deserves to be commended for a number of stunningly beautiful landscape shots presented on black and white film.

While they are limited by their archetype characters from time to time, Sol Kyung-gu and Byun Yo-han did a fairly good job of complementing each other on the screen, and, not so surprisingly, the movie becomes less interesting whenever they are not together on the screen. In case of the other substantial cast members in the film, Lee Jung-eun, who has been quite more prominent thanks to her unforgettable supporting turn in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), steals the show at every moment of hers in the film, and she is especially good when her character provides a no-nonsense comment on traditional gender roles at one point in the middle of the film.

Although it is competent in several technical aspects, “The Book of Fish” failed to impress me enough, and it is mildly disappointing compared to Lee’s several recent better works such as “Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet” (2015) and “Anarchist from Colony” (2018). I cannot recommend it because I still believe that the movie could have more depth and insight, but it was not a total waste of time at least, so I will let you determine whether you will watch it or not.

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Bad Trip (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): You will wince – and then chuckle

“Bad Trip”, which was released on Netflix in last week, will make you wince and then laugh, and there are a number of outrageous moments mainly fueled by 1) the good comic timing of its few main cast members and 2) the real reactions from bystanders who happened to be around them without any knowledge on what was actually going on in front of them, yes, and hidden cameras. While this guerilla comic approach is familiar to anyone who watched “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006) or its recent sequel, the movie distinguishes itself via its own manic sense of humor and a bit of surprising sweetness, and you may find yourself smiling more as watching a number of behind-then-scene video clips during its end credits.

Right from the opening scene, the movie demonstrates how far it is willing to go for more laughs. As its hero, an African American lad named Chris Carey (Eric Andre), casually talks a bit with his latest customer at his workplace, we can see that something is going to happen sooner or later, and the movie does not disappoint us at all as Chris subsequently finds himself trying to hide his sudden embarrassing happening from a woman named Maria Li (Michaela Conlin), for whom he carried a torch during their high school period. Unlike the performers playing Chris and Maria, Chris’ customer was actually an unsuspecting bystander who did not know that the camera was rolling somewhere, and you will laugh more as observing how this guy tries to be sensible in front of that unbelievably outrageous happening.

Once the movie effectively sets the tone in the opening scene, the story moves forward to one year later. Chris is now working in a smoothie shop, and he is delighted to see Maria walking into the smoothie shop while he annoys some of his waiting customers, who incidentally suspected nothing even while noticing Chris’s pretty careless working method. When Maria, who has worked as the manager of some posh New York City gallery, finally remembers him and then invites him to the upcoming exhibition to be held at her gallery, Chris is understandably excited, and that fatefully leads to another deliberately disgusting comic moment to remember.

After giving the shameless impromptu performance of a certain well-known musical number in front of mall customers, Chris becomes quite determined to drive all the way to New York City even though he does not have a car. Fortunately, his best friend Bud Malone (Lil Rel Howery) has kept a vehicle for some time, but Bud, who is your average nerdy African American dude, is not so willing to have a road trip along with Chris because he has been afraid of his fearsome older sister, who is the owner of the car and has incidentally been in a state penitentiary for a while.

In the end, Bud is persuaded to help his friend, and he and Chris soon start their road trip toward New York City. Wherever they happen to stop by, they inadvertently got into trouble due to bad luck or Chris’ unwise behaviors. In case of one sequence unfolded at a big country bar, the mood feels a bit awkward as Bud notices that he and Chris are the only African American people in the bar, but the mood gradually gets loosened as they come to enjoy more music and alcohol, and that eventually leads to a couple of uproarious moments to make you wince and laugh alternatively.

One of the most hilarious scenes in the movie occurs at a zoo which Chris and Bud happen to visit along with a bunch of bystanders, who, yes, had absolutely no idea on what was going to happen at that time. I will not tell you more for not spoiling your entertainment, but I assure you that you will be amazed by 1) how director/co-writer/co-producer Kitao Sakurai, who wrote the screenplay with Eric Andre, Dan Curry, and Andrew Barchilon, and his crew members pull out several shocking comic surprises out of one familiar setup and 2) how much those bystanders were actually fooled at the time of the shooting despite the rather crude aspects of the setup.

Needless to say, this and many other scenes in the film surely look like nasty pranks at times, but many of those fooled bystanders are not ridiculed or humiliated on the screen at all. In fact, as reflected by what is shown during the end credits, they had no problem as subsequently amused to realize that they were totally deceived by Sakurai and his cast and crew members.

In addition, the movie is unexpectedly sweet as paying some attention to the long friendship between Chris and Bud, who are totally different from each other but turn out to be quite inseparable from each other as complementing each other. While Andre is likable as an irrepressible comic hero, Lil Rel Howery, who has been a scene-stealer since his breakout supporting turn in “Get Out” (2017), deftly holds the ground for his co-star as providing gravitas to the story, and Michaela Conlin and Tiffany Haddish, who proves here again that she is indeed a comic force of nature to reckon with, are also believable enough to fool bystanders just like Andre and Howery.

In conclusion, “Bad Trip” is often funny thanks to Sakurai’s skillful direction and the jolly comic spirit generated among its main cast members. To be frank with you, I was well aware of what I was going to get, but the movie kept catching me off guard during its 84-minute running time, and, in fact, I chuckled more than once during my viewing. In short, it is one of the funnier films of this year, and I think you should give it a chance someday.

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My Octopus Teacher (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): One year with an octopus

It took some time for me to get interested in watching Netflix documentary film “My Octopus Teacher”, which somehow eluded me when it was released on Netflix in last September. Although I have often heard words of recommendation from others during last several months, I thought it was just a minor nature documentary I can watch at any time in no hurry, and I must confess here that it finally came to draw my interest a lot more than before when it got included the shortlist for Best Documentary Oscar and then eventually nominated a few weeks ago.

Having watched it in 4K UHD, I can now assure you that the documentary, directed by Ehrlich and James Reed, is certainly something you should watch in HD or 4K UHD for appreciating those gorgeous moments. As its hero, a South African filmmaker named Craig Foster, slowly swims here and there inside a big underwater kelp forest located not so far from his family residence, we cannot help but awed as beholding the majestic wonder of nature, and we are also touched at times while following his modest but sincere chronicle of small but meaningful encounters between him and a wild creature he came to know and observe during a short period of time.

In the beginning, Foster phlegmatically tells us about when he found himself mentally exhausted a lot some years ago. After deciding that he really needed to take a rest, he immediately went back to his family beach house located in a remote beach area near Cape Town, South Africa, and we hear about how his family beach house is often splashed with clashing waves whenever the weather gets windy or stormy. This may not look like an ideal place for rest, but Foster felt a lot better than before as finally having his own private time there.

As days went by, Foster began free-diving in that underwater kelp forest, and he soon came to spend hours there everyday. Although the water is pretty cold, its low temperature made his mind more acute and sensitive to the underwater environment surrounding him, and he later brought a video camera for vividly capturing its awe and beauty. As he often felt soothed by its mostly serene mood, the underwater kelp forest frequently showed him its numerous various residents living here and there, and a series of brief video footage clips reflect well how ecologically beautiful and bountiful it really is.

And then something odd drew Foster’s attention on one day. On the surface, it simply looked like a heap of shells somehow stacked together in the middle of the ground, but, what do you know, this turned out to be a clever disguise of one female common octopus, a.k.a. Octopus vulgaris. Not long after this brief encounter between them, Foster encountered this common octopus again, and he became more curious about it even though it did not look that special at all. He immediately started to study on common octopus, and he also tried to draw more attention from this common octopus after finding its little habitat located somewhere inside the underwater kelp forest.

Although it was understandably cautious to Foster’s tentative approach in the beginning, the octopus became less watchful as getting more accustomed to Foster’s presence, and Foster was certainly delighted when the octopus was casually moving around him after coming out of its habitat at last. As observing more of his new friend, Foster was marveled more about what a remarkable species common octopus is in many aspects, and his new friend constantly amazed and amused him everyday.

However, Foster was also reminded of the harsh and ruthless sides of mother nature – especially when he was watching how his new friend ate and survived day by day. To many different marine animals ranging from small fishes to crabs, common octopus is surely a predator to fear, but it is also a prey to be attacked and then eaten by pajama sharks at any point, and Foster still remembers well a horrific moment when the octopus was savagely attacked by one pajama shark. As a result, it got one of its legs eaten by that pajama shark, and Foster was deeply hurt by this dismal sight.

Fortunately, the octopus went through a peaceful recuperation period with its lost leg being regenerated bit by bit during next several days, and this was also a sort of healing process for Foster, who subsequently became more active with his life and his dear family. He tried to reconnect with his family again, and it is touching to see him showing his adolescent son what he has seen alone for many days.

The octopus surely meant a lot for Foster, but the documentary wisely does not try to delve into what it exactly felt and thought about its human friend. “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”, said W.G. Sebald, and the documentary firmly stays from any cheap sentimentality when Foster bitterly observes his friend fatefully arriving at an inevitable point shortly after doing what it is genetically programmed to do right from the beginning.

Overall, “My Octopus Teacher” an appealing nature documentary mixed with heartfelt personal elements, and you may find yourself musing more on life as well as our relationships with nature, Although it feels rather plain compared to its fellow Oscar nominees including “Collective” (2019) and “Time” (2020), it is still a fairly good piece of work, and I recommend you to check it out if you have some free time for yourself.

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Over the Moon (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An forgettable family animation film from Netflix

Animation film “Over the Moon”, which was released on Netflix in last October, is so familiar and predictable to the core that my mind often went somewhere outside the film throughout its 100-minute running time. Although it initially draws our attention via its distinctive cultural mood and details, the film unfortunately falters more than once because of its weak plot and mediocre characterization, and it eventually comes to leave pretty hollow impressions on us on the whole.

The story of the film mainly revolves around Fei Fei (voiced by Cathy Ang), a perky 13-year-old Chinese girl who still dearly holds herself to the memories of her dead mother and an old folk tale which her mother used to tell her. Long time ago, Chang’e (voiced by Phillipa Soo), the mythical goddess of the Moon, was fallen in love with some dashing human dude, but, alas, they were eventually separated due to his death, and that certainly devastated her a lot. According to the folk tale, Chang’e is still waiting for the return of her true love in her lunar kingdom even at present, and that certainly resonates a lot with Fei Fei, who still misses her mother every day even though she and her father have moved on as managing their little moon cake shop together during last several years.

When the Moon Festival is about to begin, Fei Fei is naturally excited about another wonderful evening with the big moon in the sky, but there comes a change she does not welcome that much. Although he does not forget his dead wife at all, her father has recently become quite close to some other woman, and this woman is willing to marry and then live with him in addition to being eager to be a good stepmother for Fei Fei, but Fei Fei is understandably displeased with this unexpected change in her life – especially after encountering her future stepmother’s rather obnoxiously rambunctious son Chin (voiced by Robert G. Chiu).

Subsequently watching her future stepmother being openly accepted by her father’s colorful family members during a family dinner, Fei Fei becomes sullener and more exasperated than before, but then she comes to have one bold idea. If she goes to the Moon and then proves the existence of Chang’e to her father, he may have a second thought on his upcoming marriage, and things will probably remain same as before for her and her father.

Now this sounds very preposterous to say the least, but the screenplay by late Audrey Wells, which was subsequently augmented with the additional materials from Alice Wu and Jennifer Yee McDevitt, takes some leaps of faith as expected from its modern fantasy setting. For going to the Moon, Fei Fei promptly embarks on building a rocket, and, believe or not, everything including a spacesuit and a helmet comes pretty quick and handy to her as she builds the rocket step by step without telling anyone about that. She also needs to find something powerful enough to catapult her rocket all the way to the Moon, and, what do you know, there is a maglev train rail which has just been installed outside her town.

You will probably observe Fei Fei’s attempt with understandable skepticism like I did during my viewing, but Fei Fei manages to get her rocket launched in the end, and her rocket quickly sends her and her pet rabbit into the space, though it turns out that there are two major setbacks. She belatedly discovers that Chin sneaked into her rocket along with his pet frog, and then they get caught by two big space creatures, which promptly take them to a huge magical place located somewhere on the Moon.

Of course, this magical place turns out to belong to none other than Chang’e herself, who gives Chin and Fei Fei quite an impression via performing a big musical number in front of her audiences, who are mostly small and big colorful entities looking indistinguishable from each other except their body colors. Like these entities, the magical kingdom of Chang’e feels so flat and abstract in terms of shapes and colors that you may wonder whether the crew members of the film had some budget or creativity problem during the production period.

Anyway, Chang’e later demands a certain unspecified gift which Fei Fei is supposed to give to her, and the second half of the film follows Fei Fei’s subsequent adventure for finding and then giving whatever Chang’e wants, but director Glen Keane and his crew members fail to generate enough sense of wonder and excitement for this part. While a part involved with a trio of entities looking like big humanoid chickens feels flat and pedestrian despite lots of actions on the scene, the introduction of a supporting character voiced by Ken Jeong is more or less than an afterthought which remains woefully underdeveloped, and the same thing can be said about a few subplots including the one involved with an unexpected relationship between Fei Fei’s pet rabbit and a creature working under Chang’e. As a result, what is being at stakes for the main characters feel rather inconsequential, and we come to observe them and their story without much care and attention – even during the expected feel-good finale.

Anyway, the main cast members try their best in their fairly commendable voice acting. While Cathy Ang and Phillipa Soo wield their respective musical talents from time to time, Robert G. Chiu and Ken Jeong provide some humor to the film as required, and John Cho, Margaret Cho, and Sandra Oh dutifully fill their thankless roles.

Although it is fairly watchable at times, “Over the Moon”, which incidentally got Oscar-nominated a few weeks ago, is still dissatisfying because of its evident lack of strong character and narrative. In short, this is a passable but ultimately forgettable piece of work, and I would rather recommend to you its more distinguished fellow nominees including “Soul” (2020) and “Wolfwalkers” (2020) instead.

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Collective (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A sobering Romanian documentary on massive systemic corruption

Romanian documentary film “Collective”, which was nominated for Best Documentary Oscar as well as Best International Film Oscar early in this month, is often sobering in its phlegmatic but angry chronicle of outrage and frustration toward alarming systemic corruption. It is very apparent to us right from the beginning that the whole system in question is deeply corrupt and incompetent to say the least, but the scale of corruption over the system is so massive and complicated that even those good people trying to do the right things are frequently frustrated and exasperated as their efforts for reform and justice are thwarted again and again.

Everything began from one big tragic incident which happened at a club named Colectiv in October 2015. During that unfortunate evening, a heavy metal rock concert was being held with hundreds of attendees in the club, and a fire suddenly broke out in the middle of the concert. As shown from a devastating video clip shot during that time, the fire swiftly engulfed the whole interior of the club within a few minutes, and this resulted in the death of 27 people and the injuries of 180 people.

When it was subsequently turned out that the club did not receive any proper safety and health inspection in addition to not having any emergency exit at all, the public protests against the corruption and incompetence of government officials followed, and people became all the more furious when 37 more victims died at hospitals during next several months. This additional tragedy clearly signified to everyone in Romania that something was really very wrong with the public medical care system of their country, and more subsequent protests in public eventually led to the resignation of the Social Democratic Party, which was the ruling party at that time, from the government.

During its first half, the documentary mainly focuses on the group efforts of a local journalist named Cătălin Tolontan and several other fellow journalists at his sports newspaper. Although they did not have much experience in investigative journalism at the beginning, Tolontan and his close colleagues including Mirela Neag were determined to get to the bottom of the deep corruption inside the public medical care system, and what they came to discover thanks to their diligent efforts as well as a number of brave informers willing to talk to them was pretty shocking to say the least. For example, most of public hospitals in the country had purchased disinfectants from a certain big local company, but these disinfectants were actually diluted to the levels way below their standards from the very beginning, and this horrific fraud had accordingly resulted in frequent bacterial infections, which can be quite lethal especially to serious burn patients.

When Tolontan and his colleagues broke this shocking news in public, the interim government, which mostly consisted of technocrats, did not do much while only occupied with saving its face as much as it could. Its officials initially denied that there were problems with these disinfectants, but then, once the public pressure became too much to handle, they belatedly recognized the problems with disinfectants, while blatantly denying whatever they said and presented to Tolontan and many other reporters before.

As the outrages over those faulty disinfectants were continued, the CEO of that disinfectant company was subsequently arrested and then investigated for a while, but then, what do you know, he died under a very questionable circumstance not long after he was eventually released. Considering that this dirty rotten scoundrel, who can be regarded as the 21st century equivalent of Orson Welles’ memorably amoral character in “The Third Man” (1949), probably could testify against numerous officials bribed by him, his sudden death felt too timely to Tolontan and many others, but there is no evidence of foul play even at present.

In the meantime, the new Minister of Health entered the picture after his two predecessors resigned within a short period of time. He is a former civil activist named Vlad Voiculescu, and the second half of the documentary follows his admirable efforts for the total reform of the public medical care system. While earnestly trying to restore the public image of the interim government, Voiculescu also embarked on fixing the system as much as he and his people could, but, not so surprisingly, they soon found themselves struggling a lot with many obstacles popping here and there. Whenever there was some progress, they were always pushed back more by the intractability of their corrupt and incompetent bureaucratic system, and they were all the more frustrated as watching how some prominent local politician and popularist newspapers eagerly exploited this deadlock for their political benefit.

The narrative of the documentary finally culminates to the following national elections, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that the outcomes were pretty depressing to not only Voiculescu and Tolontan but also many others around them. Even at that narrative point, director/co-writer/co-editor Alexander Nanau, who also served as the cinematographer of his documentary, maintains his calm, restrained storytelling approach as before, and the last scene, which is involved with the family of one of the dead victims, is quietly harrowing in the very last shot.

Often powerful in its clear and incisive presentation of important and urgent social issues, “Collective” will surely remind you again of why the transparency and competence in public service systems are so important to us. This is definitely one of the best documentaries of last year in addition to being another stunning work from Romanian cinema, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to see it as soon as possible.

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