The Rental (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A competent test run by Dave Franco

Dave Franco’s debut feature film “The Rental” is a modest test run for his nascent filmmaking career. Although it will not surprise you much especially if you are familiar with its genre territory, it is mostly competent on the whole in technical aspects, and you may be more lenient than me to its several shortcomings including its predictable narrative trajectory.

At the beginning, everything looks fine and well for Charlie (Dan Stevens) and his close co-worker Mina (Sheila Vand). They have searched on the Internet for finding any suitable place where they can spend the upcoming weekend along with Charlie’s wife Michelle (Alison Brie) and Charlie’s brother Josh (Jeremy Allen White), and then they happen to come across a seemingly nice beach house which can be rented for two days. Although Mina somehow fails to rent it at first, Charlie subsequently succeeds without much sweat, and Mina, who is incidentally an American woman of Arab descent, wonders whether the owner of the beach house has a racial prejudice against her.

Nevertheless, she still expects to have a fun and pleasant time with Charlie, Michelle, and Josh, who has been in a serious relationship with Mina for a while. It is revealed that Josh’s life has been quite messy and problematic due to his serious anger management problem, but he really wants to make a fresh start along with Mina, and Mina willingly stands by her man as shown from their brief private scene.

When these four people go to the beach house, we can clearly see a trouble right from the start. For example, Mina and Josh decide to bring their little pet dog even though that is not allowed by the owner of the beach house at all, though they manage to hide the dog from a gruff maintenance man who happens to drop by the beach house not long after the arrival of our four main characters. As talking with the maintenance man, who claims to be the brother of the owner of the beach house, Mina eventually lets out her growing doubt on the possible racial prejudice of the owner of the beach house, and that certainly leads to a very awkward moment for everyone around her.

Anyway, the mood among our four main characters subsequently becomes a bit more spirited than before. As watching his brother and his girlfriend being a little closer to each other, Josh wonders whether they are really no more than close work colleagues, but Michelle has accepted her husband’s close relationship with Mina because she has no doubt on her marital relationship with Charlie.

During the following evening, it turns out that Michelle brought a packet of recreational drug. Although she is not going to use it for now because she wants to wake up early and go hiking in the morning, everyone else agrees to use it together, and we soon come to sense something being developed between Mina and Charlie. After Josh and Michelle get asleep, Mina and Charlie come to talk more with each other, and then….

Meanwhile, the screenplay by Franco and his co-producer/co-writer Joe Swanberg, which is developed from the story written by them and Mike Demski, also establishes a sinister undertone around its four main characters. For example, it often looks like somebody is watching them from the distance, and there is also a rather suspicious room hidden in the basement area of the house. In addition, Mina and Josh’s dog is disappeared later in the story (Is this a spoiler?), and that certainly adds more nervousness to our four characters’ increasingly tricky circumstance.

The four main cast members in the film did a solid job of bringing some human quality to their respective roles. Dan Stevens, who looks quite more serious and intense compared to his flamboyant supporting turn in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (2020), and Sheila Vand, who has been more prominent since her breakthrough performance in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014), are convincing in their characters’ accumulating panic and dread, and Alison Brie, who has been mainly known for Netflix comedy series “GLOW”, demonstrates more of the serious side of her talent while Jeremy Allen White, who is mainly known for his supporting turn in TV comedy series “Shameless”, is also effective as another crucial part of the story.

It was disappointing for me to see that what has been established well during the first two acts of the movie gets crumbled as the movie inevitably enters a certain familiar genre area during its last 20 minutes. At least, there are still several things to be admired on the screen thanks to the good efforts from Franco and his crew members including cinematographer Christian Sprenger, and Sprenger did a commendable job of imbuing several key scenes in the film with a growing sense of uneasiness and menace.

Overall, “The Rental” works as well as intended, and Franco, who was recently wonderful in his brief supporting performance in “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018), shows here another side of his talent to watch, but the final result does not distinguish itself that much from many other similar genre flicks out there. It surely attempts to add some style and substance to its rather barebone story and characters, but that is not enough for me, and I sincerely wish that Franco will soon move onto better things in his supposedly promising filmmaking career.

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Sputnik (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): Beauty and the Host

Russian film “Sputnik” is a little creepy SF horror flick which intrigues and then chills you as patiently developing the story and characters within its limited background. Evoking many various movies ranging from “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) to “Venom” (2018), the movie also establishes its own mood and personality while accumulating a cold but palpable sense of dread and paranoia on the screen, and we come to brace ourselves more for what may happen next in the story.

Set in the Soviet Union in 1983, the movie unfolds its story mainly from the viewpoint of Dr. Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina, whom you may remember for her brief appearance around the end of “The Bourne Supremacy” (2004)), a young psychiatrist who has recently been subjected to a board review due to a rather drastic treatment on one of her patients. While she insists that what she did was absolutely necessary for curing that patient once for all, the board members do not like her defiant attitude much, and this will probably lead to the end of her professional career.

And then she is approached by Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk, who is the son of renowned Russian filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk and has also been known for directing/producing several notable Russian films including “The 9th Company” (2005)), a stern and shady military officer who has an interesting offer she cannot refuse. A few months ago, two Russian astronauts returned to the Earth after ending their space mission, but, as already shown to us during the opening sequence, something strange happened to them during the landing, and Semiradov wants Kilmova to examine one of these two astronauts, who has currently been held in a high-security military base located somewhere in Kazakhstan. Mainly because he promises to her that he will take care of her impending problem, Kilmova eventually accepts Semiradov’s offer, and we soon see her arriving at the base in Kazakhstan along with him.

The astronaut in question is Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), and Dr. Kilmova is baffled at first as observing that there seems to be nothing particularly wrong about Veshnyakov. He looks clearly stressed at times due to his extending period of confinement and examination, but he has no choice but to follow whatever he is instructed to do by the people working under Semiradov, and we see him going through another superficial interview session while Kilmova and Semiradov are watching him from the other side of the room.

During the following night, Semiradov shows Kilmova a dark secret growing inside Veshnyakov’s body day by day. Whenever he sleeps at night, a small living alien entity comes out of his mouth, and then it returns to his body some time later before he wakes up. Before deciding whether it should be eliminated or not, Semiradov wants to be sure about whether this mysterious entity, which can be quite dangerous, can be separated from Veshnyakov and then contained for further examination, and that is why he needs the cooperation from Kilmova, who may find a solution as approaching to Veshnyakov and his mind in her own unorthodox way.

Now realizing that she gets herself involved in a very tricky circumstance, Kilmova becomes more aware of how oppressive and ominous the surrounding environment is, and director Egor Abramenko and his crew members including cinematographer Maxim Zhukov make sure that we can constantly sense the drab and gloomy ambience from the screen. Although Semiradov guarantees that she will know everything she needs for her risky mission, it subsequently turns out that there are several crucial things hidden behind his back, and there is a chilling scene where Kilmova later comes to learn more of the nasty aspects of the alien parasite.

While approaching closer to Veshnyakov for gaining his trust and finding any possible way to save him from the alien parasite, Kilmova comes to feel sorry for him, and that naturally makes her situation trickier than before. She is already ordered not to tell anything about the alien parasite to Veshnyakov, but he may really need to know the truth considering how he becomes connected more and more with the alien parasite in their symbiotic status, and it is also quite possible that he will be eventually regarded as someone expendable by Semiradov and those high-ranking government officials above him.

I will not dare to go into details on what will inevitably happen next among the three main characters in the film, but I can tell you instead that I enjoyed how the screenplay by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev generates some genuine poignancy from the strained relationship developed between Kilmova and Veshnyakov, which comes to look more like a classic case of Beauty and the Beast as more secrets are revealed later in the story. Although I think the finale is a little too long, it still works in terms of story and characters, and the three main performers in the film are convincing to the end.

While it looks pretty modest on the surface, “Sputnik” is more intelligent, efficient, and compelling compared to many of those big-budget Hollywood SF movies out there. It mostly stays inside its genre territory in addition to being your average gloomy Russian movie, but, as reflected by the considerable efforts and skills put onto the screen, it studied its genre well before fully developing its simple story premise, and I appreciate that a lot.

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Rising Phoenix (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): They are indeed superheroes

Netflix documentary film “Rising Phoenix” is an uplifting examination of the Paralympic Games and a number of various participants. Rather than merely living with their disabilities, these and many other disabled athletes push themselves really hard at the Paralympic Games for living as fully as possible, and their considerable athletic achievements surely remind us again of the importance of visibility and empowerment to millions of disabled people out there.

While focusing on several notable Paralympic athletes including its co-producer Tatyana McFadden, the documentary also gives us the brief summary on a long history of the Paralympic Games, which was founded by Sir Ludwig Guttman in 1948. Sir Guttman was initially a prominent Jewish neurologist living in Germany, but then he had to leave his country and then moved to Britain along with his family shortly after Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party took over Germany in the late 1930s. As taking care of many different physically paralyzed patients from the World War II during the 1940s, he happened to notice that many of his patients were considerably improved via sports activities, and that was how he came to decide to establish the Stoke Mandeville Games.

Although it was started modestly at first, the Stoke Mandeville Games gradually drew lots of disabled athletes from not only UK but also many other countries. Eventually, its name was changed into the Paralympic Games when it was held in Rome in 1960, and it has always accompanied the Olympic Games except when it was blocked at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games just because of the sheer ignorance of the Soviet Union government, which did not recognize the existence of the disabled at all.

During its early years, the Paralympic Games did not draw public attention much as being often regarded as an auxiliary event to the Olympic Games, and I remember well that the local media did not pay much attention to the 1988 Seoul Paralympic Games, but things have changed a lot during recent years. In case of the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games, its many different participants impressed millions of viewers in China and many other countries a lot, and a young Chinese athlete named Chu Zhe tells us about how much her life was changed thanks to that.

In case of the 2012 London Paralympic Games, the mood was more enthusiastic along with the newly changed logo, and its participants certainly did not disappoint at all themselves as well as thousands of audiences enthusiastically watching their competitions. Johnnie Peacock, a British para athlete who happened to compete along with several prominent competitors at that time, eagerly reminisces about how much he was agitated and focused at that time, and his unexpected moment of glory is surely one of the highlights in the documentary despite the presence of a certain South African para athlete, who later fell from grace as becoming as infamous as Lance Armstrong.

In case of an Italian athlete named Bebe Vio, I cannot help but admire her strong personality and spirit, which surely helped her a lot during her difficult recovery from a severe case of meningitis. Although she came to lose all of her four limbs in the end, this plucky young lady did not give up her passion toward fencing at all, and she certainly prepared and trained a lot for attending the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games.

Another memorable disabled athlete in the documentary is Matt Stutzman, an American guy who was somehow born without two arms but has been fully functional throughout his life as pursuing his passion for driving and archery. Believe or not, he can really drive his vehicles only with his two legs, and we also see how he carefully and skillfully controls his legs and other body parts during one of his archery competitions.

All these and other disabled athletes in the documentary were quite eager to get a chance to participate in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games, but it could actually be canceled because of the mishandling of the fund associated it. The second half of the documentary tells us how desperate and urgent the situation was for not only the officials who have been dedicated to the Paralympic Games for many years but also thousands of disabled athletes who trained really hard during last four years, and you may roll your eyes as observing how messy and infuriating this trouble was at that time.

Anyway, the Paralympic Games was eventually held thanks to the fortunate last-minute funding, and everything went mostly well despite some initial setbacks including the low number of audiences on the first day. Again, this surely shows us how much local officials were disinterested in the Paralympic Games from the very beginning, but the number of audiences was subsequently increased, and its participants were certainly galvanized by lots of enthusiasm from the audiences.

In conclusion, “Rising Phoenix”, which is directed by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, is another wonderful documentary from Netflix, and I was often touched by numerous powerful moments of human spirit and resilience in the documentary. Along with “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution” (2020), which is incidentally one of the better documentaries released by Netflix during this year, the documentary will make you have more empathy and understanding on disabled people, and that is why I urge you to watch it as soon as possible.

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Beats (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Revolt in beats

British film “Beats”, which incidentally should not be confused with the 2019 American film of the same name, is often fascinating as a plain but vivid slice of adolescent life in Scotland, 1994. As closely following its two teenage heroes, the movie slowly lets us immersed in a rather bland and uneventful urban life of theirs, and we come to understand more of why they willingly get themselves swept and sucked into one big night event to remember.

At the beginning, the movie gives us a bit of period background knowledge. At that time, the British government was about to pass an act named the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, and this rather strict act was virtually going to ban outdoor rave parties in Britain. Not so surprisingly, many of those young and wild people in UK were not so amused at all, and they came to respond actively as holding many demonstrations and illegal rave parties around the country.

In case of our two adolescent heroes Johnno (Cristian Ortega) and Spanner (Lorn Macdonald), they do not care that much about this legal change, but those loud pieces of music used in rave parties always excite them a lot as shown from their introduction scene. Despite their considerable background difference, both of them cannot resist any chance of fun and excitement to make them forget their mundane daily life for a while, and they look inseparable whenever they have a chance to spend time together.

However, Johnno recently comes to learn that there will be a big change in his life in one way or another. His mother has considered moving to a new and better neighborhood for her kids’ upbringing, and she may also marry her current boyfriend who is incidentally a local police officer. Due to the criminal background of Spanner’s older brother who has lived with him for years, both Johnno’s mother and her boyfriend do not regard Spanner that highly, but Johnno does not listen to their sincere words at all. Yes, it is quite apparent to us that Spanner is a lad without many good qualities, but Johnno’s sulky face is brightened a little whenever his friend comes to him, and we later get an amusing scene where Spanner has sneaked into Johnno’s room and then tries to hide when Johnno’s mother enters the room later.

We also get to know a bit about how unhappy Spanner has been in his life with his older brother, who frequently bullies Spanner just because he wants to remind his younger brother of who is the boss in their shabby apartment. Spanner clearly hates his older brother, but there is no possible future for him out there, and that is probably why he often clings to Johnno.

After it turns out that Johnno will leave their neighborhood along with his family sooner than expected, Spanner suggests that they should attend together an illegal rave party to be held in the upcoming evening, and, after hesitating a bit first, Johnno agree to go there along with his friend and several other young girls they happened to meet before. They surely need some money for going there, but Spanner already stole a considerable amount of money from where his older brother usually keeps his dirty money, and, along with those young girls, he and Johnno soon come to a trashy private place belonging to a local underground radio DJ who is supposed to take them to that rave party.

As Johnno and Spanner spend some time in that trashy private place, they turn out to be a lot more naïve than they try to appear in front of other persons around them. One of those young girls seems to be interested in Johnno, but he hesitates again as usual, and he and Spanner cannot help but become nervous when one rather obnoxious dude turns out to be one of the criminal associates of Spanner’s older brother.

The mood of the movie becomes a little tense when Spanner’s older brother eventually finds out what his younger brother committed, but the screenplay by director Brian Welsh and his co-writer Kieran Hurley, which is based on the novel of the same name written by Hurley, continues to roll its story and characters as leisurely as before. At one point later in the story, we get a small humorous scene where Johnno is forced to drive a car despite not having a driving license, and Welsh and his cinematographer Benjamin Kračun, who did a good job of capturing the drab ambience of the main characters’ daily life on rough and grainy black and white film, adjust the screen ratio deliberately for emphasizing Johnno’s frantic state of mind.

When our adolescent heroes eventually arrive at that rave party along with others, the movie pulls all the stops as required, and we are accordingly thrown into their very excited mental state, which is further fueled by a certain kind of psychedelic drug they took in advance. As they come to lose themselves more and more, we are naturally served with a series of hallucinogenic shots, and the night does seem to last forever for them and many others at the scene.

Of course, like many other acts of rebellion in fiction and real-life, Johnno and Spanner’s rebellion leads to a serious consequence, which affects not only them but also several others around them. While they are glad to confirm their friendship again to each other, they are still bound to be separated from each other sooner or later, and we are not so surprised by what is told to us during the following epilogue scene.

As a guy who has always preferred a quiet place for reading a book or watching a movie throughout his inconsequential life, I must say that what is presented in “Beats” feels rather distant and alien to me at times, but it is still a commendable film equipped with good period mood and unadorned natural performances, and I came to have some empathy for its two adolescent heroes in the end. Their fun time did not last that long, but they felt really alive at that time, didn’t they?

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Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020) ☆☆☆(3/4): They return triumphantly

“Bill & Ted Face the Music”, the long-awaited final chapter of the trilogy which was started with “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Journey” (1989), is packed with goofy charm and entertainment just like its two predecessors. While the setting and background are understandably changed in many aspects, the movie mostly stays close to what made its two predecessors into cult favourites, and I am glad to spend time again with its two incorrigibly dorky characters, who remain lovable as before while finally going through a little but precious bit of personal development.

During the opening scene, the movie tells us what happened to William S. “Bill” Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) during last 29 years since the rapturous finale of “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey” (1991). At that time, they felt like finally reaching to the top thanks to the wide public exposure of their rock band around the world, but, alas, their resulting fame turned out to be a lot shorter than expected, and they even have failed to do what they were supposedly destined to do: creating an awesome piece of music to unite the humanity across time and space.

At present, Bill and Ted are no more than struggling has-been musicians, and we get a cringe-inducing scene where they pathetically attempt to present their latest piece of music in front of many people attending the wedding of a certain close relative of theirs. Although their respective wives and daughters support them as usual, their continuing failure has certainly put lots of strain on their respective marital relationships, and that leads to an amusingly awkward scene when they attend a couple therapy session along with their wives.

When Bill and Ted return to their neighborhood alone without much success in their couple therapy session, something quite exciting happens right in front of their eyes. A visitor from the future arrives, and that person in question is Kelly (Kristen Schaal), the daughter of the character played by late George Carlin in the two previous films. Because Bill and Ted have not yet fulfilled their destiny, time and space have been quite more unstable than before, and Kelly and her direct boss notify that Bill and Ted must compose and then play that awesome piece of music before it is too late for the whole world across time and space.

Because they have to accomplish the mission within less than 80 minutes, Bill and Ted are understandably overwhelmed without any good creative idea for them, but, what do you know, there comes a flash of genius to them. An old time machine they used in the previous two films, which looks like an ordinary phone booth on the outside, happens to be available for them, and all they have to do is going to their future and then getting that piece of music in question from their future selves.

Of course, thing do not go as well for Bill and Ted as planned, and the screenplay by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon generates lots of fun as its two heroes find themselves bouncing from one time point to another. While they are aghast at seeing how their future will become gloomier during next several years, they also have to deal with the unexpected involvement of their wives, who, as many of you probably remember, are no stranger to time travel.

In addition, their daughters, Theodora “Thea” Preston (Samara Weaving) and Wilhelmina “Billie” Logan (Brigette Lundy-Paine) also get themselves involved in this increasingly complicated situation after meeting Kelly. As their fathers’ lifelong fans and cheerleaders, they are certainly ready to help their fathers by any means necessary, and they soon come to take a journey across time and space which is not so far from the one their fathers took in “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Journey”.

Under the competent direction by director Dean Parisot, the movie keeps its story briskly rolling with surprise and nostalgia popping here and there. While I was often amused by a neurotic robot character hilariously played by Anthony Carrigan, I was also delighted with the return of William Saddler’s character, who steals the show just like he did in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey”.

Above all, the movie is supported well by the lasting comic chemistry between Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves. While he recently reached to another peak as an action movie star thanks to the success of “John Wick” (2014) and its two equally fine sequels, Reeves can be very funny even while maintaining his rather stiff façade as usual, and he and Winter always click well together in addition to having lots of fun with several different versions of their characters throughout the story.

Besides Sadler and Carrigan, the other supporting performers in the film also gladly hurl themselves into sheer silliness as demanded by their respective roles. While Erinn Hayes and Jayma Mays are effective counterparts during their scenes with Reeves and Winter, Samara Weaving and Brigette Lundy-Paine are delightfully plucky as required, and Kristen Schaal brings considerable spirit and personality to her character.

In conclusion, “Bill & Ted Face the Music” succeeds as much as intended while providing enough laughs to lift itself during its 92-minute running time, and it certainly something you cannot miss if you were entertained by its two predecessors like I was a long time ago. In short, this is a nice lightweight alternative to “Tenet” (2020), and I assure you that your mind will be far less taxed this time.

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Get Duked! (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Hunted in the middle of the Highlands

In my trivial opinion, good comedy always needs some solid ground for its jokes and gags to be funny and effective. In case of “Get Duked!”, which was released on Amazon Prime a few days ago, it throws lots of jokes and gags throughout its 87-minute running time, but not many of them work well enough to elicit laughs from me mainly due to its thin narrative and half-baked character development, and that is a shame considering how much the movie is willing to go wild from the very beginning.

At the beginning, we meet three adolescent troublemakers who happen to participate in a camping trip competition to be held somewhere in the Scottish Highlands. Although none of them is particularly enthusiastic about this camping trip competition, DJ Beatroot (Viraj Juneja), Duncan (Lewis Gribben), and Ian (Samuel Bottomley) have no choice but to go along with their supervising teacher due to each own problem, and the teacher remains quite oblivious to their apparent lack of enthusiasm even when he and they arrive at the starting point of their long journey across the Scottish Highlands.

Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention Dean (Rian Gordon), another member of the group who looks so plain and anonymous that his fellow group members did not even recognize that he was actually on the same van with them from the beginning. Because he regards the camping competition as another important extra-curricular activity to be added to his résumé, Ian is eager to experience a number of wholesome things including teamwork, but, of course, he only finds himself ridiculed by his fellow group members, despite the fact that he is the only one who may be able to guide them across those remote areas of the Scottish Highlands.

Anyway, their supervising teacher eventually goes away as planned after giving them a map and a few instructions and advices, and the movie subsequently shows more of how incompetent Dean’s fellow group members are in many aspects. Needless to say, they are not so prepared well from the start in contrast to Dean, and they are certainly not so pleased to learn belatedly that their smartphones cannot receive any communication signal in the middle of the Scottish Highlands.

Not so surprisingly, the situation gets worse for everyone – especially when Dean’s fellow group members unintentionally damage the map. He naturally tries to search for anything which may help them arrive in their next arrival point in time, but he and his fellow group members continue to wander without any particular helpful direction, and even a gruff farmer they happen to encounter at one point does not help them much.

Meanwhile, we notice a few disturbing signs they unfortunately overlook. Their teacher said in advance that accidents happen from time to time during the camping competition, but we cannot help but become unnerved by a notice board covered with a lot of missing incidents, and there is also a brief but disturbing shot revealing something barely buried in the ground.

Of course, the situation eventually becomes very perilous when Ian and his fellow group members come across a masked old dude who turns out to be quite ready to hunt down all of them. Although they manage to make a counterattack and then run away from the scene despite their clumsiness, it is quite clear to all of them that they must get out of the Scottish Highlands as soon as possible for their survival.

However, instead of dialing up the level of tension, the screenplay by director/writer/co-editor Ninian Doff goes for more outrageousness and goofiness as leisurely rolling its main adolescent characters and some other substantial characters including an overzealous local female police officer ready to investigate anything suspicious. Nothing much happens in her area except the inexplicable case of bread theft, but she is very eager to impress her direct boss, while having no idea on what is really going on outside even when she happens to receive a desperate call from Dean and his fellow group members.

During its second half, the movie gives us a series of wacky moments including an unexpectedly hallucinogenic sequence where one of the main adolescent characters finally comes to have a breakthrough moment he has always wanted, and I chuckled a lot when a certain vehicle finally reaches to its eventual destination with some surprise, but the movie somehow fails to be developed into something more than a merely broad satire. Although it surely makes some biting comments on class conflict as its main adolescent characters come to show their inner defiance and resilience against the lofty and condescending attitude of the villains of the story, but neither of these two contrasting groups rises over the level of caricature, and we only to come to observe their supposedly climactic duel from the distance while having some mild amusement from time to time.

On the whole, “Get Duked!” does not tickle or entertain me enough as trying its satire in a way too obvious and predictable for me, but I appreciate at least the game efforts from its four main young cast members and the other notable cast members including Eddie Izzard, who surely has a little fun with his nasty and pompous supporting character. It is not a total waste of time at all, but there are other recent similar films better than this, and I especially want to recommend you “Ready or Not” (2019), which is more incisive and entertaining in comparison. You will have a more productive time with that bitingly funny film, but I will not stop you at all from watching “Get Duked” if you have plenty of free time to spend.

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Boys State (2020) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Meet future American politicians

Documentary “Boys State”, which won the US Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, gives us a close and intimate glimpse into a bunch of boys who may be the future of American politics someday. Regardless of whether you can agree to their various political positions and opinions or not, you will come to admire them a lot for their considerable intelligence and ambition, and it is often electrifying or unnerving to observe how they show more of the making of future politicians as being driven further by their mock political competition.

The main background of the documentary is an event called Boys State, an annual summer leadership program for junior high school students which has been sponsored by the American Legion since 1937. This event has been held in each of American states every year along with its female counterpart event sponsored by the American Legion Auxiliary (It is called Girls State, of course), and the opening part of the documentary shows us that various public figures ranging from Bill Clinton and Cory Booker to Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh participated in this time-honored youth program during their early years.

Mainly following several different adolescent boys attending the Boys State program in Huston, Texas in 2018, the documentary lets us immersed into the developing situation among them and many other participants. Individually selected from different parts of Texas, all of them are pretty bright kids to say the least, and everyone is certainly eager to be chosen as leaders by their peers, but only few of them will become quite more prominent as going through a number of mock political processes.

Once they are evenly divided into two mock political groups called Nationalist and Federalist, the competition is commenced with considerable fierceness in both of these two groups. In case of Ben Feinstein, a savvy disabled kid who is an ardent conservative as shown from his room full of many political stuffs including a Ronald Reagan doll, he quickly takes the center of the platform for Federalist, and we are not so surprised to see him later getting appointed as the chairman of his party without any opposition.

In contrast, Nationalist kids have troubles with gathering forces right from the start. Although a smart African American kid named René Otero is eventually selected as their party chairman, he often faces small and big problems inside his party as trying to make a strong platform for a number of potential candidates for several different public positions including the state governor, which is, of course, the top prize coveted a lot by both Nationalist and Federalist boys.

As René tactfully handles those obstacles inside his party, a few boys in his party slowly come to accumulate political momentum. In case of Robert MacDougall, this laid-back lad is quite confident at first that he will attract enough votes for becoming an eligible gubernatorial candidate, and that turns out to be pretty easy for him, but, what do you know, he later happens to face an unexpected dark horse. Although he initially struggled to get enough votes, Steve Garza, who is the third kid of a Mexican immigrant, swiftly rises from the bottom to the top after delivering an earnest speech which humbly starts but then becomes a lot more exciting and appealing than expected, and Robert clearly discerns that Steve is a pretty strong opponent which may beat him in the upcoming primary election.

While trying to be as courteous as possible to Steve on the stage, Robert also feels the urge to beat his opponent by any means necessary. As a matter of fact, he sometimes does not openly express the certain aspects of his political belief in front of his potential supporters, and he openly admits in front of the camera at one point that he now understands more of why many politicians often lie or evade in public.

Once the candidates are eventually determined in both parties, the mood becomes quite more intense than before, and, not so surprisingly, a number of dirty tactics are used as the election day is approaching. While René tries hard to maintain integrity and principles for his party, Ben goes all the way for dirty tactics because winning is important above all else in his viewpoint, and it goes without saying that their political contrast often feels like an unnerving reflection of the current political status in US.

I do not dare to tell you anything about the results revealed around the end of the program, but I can tell you instead that directors/producers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine did a competent job of juggling several different narratives which eventually converge together with lots of excitement and anticipation. As reflected by a number of brief amusing scenes, many boys shown in the documentary are sometimes not so serious about their program, but most of them eventually become quite serious and passionate about their mock political experience, and that is why the final moments in the documentary feel so powerful with contrasting emotions.

Overall, “Boys State” is a compelling presentation of one youthful side associated with American politics, and its many vivid and energetic moments made me both hopeful and skeptical about the future of American politics. Yes, these kids in the documentary may become a lot more jaded during next several years, but they are ready to advance further nonetheless as reaching for their respective political aspirations, and I will not be surprised if I hear more news about some of them in the future.

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Untold (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A war of memories

South Korean documentary film “Untold”, which was released in local theaters as “A War of Memories” early in this year, simply listens and observes. Even without any particular comment, this small but haunting documentary calmly but palpably conveys to us the old pains and sorrows from a relatively obscure side of the Vietnam War, and it often shines with compassion and empathy while indirectly demanding the justice for those numerous victims and survivors out there.

At the beginning, the documentary gives us a brief moment for providing some historical background knowledge. As the Vietnam war had got worse in the early 1960s, the American government came to get involved in the war a lot more than before due to its geopolitical strategy during that period, and the South Korean government subsequently agreed to send its troops to Vietnam as one of the key allies of the American government. During next several years, more than 350 thousand South Korean soldiers were sent to Vietnam, and South Korean accordingly received a considerable economic boost just like Japan did during the Korean War.

However, it was later revealed that the South Korean soldiers committed a considerable number of atrocities just like American soldiers, and it is estimated that at least 30,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed by South Korean soldiers during that period, but the South Korean government has avoided recognizing this dark and terrible past even at this point. While a number of local civil organizations have demanded the justice for those victims and survivors, the South Korean government has kept making excuses, and I must say that this is rather ironic considering that the South Korean government has kept demanding the public apology on those war crimes committed during the World War II from the Japanese government for last several decades.

Among these notable incidents of atrocities committed by South Korean soldiers during the Vietnam War, the documentary focuses on the one which happened in a small rural town outside Đà Nẵng, Vietnam on one day of January 1968, and Nguyễn Thị Thanh, a middle-aged lady who was a little girl at that time, phlegmatically reminisces about what she witnessed during that terrible day. Her village and another village near to it happened to be targeted by a bunch of South Korean soldiers for some strategic reason, and Nguyễn still remembers vividly how many other people including all of her family members were ruthlessly eliminated just for being labeled as potential enemies. In case of her younger brother, he happened to be shot in his mouth, and we later hear some gruesome details on how he died despite her desperate efforts.

We also meet an old man who also lost many of his family members on that terrible day. Compared to Nguyễn, he has lived more peacefully with what was inflicted upon him and his family while having no particular personal grudge against South Koreans, but he still remembers the incident quite well – and how he fortunately survived at that time. 

Another poignant moment in the documentary comes from a mute guy who tells us a lot via his sign language. As he silently tries to conveys to us what he saw and heard during that time, he also comes to delve into how South Korean soldiers frequently exploited many young Vietnamese women for sex during the war. Strictly forbidden to indulge in drug in contrast to American soldiers, many of South Korean soldiers usually went for sex instead, and that naturally led to the birth of thousands of Korean Vietnamese babies, who were mostly abandoned along with their unfortunate mothers at the end of the war.

Steadily maintaining its calm position as before, the documentary later shows Nguyễn’s visit to South Korea in 2015. At the South Korean parliament in Seoul, she made a public demand as supported by a local congressman, and she also came to bond with Kim Bok-dong, a prominent human rights activist who had strongly demanded the official apology from the Japanese government for what she and many other ‘comfort women’ suffered during the World War II.

Of course, her public appearance in South Korea was met with the considerable objection from those local right-wing groups including Vietnam War veteran associations, and director Lee-kil Bo-ra, whose grandfather was incidentally one of those Vietnam War veterans, presents this rather deplorable opposition with cool and detached understanding. Those Vietnam War veterans really believe that they dutifully served their country without doing anything wrong in their biased viewpoint, and I am afraid that most of them will stick to that till their death.

Anyway, Nguyễn visited South Korea again a few years later along with a fellow survivor, and she gave a testimony in front of many audiences attending a mock civil trial on the incident. Although the trial could not exert any legal obligation on the South Korean government, she tried her best as bringing back her horrible memories of the incident, and this is surely another highlight moment in the documentary despite the unnecessary and distracting inclusion of loud sound effects. 

In conclusion, “Untold” is admirable for the thoughtful and sensitive handling of its important historical issues, and that is more enough to compensate for its few glaring weak points. It surely stumbles a bit at times, but you can clearly sense the passion and sincerity beneath its restrained attitude, and you will come to reflect more on its main subjects more after watching it.

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You Cannot Kill David Arquette (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): David Arquette rises

I did not know whether I could be merely amused or had to wince a lot as watching documentary film “You Cannot Kill David Arquette”. The documentary often feels so ridiculous and outrageous that I often had serious doubts on the veracity of what is presented in the documentary, and this baffling impression still lingers on my mind even after I did some online search for just confirming to myself that it is not one of those self-deprecating mockumentaries such as “I’m Still Here” (2010).

The documentary revolves around what can be described as a serious middle life crisis for David Arquette, who has been mainly known for his performance in several notable films including “Scream” (1996) and the following several sequels but also once gained considerable notoriety as (please don’t laugh) a professional wrestler. After participating in the production of the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) movie “Ready to Rumble” (2000), Arquette did enter the ring for more publicity for that movie, and then he gained the WCW championship as planned in advance, but it goes without saying that this did not look that good to many wrestling enthusiasts out there.

Anyway, after more than 15 years later, Arquette attempted to enter the ring again, and the documentary observes his rather problematic preparation process. Although he looks healthier than me at least, Arquette is over 45 in addition to being riddled with several serious health issues, and his children and his second wife Christina McLarty are naturally quite concerned even though they fully support his decision to do wrestling again.

The documentary listens to Arquette and several others around him for giving us some understanding on this preposterous decision of his. As his acting career has been going nowhere during last 20 years (The last time I saw him on a big screen is “Scream 4” (2011), by the way), he wants to try other options left to him at present, and professional wrestling looks like a good one because he has always been enthusiastic about it since his childhood years.

Arquette initially starts from the bottom just like many other struggling amateur wrestlers out there, but, of course, he comes to fall harder than expected. At one point, he attempts to enter a low-scale match held at a shabby backyard, but his attempt turns out to be disastrous for several reasons. While the ring itself is quite crummy to say the least (It even gets collapsed at one point when one of the wrestlers at the scene tries a little too hard), Arquette often faces several problems associated with his physical condition, and he still remains at the bottom even though he manages to survive the match in the end.

Although his doctor warns that more wrestling will get his physical health more deteriorated, Arquette does not listen to his doctor’s advice at all, and he searches for any possible way to improve his health condition and athletic ability more. It is clear to us that he is driven by something more than mere enthusiasm, but neither nor the documentary delves deep into that matter, and his family members including his two actress sisters Rosanna and Patricia Arquette only provide a bit of insight on what makes him tick.

Anyway, Arquette subsequently goes down to Mexico, where he comes to train and wrestle along with several local masked wrestlers. At first, he does not click that well along with these local wrestlers, but then he gradually becomes improved, and we later get a silly scene where he and these local wrestlers try some impromptu wrestling performances on a wide urban street. In front of cars stopping for a while due to a traffic light, he and they demonstrate their wrestling skills within a very short time, and the people in the cars actually give little compliment and money before they drive away.

After becoming more skillful and confident, Arquette is ready to advance further in US, and directors David Darg and Price James, who also served as the cinematographers of their documentary, gives us a number of wild moments which may take you back to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (2008). In case of one particularly striking moment, we see Arquette being savagely brutalized by his opponent in the ring, and we come to wince more when he enters the ring again despite a very serious injury on his neck, which could actually cost his life in the worst case.

Even at that point, the documentary remains somewhat distant to its hero, and that trend is continued even when Arquette comes to draw more publicity before his duel with a certain aggressive wrestler. Sure, he seems to be quite excited and jubilant as enjoying what may be another peak in his life, and he also looks willing to look silly and ridiculous in front of the camera, but he usually stops before baring himself to us more than before. As a result, we keep observing him from the distance even while amused a lot by his bumpy quest for another glory, and we do not see enough reason for why we have to cheer for his questionable efforts.

In conclusion, “You Cannot Kill David Arquette”, which won the Adobe Editing Award at the SXSW Film Festival early in this year, is fairly amusing, but it does not go beyond ridiculousness, and it only left me with lots of mixed feelings. To be frank with you, I have no idea on what will come next in Arquette’s life, but I sincerely hope that he will be able to go gently into darkness after having less troubles than before.

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An American Pickle (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Mildly pickled, so to say

“An American Pickle” is a mildly pickled product which gives some nice laughs occasionally but never fully develops its supposedly rich comic promise. While it is not a total bore at all thanks to its lead actor’s amusing dual performance, the movie feels deficient in terms of story and characters as abruptly going back and forth between comedy and drama too often, and it is all the more disappointing that the story eventually comes to resolve everything too hastily during its final 10 minutes.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Herschel Greenbaum (Seth Rogen), a poor menial laborer who lives in a small Jewish town located somewhere in Russia, 1919. Although things do not go well for him usually, Herschel does not give up his hope and dream at all, and he becomes all the more determined to make his life better after encountering a young and attractive Jewish girl on one day. Although she is not particularly interested in him at first, Herschel works harder for winning her heart in the end, and they subsequently marry under the blessing from their neighbors.

However, shortly after their humble but blissful marriage, their town happens to be attacked by a bunch of brutal Russian Cossack soldiers, and that prompts Herschel and his wife to emigrate to US. Once they settle in a neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City, Herschel gets employed at a local pickle factory, and he becomes more hopeful about his life after coming to learn that his wife is pregnant now.

Alas, again, things do not go that well for him. While trying to get rid of those pesky rodents in the pickle factory, Herschel happens to be dropped right into one of the big wooden pickle tanks in the factory, and the factory is promptly closed right after his accident, which incidentally has his unconscious body preserved well along with cucumbers in that wooden pickle tank for next 100 years.

When he finally wakes up in 2019, Herschel finds himself more baffled and devastated than, say, Rip Van Winkle. While he surely draws lots of public interest for his miraculous survival, he feels depressed as coming to learn that his wife and their kid passed away many years ago, and it also turns out that he has only one close relative at present.

That person in question is Ben Greenbaum, who is incidentally also played by Seth Rogen without Herschel’s bushy facial hair and thick accent. When Ben and Herschel meet each other for the first time, the mood is fairly cordial between them, and Ben is willing to help his great-grandfather adjust himself to many changed aspects of New York City, though Herschel does not look that odd compared to that colorful diversity of the city.

Having lived alone in his apartment since his parents’ accidental death, Ben has been working on a certain online application software, but his sincere efforts during last five years are understandably not appreciated much by Herschel, and that naturally generates the tension between them. While wisely avoiding overacting especially in case of Herschel, Rogen did a good job of presenting the convincing interactions between his two characters, and we can really accept their generational conflict even while laughing for Herschel’s seriously outdated viewpoint.

Eventually, Herschel walks away from his great-grandson for demonstrating that he can survive and earn some money for himself, and the screenplay by Simon Rich, which is based on his short story “Sell Out”, subsequently serves us a series of ironic moments for our amusement. As a guy who does know how to make high-quality homemade pickles, Herschel soon comes to find a very cheap way to produce and sell pickles, and, what do you know, his pickles quickly become quite popular once they happen to catch the attention of an influential blogger.

As Herschel’s pickles virtually go viral on the Internet, Ben becomes more exasperated and frustrated, and he accordingly attempts to sabotage his great-grandfather’s promising business enterprise. At one point later in the story, he deliberately gets Herschel interested in social media, and, not so surprisingly, Herschel comes to pay a heavy price for not so being careful with his words on the Internet, though that is nothing compared to when he happens to blurt out something quite offensive to both conservatives and liberals in the American society.

Around that narrative point, the movie seems to be ready to go further for more satire, but director Brandon Trost and his star only come to hesitate instead during its middling last act. Sure, Herschel and Ben come to have a moment of mutual understanding in the end, but this moment feels rather sappy and contrived to say the least, and I was also quite disappointed with the under-utilization of the other main cast members in the film including Sarah Nook, who was utterly fantastic in “Predestination” (2014) but is mostly stuck in her thankless supporting role here.

Despite ending up being a waste opportunity, “An American Pickle” has some good flavors to be savored, but I still think Trost, Rich, and Rogen could take their time more for enriching their materials. The overall result does not taste bad at all, but it could be juicier and pungent, so I advise you not to expect much from it.

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