The Day I Died: Unclosed Case (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): She needs to get to the bottom of this case…

South Korean film “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is a mystery noir drama which gradually reveals its weary but palpitating heart behind its seemingly detached attitude. Although the mystery of its story is a bit too simple for some of you, the movie diligently focuses on its troubled detective heroine and her dogged pursuit of truth as slowly revealing to us a lot about her state of mind as well as her case, and it surely earns its narrative payoff around the arrival point of her gloomy emotional journey.

During the first act of the movie, we get to know the ongoing predicaments of Kim Hyeon-soo (Kim Hye-soo), a female detective who had a very unfortunate accident which can considerably jeopardize her career. When she returns to her workplace, Hyeon-soo is warmly welcomed by her direct superior, and she assures to her direct superior that she has recovered enough during her brief absence after that accident, but her direct superior reminds her that she will soon have to face an internal investigation committee on that accident anyway.

Nevertheless, her direct superior assigns Hyeon-soo to a case in the need of being closed as soon as possible. An adolescent girl who was a key witness for the case involved with her father was suddenly gone in the middle of her temporary stay in a remote island, and a note left by her clearly suggests that she committed suicide for understandable personal reasons. All Hyeon-soo has to do is checking whether there is not any big problem in closing the case, and her direct superior may give some help to her later if she does the job as well as wanted by her direct superior and others.

Like any good detective, Hyeon-soo looks into the circumstance surrounding that girl’s case step by step, and it looks like there is nothing surprising or baffling about the case. Before her father’s serious financial crime was exposed, Se-jin (Roh Jeong-eui) did not suspect her father at all, and she even fully cooperated with the police shortly after she happened to discover an incriminating evidence against him. After she was sent to that island for protection and recovery by the prosecution, she was often monitored by two police officers assigned to the case, and the video clips from several surveillance cameras placed in and around a house where she stayed do not show anything particularly suspicious.

As a part of her procedure, Hyeon-soo comes to that island, and she still cannot find any strange thing as getting some testimonies from the residents of that island. While Se-jin did not interact much with them as mostly staying in a house kindly provided to her, the people of that island did not have any problem with that at all, and, as shown from a flashback scene, they were all shocked when it looked like she committed suicide at a rocky cliff. They subsequently tried to find her body as much as they could, but, alas, the day when she was assumed to commit suicide was quite a stormy day, and her body has still not been found even at present.

It seems that there is nothing else Hyeon-soo has to do except closing the case as ordered, but she cannot help but become obsessed with small blank spots left here and there in the case. Why does the lawyer representing Se-jin’s only close living family member try to bribe Hyeon-soo while asking for a number of Se-jin’s personal items? Why has the girlfriend of Se-jin’s father stayed away from any contact even though she eventually turned out to be not associated with his crime at all? Why does one of the two police officers assigned to Se-jin refuse to talk with Hyeon-soo at any chance? And, above all, why did Se-jin not specify her suicide motive that much in her few last words?

While she keeps trying to find the answers for these and other questions, we come to have more understanding of the source of Hyeon-soo’s growing obsession. Besides feeling quite pressured about having to face the internal investigation committee sooner or later, she also has to deal with the stress from her rocky divorce process, and there is no one to lean on for her except a very close friend/colleague, who naturally becomes quite frustrated and exasperated to see her best friend becoming more self-destructive than before. Often feeling alone and depressed more than before, Hyeon-soo comes to identify more with Se-jin, and she adamantly continues to delve into the case for this unfortunate girl who really needed more attention and care.

The final act of the movie probably will not surprise you much if you are a seasoned connoisseur of mystery stories like me, but director/writer Park Ji-wan skillfully handles story and character development without any hiccup, and it is satisfying to see when everything in the story comes to make sense during the finale. Although the epilogue scene initially feels rather redundant, the movie wisely sticks to its low-key tone even at that point, and we are reminded of how much our heroine is changed at the end of the story.

As the center of the movie, Kim Hye-soo, who has been one of the most prominent South Korean actresses during last two decades, dutifully carries the movie via another strong performance of hers, and several other main performers in the film hold each own place well around her. While Roh Jeong-eui effectively hovers over the story as required, Kim Sun-young is solid as Hyeon-soo’s caring friend/colleague, and Lee Jung-eun, who gave a magnificent supporting performance in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning film “Parasite” (2019), is superlative in her nearly wordless acting.

Overall, “The Day I Died: Unclosed Case” is more like a character study instead of merely being your average police procedural, and Park, who previously made a couple of short films, makes a solid feature film debut here. Considering what is presented in the movie, she is a good filmmaker with considerable potentials in my trivial opinion, and I guess I can have some expectation on her next work in the future.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Let Him Go (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A western family drama

“Let Him Go” works best whenever it focuses on the strong and loving relationship of its two lead characters. Right from when they appear at the beginning of the story, we instantly come to sense the long history between them, and it surely helps that they are played by two star movie performers who have not lost any of their talent and presence during last four decades.

The first act of the movie is set in a rural area of Montana in the 1960s. We are introduced to George and Margaret Blackledge (Kevin Costner and Daine Lane), and everything feels fine and well for this gentle middle-aged couple and several people they have deeply cared about. Their only son married not so long ago, and Margaret is willing to help her daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) raising her little grandson in their cozy ranch house while George often works with his son outside.

However, this happy family life of theirs do not last long due to a tragic accident which kills George and Margaret’s son. While George and Margaret have tried to deal with their loss and grief since that tragic incident, Lorna comes to lean on some other guy in a nearby town, and it does not take much time for her to marry this guy and then move to his residence along with her son. Although they are not so pleased with this decision of hers, George and Margaret respect their daughter-in-law’s decision anyway with some perfunctory blessing on her second marriage.

Not long after Lorna left, Margaret happens to witness a very disturbing moment while she is in the town for grocery shopping. At first, she is delighted to spot Lorna and her grandson from the distance, but then she is unnerved to watch them abused by Lorna’s new husband. Quite concerned about Lorna and her grandson, Margaret decides to take some action later, but Lorna and her second husband are already gone along with their son when Margaret subsequently attempts to visit them.

It seems Lorna’s husband takes his wife and stepson back to his hometown in North Dakota, so Margaret soon prepares for searching for them in North Dakota, and that generates a little moment of conflict between Margaret and her husband. Although he has some reservation on whether she will succeed or not, George comes to accompany his wife because 1) As a former town sheriff, he is well aware of the possible dangers his wife may come across on the road and 2) he knows too well that he cannot possibly stop her when she is quite determined.

During the middle act, the movie takes a more leisurely tone as George and Margaret drive from one spot to another in the middle of their long journey across North Dakota. Fortunately for them, it does not take that long for them to find the whereabouts of Lorna and her son and second husband, and it seems that all they have to do is convincing Lorna to let them take their grandson back to Montana.

However, as George and Margaret get closer to the destination where Lorna has currently lived with her son and second husband, the mood gradually becomes tense and unnerving. It turns out that Lorna’s second husband brought his wife and stepson to his family ranch home located in the middle of some remote region, and it goes without saying that his family are not pleased to see two outsiders meddling with their family matter.

And these folks also turn out to be quite vicious to say the least. Blanche Weboy (Lesley Manville), the matriarch of this family who has apparently held a firm control over her sons including Lorna’s second husband, exudes loony menace and insidiousness right from when she meets Margaret and George for the first time, and George and Margaret come to behold what a toxic environment Blanche’s house is for Lorna and her son.

While George and Margaret try to save Lorna and his son from Blanche and her virulent family as much as possible, the screenplay by director/writer Thomas Bezucha, which is based on Larry Watson’s novel of the same name, continues to develop its plot with more genre elements including a Native American character who happens to befriend Margaret and George by coincidence. While cinematographer Guy Godfree’s camera often shows the gorgeous shots of mountains and plains, the restrained score by Michael Giacchino tentatively accompanies these starkly beautiful moments, and they surely make a striking contrast with brutal moments of violence later in the film.

Although the movie becomes less interesting as heading to its expected finale, Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, who incidentally appeared together as a couple in “Man of Steel” (2013), still hold our attention as before, and they are simply effortless especially during a number of small intimate moments between their characters. On the opposite, Lesley Manville, who has been more prominent thanks to her stellar supporting turn in “Phantom Thread” (2017), forcefully chews every scene of hers as required by her very twisted character, and Will Brittain, Jeffrey Donovan, Kayli Carter, and Booboo Stewart are also well-cast in their respective supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Let Him Go” is a rather plain genre film on the whole, but it is supported well by not only Bezucha’s competent direction but also the enjoyable performances from Costner, Lane, and Manville. Yep, the story is quite familiar to the bone, but these good performers elevate their stock materials to some degree, and I appreciate that a lot.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Bad Education (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): When all begin to fall down for him and his school

HBO TV movie “Bad Education”, which won an Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie a few months ago, is a compelling true crime drama about the largest public school embezzlement in American history. Believe or not, it happened at a school which was regarded as one of the best public schools in the country at that time, and the movie gives us a close look on how everything came to fell apart for not only the person mainly responsible for that but also many others around him.

The opening scene of the movie shows us how things looked so good for Roslyn High School in Long Island, New York in 2002. At that time, Roslyn High School was the fourth-ranked public school in the country while constantly sending its many graduated students to a number of prestigious colleges around the country, and it goes without saying that this enviable status of the school had benefited its neighborhood in more than one aspect. For example, many parents caring about their children’s education were surely eager to get enrolled in the school, and that had considerably enhanced the real estate value of the neighborhood.

Most of the credit for how the school has been vastly improved during last 10 years goes to Dr. Frank Tasson (Hugh Jackman), who has dutifully served as the school district superintendent of Roslyn. When he appears in front of many students and parents during one public event to celebrate their school’s prestigious status, everyone cheers, and he effortlessly grabs everyone’s attention with his natural charm and charisma as announcing another big project to improve the public image of their school further.

Of course, that big project in question requires lots of funding from the beginning, so Tasson and others around him have been busy with preparing for getting enough money and support, but then there comes a big problem which may ruin their plan as well as the whole school. Due to one small mistake, it is belatedly revealed that Pam Gluckin (Allison Janney), who has been Tasson’s right-hand person as his assistant superintendent, has stolen at least $225,000 for years, and the school board members including Bob Spicer (Ray Romano) are ready to report this serious incident of embezzlement to the police, but then they come to change their mind after Tasson suggests that they should handle this case for themselves without any fuss. After all, this incident is going to tarnish the public image of their school if it is ever leaked to the media, and that is the last thing wanted by Spicer and other school board members, who all have benefited a lot from the prestigious status of their school and naturally do not want to lose it at all just because of one unexpected incident.

In the end, Gluckin is forced to resign with a false excuse while also losing her professional license, and she is quite bitter about this. Sure, she is indeed guilty of longtime embezzlement which eventually turns out to be quite bigger it seemed at first, but the following internal audit subsequently comes to reveal that there is something Tasson did not tell to others, and that is bound to be exposed sooner or later thanks to Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), a student reporter who has worked on an article for the Roslyn High School paper. At first, her job was simply getting to know more about the aforementioned school project and then reporting it, but this seemingly simple job leads her to more questions and investigations, and she subsequently comes to notice many odd and suspicious things here and there in public records.

As the big dirty picture of her school becomes clearer to her step by step, Bhargava becomes quite conflicted as wondering about what to do with what she has found out. Her editor is understandably reluctant because her article can ruin the promising status of them and many other students in their school, and, of course, it does not take much time for Tasson to learn of what she has been investigating. During one small but tense scene between Tasson and Bhargava, he justifies everything for what he has achieved for his school, and that makes her more conflicted than before.

When the screenplay by writer/co-producer Mike Makowsky, which is based on Robert Kolker’s nonfiction book “The Bad Superintendent”, eventually arrives at the narrative point where all hell breaks loose for Tasson and others around him, the movie become less engaging as trudging from one expected moment to another, but Hugh Jackman, who deservedly received an Emmy nomination for his performance here in this film, steadily carries the movie as usual. As we come to learn more of how dishonest and corrupt Tasson has really been, Jackman vividly conveys Tasson’s inevitable implosion behind his confident façade, and he is particularly good when his character finally comes to face the inevitable consequences coming upon his life.

Around Jackman, director Cory Finley, who previously drew our attention for his first feature film “Thoroughbreds” (2017), assembles a number of various talented performers. While Allison Janney is dependable as usual, Ray Romano, Alex Wolff, and Rafael Casal are also solid in their crucial supporting roles, and Geraldine Viswanathan did a lot more than expected from her rather functional character.

On the whole, “Bad Education” is entertaining thanks to Finley’s competent direction and Jackman’s terrific acting, which reminds us again that he is one of the most charismatic performers in our time. Yes, most of us still remember him for playing that comic book superhero, but he has shown us that he can do lots of other things, and the movie is one of the best examples for that.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Final Year (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): The final year of the Obama administration

It is hard for me not to become nostalgic while watching Greg Barker’s documentary film “The Final Year”, which closely looks into the inner workings of the Obama administration during its final year. At that time, many of us were optimistic despite many problems around the world, but then we got a sort of cold shower as watching that unbelievable political ascent of Donald J. Trump, and the documentary feels all the more bittersweet considering how things have become much worse during last four years.

Around that time Barker and his crew began their shooting around President Barack Obama and his close advisers and cabinet members, everyone in the White House was quite determined to make their final year as fruitful as possible. Taking care of numerous international issues ranging from the Syrian Civil War to global climate change within only one year looks daunting to say the least, but President Obama sincerely hoped to make any lasting legacy and achievement during this short period, and so did others around him including Secretary of State John Kerry, whose US Presidential campaign in 2004 incidentally opened the door to more prominence in public for Obama.

While he was already over 70 at that time, Kerry was an energetic and passionate government official always ready to serve his government and country, and the documentary shows him frequently going here and there around the world for his myriad diplomatic tasks. Besides handling the increasingly complex situation surrounding the Syrian Civil War, he also had to deal with the Iranian government, and he actually pulled off some significant diplomatic progress which seemed to lead to less hostility between US and Iran at that time.

Meanwhile, we are also introduced to several other key figures in the foreign policies of the Obama administration. While National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes were constantly ready to provide President Obama information and advises amidst heaps of other tasks to be handled day by day, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, a former Harvard professor who has shown lots of interest in human rights, often functions as the strong and passionate voice of morals and conscience, and Rhodes later admits in front of the camera that he sometimes clashes with Power due to their different viewpoints during their discussions with President Obama.

Anyway, despite a number of setbacks here and there around the world, it looked like they and other government officials in the White House were heading for some good changes during early 2016. While the Syrian Civil War remained to be a sore thumb as before, they succeeded in setting a solid diplomatic ground for dealing with Iran, and they also started to open the door for the direct diplomatic connection with the Cuban government at last.

And President Obama elevated his people’s diligent efforts with his natural grace and dignity. Constantly balancing himself and his administration between idealism and pragmaticism, he really tried hard to restore the international image of his country which was seriously tarnished by two unnecessary international wars, and his sincere efforts in public are clearly shown from when he visited Laos, a South Asian country which was heavily damaged by the US military during the Vietnam War.

When he was often asked about Trump during President Obama’s visit to Laos, Rhodes was not particularly serious about Trump because, just like many people including me, he thought Hilary Clinton would eventually win. Even during September 2016, he and others around him were occupied with preparing for the next administration without much worry, and it goes without saying that they were all shocked when Trump was elected as the next president of US on that terrible day of November 2016.

As still trying to process this shocking incident which surely showed the very ugly sides of their country to not only its people but also the whole world, Kerry and others in the White House kept working as usual nonetheless. They were not pleased at all to see Trump replacing Obama after a few months, but they tried as much as possible for preserving their progresses and achievements before handling over them all to the Trump administration, which, as many of you know, thoroughly ruined their efforts in the end.

Although it does not go that much beyond the admiration toward Obama and the members of his administration, I must say that the documentary feels like a bout of fresh air from the past at present. Regardless of how much they actually achieved during those four years, Kerry and other government officials in the documentary are smart, decent, and dedicated people as far as I can observe from the documentary, and that certainly makes a big contrast with what has been going on in the Trump administration, which is inarguably packed with nothing but corrupt or incompetent cronies/enablers.

Now it looks like the end of the Trump era is approaching after Joe Biden’s long-awaited victory in the recent US Presidential Election, but I do not think we can ever regain the hopeful optimism of the Obama era, and the final moments of “The Final Year” painfully remind me of that again. Like many of you, I certainly miss those sunnier days when Obama was in the White House, but, sadly, our life is inherently a one-way road, and we still should brace ourselves for whatever will happen next on our road to the upcoming future.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kajillionaire (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Stuck with her small-time crook parents

“Kajillionaire” is as quirky and charming as you can expect from Miranda July, who previously delighted us with “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (2005) and “The Future” (2011). Like these two films, the movie often baffles us with a number of offbeat touches popping out from here and there on the screen, but we come to sense its warm, caring heart constantly beating under the surface, and we find ourselves unexpectedly touched around the eventual arrival point of its story and characters.

At the beginning, we are introduced to a young woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) and her con artist parents Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), and then we observe their latest criminal activity at a local post office. While Robert and Theresa are waiting outside as lookouts, Old Dolio enters the local post office and then steals some stuffs when nobody is watching her, and she and her parents later check whether these stuffs are good enough for getting some money to support them.

It is apparent to us that Robert and Theresa have committed small petty thefts and scams for years, and Old Dolio does not have any problem with that as an equal partner-in-crime for her parents, though she has not been particularly happy under Robert and Theresa’s rather toxic parenting. They have resided in one abandoned office of a shabby building in the serious need of repair, and Robert and Theresa do not provide any comfort or privacy at all to Old Dolio, who often looks awkward still feeling like an immature girl forced into her parents’ carefree criminal lifestyle.

And there comes an unexpected change into their daily life. The landlord of that shabby building, who has tolerated Robert and Theresa to some degree just because they have taken care of the constant problem of the building (It is one of several amusing running gags in the film, by the way), demands that they should pay all the delayed rent within a short period of time, and Old Dolio and her parents must find any possible way for solving this imminent problem of theirs.

Fortunately, Old Dolio comes to concoct a scam which may get them enough money to pay their rent before the deadline. She recently acquired free airplane tickets as a contest prize, and all they will have to do is having a round airplane trip between their city and New York City, after which they will probably get insurance money via a false claim on her ‘lost’ luggage.

As they go to New York City and then returns to their city, everything seems to go well for them except experiencing a turbulence more than once, but there is one problem waiting for them. Old Dolio’s claim is submitted and accepted without any trouble, but, alas, she is belatedly notified that she cannot get the insurance money right now because it takes some time for her claim to be processed in the system.

Meanwhile, Robert and Theresa come to befriend Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), a pretty young woman they happened to encounter during the latter part of their round trip. Although she is a total stranger to them, they willingly reveal the details of their scam to her, and Melanie gladly gives some help to them as their ‘daughter’, probably because she really needs some fun and excitement in the midst of her mundane daily life.

Old Dolio initially does not like much how Melanie gradually becomes associated more with Robert and Theresa, but then she finds herself attracted to Melanie’s sunny vivacity and warm generosity. When Melanie suggests a plan for another scam, Theresa and Robert do not mind at all while their daughter reluctantly follows, and we later get a humorous scene where they and Melanie play house as requested by their latest target, who turns out to be a dying old man who has been quite lonely in his empty suburban house. As our four main characters are behaving like one happy middle-class family, Old Dolio becomes more aware of what has been absent throughout her whole life, and the mood between her and Melanie becomes a little playful when they start to act as if they were the lead characters of your average pornography flick.

Of course, the growing attraction between Old Dolio and Melanie leads to more adult awakenings for Old Dolio, and that naturally generates a tension between her and her parents, but the movie keeps dancing lightly from one delightfully odd moment to another as a part of narrative development. At one point later in the film, we are caught off guard by a sudden left turn, but what follows next is not only funny but also sort of sublime. This surely helps the story and characters being propelled toward the finale, which turns out to be more complex and poignant than expected thanks to the good performances from the four main cast members. While Rachel Evan Wood is commendable for ably embodying her character’s dowdy awkwardness as steadily maintaining the low-key tone of her performance, Gina Rodriguez complements Wood well with her irrepressible spirit, and Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger are equally solid in their colorful supporting roles.

In conclusion, “Kajillionaire” is another distinctive work from July, and you should not miss it especially if you enjoyed her previous two films. Although it may not be as special as “Me and You and Everyone We Know”, the movie has grown on me via its many charming moments since I watched it at last night, and I am willing to revisit it someday just for reminding myself again of what a distinguished filmmaker July is.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Funan (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A poignant animation film about the Cambodian genocide

Denis Do’s animation feature film “Funan” tells us a dark but ultimately poignant tale of human cruelty and resilience. Loosely inspired by Do’s family history associated with the Khmer Rouge revolution in Cambodia during the late 1970s, the movie often horrifies us as glimpsing into that barbaric period, but it still engages us as calmly observing its main character’s desperate struggle for survival, and its resulting emotional power is more than enough for compensating its notable shortcomings.

After the opening scene showing how things were happy and pleasant for a young boy and his parents and other family members in Phnom Penh in 1975, the film promptly switches to when the city is subsequently seized by the Khmer Rouge army. Millions of citizens including that young boy and his big family are forced to leave the city, and that is just the beginning of their long and grueling journey across the rural regions outside the city.

At first, the situation does not seem that bad for the boy and his family, but it does not take much time for his parents to realize what is really going on. Although they and many other civilians were told that they are simply going to be relocated to rural villages for their ‘reeducation’ process, they are not provided with any food or water throughout their ongoing journey, and they are not even allowed to use cars or any other vehicles for moving their luggages.

When they are about to reach to what is supposed to be their final destination, the cruel intentions of the Khmer Rouge regime become quite more apparent to them than before. They are forced to cross a river riddled with mines at one point, and then the Khmer Rouge soldiers take away any valuable stuffs from them at a gathering spot. At least, the boy’s family luckily hide most of their precious assets from the soldiers, and it looks like they may get some help from a soldier who is a distant cousin of theirs.

However, the boy happened to be separated from his family along with his grandmother, and his parents are certainly devastated when they come to learn later that their son and his grandmother were taken to another camp which is a little far from the one to which they and many others are assigned. They plead to that cousin more than once, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that there is really nothing that cousin, who is a rather simple-minded but decent man, can do at his position for now.

What follows next is not so far from what is depicted in “The Killing Fields” (1984), “The Missing Picture” (2013), and “First They Killed My Father” (2017). Along with the other family members, the boy’s parents have to endure lots of terrible things including long hours of forced labor, and they accordingly experience and witness how desperate people can be as driven by famine and despair. In case of one woman, she was willing to do anything for those nasty soldiers watching over her and others in the camp because she simply wants to survive along with her little son, and we later get a harrowing moment when that woman asks one of the main characters to take care of her little son not long before her last breath.

While the boy’s parents are constantly worried about their son’s whereabouts and safety, the film shows us how he manages to survive day by day with some care and protection from his grandmother. While he is treated a bit better just like many other kids around his age in his camp, they are all subjected to a reeducation process for brainwashing them, but the boy’s attention is usually drawn to a little girl he comes to like a lot.

He also encounters a number of atrocities, which the film wisely chooses not to show directly to us. In case of a short but undeniably chilling scene where the boy watches soldiers taking several people to the middle of a rice paddy at one night, the film does not depict what happens next, but that is more than enough for us to say the least.

The screenplay by Do and his co-writers Magali Pouzol and Elise Trinh loses some of its narrative momentum as alternating between its two main storylines a bit too often, and the finale, which mainly revolves around a dangerous escape across the border between Cambodia and Thailand, is quite melodramatic as expected, but the film still holds our attention via its fine cell animation style. Despite its rather slow narrative pacing, we find ourselves gradually involved more in its main characters’ situations as occasionally admiring small fleeing moments of beauty, which make a striking contrast with those numerous dark scenes throughout the film. Although it is initially rather distracting to hear the characters in the film speaking in French, the main cast members including Bérénice Bejo and Louis Garrel are effective in their voice performance, and Bejo and Garrel bring some personality and humanity to their respective roles.

While it does not reach to the level of the aforementioned works about the Cambodian genocide, “Funan” is as sincere and respectful as intended by its director, and I appreciate its good moments even though I could sense the considerable distance between him and the story itself. Although he did not experience that grim period unlike his mother and older brother, Do honestly tries to give a heartfelt tribute to what his family went through, and he admirably succeeds as far as I can see.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Witches (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A bland and redundant adaptation

Many of Roald Dahl’s stories for children have certain dark and vicious qualities, and “The Witches” is no exception. Although it did not scare me much when I happened to read it around 1993, its twisted sense of humor often tickled me, and I also enjoyed the 1990 film adaptation of Dahl’s work directed by Nicolas Roeg. Yes, Dhal disliked that film for several reasons including the changed finale, but the movie is still true to the overall mood and spirit of Dahl’s work while helped a lot by not only Jim Henson and his crew’s masterful special effects but also Anjelica Huston’s deliciously diabolical performance, and it has surely frightened and delighted numerous young audiences out there during last three decades.

In case of the new feature movie adaptation directed by Robert Zemeckis, it tries to distinguish itself from its predecessor in addition to attempting to be more faithful to Dahl’s work than its predecessor, but the overall result is somehow bland and pedestrian to my disappointment. While it is certainly well-made in terms of technical aspects, most of its main cast members are well-cast on the whole, but the movie feels rather lackadaisical compared to those nastily spirited moments in the 1990 version, and I only came to observe its story and characters without much care or attention even though I got amused a bit from time to time.

One of the most notable things in the Zemeckis’ version is that it moves its main background from Britain to an American Southern region in the late 1960s. This time, the anonymous young hero of the story, who is played by young performer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, is an African American kid who recently happened to lose his parents due to an unfortunate car accident, and the opening part of the movie, which begins with the narration by Chris Rock, shows us how our young hero slowly gets accustomed to living in a house belonging to his grandmother, who is your average no-nonsense African American woman as being played by none other than Octavia Spencer.

It subsequently turns out that our young hero’s grandmother has been a local healer who has lots of knowledge on herbs, potions, and other magical stuffs, and she is quite alarmed when her grandson tells her about one disturbing incident he had while they were at a local store on one day. He was approached by some strange woman at that time, and his grandmother tells him that woman in question is actually a witch. She knows well how determined witches are to eliminate kids by any means necessary, and she still remembers well when her best friend in the past was turned into a chicken shortly after encountering a witch.

Because she is afraid of what may happen to her grandson because of that witch, our young hero’s grandmother decides to take a temporary holiday outside her town. They go to a big, luxurious hotel where they can stay for a while thanks to one of her cousins working there, but, alas, it subsequently turns out that the hotel happens to be where a bunch of witches are going to have a secret meeting under the leadership of Grand High Witch, who is the most powerful and fearsome one in the bunch.

While our young hero is listening to her and other witches from a spot where he happens to hide from them, Grand High Witch, who is broadly played with deliberate heavy accent and brimming gusto by Anne Hathaway, reveals her grand evil plan for eliminating all the kids in the world. She has recently developed a very effective magic potion which can quickly transform kids into mice, and she is planning to distribute it widely among her fellow witches who will gladly use it for accomplishing their ultimate mission.

Unfortunately, our young hero is captured not long after Grand High Witch demonstrates the effectiveness of her magic potion on a chubby kid named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), and he is consequently turned into a mouse just like Bruno was right before him. Once he and Bruno luckily manage to evade Grand High Witch and other witches thanks to an unexpected ally, our young hero tells his grandmother on what is going on, and she is certainly willing to take some risk for helping her grandson and his new little friends stopping Grand High Witch and other witches.

Around that narrative point, we are supposed to care more about our young hero’s increasingly dangerous adventure, but the screenplay by Zemeckis and his co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro (He also participated in the production of the movie along with his fellow Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, by the way) often falters in addition to failing to utilize its changed background and characters more. While it merely moves from one expected moment after another without much humor and inspiration, it does not delve that deep into the social/racial status of its young hero and his grandmother, and that is really a shame considering how that aspect could bring some fresh air to what has been so familiar to us.

Moreover, the special effects in the film, which are mostly based on CGI, do not feel that distinctive compared to those marvelous special effects in the 1990 version. They are certainly more technically advanced in comparison to say the least, but they do not have the palpable qualities instantly observed their counterparts in the 1990 version, and the overall impression is just mildly scary instead of memorably frightening.

In conclusion, “The Witches” is not a total dud because of several entertaining elements including Hathaway’s juicy over-the-top performance, but it is deficient in terms of style, mood, and personality compared to the 1990 version. As a matter of fact, I am soon going to revisit that film, and I am ready to be delighted again.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

His House (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A refugee couple under insidious influence

Netflix film “His House” is a modest but undeniably effective horror flick which turns out to be more than your average haunted place tale. Gradually dialing up its level of creepiness along its story as required, the movie comes to reveal more of its dark and harrowing center full of real human horror and trauma, and we are often captivated by this terrifying process even when we are not so sure about the increasingly unstable and isolated viewpoint of its two main characters.

They are Rial (Wunmi Mosaku) and Bol (Sope Dirisu), an African refugee couple who has been in a detainment facility in Britain for a while since they managed to enter Britain. While they were fortunate enough to escape from their country which has been ravaged by a civil war, a tragic incident happened while they and many other refugees from their country were trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, and the opening scene implies to us that they are still struggling with that traumatic moment. When Bol wakes up after having a very bad nightmare, he lies to his wife about what he has just experienced in his sleep, but he cannot fool her at all, and she does not ask more.

Anyway, there soon comes a seemingly good news for them. When they are later brought to the supervisors of the detainment facility, the supervisors flatly notify to them that they luckily get an opportunity to live somewhere outside the detainment facility. Although they will still have to go through the evaluation period which will determine whether they are eligible for citizenship, both Bol and Rial are glad to see that they may finally settle in Britain as they have always hoped, and they are certainly willing to go along with those rules and restrictions to be applied to them during the following evaluation period.

They are subsequently taken to a suburban neighborhood not so far from London, and then they meet their case worker in front of one of many identical houses in the neighborhood. As looking around here and there inside the house along with their case worker, Bol and Rial see more of how shabby and dirty the house really is, but Bol remains optimistic about getting settled along with his wife, and Rial does not seem to have any problem with that at all.

And then we see their tentative attempts to get more accustomed to the alien environment surrounding them. They can speak English fairly well, so they have no problem with buying food and other stuffs they need, and they even receive some generous help from a local church. In addition, Bol happens to have a little nice time with several local residents as watching a sports game together, and that makes him believe more that everything will turn out to be all right for him and his wife once they pass the upcoming evaluation period.

However, strange things begin to happen around them right from the first night in their new place. Bol happens to hear strange sounds from a hole in the wall of the living room, and then he finds himself gradually obsessed with finding whatever is lurking behind the wall as experiencing more strange things during the following nights. He often sees entities looking quite insidious, and it seems he and Rial are surrounded by something quite bad, but he tries to hold himself while not telling much to Rial.

Of course, it does not take much time for Rial to realize what is tormenting Bol, because, well, she has also witnessed those ominous entities just like her husband. When they later have a little dinner together in the living room, she tells him about a certain evil supernatural entity she once heard about, and she also suggests that entity in question has targeted them for getting what they are bound to pay in the end.

On the surface, Bol does not seem to believe his wife’s words much, but he becomes more pressured from both inside and outside, and the movie accordingly gives us a number of tense and spooky moments as expected. Yes, it is quite possible that what Bol and Rial are experiencing is simply the manifestation of their shared trauma and survivor’s guilt, but the screenplay by director/writer Remi Weekes, which is based on the story by Felicity Evans and Toby Venables, gives us some subtle signs signifying to us that there are certain things from which Bol and Rial have desperately looked away, and we come to wonder more about their supposedly supernatural plights.

The movie becomes less baffling and mysterious than before during its third act where everything in the story makes sense nicely, but it is still held well together under Weekes’ competent direction, and his two lead performers are convincing in the small and big changes in their characters’ relationship along the story. While Sope Dirisu ably handles a number of emotionally intense moments which are entirely based on his acting ability, Wunmi Mosaku effortlessly complements her co-star at every step, and they are one of the main reasons why the finale works with considerable emotional resonance.

On the whole, “His House” is scary and entertaining enough for recommendation while also making some little sharp points on its social issues, and I appreciate how it pulls out a surprisingly touching moment during the last scene, which will make you reflect more on not only what its two main characters have gone through but also the very title of the movie. They finally have accepted what will never go away from them, and you may be glad to see that they come to find some peace for themselves in the end.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Charm City Kings (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): A rough but electrifying coming-of-age drama set in Baltimore

It is hard not to be impressed by what is so vividly and palpably presented in “Charm City Kings”, a rough but electrifying mix of typical coming-of-age tale and gritty crime drama. While its story and characters are familiar to the core, the movie often captivates us via its specific local mood and details in addition to a number of skillful visual moments to be admired, and that is more than enough to forgive most of its notable shortcomings in my trivial opinion.

The story, which is inspired by Lofty Nathan’s documentary film “12 O’Clock Boys” (2013), is mainly told through the viewpoint of Mouse (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), a little adolescent boy living in a slum neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland along with his mother and younger sister. Like his dear older brother who died under a rather unspecified tragic circumstance, Mouse has been obsessed with motorbikes despite his mother’s strong disapproval, and he and his two close friends have been looking forward to going to “the Ride”, an upcoming local summer event where many local motorcyclists will do some daring stunts in front of their enthusiastic neighbors.

Although he only has a shabby old four-wheel motorbike he recently managed to acquire, Mouse aspires to make a good impression on others at the Ride, and he becomes more motivated especially after he succeeds in drawing the attention of a new girl in the neighborhood. Shortly after he spots the girl during the Ride, he decides to do a very risky stunt with his motorbike, but, of course, he only ends up having a big moment of embarrassment in the end.

And then the other thing subsequently happens to draw the attention of him and many others at the Ride. A bunch of motorcyclists, who are the members of a local biker gang organization named the Midnight Clique, enter the scene, and they begin to show some pretty cool stunts in front of others, but then they are soon interrupted by those police officers who have monitored the crowd right from the beginning. When two of the gang members deliberately provoke the police officers and then swiftly drive away from them, the movie promptly serves us a smooth and breathtaking chase sequence, and you may actually find wondering about the safety measures during the shooting of this superlative moment.

Mainly because his dead older brother was actually the member of the Midnight Clique, Mouse has yearned to join the gang someday just like his two friends. After attending the Ride, they eventually decide to become more active in the pursuit of their little ambition, so they boldly approach to the members of the Midnight Clique at one night, but, not so surprisingly, they only find themselves ridiculed and then ignored.

When he is subsequently left alone, Mouse happens to draw the attention of Blax (Meek Mill), an ex-con who was the member of the Midnight Clique but has stayed away from the bunch as much as possible since he was recently released from prison. Because he knew Mouse’s dead old brother, Blax decides to take Mouse under his wing, and Mouse starts to go through a sort of training at a garage where Blax has earned his living via fixing motorbikes and other vehicles.

As days goes by, Blax gradually becomes a mentor figure for Mouse, but their relationship inevitably comes to be affected by their harsh and violent world. After Mouse made a very big mistake at one point, he and his friends witness how unforgiving Blax and his former criminal associates can be, but then Mouse eventually allows himself to be associated with the Midnight Clique, and Blax does not do much about that even though he is clearly aware of what can possibly happen to Mouse in the end.

During its last act where both Blax and Mouse fatefully come to face the consequences of their respective choices and actions, the screenplay by Sherman Payne, which is based on the story written by Kirk Sullivan, Chris Boyd, and Barry Jenkins, unfortunately resorts to a series of plot contrivances. Fortunately for us, the movie keeps holding our attention thanks to its authentic local atmosphere coupled with several technically impressive moments including one intense sequence where cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s camera fluidly and briskly follows a motorbike driven at high speed.

Above all, the main characters in the film are depicted well with considerable personality and humanity, and they are also played well by the main cast members. As the beating heart and soul of the movie, young actor Jahi Di’Allo Winston is simply captivating to watch, and his dynamic acting here in this film suggests that we may see more of his undeniable talent during next several years. While Meek Mill, who has mainly been known for his rap music career, has enough gravitas for his supporting character, Will Catlett provides an effective counterpoint as a local cop who genuinely cares about Mouse, and Teyonah Parris is also solid as a woman who has struggled with many daily matters besides her increasingly problematic son.

In conclusion, “Charm City Kings” does not surprise us much in terms of story and characters, but it is packed with enough mood and emotional intensity to make us care about its story and characters, and director Angel Manuel Soto and his cast and crew members did a commendable job on the whole. Although it still could be polished a bit more, that is just a minor complaint from me, and I will not deny that I had quite an interesting time with this small but ferocious piece of work.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Cut Throat City (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Colorful but jumbled

“Cut Throat City” is a colorful but uneven crime drama which alternatively engaged and frustrated me. While it is mostly watchable thanks to its diverse array of cast members and a palpable sense of locations and people, it is frequently hampered by thin characterization and unfocused storytelling, and it is also often distracting due to several heavy-handed moments which do not fit that well with its overall result.

The movie, which is set in New Orleans, Louisiana in 2006, mainly revolves around four different young residents of a poor neighborhood of the 9th ward in New Orleans: Blink (Shameik Moore), Miracle (Demetrius Shipp Jr.), Andre (Denzel Whitaker), and Junior (Keean Johnson). During the prologue part in early 2005, Blink is about to become the husband of his longtime girlfriend Demyra (Kat Graham), and their following wedding ceremony is cheerfully blessed by his three close friends. As Blink and his friends enjoy the party right after the wedding ceremony, everything feels fine and well to them, and it looks like nothing bad will happen to them in the upcoming future.

However, of course, Hurricane Katrina strikes New Orleans several months later, and we subsequently see how desperate things have been to them and many others in their neighborhood. Blink, who once studied art in a local college and has aspired to be a professional comic book writer someday as reflected by the opening animation sequence, has tried to find any possible breakthrough for his artistic talent, but his latest attempt is flatly rejected to his frustration, and it seems he and Demyra will have to try to get some help from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), though he is skeptical about whether they will get real help for them and their little son.

In case of his friends, they are all in each own difficult financial circumstance. While Miracle has struggled a lot in his small-time drug business which was considerably damaged by the hurricane, Andre, who wants to be a successful jazz musician someday, has mostly depended on his hard-working mother without earning that much for him and his mother, and Junior, who is incidentally the only Caucasian in the bunch, has trained a dog to be used for those underground dog fights.

As they talk about their hopeless economic situations, Blink and his three friends are reminded again of how much they and many others in the 9th ward have been disregarded and discriminated by their society and its corrupt system, so they decide to come to Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (Tip “T.I.” Harris), a powerful local drug lord who will gladly give them a certain quick job. He instructs them to rob a certain big casino in their neighborhood, and it seems that all they have to do is breaking into that casino and then snatching enough cash for them besides what they should pay to Bass later.

Not so surprisingly, Blink and his friends’ amateurish attempt to rob that casino leads to a devastating consequence, and the circumstance becomes a lot more complicated as some other characters enter the picture. When she is instructed to handle the case by a local councilman played by Ethan Hawke, Detective Lucinda Benoit (Eiza González) senses something fishy about the case, and her suspicion is increased more after she meets a corrupt local cop named Courtney (Rob Morgan), who has been blatantly getting away with numerous illegal activities including his close connection with Bass and another infamous local criminal figure nicknamed “The Saint” (Terrence Howard).

Now chased by not only the local police but also Bass and his criminal associates, Blink and his friends try to find any possible way out, and they naturally become driven to some desperate measures, but the movie fails to generate enough tension to engage us as trying to juggle a little too many elements together. In several scenes involved with Blink’s estranged father played by Wesley Snipes, the movie brings some extra local flavor via his shabby residence located in a remote rural area, but it only comes to stumble in its predictable depiction of their strained relationship. During its last act, the screenplay by Paul Cuschieri, who also served as one of the executive producers of the film, attempts a rather jarring left turn, but the result feels so highly stylized that we are not so surprised by what follows next while not caring much about its main characters.

Anyway, director/co-producer RZA and his crew members including cinematographer Brandon Cox did a fairly good job of establishing the distinctively realistic local atmosphere on the screen. Though most of the characters in the film are more or less than broad archetypes in the need of more character development, the main cast members are mostly convincing while really looking like they have inhabited their neighborhood for years, and Tip “T.I.” Harris, Terrence Howard, Rob Morgan, and Ethan Hawke get the most fun in each own way as we can expect from their colorfully shady supporting roles.

On the whole, “Cut Throat City” is disappointing for a number of glaring weak points, but it is at least two or three steps up from RZA’s first feature film “The Man with the Iron Fists” (2012), which has some amusingly campy moments but ultimately lets itself mired in mediocre self-indulgence without much control or consideration on story and characters. He demonstrates more skill and competence than before here in this film, so I guess he will probably show progress and improvement in next time.

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment