Hansan: Rising Dragon (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Epic, tense, and efficient

South Korean film “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is a war historical drama about one big sea battle which was a significant turning point in the Imjin War, which is also known as the Japanese invasions of Korea of 1592–1598. Although I have no idea on how much of the movie is actually fictional, I enjoyed it anyway for not only its epic climactic part but also those efficiently tense scenes preceding that, and I eventually decided to put aside its several notable weak aspects including the rather distant presentation of its legendary real-life hero.

He is Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Park Hae-il), who has been one of the biggest national heroes in Korea since his honorable death at the very end of the Imjin war. When his country was almost cornered to the end shortly after the Japanese army invaded the Korean peninsula in 1592, he miraculously changed the course of the war via a series of victories on the sea, and he was a truly fearsome opponent to those Japanese admirals during that time because of his brilliant strategies and a certain famous secret weapon of his.

The story of the movie begins not long after Admiral Yi won first several battles in 1592. Because the Japanese army has still lots of chance to win the war, Admiral Yi and his navy must make a big forward move as soon as possible for regaining the control over the sea surrounding the Korean peninsula, but he also knows well that he and his navy must be very careful under their increasingly difficult circumstance. While his king, who already fled from the capital, seems to consider running away to China, the Japanese army has already been planning to corner him on the land as well as the sea, and, above all, that secret weapon of his needs some urgent improvement for the next battle.

Naturally, Admiral Yi is quite pressured from many sides including his own men, but he keeps maintaining his stoic fortitude as usual. Although he is physically wounded during the previous sea battle, he is determined to keep going nonetheless, and he also begins to devise one bold strategy which is a risky gamble considering how exactly many factors work together for him and his navy during the upcoming battle.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on his main opponent, who is played by Byun Yo-han with grim intensity. Knowing well how smart and dangerous Admiral Yi is for him and his navy, this Japanese admiral is ready to do anything for finding any weak point from his opponent, and that includes sending several spies into the area of Admiral Yi. Once he comes to learn of the major weakness of Admiral Yi’s secret weapon, he becomes more confident about the chance of defeating Admiral Yi, and he does not hesitate at all when he later has to do something drastic for getting what he needs for increasing his odds.

Around these two lead characters, the movie places a number of other characters, but they are more or less than mere story elements. The Korean figures under the command of Admiral Yi look mostly same in their almost identical armors, and the same thing can be said about the Japanese figures serving under Admiral Yi’s main opponent. In addition, the movie has only one substantial female figure in the story, but she does not speak much on the whole, and we are not so surprised by a hidden purpose behind her docile appearance.

Above all, the movie does not go deep into its hero. It surely presents Admiral Yi as a wise and courageous man, but whatever is churning behind his unflappable façade remains elusive to us, and we can only behold him instead of getting to know him more. Park Hae-il’s face can be quite expressive as shown from Park Chan-wook’s latest work “Decision to Leave” (2022), but he is only required to look merely formidable here without revealing much throughout the film, and, despite his diligent efforts, I think the movie is not exactly one of better moments in his solid acting career.

Fortunately, all these and other complaints of mine were completely washed away during the climactic part, which is certainly worthwhile to watch on big screen. You may not totally follow how Admiral Yi’s strategy is unfolded on the sea near Hansan Island, but the movie keeps holding our attention without losing any of its narrative momentum, and it surely delivers impactful highlights for its South Korean audiences. To be frank with you, I think some of them are a bit far-fetched, but they still work in dramatic sense, so I guess I should not grumble about that here.

On the whole, “Hansan: Rising Dragon” is relatively less satisfying than director/co-writer Kim Han-min’s electrifying breakthrough work “War of the Arrows” (2011), but it works better than his previous work “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” (2014), which is incidentally about another significant victory in Admiral Yi’s naval career. Although I did not like “The Admiral: Roarding Currents” enough to recommend it, it confirmed to me that Kim is a skillful action movie director who knows one or two things about how to excite audiences, and “Hansan: Rising Dragon” solidifies my inconsequential opinion on his filmmaking talent.

By the way, I have to inform you that Kim is actually planning to conclude with the third film which will be about Admiral Yi’s last battle. It is already titled “Noryang: The Sea of Death”, and I will not expect too much as your typical seasoned moviegoer, but I sincerely wish that it will be as entertaining as what I saw from the two previous films besides being the good final chapter for Kim’s trilogy.

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Alienoid (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A bland and bloated teaser for whatever will come next

South Korean film “Alienoid”, which is actually the first half preceding the second half which will come in next year, is bland and bloated to say the least. Although I watched the film during last evening, I cannot recall any particular moment to remember or savor, and I only come to discern more of how it looks and feels insignificant and unimaginative. Sure, this is supposed to be a grand and ambitious mix of SF, fantasy, action, and comedy, but it does not succeed at anything while merely trudging from one narrative point to another without any ounce of genuine inspiration or imagination, and the result is one of the most tedious movie experiences of this summer.

The story promise of the movie is pretty familiar to the core. For many centuries, the Earth has been covertly used as a sort of prison by a highly advanced alien race, and those alien prisoners are imprisoned inside their human hosts before they eventually die along with their human hosts. Of course, somebody needs to control and maintain the status quo over time and space, and that is what “Guard” (Kim Woo-bin), an alien robot whose design is clearly ripped off from “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), has been doing for a very long time along with his artificial intelligence computer partner.

During the opening scene, Guard and his partner literally drive into Korea in the 14th century in a way not so far from “Back to the Future” (1985), and they swiftly take care of the latest case of prisoner escape, but then there comes a little problem. While they manage to capture the prisoner in the end, the prisoner’s human host, who happens to be a young woman, dies, and she pleads Guard to take care of her baby daughter before her death. Guard ignores without much hesitation because he is not supposed to meddle with human affairs, but he only ends up being stuck with that baby thanks to his partner.

Around 10 years later, that baby becomes your average plucky little girl with lots of curiosity about what her ‘father’ really does. While she already knows much about Guard and his partner, Guard still does not reveal his longtime mission to her, and that makes her more determined to find that out. Via his partner’s indirect help, she comes to learn of what Guard is going to do sooner or later at a certain local hospital, and, what do you know, she comes to behold something amazing (and frightening) when she goes there later.

Meanwhile, the movie rolls another main plot, which is set in Korea in the 14th century. We meet a young swordsman/Taoist named Mureuk (Ryu Jun-yeol), and the movie give us an exaggerated action scene as he wields his martial art skills and some supernatural power for catching a trio of thieves. At one point, we see two cats coming out of his fan and then transformed into a couple of human sidekicks for him, and that is surely more than enough for you to see that the movie does not give a damn about any realism or historical accuracy.

While looking for any job to handle, Mureuk tumbles into a complicated situation surrounding one mysterious sword which seems to have considerable magic power, and he consequently gets himself involved with several other figures eager to get that sword by any means. They are 1) a goofy Taoist duo who seem to be as powerful as they claim; 2) an ominous cult leader who keeps wearing a mask to hide his face; 3) a lethal man who is apparently from the future; and 4) a young lady who is also from the future as shown from a certain weapon of hers.

The movie tries to juggle all these and other story elements together before its obligatory climactic part, but, unfortunately, it frequently stumbles instead as seriously lacking style, personality, and substance. While its comedy mostly comes from heaps of silly gags, its science fiction elements are mediocre and uninspired while only reminding us of better alternatives out there, and its drama often feels superficial as failing to develop its characters enough to engage us. For example, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Guard comes to care about his ‘daughter’ more than he admits despite being mainly driven by logics, but the movie does not bring enough depth to their relationship from the beginning, and we only come to observe their story without much care or attention – even when they hurriedly go through a series of big action scenes later in the story. The action scenes in the film are fairly competent in technical aspects, but they feel plain with lots of crashes and bangs, and you may be distracted by how the special effects used in these action scenes look curiously cheap without much impression or impact.

The movie is packed with a number of notable South Korean performers, but they are not utilized that well on the whole. Whenever he is not playing some other main role which is more colorful in comparison, Kim Woo-bin is not very interesting as Guard, and that is the main reason why young performer Choi Yu-ri often steals the show from him. In case of Ryu Jun-yeol, Yum Jung-ah, Jo Woo-jin, and Kim Eui-sung, they have some fun with their respective roles, but it is a shame that Kim Tae-ri, who has been more prominent since Park Chan-wook’s “The Handmaiden” (2016), does not have many things to do here except being as feisty as required.

Directed and written by Choi Dong-hoon (“Tazza: The High Rollers” (2006) and “The Thieves” (2012)), “Alienoid” is a major letdown considering the talents assembled for it, and it is disappointing enough to lower my expectation for whatever will come next in 2023. As your average amateur movie reviewer, I will have to watch the following film anyway, and I can only hope that I will be bored less than before at least.

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Anything’s Possible (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): The conventional romance of a transgender girl

Billy Porter’s debut feature film “Anything’s Possible”, which was released on Amazon Prime in last week, is a conventional coming-of-age romantic comedy revolving around one transgender high school girl. While it is pretty safe and predictable in terms of story and characters, the movie deserves some attention as a mainstream product willingly and frankly presenting its adolescent transgender heroine on the screen, and it may open the door to more interesting transgender movies to come in the future.

At first, we are introduced to the daily life of Kelsa (Eva Reign), a plucky transgender high school girl living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Thanks to her supportive single mother Selene (Renée Elise Goldsberry), Kelsa has no problem with her sexual identity in addition to going through some necessary hormone treatment for that, and she even honestly talks everything about her sexual identity via her YouTube channel.

In case of her school life, most of her schoolmates have accepted her sexual identity without much problem, and she always can depend on the supportive friendship from her two best female friends Em (Courtnee Carter) and Chris (Kelly Lamor Wilson). Kelsa can talk anything with them whenever they can spend time together, and it seems that her only concern at present is where she can study after her high school graduation.

However, things become complicated when she happens to draw the attention of a Muslim boy named Khal (Abubakr Ali). The more he comes to know about Kelsa via her YouTube channel, the more he finds himself attracted to her, and this makes him quite conflicted. He does not know how to approach to her properly, and, above all, he hesitates to confide his growing romantic feelings to not only his dear family but also a close friend of his, who apparently does not know much about gender sensitivity.

Anyway, Khal eventually decides to express his feelings toward Kelsa boldly in front of others at their school, but, alas, he does not succeed as well as he hoped. While Kelsa is actually willing to respond to Khal, it turns out that Em also wants to be his girlfriend, and his small misstep leads to a serious misunderstanding followed by a very awkward moment which puts considerable strain on Kelsa’s relationship with Em. Quite bitter and disappointed, Em consequently shows how mean she can be, and that accordingly causes a considerable trouble for Kelsa later in the story.

Meanwhile, Kelsa and Khal become quite closer to each other once their mutual feeling is clearly recognized between them. While they naturally feel a bit awkward as their romantic relationship comes to attract the attention of everyone at their school, they are simply happy to be together, and we get a little sweet moment as they confide to each other about their respective aspirations for the future.

However, of course, their romance is soon accompanied with several issues surrounding Kesla’s sexual identity, and the screenplay by Ximena García Lecuona wisely does not overplay them while also recognizing what its heroine must face everyday. While she is quite lucky for getting all the support from several others around her including her mother, Kesla still has to struggle with how she honestly presents herself out there, and Khal also comes to stumble more than once while trying to be honest about his feelings toward his girlfriend.

Although it resolves the main conflict of the story a little too easily, the movie shows enough care and affection toward not only its heroine but also several supporting characters. While the relationship between Kesla and her mother turns out to be less than perfect, they still love and care about each other nonetheless, and there is a poignant scene where they come to have a little private conversation with more honesty. In case of Khal’s Muslim family, they are depicted with considerable life and personality, and his mother has a brief touching moment when she tells her son that she has no problem at all with whoever he is fallen in love with.

The movie trudges a bit during its last act, but it pulls off a neat finale in the end while buoyed by the unadorned chemistry between its two promising young lead performers. Besides clicking together well throughout the film, Eva Reign and Abubakr Ali are credible in their respective parts, and they are also supported well by a number of solid performers including Courtnee Carter, Kelly Lamor Wilson, and Renée Elise Goldsberry, who has been mainly known for her Tony-winning supporting turn in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit musical “Hamilton”.

As reflected by a series of notable mainstream adolescent queer films ranging from “Love, Simon” (2018) to “Crush” (2022), we have seen more of sexual minority adolescent characters on screen these days, and “Anything’s Possible” is certainly another good addition to this welcoming trend. Yes, the movie usually stays inside its genre conventions, but, thanks to the good efforts from its cast and crew members, it distinguishes itself to some degrees while delivering wholesome messages to audiences, and I sincerely hope that it will lead them to more distinctive transgender films during recent years such as “Tangerine” (2015) and “Lingua Franca” (2019). Seriously, if you have a good time with “Anything’s Possible”, just try these two little gems, and I assure you that they will broaden your view and mind.

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It’s a Summer Film (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Their little summer filmmaking

Japanese film “It’s a Summer Film” is as perky and lively as you can expect from its very title. Mainly revolving around one modest but amusing filmmaking process, the movie gives us a series of funny moments to be appreciated by anyone interested in filmmaking, and it is also surprisingly poignant as bringing certain genre elements into the story.

The heroine of the story is a plain high school girl nicknamed “Barefoot” (Marika Itô), who has been quite passionate about filmmaking as driven by her genuine aspiration of becoming a filmmaker. Not so surprisingly, she is the member of a filmmaking circle in her high school, and she hopes to make a little Samurai film of her own someday, but, to her disappointment, the recent funding for her filmmaking circle goes to Karin (Mahiru Koda) instead, a popular pretty girl who loves to make romance films. I do not know whether she is really talented or not, but Karin can always have a number of students willing to help her filmmaking, and Barefoot cannot help but envy Karin even though she thinks Karin is not so serious about filmmaking in contrast to her.

At least, Barefoot gets some comfort from her two close friends, who are nicknamed “Kickboard” (Yumi Kawai) and “Blue Hawaii” (Kirara Inori), respectively. Kickboard is more interested in astronomy while Blue Hawaii is more enthusiastic about swordsmanship, but both of them understand well how much their close friend wants to make a Samurai film, and there is a sweet little moment as they watch several old Samurai films together in their little private place.

When they later find that Barefoot has actually written the screenplay for her future Samurai film, Kickboard and Blue Hawaii sincerely encourage her to make it for herself, but Barefoot still hesitates. Sure, there is a good way to earn enough money to fund their little film production, but the movie needs an actor to play its Samurai hero, and Barefoot is not so sure about whether she can find the right guy for the role.

And then, what do you know, something quite fortunate happens by sheer coincidence. When she later comes into an old local theater for watching another old Samurai movie, Barefoot happens to spot a dashing lad named Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), and he looks quite suitable for her as the lead actor of her movie. To her bafflement, he attempts to run away from her when she approaches to him, but he is eventually persuaded to accept her request, and he even helps her earning the money for her film production.

Once they get enough money for funding the film production, Barefoot and her two friends recruit several other lads who will handle several technical aspects of their film production. In case of one lad, he happens to have a bicycle attached with many lighting equipments, and that surely helps the shooting when Barefoot and others need extra lighting.

Although the first day of their film production is not so productive due to their inexperience, Barefoot and her small crew gradually improve themselves step by step. While her screenplay still does not have an ending good enough for her, Barefoot keeps going enthusiastically along with others, and she even gets an unexpected help from Karin, who turns out to be more decent and generous than Barefoot thought.

Meanwhile, the story becomes a little more serious when Rintaro’s big secret is revealed later in the story. I will not go into details here for not spoiling your fun, but I can tell you instead that the movie made me muse a bit on the past, present, and future of cinema. For a little more than 100 years, movie has amazed, touched, and entertained us as the projection of our emotion and imagination, but there have also been some serious doubts on the future of cinema during recent years, and movies may become things of past even before the end of this century – or my inconsequential life, shall we say.

Nevertheless, the movie keeps its head high just like its plucky heroine. While still struggling with getting the right ending for her movie, Barefoot keeps trying her best for her little first film, and her two friends stand by her as usual, though they have some small conflict among them as they all find themselves infatuated with Rintaro in one way or another. After all, he is a fairly handsome dude, and the movie has some extra fun as Barefoot and her two friends try to sort out their respective complicated feelings toward Rintaro.

Around the point where Barefoot finally comes to show her completed film to her audiences, the movie stumbles a bit, but it somehow lands well on the finale where fiction and reality humorously and touchingly resonate with each other. As observing this moment, I was reminded again that movies still matter to us at least for now, and my longtime passion on movies was energized by that. Yes, considering the current status of the human civilization, movies may not last that long, but they are worthwhile to remember and cherish as long as we can, aren’t they?

On the whole, “It’s a Summer Film” is a small but likable movie about filmmaking, and I think it will make a nice double feature show along with another recent Japanese film “One Cut of the Dead” (2017), which also deals with filmmaking process with lots of humor and sincerity. Both of them will assure you that cinema will remain alive and well as long as those numerous filmmakers keep trying and dreaming out there, and you may come to appreciate their efforts more than before.

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Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): They’re back – with their little boss

Animation feature film “Minions: The Rise of Gru” entertained me more than I expected. Yes, I only mildly enjoyed “Despicable Me” (2010), its following 2013 sequel, and its spin-off entry “Minions” (2015), and I am not a big fan of those goofy yellow creatures called the Minions, but “Minions: The Rise of Gru” distinguishes itself a bit with substantial style and personality. The film is certainly as silly and outrageous as its predecessors, but, in my humble opinion, it is the most entertaining one in the ongoing series which will soon give us another adventure of the Minions and their ‘evil’ boss.

The story begins at the point not long after the ending of “Minions”. After coming across young Gru (voiced by Steve Carell), the Minions started to serve him while living in the basement of the house where he lives with his cranky mother, and they happily (and clumsily) work together for building his underground lair while he is hoping to be recognized by a certain group of infamous supervillains someday.

Those supervillains are called “the Vicious Six”, and the opening scene of the film shows their latest evil adventure. Once they obtain a map showing the location where an ancient item of enormous magical power has been hidden, Wild Knuckles (voiced by Alan Arkin), who has been the leader of the group, promptly goes there and manages to succeed in the end, but, alas, he is later betrayed by the other members in the last minute.

After snatching that ancient item from Wild Knuckles, the other members of the Vicious Six look for any good villain to fill the current vacant spot in their group, and that is where Gru enters the picture. When he receives the invitation message from the Vicious Six, he is certainly delighted, but, not so surprisingly, he finds himself ridiculed and ignored when he shows up in front of the members of the Vicious Six, so he decides to steal that ancient item when a golden opportunity comes to him unexpectedly.

However, of course. things do not go as well as Gru hoped at first. While he manages to snatch that ancient item from the Vicious Six with some assistance from several Minions (Please don’t ask me which of them is Kevin or Stuart or whatever, by the way), that ancient item happens to be lost for a rather silly reason, and then Gru is kidnapped by Wile Knuckles, who actually survived and has been looking for any chance to retrieve that ancient item for his revenge.

Around that narrative point, the film comes to focus more on those several Minions as they attempt to rescue Gru in addition to getting that ancient item back, and they surely give us a series of slapstick moments. At one point, as already shown to us via the trailer of the film, three of them dare to fly a commercial airplane despite having no experience or knowledge at all, and the following outcome is nearly disastrous to say the least.

While cheerfully alternating between Gru and the Minions, the film also delights us with a number of fun cultural details expected from its period background, which is the exaggerated version of the American society in the 1970s. I was amused by the brief appearances of two certain classic American films from the 1970s, and I also appreciate how the film humorously utilizes a number of various pop songs from the 1970s including the one performed by Linda Ronstadt.

One of the funniest things in the film comes from when the Minions happen to come into the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco. They come across a Chinese American lady who turns out to be a former Kung Fu master, and, what do you know, they soon go through a number of training sessions under her stern but benevolent guidance, though, as you already expected, they are pretty clumsy from the very beginning.

The story eventually culminates to a climactic part where lots of actions happen here and there, but the film thankfully never loses its sense of fun while generating some sincerity from the unlikely partnership between Gru and Wild Knuckles, who comes to care about Gru a lot more than he admits on the surface. Steve Carell and Alan Arkin, who incidentally worked together in “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) and “Get Smart” (2008), click well together with their different voice acting styles, and Arkin demonstrates that he has not lost any of his comic talent even though he is approaching to 90 at present.

The other main cast members of the film also have lots of fun with their respective roles. While Taraji P. Henson surely enjoys every juicy moment from her villain character, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Lucy Lawless, Dolph Lundgren, and Danny Trejo are well-cast as the other members of the Vicious Six, and Julie Andrews and Michelle Yeoh steal the show as keeping their voice acting as straight as possible.

In conclusion, “Minions: The Rise of Gru”, directed by Kyle Balda is one or two steps above “Minions”, but I have to tell you that your entertainment from it depends on how much you can tolerate those silly creatures. Although I often find them rather tiresome, I have gotten accustomed to them to some degree, so I had a fairy good time in this case, but you should think twice if you cannot possibly tolerate them.

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Don’t Make Me Go (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A road trip with her dad

“Don’t Make Me Go”, which was released on Amazon Prime in last week, is predictably sappy but fairly engaging before taking a sudden distracting left turn in the last act. While I will not go into details here for not spoiling anything, I can tell you instead that I was totally caught off guard by that during my viewing, and I am still not so sure about whether the movie really works on the whole, despite the commendable duo performance from its two lead performers.

John Cho, who has steadily advanced during last 18 years since his breakthrough turn in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” (2004), plays Max Park, a single father who has raised his daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) alone for years since he divorced when she was very young. When he is not diligently working at some insurance company, Max usually pays much attention to his daughter’s daily life, and Wally cannot help but become annoyed with that just like any other adolescent girl around her age.

Anyway, the relationship between Max and Wally becomes strained due to a little transgressive act of hers and his following response, but then there comes a very bad news for Max. It turns out that his growing headache is actually caused by a tumor inside his head, and his doctor tells him that he needs to have a special brain surgery right now even though the surgery is quite risky. As ruminating over this sudden possibility of impending death, Max eventually decides to take a road trip along with his daughter, but he does not tell her anything about his serious medical condition while pretending that the trip is just for attending a reunion party for him and his college friends in New Orleans, Louisiana.

While she is not so enthusiastic about this road trip, Wally eventually agrees to go along with her father mainly because she is finally allowed to drive. As shown from a brief comic moment between them, she is not that fully ready for driving her father’s car, and that reminded me of how nervous I was when I drove a car on highway for the first time. Sure, driving on highway turned out to be much easier than expected, but I still remember well when I clumsily attempted to change lanes at one point, so I observed Wally’s heavy-handed attempt in the movie with some personal amusement.

After that point, the screenplay by Vera Herbert leisurely goes through one episodic moment to another along with its two main characters. While they do not have many things to talk about between them, Max is willing to show more of his life and himself to his dear daughter, and the mood between them becomes a little more cheerful as they gradually open themselves to each other more than before.

However, Wally also wants to have her own fun alone. When she and her father later stay at a motel in Texas, she comes to spend some evening time with a young motel employee, she becomes a bit confused when she subsequently finds herself attracted to this dude, who, fortunately for her, handles their situation as tactfully as possible.

When Wally and her father eventually arrive at New Orleans, she comes to learn a bit more about him via several old college friends of his, and Max is reminded of how things have changed since his good old college years. When he later meets a certain old friend who married his ex-wife shortly after she and Max had a divorce, he cannot help but feel bitter, and we are not so surprised by what occurs next between them.

In the meantime, the movie steadily maintains the suspense over what Max is still hiding from his daughter. Besides his current medical condition, he also wants Wally to meet her mother, but, of course, things do not go as well as he hoped, right from when he meets his ex-wife again with his daughter staying outside just in case. As a consequence, Max and Wally find themselves clashing with each other again, but then the movie throws them into a jarringly absurd comic circumstance which is the sole reason of its R rating.

Not long after this point, Herbert’s screenplay abruptly goes into a full melodramatic mode via the aforementioned plot turn, which will require from you considerable suspension of disbelief for good reasons. Although this does not disrupt the overall tone of the story that much, it feels so artificial and contrived that you may become less engaged in what has been so tenderly established and developed along the story.

Anyway, the movie is still supported well by the good efforts from Cho and his co-star. While Cho diligently holds the ground as required, newcomer Mia Isaac often shines in her likable performance, and she and Cho click well together whenever they share the screen. In case of several substantial supporting performers in the film, Kaya Scodelario is solid as Max’s longtime girlfriend although she is usually on the other end of the phone line, and Jen Van Epps and Jemaine Clement are also fine as two different figures in Max’s past.

Overall, “Don’t Make Me Go”, directed by Hannah Marks, does not succeed as much as intended, but it is not a waste of time at all due to the engaging moments from Cho and Isaac. I did not enjoy it enough for recommendation, but you may be able to overlook its flaws more than me, so I will let you decide whether you will spend some time with this modest character comedy drama film.

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Persuasion (2022) ☆☆(2/4): A mediocre Jane Austen adaptation from Netflix

I sometimes wonder what Jane Austen would have written if she had not died not long after her last novel “Persuasion”, which is one of her moodier works in my humble opinion. While it is another story about courtship and marriage just like any other novel of hers, “Persuasion” feels considerably different from her two first novels “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” in terms of mood and storytelling, and it is also more matured and melancholic in comparison as focusing on the quiet romantic tension between two reserved adult characters who still long for each other despite their painful separation in the past.

And that is the main reason why I felt cold and distant to its latest movie adaptation, which was released on Netflix in last week. Besides handling its story and characters too lightly and too self-consciously, the movie often feels as if it were adapting “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility” instead, and this undeniably misguided storytelling approach often clashes with Austen’s novel in addition to causing the considerable waste of the good efforts from its fairly solid main cast.

On the surface, the screenplay by Ronald Bass and Alice Victoria Winslow faithfully follows the storyline of Austen’s novel. In the opening scene, Anne Elliot (Dakota Johnson) tells us how she came to break up with a young navy solider named Frederick Wentworth (Cosmo Jarvis) several years ago, and she willingly informs us on how she has been unhappy and regretful during next several years. As approaching to 30, she is on the verge of becoming a spinster with no possibility of marriage in the future, and things get worse when her family is struck with serious financial difficulties mainly thanks to her flamboyantly vain and careless father Sir Walter Elliot (Richard E. Grant). After consulting with their accountant, the family come to see that they have no choice but to let their big manor rented by some prominent admiral willing to pay a lot for his temporal residence, and Sir Walter has to suck it up despite being quite humiliated to say the least.

Meanwhile, Wentworth’s naval career has been quite more successful than expected. As a matter of fact, he is now a very promising captain, and he happens to stay along with that admiral who rents the manor of Anne’s family. Although she is certainly interested in meeting Wentworth again, Anne eventually decides to leave before he arrives, and she does not hesitate to move to a house belonging to one of her two sisters, who already married and have two kids.

However, Anne soon comes across Wentworth not long after that just because the family of her brother-in-law happens to be quite close to Wentworth. When both of them are invited to a dinner at one point, the mood between them is pretty awkward to say the least, and the situation becomes a bit more complicated when it seems that Wentworth is very interested in accepting the active courtship from one of younger sisters of Anne’s brother-in-law.

Around this narrative point, the movie is supposed to draw more care and attention from us, but it only ends up stumbling a lot as clumsily trying to lightening up the mood. Dakota Johnson is a good actress with considerable talent and presence, so she manages to get away with often talking directly to us throughout the film, but, alas, many of her lines in the film feel rather frivolous instead of being filled with wits, humor, and eloquence as much as we can expect from your average Jane Austen movie adaptation.

To make matters worse, Johnson does not have enough romantic tension with her co-star on the screen. Although Cosmo Jarvis is no stranger to period drama as shown from his notable supporting turn in “Lady Macbeth” (2016), he unfortunately looks stiff and awkward at times, and you may wonder why the hell Anne is secretly pining for such a bland cold fish like his character. As some of you know, Jarvis can be pretty engaging as he was in “Calm with Horses” (2019), but the movie does not utilize him that much on the whole, and that is another disappointment in the film.

At least, there are a number of small enjoyable things at the fringe of the story thanks to several good supporting performers, who inevitably steal the show from Johnson and Jarvis while drawing our attention for their notable color-blind casting. While Nikki Amuka-Bird has several brief juicy moments as a no-nonsense friend of Anne and her family, Nia Towle brings some life and personality to her rather thankless role, and Richard E. Grant is a fun to watch as usual as Anne’s pompous father. In case of Henry Golding, a Malaysian-British actor who has been more notable since “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018), he surprisingly fits well with not only his opportunistic character but also the period background surrounding him, and he also has his own little fun when his character becomes quite frank about his hidden intentions.

In conclusion, “Persuasion”, which is directed by Carrie Cracknell, is not a total dud because of its minor saving graces provided by some of its main cast members, but it remains unimpressive and underwhelming compared to many of notable movie adaptations of Jane Austen novels ranging from “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) and “Clueless” (1995) to “Pride and Prejudice” (2005) and, yes, “Fire Island” (2022). To be frank with you, I already come to miss Roger Michell’s overlooked 1995 film version, and I sincerely recommend you to check it out instead as soon as possible.

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Gunda (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Animal life at farm

Documentary film “Gunda”, which is finally released in South Korean theaters in this week, gives us a seemingly plain but ultimately extraordinary look into animal life at farm. Mainly revolving around one particular sow and her piglets, the documentary has a number of visually stunning moments to engage and then impress you, and the overall result is simply mesmerizing to say the least.

During the opening scene, the documentary, which is incidentally shot in crisp black and white film, gradually intrigues us as the camera patiently stares at the opening of that sow’s residence from its static position. At first, the sow seems to be sleeping alone in her place, but then we come to notice some small movements inside her place, and then we eventually come to see a bunch of little piglets born from her. Like any other young animals, these piglets are usually driven by their constant hunger, and we soon come to observe them voraciously and mindlessly sucking their mother’s tits.

As watching how closely the camera stays around the sow and her piglets, I naturally wondered how the hell director Viktor Kossakovsky, who also serves as the co-editor/co-cinematographer of his documentary, and his crew members could generate such a considerable amount of verisimilitude on the screen. I am sure that they prepared and then shot a lot as steadily hovering around the sow and her piglets, but many of key moments in the documentary are done so smoothly and precisely on the whole that I became all the more curious about the skills and efforts put into these remarkable moments.

Anyway, Kossakovsky and his crew did a commendable job of immersing us into the daily life of their animal subjects without anthropomorphizing them at all. Although those piglets in the documentary may look a bit cute and fragile to us at first, they are far less amiable than that little pig in “Babe” (1995) as often following their basic animal instincts, and this unsavory aspect of theirs is quite apparent especially when they fiercely competing for their mother’s milk. In case of their mother, she may have some motherly instincts as expected, but she usually does not seem to care that much about her piglets, and you may wince for what she does to one of her piglets at one point early in the documentary.

During the two interludes where it pays some attention to some other animals in the farm, the documentary generates more curiosity and fascination for us. In the first interlude, the camera initially looks at a bunch of chickens getting out of their wooden container one by one, and we are amazed again as noticing how closely the camera watches these chickens without much distraction. Like the sow and her piglets, the chickens are somehow not aware of the camera that much, and we become more aware of the environment surrounding them as the camera stays as low as the feet of the chickens.

One particular rooster happens to draw more attention from us due to his rather shabby appearance, and, to our little amazement, it turns out to have a considerable physical disability which does not seem to bother him at all. During the one memorable scene where he has to cross over a little lug, all he has to do is trying a bit harder than other chickens, and that surely brings some amusement for us.

In case of the other interlude, the camera initially beholds a bunch of cattle coming out of a barn, and then it comes to focus more on two particular cows. Although they look merely plain without anything special to notice, we come to reflect more on the main purpose of their and other cows’ existence, but their minds are probably focusing on eating and living as usual, and I am now reminded of what W.G. Sebald once said: “Men and animals regard each other across a gulf of mutual incomprehension.”

When the documentary later goes back to the sow and the piglets, the piglets grow up a lot, though they are still eager to drink their mother’s milk as before. It is apparent that they become more inconvenient to their mother, and there is a brief amusing scene where she finally comes to have her own little private time as enjoying a bit of mud bath alone.

Although we do not see much of human presence throughout the documentary, the documentary never overlooks how the animals in the documentary are raised and controlled by whoever works in the farm, and this becomes all the more apparent during what can be regarded as the most dramatic moment in the documentary. Regardless of whatever is actually felt by her, the sow seems to be quite baffled and upset as trudging here and there for a long time, and the mood becomes quietly intense as the documentary simply observes her reactions and behaviors without losing any of its calm and objective attitude.

Overall, “Gunda” is a superlative documentary to be admired for its top-notch technical aspects as well as its thoughtful presentation of its unforgettable animal subjects. Without sentimentalizing or objectifying these animals at all, the documentary will leave considerable impression on you, and you may come to muse more on our relationship with livestock animals. Unless there is any groundbreaking industrial revolution, we will continue to depend on what they have provided us for many centuries, and they surely deserve some more respect and consideration, don’t they?

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Elvis (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Extremely excessive and incredibly superficial

Baz Luhrmann’s latest film “Elvis” is extremely excessive and incredibly superficial. Like many of his previous works such as “Romeo + Juliet” (1996), “Moulin Rouge!” (2001), and “The Great Gatsby” (2013), the movie is full of Luhrmann’s own dizzy stylish touches throughout its 159-minute running time, and there are a number of truly electrifying musical moments to be appreciated, but the movie somehow ends up being curiously distant to its legendary real-life musician hero – even while throwing all the glitter and hoopla to be showered upon him on the screen.

In my humble opinion, the major miscalculation of the film comes from its attempt to tell the story from the viewpoint of a main character played by a glaringly miscast actor. We all know that Tom Hanks can play various real-life figures ranging from Walt Disney to Mister Rogers via his steadily engaging star persona, but I must say that he feels consistently strained as Colonel Tom Parker, who was mainly known as Elvis Presley’s manager. Besides that heavy makeup which is too distracting at times, his Southern accent in the film is as hammy as the one in the Coen brothers’ “The Ladykillers” (2004), and, above all, his natural star persona, which is as wholesome and decent as James Stewart’s, frequently clashes with his increasingly sleazy and opportunistic character.

In contrast, Luhrmann gets a right actor for playing Elvis. Besides ably embodying that familiar swagger and mannerism of Elvis, Austen Butler, a promising newcomer whom we will see again in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming film “Dune: Part 2” (2023), galvanizes the screen whenever that is required, and he confidently holds the center whenever the movie dials up the level of fun and excitement to the level of 11 for Elvis’ music and dance. Although those loud and excessive musical scenes in the film often approach to the realm of those outrageously exaggerated concert scenes of Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker’s “Top Secret!” (1984), Butler injects enough sincerity and passion to them, and his dedicated performance is certainly the best thing in the film.

Like Butler, the movie did try the best for entertaining us, but I am not so sure about whether it succeeds as much as intended. Right from the opening part, it alternatively dazzles us via showy camerawork and choppy editing, and it seems to be really ready to delve into Elvis’ life and career, but it only comes to scratch the surface as busily and hurriedly bouncing from one narrative point to another. Sure, we get all those important moments in his life and career, but the movie ultimately feels like the overlong and scattershot compilation album of his greatest hits, and the story unfortunately fails to give enough insight or depth to Elvis. For example, the movie frankly acknowledges the influence of a certain African American music genre on Elvis, but its depiction of this interesting aspect of his artistry is rather heavy-handed, and that is particularly evident when Elvis’ first performance is frantically intercut with what he experienced at an African American church revival during his childhood years.

During its relatively quieter moments, the movie tries to show more of the relationships between Elvis and several other main characters in the story besides Colonel Parker, but these main characters in the film do not have much personality beyond their sincere concern toward Elvis. While his father, played by Richard Roxburgh, is nothing but a pathetic and incompetent loser, his mother, played by Helen Thomson, is usually defined by her disapproving attitude coupled with alcoholism, and Elvis’ relationship with his future wife Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is perfunctory at best and tedious at worst (He was 24 and she was only 14 when they met for the first time during his military service period in Germany, by the way).

Ultimately, the movie tries to imbue more human complexity into the relationship between Elvis and Colonel Parker, but it does not seem to make up its mind about their problematic personal/business relationship. While their relationship swings back and forth between love and hate, we surely get lots of big dramatic moments including the one when Elvis makes a defiant stance against Colonel Parker via his latest song later in the story, but these moments somehow feel shallow without real emotional impact, and the same thing can be said about a part where Elvis is quite troubled and depressed by a couple of tragic historical incidents in the late 1960s.

As a result, the movie comes to trudge more during its last act, which depicts Elvis’ later years in Las Vegas. The movie still has a fair share of loud and shiny entertainment as Elvis tries to keep going on the stage despite many troubles including his serious drug addiction, but the overall result feels like a series of redundant encores before the fizzling ending where the curtain finally goes down upon our hero’s life and career.

Disappointed more with the film, I tried to appreciate more those several enjoyable things in the movie in addition to Butler’s commendable efforts. The production qualities of the film are top-notch to say the least, and I will not be surprised if Catherine Martin, who is incidentally Luhrmann’s wife, receive one or two Oscar nominations for her contribution to its costume and production design in the next year. In case of the soundtrack of the movie, it is surely full of various songs besides those famous songs performed by Elvis, and the score by Elliott Wheeler holds its own place well among those numerous songs in the film.

In conclusion, “Elvis” is another disappointment from Luhrmann after “The Great Gatsby”, but it has all the distinctive touches you can expect from him, and it will not bore you if you are willing to go along with its excessive style and mood. He and his cast and crew members surely try, but I could only observe their mighty efforts from the distance, and that is all.

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Men (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Stalked by…. men

Alex Garland’s latest film “Men” is deliberately disorienting and baffling with the warped reality surrounding its heroine. While we can sense from the beginning that something is not so right, the movie keeps catching us off guard via a number of odd and disturbing moments, and you may find yourself scratching your head a bit on what is really happening to her.

The setting of the story is very simple to say the least. The heroine is a young woman named Harper Marlowe (Jessie Buckley), and, after an alarming flashback opening scene, we see her driving her car to some rural village where she is supposed to stay alone for a while. The holiday house for her, which is your average cozy British country house, is already prepared well, and she is greeted by a rather eccentric middle-aged dude who is incidentally the owner of this lovely house.

After looking around here and there inside the house along with the owner, she is eventually left alone in the house, and she really hopes that she will have some peace of mind after one tragically shocking incident involved with her husband. As shown from a series of flashback scenes, she already decided to stay away from him as soon as possible for understandable reasons, but she feels guilty about what subsequently happened, and the resulting trauma seems to be hovering over her mind no matter how much she tries to calm herself more.

Thanks to the tranquil bucolic environment surrounding her, she gets a bit relaxed at least. It often looks like there is no one around her in the surrounding area, so she can take a walk alone by herself without any interference, and we later get an interesting aural moment when she comes across a big tunnel in a nearby forest. As she makes sounds, the tunnel functions as a sort of echo chamber, and that reminds us more of her current solitary status.

However, it soon turns out that she is not alone at all. She spots a mysterious figure at the opposite side of the tunnel, and she quickly leaves the spot when this figure starts to approach to her. Not long after that, she spots a naked man staring at her from the distance, and she wonders whether this dude is the same guy she encountered at the tunnel.

Is this merely the reflection of her rather stressed mind? The movie does not provide any clear answer for that as toying with the possible unreliability of her viewpoint. When she shows the photograph of that naked man to her female friend during their video call conversation, it is clear that he was really there, and he becomes all the more real when he suddenly appears outside the house, but he remains as mysterious and frightening as before.

Meanwhile, we also come to notice a certain strange thing, which becomes more apparent as several male supporting characters appear along the story. I will not go into details here for not spoiling anything, but I can tell you instead that I admire how the movie pushes its relevant ideas on toxic masculinity as far as possible, and that somehow makes sense with its heroine’s ongoing psychological struggles.

In the end, the movie reaches to the climax sequence which is a naughty cross among “Repulsion” (1965), “Straw Dogs” (1971), and “The Shining” (1980), and that is where we become more uncertain about whatever is experienced by our heroine. While there are several certain incidents which did happen as far as we can see, there is not much sensible explanation on how the hell these incidents could happen, and even the other viewpoint besides our heroine’s in the story does not help much.

Nevertheless, the movie holds our attention till its gruesome finale via its increasingly disturbing atmosphere. Because this part comes to feel rather repetitive, I doubt whether it works as well as intended by Garland, but I still appreciate how daringly he attempts to emulate the body horror of David Cronenberg’s films.

Above all, almost everything in the film is held together well by the strong presence of Jessie Buckley, who recently received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her supporting turn in “The Lost Daughter” (2021). Her character is more or less than a symbolic character to be disturbed and tormented, but Buckley ably fills the role with enough emotional details, and that is the main reason why the last shot of the movie works despite being a little too ambiguous in my trivial opinion. In case of the other main cast members of the film, Paapa Essiedu and Gayle Rankin did their best with their functional supporting roles, and Rory Kinnear surely has a fun with his challenging but interesting task.

In conclusion, “Men” is not as successful as Garland’s two previous works “Ex Machina” (2014) and “Annihilation” (2018), but it has a fair share of striking moments to remember at least. I am not so sure about whether they actually gel together well enough to generate something coherent, but the movie engaged me at least during its 100-minute running time, and I guess that is enough for recommendation with some caution. Yes, this may not be for everyone, but it is an interesting horror film with some mood and intelligence, and you may try it if you are looking for something different.

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