Caught in the Net (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A disturbing and gripping exposé of online sexual predators

Rarely have I felt an urgent need to calm down myself with a glass of drink or anything, but I had such a feeling while watching Czech documentary film “Caught in the Net”, which was released as “#WeWatchYou” in South Korean theaters a few days ago. Those sexual predators lurking in the dark territories of the Internet are not a shocking news anymore to many of us these days, but what is presented in the documentary is so chilling and disturbing that, in fact, I could have stopped more than once during my viewing if I had watched it via streaming service or screener.

At the beginning, we observe how directors/writers Barbora Chalupová and Vít Klusák and his crew members carefully set up the stage for their documentary. First, they held an audition for adult actresses who are young enough to look like being around 12-13 on the surface, and you will be surprised as watching many of actresses in the audition willingly talking about each own past experience with those online sexual predators out there. As already told to us in advance, the recent statistics shows that a considerable number of underage kids in Czech have been exposed to online sexual predators, and that is the main motive behind Chalupová and Klusák’s apparently risky documentary project.

Once three actresses (Tereza Těžká, Anežka Pithartová, and Sabina Dlouhá) were eventually selected after the audition, Chalupová and Klusák and their crew members embarked on making these actresses into plausible baits for their online targets. Besides preparing the fake accounts on several prominent social media applications including Facebook, the crew members also worked on making the convincingly realistic bedroom sets for each of these actresses, and we get some cheerful moments when these actresses bring some authenticity to their roles via renting a number of notable personal items from their respective adolescent pasts. To be frank with you, I was tickled a little by a brief scene involved with a plain but nice handmade doll house, and I also giggled when a certain famous American young adult novel was mentioned at one point.

After these careful preparations were completed on the set, our three actresses took their first step as disguising themselves as 12-year-old girls. For their protection, there were a number of rules on how to communicate with those online targets, and their online activities were also constantly monitored by not only the filmmakers on the set as well as several various experts brought to the set in advance for advice and consultation.

Nevertheless, the following results during next several days shocked and amazed everyone on the set a lot. As soon as the actresses presented their respective underage alter egos on the Internet, a bunch of very suspicious adult online users approached to them within a few minutes, and many of these adult users, who sometimes look like the creepy version of Casper the Friendly Ghost due to their blurred faces in the documentary, did not hide at all their deplorable sexual intentions in front of the actresses and everyone else on the set. Mostly frank about their age, these adult users blatantly attempted to befriend, seduce, and then exploit the actresses, and many of these dirty rotten persons did not even hesitate to send the photos of their certain body parts. During my viewing, I wrote down in my mental note: “Gee, this documentary has more dick pics than what I saw from those Grindr users during last five years.”

The situation subsequently became trickier when one of the crew members recognized one of these adult users approaching to the actresses. The man in question has handled many young kids because of his current occupation, and everyone on the set was more alarmed and disgusted as that person showed more of his depravity in front of them. The actresses kept their spirit high while also getting some help and support from the crew members and the experts on the set, but we cannot help but become concerned about their emotional tolls whenever they handle that person and several other equally loathsome online sexual predators.

Anyway, Chalupová and Klusák and their actresses and crew members continued to stick to their plan as entering its later stages. They prepared a number of fake nude photographs which can induce their online targets to cross ethical/legal lines, and we get quite a repulsive moment when one of their online targets cruelly blackmails one of the actresses as a result. For the final stage, they arranged a series of respective meetings with a number of selected online targets, and you will roll your eyes as watching how willing many of these selected targets were to go for the next stage of exploitation.

While too heavy-handed at times due to several reasons including the overbearing score by Jonatán Pastirčák, the documentary keeps holding our attention with these and many other gut-wrenching moments, and Chalupová and Klusák mercifully give us a few bright moments. There is an unexpectedly poignant scene which reminded the actresses and others on the set that there are also good and decent people on the Internet, and you will be certainly relieved a bit during a few key moments around the end of the documentary.

Although how it is about its urgent social issues is not entirely free from ethical questions and debates, I recommend “Caught in the Net” mainly for its truly disturbing emotional power on me. It is really uncomfortable to watch from the beginning to the end, but I think you must watch it especially if you are parents with young kids growing under you, and you will certainly come to have lots of things to muse on after watching this edgy documentary.

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The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021) ☆☆(2/4): A subpar entry in the series

To be frank with you, I am not a big fan of “The Conjuring” (2013) and its several sequels and spin-off flicks. Yes, most of them are competent products while not entirely without entertaining aspects, but I usually observed their supposedly scary moments from the distance instead of getting really terrified during my viewing, and I have also been getting quite accustomed to their usual tactics including those typical false alarms to be followed by expected “Boo!” moments.

I was surely well aware of what I was probably going to get from “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, but the movie turns out to be more pedestrian than I expected. Again, we are served with a number of spooky moments involved with demonic possession, but you will not see much novelty from that especially if you saw its predecessors before, and the movie will disappoint you more for its rote handling of story and characters.

The movie, which is set in 1981, opens with what can be regarded as one of a few highlight moments in the film. When a young boy of some ordinary middle-class family living in Brookfield, Connecticut seems to be suffering from a dangerous case of demonic possession, Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) are brought into this disturbing circumstance, and we see them and the family preparing for an exorcism ritual to be performed by a local priest who is soon going to arrive there. Although things seem to be under control on the surface, the circumstance becomes quite urgent even before the priest arrives, and we surely get lots of bangs and crashes as everyone in the house is shaken up by that demonic force in question.

Anyway, that unfortunate boy is eventually free from whatever has been tormenting him, but, alas, there is one big problem. Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), a nice lad who happens to be there as the boyfriend of the boy’s older sister, lets that demonic force transferred to him as desperately trying to save the boy at the last minute, and it does not take much for him to sense that something is going very, very, very wrong in his mind. At first, he often sees strange and disturbing things, and, not so surprisingly, his condition only gets worse and worse after that point.

In the end, Arne finds himself mired in sheer confusion and terror, and that inevitably leads to the gruesome death of one of his acquaintances. Shortly after the incident, he is quickly arrested and then incarcerated in a state prison, and everyone in the town including his girlfriend is certainly shocked a lot by this horrible incident.

Although he already knew what might happen to Arne, Ed could not prevent the incident as being unconscious for a while at a local hospital due to a serious heart problem resulted from that wild exorcism event, and he and Lorraine soon embark on proving that Arne is under that demonic influence. When they visit a female lawyer lawyer representing Arne, the lawyer is understandably skeptical, but she somehow changes her opinion after visiting Ed and Lorraine’s house, and we get a little amusing moment as she flatly argues at the court that her client is a serious case of demonic possession.

After finding a very sinister clue at the boy’s house, Ed and Lorraine comes to discern that they are facing a trouble much more serious than they thought at first, and they later come to consult an ex-priest who knows a lot about demonic possession and curses involved with that. The basement of this ex-priest’s residence is full of sinister stuffs which make Ed and Lorraine’s personal collection look rather pale in comparison, and Ed and Lorraine look around these stuffs with horror and fascination before asking a few important questions to this ex-priest.

As Ed and Lorraine gradually get closer to the origin of their supernatural case, the movie tries to hurl more shock and terror upon us, but the overall result is not that scary at all because of being too predictable more than once. You may be jolted once at least, but then you will not be surprised much as seeing through its very apparent pattern of shock and suspense, and the screenplay by David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick fails to generate much interest from the mystery at the center of its plot, which, to our disappointment, is handled in very contrived ways.

In case of Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, they are dependable as usual. Although I still think the real-life counterparts of their characters were nothing more than charlatans, Wilson and Farmiga’s diligent acting brings some sincerity and personality to their characters, and we care about their characters to some degree even during the pedestrian finale unfolded within an ominous underground space. In case of the other main cast members including Ruairi O’Connor, Sarah Catherine Hook, Julian Hilliard, and John Noble, they are mostly stuck with their functional supporting roles, and O’Connor manages to leave some impression during his several key scenes in the film.

In conclusion, “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”, which is directed by Michael Chaves (He previously directed “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019), by the way), is subpar compared to its two predecessors, and I give it 2 stars mainly because I gave 2.5 stars to both of its two predecessors. Besides “The Exorcist” (1973), whose certain iconic moment is blatantly quoted early in the film, there are better movies in its genre territory, and I assure you that you will be more scared and entertained if you watch them instead of this rather mediocre piece of work.

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Riders of Justice (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A whimsical tale of grief and vengeance

Danish film “Riders of Justice” is an unorthodox mix of drama, comedy, and violence which will catch you off guard more than once during your viewing. As deftly swinging back and forth between dark offbeat comedy and serious revenge drama, the movie somehow strikes the right balance among a number of seemingly clashing elements in the story, and it is even quite poignant at times while never losing its quirky sense of black humor.

Everything in the story begins from one very unfortunate train accident which causes the death of 11 passengers inside the train. One of the dead passengers is the wife of a veteran solider named Markus (Mads Mikkelsen), and he quickly comes back to his home after being notified of this sad news at his military camp in Afghanistan. While feeling quite guilty about usually not being there for his wife and their teenage daughter Mathilde (Andrea Heick Gadeberg), Markus adamantly refuses to recognize his mounting grief and anger as your average stoic tough guy, and that certainly frustrates Mathilde a lot, who happened to be with her mother at that time and has quietly struggled to understand and deal with the loss resulted by her mother’s death.

Meanwhile, we are also introduced to Otto (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) and Lennart (Lars Brygmann), a couple of digital algorithm developers who recently got fired for the totally worthless result of their project. No matter how much Otto tries to explain to his bosses on how the result will be meaningful in the end, he only makes himself look silly and pathetic in front of them, and his partner does not help much as saying wrong things at wrong moments.

Not long after becoming unemployed, Otto happened to get on that train, and he interacted a bit with Markus’ wife and daughter right before that accident happened. He luckily survived, and then he becomes quite obsessed with that accident. Two of the accident victims turn out to be a member of an infamous motorcycle gang named Riders of Justice and the lawyer representing him, and their death benefits the leader of that motorcycle gang at lot, who could go to prison if that deceased member were alive and testified against him at the court. The more Otto looks into the situation, the more he wonders whether there is actually something criminal behind the incident.

Otto comes to delve deeper into that matter along with Lennart and a fellow computer expert named Emmenthaler (Nicolas Bro), and he accordingly becomes more convinced that the incident was not just an unfortunate accident at all. He subsequently tries to tell his seemingly plausible theory to the cops assigned to the case, but, of course, the cops are apparently skeptic right from when he opens his mouth.

In the end, Otto and Lennart approach to Markus because Otto feels that Markus deserves to know the truth, and Markus, who has silently grieved more over his wife’ death while struggling to reconnect with his daughter, soon finds himself drawn to Otto and Lennart’s conspiracy theory, which looks more plausible as Otto shows Markus several pieces of information pointing to that motorcycle gang. As a man with a particular set of skills, Markus may help Otto and his friends a bit in dealing with those dangerous motorcycle gang members, and Markus eventually comes to accompany them during their visit to a potential suspect who happens to be closely associated with that motorcycle gang.

Now I should be more careful about describing the film, which bounces from one unexpected moment to another as rolling along its seemingly predictable genre narrative. For example, you may not be surprised by what suddenly occurs during a certain crucial scene involved with that potential suspect in question, but then the movie drops a little surprising moment of humor, and you will be surprised more as watching that moment leads to more laugh and poignancy later in the story.

Although many of its main characters are more or less than broad archetypes, the screenplay by director/writer Anders Thomas Jensen, which was developed from a story idea from Jensen and Nikolaj Arcel, gradually generates a considerable amount of pathos around them. While Markus and his daughter’s struggle with their loss and grief is presented with enough sensitivity and seriousness, Otto and his nutty friends turn out to have each own pain and torment as damaged persons, and there is a little funny but touching scene where one of them shows some compassion to a supporting character who suffered lots of abuse just like he did a long time ago.

The story naturally becomes more violent during its last act, but the movie does not lose its balance at all as continuing to throw more surprises for us, and the main cast members willingly hurl themselves into more violence and absurdity. While Mads Mikkelsen, who previously collaborated with Jensen in “Men & Chicken” (2015), holds the center as the straight hero of the story, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann, and Nicolas Bro are colorfully eccentric as required, and Andrea Heick Gadeberg, Gustav Lindh, Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, and Roland Møller are also effective in their respective supporting roles.

Overall, “Riders of Justice” did a funny and compelling job of twisting and playing with its genre elements, and, along with Thomas Vinterberg’s recent Oscar-winning film “Another Round” (2020), it surely demonstrates to us Mikkelsen’s undeniable talent and presence. He is indeed one of the best movie actors in our time, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to watch these two films together someday.

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The Paper Tigers (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three old tigers

I often found myself rolling my eyes with amusement and embarrassment as watching “The Paper Tigers”, a little martial arts flick which is alternatively corny and funny in winning ways. Cheerfully moving back and forth between comedy and drama along with its three aged heroes, the movie generates some good laughs from how silly and pathetic they really are, but their story is presented enough gravitas and sincerity in the process, and you may come to root for them more while still laughing for their clumsy quest toward honor and redemption.

After the opening scene showing the death of some old martial arts teacher on a night alley, the following montage sequence, which mainly consists of old video clips, promptly establishes the old past between him and his three pupils. In the late 1980s, his pupils were just little young kids, but they diligently practiced kung fu under their teacher’s generous teaching, and they soon became quite confident as they got bigger, faster, and stronger during next several years. When one of them was later invited to Japan, it was certainly a high point for him and his two fellow students, but, for some reason, that later led to his breakup with his teacher as well as his two fellow students.

At present, Danny (Alain Uy) looks older and meeker compared to that glorious adolescent period of his in the past, and we see how things have been pretty disappointing in his life. As a recently divorced father, he tries his best when he is about to spend a weekend along with his little son, but then he only finds himself busily handling his latest work to do instead, and that certainly disappoints not only his son but also his ex-wife, who understandably wonders whether it was really right to agree with him on joint custody.

Meanwhile, Danny is approached by Hing (Ron Yuan), one of the two fellow student whom he has not seen that often since their old time. Hing notifies to him that their old teacher died a few days ago, and he and Danny subsequently go together to their teacher’s funeral, though it has been more than 10 years since they saw their teacher for the last time. At the funeral, they certainly feel awkward and embarrassed as entering a world from which they walked away a long time ago, and they are also not so pleased to see that their old competitor, who was more or less than a punching bag for them during that time, is now a deadly serious marital arts teacher who is going to succeed his teacher someday.

Anyway, Danny and Hing come to learn that there is something suspicious about their teacher’s death. While it looks like he died due to some heart problem, the surrounding circumstance suggests that he was actually killed by someone, and Danny and Hing’s suspicion is increased more when the funeral happens to be disrupted by a trio of crude young lads who may know something about the death of Danny and Hing’s teacher.

Danny and Hing eventually decide to delve into this suspicious matter for themselves, but, needless to say, they are not so physically fit in addition to being over 40 at least, so they decide to reach to Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), the third member of their martial arts team who is now working as a mixed martial arts training coach. Although he still does not forget what caused their breakup at that time, Jim eventually agrees to join his old friends because, well, he still respects their teacher as before.

Of course, our three guys stumble a lot right from the beginning as your average mismatched team, and we accordingly get a series of absurd comic moments as they attempt to confront several other figures in the story one by one. While Danny and Hing are soon reminded that they are not young anymore, Jim turns out to be not as dependable as he seems at first, and there is a hilarious moment when he becomes a little scared as he forgets how to present himself formally before his fight begins.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these three guys gradually come to get their respective groove back, and director/co-writer/co-producer Tran Quoc Bao and his crew members do not disappoint us as serving us with several enjoyable fight scenes along the story. Although nobody in the film reaches to the level of, say, Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, the fight scenes in the movie are delivered well with enough physical impact and comic effect under their plain presentation, and it is clear that Bao and his crew and cast members had lots of fun together as making these entertaining moments.

Unfortunately, Bao’s screenplay begins to lose its balance during the third act where our three heroes finally encounter the final opponent in their bumpy quest, and it does not recover from that at all. While that final opponent in question is rather bland and forgettable in my inconsequential opinion, the eventual showdown between that figure and our three heroes is relatively less funny and exciting due to the lack of surprise, and I observed that with decreasing interest as duly waiting for the expected feel-good ending.

In conclusion, “The Paper Tigers” is not without flaws, and I wish it pushed its story and characters harder for more fun and laugh, but I still appreciate the sincere efforts from Bao and his cast and crew members. Despite apparently limited by its low production budget, their overall result is competent on the whole, and it is certainly recommendable to you if you enjoyed martial arts flicks such as “Enter the Drago” (1973) or “The Karate Kid” (1984).

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Synchronic (2019) ☆☆☆: A little intriguing SF flick set in New Orleans

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest film “Synchronic” puts some interesting ideas on a familiar type of science fiction tale. Although I was a little disappointed that it does not fully develop its intriguing story promise, the movie still fairly works well mainly thanks to its several distinctive elements including its authentic local atmosphere, and it is surely another interesting work from Benson and Moorhead.

After the opening scene which clearly shows us what it is going to be about, the movie introduces us to Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (James Dornan), two paramedics working in New Orleans. While Steve is your typical ladies’ man, Dennis is an average married guy, but they have been close friends for years, and we observe how their different personalities complement each other as they work together every night.

As two seasoned professionals, Steve and Dennis have seen a lot as dealing with various cases of medical emergency, but then they come across a series of mysterious incidents of drug abuse which baffle not only them but also the local cops handling these weird incidents. While it is quite apparent that the people in these incidents took some special type of synthetic drug, many of them are seriously injured for no apparent reason, and one of these cases is particularly strange. The woman in this case is clearly bitten by a certain kind of snake, but that snake in question is supposed to have been extinct for many years.

While handling these baffling incidents along with his friend, Steve finds a clue to that synthetic drug in question, which is named, yes, Synchronic, and he soon begins to track down where Synchronic can be purchased. That turns out to be easier than expected, and it does not take much time for him to realize how risky using Synchronic is. As already shown to us at the beginning, Synchronic is capable of transporting its users to anywhere in the past for a while, and we get some scientific explanation on that from a guy who later approaches to Steve for an urgent motive.

Meanwhile, Benson’s screenplay also focuses on what is going on in Steve and Dennis’ respective private lives. After due to a minor accident involved with possibly contaminated syringe needle, Steve promptly gets himself examined, and then there comes a devastating news which makes him reflect on how his life has been going. Besides Dennis and his family, there is no other people particularly close to him, and he has lived only with a pet dog whose name will amuse you a little for a good reason.

In case of Dennis, he often finds himself feeling rather distant to his dear wife and their adolescent daughter. During one early scene in the film, his daughter and Steve have a little casual conversation as looking at Dennis from the distance, and we come to sense more of the growing gap between her and her father, who is often more occupied with his job and friend while usually taking his family for granted.

The movie sometimes trudges as trying to balance itself between its science fiction plot and its two character’s personal dramas, but it steadily accumulates its narrative momentum at least, and it subsequently delivers a number of nice visual moments while never losing its focus on what is being at stake for Steve and the other main characters in the film. As becoming a man who has nothing to lose with lots of uncertainty in front of him, Steve subsequently embarks on a little personal mission via Synchronic, and we get some amusement as he goes through several trials where he comes to learn some important rules. As time and resource are running out for him, he becomes more obsessive and desperate, and that accordingly causes a considerable rift between him and Dennis.

What follows next is rather predictable, but Moorhead and Benson, who also edited and produced the film, keeps holding our attention via their competent handling of story and mood. In addition to conveying to us well a vivid local sense of people and locations in New Orleans, Moorhead’s cinematography often gives us impressive shots to be admired, and I especially like a long-take shot which fluidly moves around the characters within a small space.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan give engaging performances as diligently carrying the film together. While Mackie, who has been mainly known for his notable appearances in several recent Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, is relatively more prominent along his character’s dramatic arc in the story, Dornan, who has shown that he is indeed too good to be known only for “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015) and its two following sequels, holds his own place well besides his co-star, and Ally Ioannides and Katie Aselton are also fine in their rather functional supporting roles.

On the whole, “Synchronic” will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned moviegoer like me, and I was a bit dissatisfied with its several underdeveloped aspects, but the overall result confirms to me that Benson and Moorhead are a talented pair to watch. Although it does not knock me down hard like their previous film “The Endless” (2017) did, it is still a smart and economical genre piece to be appreciated for mood, storytelling, and performance, and I think you should give it a chance someday if you are looking for something different.

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Introduction (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A usual exercise by Hong Sang-Soo

South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo’s latest film “Introduction”, which received the Best Screenplay award when it was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, is a usual exercise you can expect from Hong. Like many of his films, it is pretty dry and simple in terms of story and characters, but we get some amusement anyway as the camera phlegmatically observes the characters, and the result is another fun work to be added to Hong’s long and steady filmmaking career.

The movie is divided into three acts, and the first act is mainly unfolded at a small clinic in Seoul, which is run by some middle-aged oriental medicine doctor. After the comical opening scene showing this doctor praying to God alone in his office, the movie promptly introduces us to his young son Yeong-ho (Shin Suk-ho), and the movie generates a series of amusing moments of dry humor while Yeong-ho keeps waiting for his father at the clinic. Because his father is occupied with one thing after another, Yeong-ho continues to be stuck in the waiting room, but he has no choice but to wait more because his father wants to meet and talk with him for an unspecified important personal reason.

At least, the situation is not that frustrating for Yeong-ho thanks to the clinic nurse, who has apparently worked there long enough to know him well. When Yeong-ho subesequently goes outside for a little moment of smoking, the clinic nurse soon comes to him, and the mood becomes a little warmer as he and the clinic nurse have some cordial private conversation.

After that moment, the movie moves onto the second act, which mainly revolves around Yeong-ho’s girlfriend Joo-won (Park Mi-so). She and her mother have just arrived in Germany because Joo-won recently decided to study art there, and, fortunately, her mother happens to have a painter friend who can provide Joo-won a place to stay. When they enter the apartment belonging to that painter, Joo-won cannot help but impressed by how beautiful and confident that painter is, and then she comes to have some doubt on whether she will be all right as trying to studying in an environment quite alien to her in many aspects.

Anyway, Joo-won later receives an unexpected message from Yeong-ho, who impulsively decided to come there just for spending some more time with his girlfriend. They agree to meet each other at a spot not so far from that painter’s residence, and the camera patiently observes their following conversation, which seems to be casual on the surface but reveals to us more about their mutual concern on whether they will be able to maintain their relationship even though they will be separated from each other for several years at least.

As subsequently entering the third act, the movie moves back to South Korea, and this part is mainly unfolded in a quiet rural beach town during one cold day. Yeong-ho’s mother is meeting some old veteran stage actor at a small seafood restaurant, and the actor, who incidentally appears briefly as one of the doctor’s patients during the first act, is considerably drunk after drinking several glasses of soju, a cheap Korean alcoholic beverage which has always been a common story element among many of Hong’s works.

Anyway, Yeong-ho’s mother has her son come to this meeting because she has been really concerned about his future. He aspired to be an actor for years, but he was recently discouraged by a rather trivial private conflict, and Yeong-ho’s mother wants the actor to give some pep talk to Yeong-ho as a wise and experienced senior.

However, right from when Yeong-ho arrives along with his close friend, we can easily sense what is bound to happen next. The actor has Yeong-ho and his friend drink along with him just for making the mood more cordial and casual, and we consequently get a cring-inducing moment of social embarrassment when the actor attempts to give some meaningful advice to Yeong-ho but then only comes to end up embarrassing himself as well as others around him.

While sticking to its dry and plain storytelling approach as before, Hong’s screenplay later slips into an unexpected moment around its finale. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you instead that this moment reflects a lot about how much Yeong-ho feels uncertain about himself and his life. Yes, there is still lots of time and life in front of this lad, but he remains not so sure about what to do next as another chapter of his life is about to begin.

Like Hong’s other films, the movie depends a lot on its performers, and they are fairly good in their unadorned acting while occasionally demonstrating precise comic timing. While Shin Suk-ho gradually comes to hold the center, Park Mi-so, Ye Ji-won, Seo Yeong-hwa, Jo Yoon-hee, and Kim Min-hee are engaging in each own way, and Ki Joo-bong, who previously collaborated with Hong with “Hotel by the River” (2018), is fun to watch in his certain highlight moment.

On the whole, “Introduction” is another notable work from Hong, though it is rather superficial compared to his recent films such as “Hotel by the River” and “The Woman Who Ran” (2019). At least, I enjoyed it to some degree, and its rather short running time (66 minutes) quickly passed by when I watched it at a local arthouse movie theater today, so I will not grumble for now.

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Apples (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Another dry absurd drama film from Greece

“Apples”, which was selected as the Greek entry for Best International Film Oscar in last year, is a dry absurd drama film which is decidedly peculiar right from its very beginning. Although it is not wholly successful in its offbeat exploration of human identity and condition, the movie is still fascinating to watch on the whole nonetheless, and I observed those odd and interesting moments in the film with considerable curiosity and admiration even while frequently feeling distant to its deliberately opaque storytelling during my viewing.

At the beginning, the movie lets us gather slowly what has been going on in the world surrounding its anonymous hero. There has been a strange pandemic which inexplicably causes complete amnesia, and our hero does not seem to mind that much as going through another day, but, what do you know, he is subsequently taken to a local hospital after showing the typical symptoms of that disease in question.

Because there is not anything to show his identity or his residence address, the doctors of the hospital have him stay along with other pandemic patients for a while, and he subsequently goes through a series of simple tests to check his memory ability. Although he still can speak well, his mind seems to be completely blank without any personal memory or knowledge, and there is a little amusing scene where he keeps giving wrong answers during a music association test. Things look pretty hopeless for him, but he seems to remember at least that he likes apples, and we often see him eating apples throughout the film.

On one day, the doctor assigned to him suggests that he should go through a certain rehabilitation program from pandemic patients like him. Despite some reluctance, he agrees to participate in the program, and we soon see him beginning the first day outside the hospital. Now he lives in a small modest apartment, and all he has to do is following the recommendation from a tape delivered to him everyday. In addition, he is also instructed to record that everytime via a Polaroid camera given to him.

Although he is not so particularly enthusiastic at first, he slowly gets accustomed to doing new things day by day. At first, he tries to ride a small bicycle borrowed from a kid he meets at a nearby park, and then he goes to a nightclub party as wearing a showy costume just like many others attending that party. While reminded of his current status from time to time, he becomes more willing to experience one new activity after another, and he always records everything via his Polaroid camera.

In the meantime, something unexpected happens to him. He comes across a woman who is also going through the rehabilitation program, and she makes him join her latest new life experience. As time goes by, it is apparent to us that he is attracted to this woman, and it looks like she is also interested in getting a bit closer to her, as shown from a brief scene where she does something daring along with him inside a public bathroom.

And then there comes a little surprising moment from him at one point later in the film. I will not go into details here, but I can tell you that you will instantly look back at what has been presented on the screen before that narrative point, and you will probably be more interested in what will happen next in the story. Although its eventual arriving point is not exactly satisfying, the movie adamantly sticks to its detached attitude as before, and we come to muse more on whatever is churning beneath its phlegmatic narrative.

This is the first feature film by director/co-writer/co-producer Christos Nikou, who worked as the second assistant director in Yorgos Lanthimos’ Oscar-nominated film “Dogtooth” (2009). Like that memorably strange film about one very nutty family who goes quite extreme within their isolated environment, the movie is cold, distant, and baffling as often intriguing us with peculiar touches and details, and you may chuckle a bit while watching the two main characters in the film talk about an unnamed movie which may sound quite familiar to you for good reasons.

I must confess that I am still wondering how I should interpret the story, but I admire how Nikou and his crew members keep holding our attention as skillfully maintaining the offbeat mood on the screen. Shot in the 1.33:1 ratio, the cinematography by Bartosz Świniarski constantly emphasizes the hero’s isolated status, and the soundtrack of the movie is effective in its utilization of several recognizable pieces of music. In case of the main performers in the film, they all look as serious as possible in their plain appearance, and that certainly accentuates more the dry but odd tone of the film.

Overall, “Apples” will surely require some patience as your typical arthouse film, but it is worthwhile to watch mainly for its distinctive qualities, and Nikou demonstrates here that he is another good filmmaker to watch. Although his movie is not exactly fresh as often reminiscent of “Dogtooth” and Lanthimos’ other works, he will probably come to find and then explore his own territory after this competent staring point, and I guess I can have some expectation on whatever will come next from this promising artist.

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Cruella (2021) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): She is actually not that cruel…

“Cruella” is often uneven and schizophrenic in its mixed result. On one hand, it seems to aspire to be mean and nasty, and there are some deliciously vicious moments to be savored mainly thanks to the entertaining works from its two main performers. On the other hand, it is also limited by its apparent need of box office appeal as another major blockbuster film from Disney, and that unfortunately dulls many of its edgier moments in addition to preventing it from something truly memorable.

As many of you know, the movie is supposed to be the origin story of Cruella de Vil, who is one of the most unforgettable villains in the history of Disney animation. While “One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961) is not exactly excellent in my humble opinion, Cruella, who is voiced by Betty Lou Gerson, is quite funny and striking in the sheer grandiosity of her evil, and she is inarguably the main reason why that film is still remembered by me and many others despite being 50 years old at present.

Cruella was already played on the screen by Glenn Close in the 1996 live action film, and, considering that even Close’s over-the-top performance could not surpass the 1961 animation film version, it must have been a hefty job for Emma Stone from the very beginning. Fortunately, Stone, who can be charming as shown from her Oscar-winning performance in “La La Land” (2016) while also capable of being bold and edgy as shown from “The Favourite” (2018), manages to hold the center at least. Although her performance is often limited and hampered by many plot contrivances in the film, Stone is certainly having a ball here, and it is a shame that the movie does not go all the way along with her for more naughty fun.

Accompanied with Stone’s sardonic narration, the first act of the movie depicts Cruella’s early years. While she was raised fairy well under her mother Catherine (Emily Beecham), young Cruella (Tipper Seifert-Cleveland ), who was named Estella at the time of her birth, could not help but driven by her wild and impulsive side from time to time, and that accordingly led to a number of incidents including the unfortunate death of her mother. Consequently becoming a helpless orphan, young Cruella goes to London by herself, and, though the story is set in the late 20th century, we get a little Dickensian moment as she comes to befriend two little orphan criminals who kindly let her live in their little shabby residence.

Anyway, several years later, Cruella, who is now played by Stone, is still living with Jasper (Joel Fry) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser), and they all grow up to be thriving street criminals earning their modest living via stealing anything good enough for them. As she frequently designs various disguises for her and her loyal accomplices, Cruella comes to yearn more for entering the fashion business in London someday, and, what do you know, she comes to get an opportunity for that thanks to a little help from Jasper and Horace, who have her get employed at one of the most luxurious department stores in the city.

However, Cruella soon finds herself becoming as miserable as Cinderella while being stuck with menial jobs at the near bottom of the system, so she eventually decides to go wild again, and the following artistic result of hers happens to draw the attention of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), an infamous fashion designer who is the head of the most prestigious fashion house in London. Because her fashion house really needs some fresh talent and creativity right now, the Baroness promptly hires Cruella, and Cruella learns one thing after another as observing how fiercely and ruthlessly her new boss manages her business everyday.

Now you may be reminded of, yes, “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), whose adapted screenplay was incidentally written by Aline Brosh McKenna, one of the co-writers of “Cruella”. Like Meryl Streep in that film, Emma Thompson looks imperious and demanding as expected, and she has several juicy moments as the Baroness comes to show more of her dark sides later in the story due to her eventual conflict with Cruella.

While maintaining her disguise as thin as Clark Kent’s under the Baroness, Cruella decides to reach for the top of the field by any means necessary, and her two accomplices and a gay fashion shop owner are ready to help her following daring fashion stunts against the Baroness in public. Costume designer Jenny Beavan, who recently won her second Oscar for “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), surely has a field day during this part, and I must say that I was particularly amused by the moment involved with a trash truck.

However, the movie subsequently hesitates on the threshold before becoming really mean and nasty, and then it stumbles more during its last act although Stone and Thompson dutifully carry the film to the end. In case of the other main cast members including Emily Beecham, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Jon McCrea, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and Mark Strong, they are merely required to fill their spots around Thompson and Stone, though Fry and Hauser provide some cheerful sense of humor to the story at least.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, who previously gave us “I, Tonya” (2017), “Cruella” is not entirely without entertaining elements, but it is ultimately marred by its glaring incoherence in terms of story and characters, and I felt rather dissatisfied as walking out of the screening room along with many audiences. Although we all wore mask as demanded, I could not help but become more conscious of the lack of social distancing at times during my viewing, and that will probably be what I will remember most from the movie.

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Aloners (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): She prefers to be alone…

South Korean independent film “Aloners” revolves around the daily life of one young woman who simply prefers to be alone. While she is not exactly a likable person, the movie takes patience in observing not only her loneliness but also what is quietly churning behind that, and we come to understand her to some degree while also touched by how she eventually takes a few active steps for herself around the end of the story.

At first, the movie slowly establishes its heroine’s rather drab lifestyle. As a call center employee of some credit card company, Jin-ah (Gong Seung-yeon) has been pretty efficient and exemplary, but she is not particularly social to say the least. For example, she prefers to have lunch alone in contrast to many of her fellow call center employees, and she only talks with her supervisor sometimes when they smoke together outside.

In case of her private life, Jin-ah lives alone in a cheap apartment where she simply spends some time alone before her sleeping time, and she does not interact much with other residences in the apartment building. Whenever she leaves or returns, she often comes across some lad living right next to her apartment, but she is not interested at all in getting to know him, and it gradually becomes clear to us that this young man really needs someone to talk with.

Meanwhile, we slowly get to know a bit about something which has bothered Jin-ah for a while. A few months ago, her mother, who came to live with her father again several years ago despite their divorce resulted from his infidelity, suddenly died, and Jin-ah is not so pleased about how her father is handling the aftermath. He does not look that devastated, and he is already ready to move onto whatever will come next during the remaining years of his life. Having secretly been monitoring his domestic life via a hidden online camera, Jin-ah comes to resent her father more than before, and she is more displeased when he often calls her via her mother’s smartphone.

Nevertheless, Jin-ah keeps her appearance as impeccable as possible at her workplace, and then there comes an unexpected assignment for her. A new employee named Soo-jin (Jung Da-eun) is about to begin her first working day, and Jin-ah’s director supervisor assigns Jin-ah to training Soo-jin during next several days. Jin-ah reluctantly begins the training session with Soo-jin, and Soo-jin is quite ready to be nice to those callers as well as Jin-ah.

Of course, Soo-jin comes to stumble more than during the following train sessions where she has to handle many different kinds of callers. There is a crazy man who frequently calls for a loony question involved with time machine, and that is a merely mild case compared to a number of nasty callers appearing in the film, who are, I assure you, not so different from what millions of call center employees have to handle everyday in reality. In case of one particular caller, this obnoxious person demands Jin-ah to read every detail of her monthly credit card bill just for checking whether there is anything wrong, and I must tell you that this caller also annoyed me a lot during my viewing.

It looks like Soo-jin should consider seriously about looking for some other job, but she tries her best anyway, and she also attempts to befriend Jin-ah, though that is the last thing Jin-ah wants for now due to her increasing emotional turmoil. She keeps watching her father while not telling anything to him about her secret online camera, and there is a somber but emotionally tense scene where she phlegmatically but bitterly watches him having a cheerful meeting with his recent church members in his residence.

As Jin-ah’s mind becomes more troubled, something quite unexpected happens in her apartment building. More withdrawn than before, she cannot help but become more annoyed by Soo-jin, and Soo-jin also seems to sense that she is not welcomed much by Jin-ah or others as their workplace. During one calm but painful scene, she comes to have sort of mental breakdown while handling one of those usual problematic callers, and that is when Jin-ah belatedly comes to realize that Jin-ah is not so different from her despite their personality difference.

The screenplay by director/writer Hong Sung-eun, who made a feature film debut here, does not explain much what makes its heroine tick, but it is still interesting as an observational character study, and Gong Seung-yeon did a stellar job of suggesting a lot while not directly signifying anything on the surface. While steadily maintaining her character’s frigid appearance and composure, Gong ably conveys to us her character’s gradual mental implosion, and we are not so surprised when her character suddenly reaches her breaking point later in the story.

Gong is also supported well by several other good cast members in the movie. While Jung Da-eun holds her own place well besides Gong during their several keys scenes in the film, Kim Hae-na is solid as Jin-ah’s demanding supervisor, and Seo Hyun-woo brings some warmth to the story as a new neighbor who does not mind interacting more with Jin-ah and other residents in the apartment building.

Overall, “Aloners” will demand some patience from you due to its dry mood and slow narrative, but it is still worthwhile to watch as a modest but engaging character drama, and you may reflect on yourself a bit if you have lived alone like I have during last several years. I do not have much problem with my current status of life, and I do become lonely from time to time in my one-room residence, and I guess I should say something nice to the other residents in the building whenever I come across any of them.

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The Army of the Dead (2021) ☆☆(2/4): Zack Snyder back in zombieland

Zack Snyder’s new film “The Army of the Dead”, which was released on Netflix two days ago, is excessive and self-indulgent. Although you will be not disappointed at all if you simply want to see lots of zombies swiftly eliminated on the screen, the movie is often hampered by its plodding narrative and weak characterization, and I only found myself mildly entertained by some amusing elements to notice, while not paying much attention to whatever was happening on the screen.

After the predictable prologue part showing an unfortunate vehicle incident which inevitably leads to the massive zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, the first act of the movie spends some time on building up its story promise. While Las Vegas have been completely and safely sealed from the outside world for next several years, there are still thousands of zombies inside the city, so the US government eventually decides to destroy the city with a small atomic bomb, and this decision leads to lots of public controversies as shown from a TV discussion featuring a certain deplorable real-life public figure associated with Donald J. Trump.

While many people around the country are focusing on the upcoming bombing of Las Vegas, that is not much of a concern to Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a mercenary who killed lots of zombies in Las Vegas during that chaotic time as saving himself and many other people including his own daughter Kate (Ella Purnell) and some important government official. He has been fairly content with working as a diner cook while leaving behind his bloody past now, but, of course, somebody soon approaches to him for a job to do in Las Vegas, and that is a Japanese billionaire named Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada). Tanaka wants Ward to assemble a special team to infiltrate into the city and then retrieve heaps of cash stored in the high-security basement safe of a certain casino building, and he promises that Ward and his team will receive enough reward for that if they successfully accomplish the mission in the end.

Despite his initial reluctance, Ward subsequently embarks on assembling the team, and we are introduced to his team members one by one. Besides two fellow mercenaries he can trust, there are also a German safecracker, a helicopter pilot, and a sharpshooter who really enjoys killing zombies, and Ward also recruits a French woman who knows a lot about how to infiltrate into Las Vegas – and how to handle a certain type of zombies which are far more dangerous than slow-walking zombies.

Around the time when Ward and his team members are about to infiltrate into Las Vegas, they happen to be accompanied with two other persons, and Ward is not so pleased about that. While he can tolerate Tanaka’s rather obnoxious right-hand guy, he objects to the participation of his daughter as a concerned father, but he possibly cannot stop her because, as a caring volunteer working in a nearby refugee camp, she is quite determined to go inside the city and then rescue a desperate mother of two kids who recently sneaked into the city for getting any money left there.

Once Ward and the other team members go inside the city, we get lots of apocalyptic sights to behold. Besides those crumbling buildings, we see lots of dried barebone bodies piled here and there, and then there come zombies as expected with some surprises. Compared to those usual slow-walking zombies, the aforementioned type of zombies is much quicker and faster in addition to having some intelligence, and we are not so surprised when it turns out later that these zombies have been led by a figure which is the very origin of the outbreak.

Later in the story, the time for their mission is shortened a lot, so Ward and his team members become much more hurried than before, and we are soon served with lots of zombie killing as expected. As those zombies keep coming, they relentlessly shoot or maim those zombies, and we accordingly get of lots of bloody and gruesome moments including the one involved with the graphic decapitation of a certain zombie figure.

However, while going all the way for excessive blood and violence, the screenplay by Snyder and his co-writers Shay Hatten and Joby Harold unfortunately slouches for more than 2 hours without generating much narrative momentum to hold our attention, and its many weak aspects become more glaring to us. Those zombies in the film may look scary at first, but they soon come to bore us a lot without much fun or horror, though I must admit that I was a bit amused by the two kinds of zombie animals in the movie. In case of the human characters in the film, they are mostly superficial cardboard figures we do not care about that much, and you can even easily guess in advance on who will be fresh meat to be served to zombies.

Anyway, the main cast members dutifully fill their respective spots as demanded. While Dave Bautista holds the center with his formidable appearance, Omari Hardwick, Ana de la Reguera, Matthias Schweighöfer, Garret Dillahunt, Tig Notaro, and Raúl Castillo bring some colorfulness to their archetype supporting roles, and Hiroyuki Sanada, Nora Arnezeder, Theo Rossi, and Ella Purnell acquit themselves fairly well despite their thankless roles.

In conclusion, “The Army of the Dead” is disappointing especially compared to Snyder’s previous zombie horror film “Dawn of the Dead” (2004), which has its own fun and horror enough compared to George A. Romero’s original 1978 film. The movie is not a total dud, but there are many other better zombie films out there, and I assure you that you will have a more productive time if you watch them instead of this bloated misfire.

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