The Fall (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Stuck at the top of a 600-meter tower

“The Fall” often made me wince and cringe for good reasons. As I said several times before, I have considerable aversion to high places, and I must say that the movie did a pretty good job of unnerving me as frequently emphasizing how its two main characters are helplessly being stuck at the top of a very, very, very tall TV tower. Although I also must point out that it is often rote and conventional in terms of story and characters, the movie still works thanks to not only admirable technical aspects but also some committed acting to be appreciated, and that may be good enough for you if you have some free time to spend.

During its opening part, the movie quickly establishes the very troubled status of one of its two main characters. Since she saw her dear husband falling to his death in the middle of their very risky rock-climbing attempt, Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) has struggled a lot with her loss and grief during several months, and that certainly affects her relationship with her father. He is genuinely concerned about his daughter, but they argue with each other when he confronts her not long after her another morose drinking evening, and that adds more estrangement to their strained relationship.

Meanwhile, Becky is approached by her friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner), who was incidentally with Becky and her husband at the time of that unfortunate accident. Unlike Becky, Hunter has busily been doing a series of risky climbing activities for her online fans out there, and she suggests to Becky that she really should try climbing again for herself. As a matter of fact, she is soon going to climb to the top of an abandoned TV tower in the middle of some remote area, and she wants Becky to accompany her.

Becky is naturally reluctant at first, but she eventually joins her friend because she does feel that she needs the closure for her immense loss along with some healing. Once they succeed in climbing to the top of that TV tower, she is going to spread the ashes of her dead husband up in the air, and her friend will gladly record everything for entertaining her online fans later.

When they come to that remote area, everything looks fine and well to them, and they subsequently begin their climbing along that TV tower, which looks quite unreal in contrast to the sheer flatness of the surrounding landscape. Believe or not, this TV tower, which is around 2000 feet (600 meters), is actually based on the KXTV/KOVR Tower radio tower in Walnut Grove, California, and I learned from Wikipedia that it is really around 600 meters besides being much taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Around the point when Becky and Hunter are almost close to the top of the TV tower, there come some small warning signs as expected, but they keep climbing, and then they eventually arrive at the top as enjoying the breathtaking view surrounding them. While it is clear that lots of CGI was used for the production of the film, the result of the technical efforts from director/co-writer/co-producer Scott Mann and his crew members including cinematographer Miguel “MacGregor” Olaso is vivid and striking to say the least, and we can really believe that the two main characters of the film are taking considerable risk as they climb higher and higher.

Of course, things go quite wrong around the time when Becky and Hunter are about to climb down the TV tower, and they consequently find themselves stuck at the top of the TV tower without any possibility of getting help. While nobody knows where they are right now, they cannot use their smartphones to call anyone, and, to make matters worse, they do not even have anything to eat or drink at present.

This is surely a nice setup for solid survival drama, and the screenplay by Mann and his co-writer Jonathan Frank diligently supplies one danger after another along the story, but it stumbles more than once when it attempts to develop its two main characters and the drama between them. While Becky is mostly defined by her grief and desperation, Becky’s estranged relationship with her father feels artificial and redundant, and Hunter’s certain complicated personal situation with Becky will not surprise you much without bringing much to the story on the whole.

Anyway, the movie works best whenever it simply focuses on danger and survival, and you will seldom be bored during this part. I particularly like the scene involved with vicious condors (This is not much of a spoiler because they appear early in the film in advance), and I also appreciate the believable acting from Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner. I am sure that they took much less risk than Tom Cruise in his recent Mission Impossible flicks, but, boy, they still look pretty convincing nonetheless as their characters deal with one peril after another on the screen.

Overall, “The Fall” is relatively less satisfying that recent survival drama films ranging from “Gravity” (2013) to “The Shallow” (2016), but it does its job fairly well in its very limited main background. Despite its several notable flaws, it surely reminds me again that I really do not like going up to high places at all, and I guess that is enough for recommendation for now.

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Causeway (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): A modest character drama starring Jennifer Lawrence

“Causeway”, which was released on Apple TV+ early in this month, is a modest character drama which will engage and then touch you a bit more than expected. Although it is quite familiar in terms of story and characters, the movie gradually holds our attention as calmly focusing on the genuine human interactions between its damaged heroine and several other main characters around her, and, above all, it is also strongly anchored by another good performance from its wonderful lead actress.

Jennifer Lawrence, who quickly rose to stardom after her Oscar-nominated breakthrough turn in “Winter’s Bone” (2010), plays Lynsey, a female US military soldier who has been going through her difficult recuperation period since she got badly injured in her brain during her tour in Afghanistan. The early part of the film focuses on how she struggles to get better bit by bit under the care of a kind old caregiver played by Tony-winning actress Jayne Houdyshell, and Houdyshell’s warm supporting performance functions as a good counterpoint to Lawrence’s unadorned embodiment of her character’s physical and mental damages.

When it seems that she is recovered enough to leave, Lynsey returns to her hometown New Orleans, Louisiana. Although her hometown is the last place she wants to go for some personal reasons, she has no choice but to wait there while being ready for any chance of redeployment, and that means she will have to stay at her old family house where her mother Gloria, played Tony-nominated actress Linda Emond, is still living alone. Although Gloria is glad to for her daughter’s return, it does not take much time for us to sense the considerable estrangement between them, and we can easily guess the reason as observing how Gloria is more occupied with her current relationship with some guy (We never see him on the screen, by the way).

Anyway, Lynsey decides to be a little more active about her ongoing recuperation process. After a brief online job searching, she goes to a swimming pool cleaning service company, and she soon gets hired. While she does not get paid much, she is happy to do something outside, and that is certainly better than doing almost nothing inside her family house.

Meanwhile, she also happens to befriend James (Brian Tyree Henry), a local auto mechanic who helps her a bit shortly after her old truck had some problem. When Lynsey later asks more help from him, James kindly helps her without hesitation, and then they find themselves spending more time together as sensing loneliness from each other.

Now you may have some idea on what may happen next between them, but the screenplay by Ottessa Moshfegh, Luke Goebel, and Elizabeth Sanders wisely does not hurry itself in addition to avoiding clichés. Yes, Lynsey and James surely come to open themselves more to each other along the story, and James even suggests at one point that they should live together in a house where he lives alone at present, but this suggestion comes from kindness and compassion rather than romantic feeling. In case of Lynsey’s mother, she may not win the mother of the year award, but she does cares about her daughter nonetheless, and there is a nice intimate scene as she and her daughter become a little more honest about their flawed relationship.

During its last act, there eventually comes a point where our heroine comes to face not only her current problems but also some personal issues in the past, but the movie sticks to its calm and sensitive storytelling approach as before, and we are served with several small but undeniably touching moments to be appreciated. When the camera closely looks at our heroine’s face around the end of the film, we can feel how she feels a bit better than before, and that is why the following last shot leaves considerable impression on us.

Of course, the movie depends a lot on Lawrence’s presence and talent, and she demonstrates here that she has not lost any of her acting talent despite her recent brief break. Never showing off her character’s damaged status, she subtly conveys to us her character’s inner thoughts and feelings, and it is really engaging to see how she still can be as natural and unaffected as she did in “Winter’s Bone”, which is still at the top of her acting achievement list in my inconsequential opinion.

Furthermore, Lawrence is supported well by several recognizable character performers including Emond and Houdyshell. Bryan Tyree Henry, who has never disappointed us since his Emmy-nominated supporting turn in TV comedy series “Atlanta”, is simply wonderful as his character slowly and tentatively approaches closer to Lawrence’s character, and I enjoy their effortless interactions throughout the film. Stephen McKinley Henderson, a Tony-nominated actor who has been more notable thanks to his stellar recent supporting performances in “Fences” (2016) and “Lady Bird” (2017), is also fine as Linsey’s caring doctor, and Russell Harvard, a deaf actor who was memorable in his guest performance in the first season of TV drama series “Fargo”, shines in his single crucial scene with Lawrence later in the story.

In conclusion, “Causeway”, which is incidentally the first feature film of Lila Neugebauer, did its job as much as it can with its plain but intimate character drama, and the overall result is much better than “Raymond & Ray” (2022), another recent character drama from Apple TV+. While I came to almost nothing in case of the latter, the former let me get to know and understand its main characters more than expected, and that is certainly enough for recommendation.

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Raymond & Ray (2022) ☆☆(2/4): As they bury their father

“Raymond & Ray”, which was released on Apple TV+ in last month, merely trudges along its very familiar plot with its two ever-reliable lead performers who deserve better than this disappointing mush. While there are some good moments whenever they share the screen, the overall result is too rote and clichéd as filled with superficial sentimentality, and we are only left with rather hollow impressions when it eventually reaches to its lackluster ending.

Ewan McGregor and Ethan Hawke, who have been admirably steady during last three decades with each own talent and presence, play Raymond and Ray, two estranged stepbrothers who have been quite miserable in their respective lives. While Raymond is about to fail in his third marriage, Ray is a recovering addict who lives alone by himself without much care, and he is not so pleased at all when Raymond suddenly visits him with an unexpected news. Their father, who has been absent in their life for many years, died recently, and Raymond wants Ray to attend their father’s upcoming funeral with him, even though both of them do not like their father much for good reasons.

Because he still remembers how terrible their father was in many ways, Ray refuses to attend the funeral along with Raymond, but Raymond is persistent because he really needs some help from Ray. Besides needing someone else to drive for him instead (He has a little driving license problem, by the way), Raymond is afraid of becoming too emotional at the funeral, and Ray eventually agrees to accompany Raymond while also providing some emotional support for him.

However, not so surprisingly, Raymond and Ray do not get along that well with each other from the beginning. While both of them surely feel hurt as remembering those good and bad moments involved with their father, they often argue with each other during their journey to their father’s funeral, and McGregor and Hawke did a good job of embodying their respective characters’ damaged souls. Here are two man who were hurt and broken in one way or another in their shared past, and Hawke and McGregor ably establish not only their characters but also the long history between them.

I wish the movie would simply trust McGregor and Hawke more and then delve into their characters more, but, alas, it begins to lose its focus when Ray and Raymond eventually arrive at a town where their father lived during his last years. It tries some humor as Raymond and Ray are often perplexed by how his father were regarded well by several people who knew him before his death, but that becomes rather tiresome as it tries that again and again, and we never get to know that well who their father really was.

As a matter of fact, Raymond and Ray’s father feels like more like a plot device especially when his instruction on his own funeral is notified to Ray and Raymond. He requested that Raymond and Ray should bury his dead body for themselves as a part of the funeral ceremony, and that is surely the last thing both Ray and Raymond want to do right now.

Nevertheless, they follow their father’s instruction anyway as wondering what their father really wanted to do via that odd instruction of his, and they also come to spend some time with a few persons who were close to him around the time of his death. There is a Latino woman who turns out to be more than a merely close friend to him, and there is also a local pastor who is certainly ready to lead both Raymond and Ray to reconciliation and forgiveness.

And there is also a female hospital nurse who nursed Ray and Raymond’s father during his final days. Although their accidental encounter was not exactly pleasant, Ray finds himself attracted to this nurse, and she seems to be really interested in getting closer to him when she comes to see the burial of his dead father’s body, though he still has lots of emotional burdens besides his complicated feelings toward his dead father.

All these and other story elements could be handled well enough to engage us, but the screenplay by director/writer Rodrigo García often meanders without generating enough narrative momentum to hold our attention. Simply moving from one predictable moment to another, the story feels more tedious and hollower, and it even does not deliver well a certain expected payoff moment involved with a gun shown during the first act (Remember a term named Chekhov’s gun?).

Furthemore, the movie does not utilize well several good supporting performers surrounding McGregor and Hawke. Maribel Verdú and Sophie Okonedo surely do as much as they can do with their respective supporting roles, but they do not have much to do except functioning as possible love interests for Hawke’s and McGregor’s character, and the same thing can be said about Vondie Curtis-Hall, who manages to acquit himself well despite his woefully underwritten character.

On the whole, “Raymond & Ray” is not a total dud at least thanks to its good main cast, but it is a major letdown compared to García’s much better films such as “Nine Lives” (2005) and “Mother and Child” (2009). While these two films really surprised and moved me, “Raymond & Ray” just bored me without much satisfaction, and I am already ready to move onto whatever I am going to watch next.

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My Father’s Dragon (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Another charming animation film from Carton Saloon

Netflix animation feature film “My Father’s Dragon”, which was released a few days ago, is another charming work from Carton Saloon, an Irish film production company which gave us a series of stellar Oscar-nominated animation films including “The Secret of Kells” (2009) and “Wolfwalkers” (2020). Like these stellar works, “My Father’s Dragon” engages us a lot via a number of gorgeous visual moments, and these wonderful moments further accentuate the emotional aspects of its very simple but ultimately poignant fantasy tale.

At the beginning, the narration by Mary Kay Place, who has become more notable thanks to her recent acclaimed performance in Kent Jones’ “Diane” (2018), sets the tone of the film, and we are introduced to a young boy named Elmer (voiced by Jacob Tremblay) and his mother Dela (voiced by Golshifteh Farahani). They have been happy together as running a little shop together, but, unfortunately, their happy time does not last long due to some serious economic recession, and Dela has no choice but to close down the shop and leave for some big city along with her son.

Shortly after arriving in the city, Dela and her son come to stay in a little shabby building belonging to one cranky old lady. She promises to Elmer that everything will be fine in the end, but, no matter how much she tries, she cannot find any opportunity for earning some money for them, and we come to sense her growing desperation unlike Elmer, who still believes his mother’s white lie about their current status.

Eventually, Elmer becomes quite disillusioned after clashing with his mother due to a matter involved with one stray cat. That prompts him to run away from his mother, and that is how his little adventure begins. When he subsequently arrives at a pier at the fringe of the city, he is surprised when that stray cat, which happens to follow after him, suddenly talks to him, and the cat tells him about a certain island full of wild animals. In that island, there is a dragon which can help him solve his and his mother’s current problem, and Elmer is soon taken to that island by a talking whale once he agrees to go there.

Around the time when Elmer arrives at the island, the island, which looks like a big giant ball floating on the sea, is going through its latest peril. For some reason, the island keeps getting sunk, and Saiwa the Gorilla (voiced by Ian McShane), the leader of many different wild animals in the island, has exploited the flying power of the dragon to prevent their island from being completely sunk.

It seems that all Elmer has to do is rescuing the dragon and then finding the solution to the imminent crisis of the island, but the situation turns out to be more complex than expected. For example, the dragon, which is incidentally named Boris (voiced by Gaten Matarazzo), turns out to be a naïve young dragon which still has not done his coming-of-age ritual yet, and the story has some silly fun with his childish personality. In case of Saiwa the Gorilla, he is not an evil character at all, and we come to see that he really wants to save the island and his fellow wild animals because, well, he does care a lot.

As the screenplay by Meg LaFauve, which is based on the children’s novel of the same name by Ruth Stile Gannett, leisurely moves from one narrative point to another, the film gives us many superb scenes of splendid visual beauty. While the island surely looks magical on the outside as required, a number of various spots inside the island also shine with simple but sublime qualities, and several different wild animal characters introduced along the story bring extra wonder to the overall picture.

All these and many other things in the film are gorgeously presented on the screen via cell animation style, and that brings a lot of charm and personality to the film. The characters and backgrounds mostly look simple and broad, but they are full of distinctive details to notice, and the overall result often looks more vivid and impressive while also enhancing the story itself. Although the story feels a bit overlong during its last act, the visual power of the film still holds our attention at least, and the story wisely lets us gather what Elmer comes to learn during his adventure with Boris – and how he comes to grow up a lot around the end of the story.

Director Nora Twomey, who co-directed “The Secret of Kells” and then directed “The Breadwinner” (2017), assembles an impressive array of performers around Jacob Tremblay and Gaten Matarazzo, whose good voice performances work well as the heart and soul of the film. Golshifteh Farahani, Ian McShane, Whoopi Goldberg, Rita Moreno, Dianne Wiest, Chris O’Dowd, Judy Greer, Alan Cumming, and Jackie Earle Haley are all solid on the whole, and Farahani and McShane deserve some praise for ably handling their complex supporting characters.

In conclusion, “My Father’s Dragon” is a lovely animation film which is enjoyable in terms of mood, details, and storytelling. Like another recent Netflix animation film “Wendell & Wild” (2022), the film is surely brimming with life and personality, and I think kids can enjoy it as well as adults. Yes, it may be a little too slow for kids, but I think they will eventually savor its colorful moments, and adult accompanying them will certainly appreciate the considerable efforts shown from the screen.

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Enola Holmes 2 (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Miss Holmes Returns

Netflix film “Enola Holmes 2”, the sequel to “Enola Holmes” (2020), has more fun and excitement with its plucky titular heroine and several other characters around her. Based on the acclaimed young adult novel series by Nancy Springer, the movie cheerfully and thrillingly bounces around here and there in its 19th century Victorian background as its young heroine tries to solve her latest case, and you will appreciate its vibrant wit and humor as well as some nice modern touches throughout the story.

The story, written by director Harry Bradbeer and his screenplay writer Jack Thorne, begins at the point a few years after where the previous movie ends. Our heroine Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) has tried to start her own little detective agency in London, and she surely aspires to become as prominent as her famous older brother Sherlock Holmes (Henry Cavill) someday, but, alas, things have not been going that well for her. Just because she is a woman, she is always disregarded and underestimated by those potential clients of hers, and she is about to give up running her detective agency when an unexpected client suddenly shows up in front of her.

That client in question is a little underage female factory worker named Bessy Chapman (Serrana Su-Ling Bliss), and she wants Enola to find her older sister who was suddenly disappeared for no apparent reason. Both Bessy and her older sister happen to be the employees of some big local match factory, and, after doing some investigation at their match factory whose shabby environment surely evokes Charles Dickens novels, Enola comes to see that the disappearance of Bessy’s older sister is somehow connected with whatever is going inside the factory.

However, the situation turns out to be much more perilous than expected as Enola delves more into her case. I will not go into details here for not spoiling your fun, but I can tell you instead that she soon gets herself into a big trouble as shown from the opening scene of the film, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that she comes across her older brother again, who has incidentally been having some big headache over a rather complicated financial case.

Besides Enola’s famous older brother, several other characters from the previous film also return to help Enola in one way or another. Enola’s radical suffragette mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) and Eudoria’s old friend Edith (Susie Wokoma) are certainly ready to help Enola a bit later in the story, and there is also Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge), a young reformer nobleman who had some adventurous time along with Enola in the previous film. When he and Enola come across again, the mood is rather awkward as both of them hesitate to express their mutual feeling, and we later get more amusement when they have another unexpected encounter while Enola tries to focus more on solving her current case.

Meanwhile, it gradually turns out that Enola’s case is also connected with her older brother’s case. There is someone who seems to be having a naughty criminal fun against them, and it does not take much time for both Enola and her older brother to realize that a corrupt cop named Grail (David Thewlis) is involved with this hidden figure, who has no qualms at all about blocking Enola and her older brother by any means necessary.

As Enola moves from one point to another in her increasingly risky investigation, the movie provides several nice action scenes. Although the climactic action sequence is a bit too long in my humble opinion, the movie thankfully does not lose any of its spirit and momentum at all even at that point, and the finale is pretty satisfying as everything in the story clicks together with simple clarity before culminating to the Victorian equivalent of that famous moment in “Norma Rae” (1979). As shown at the end of the story, Bessy’s older sister is based on a real-life female match factory worker, and she and many other female match factory workers really fought hard for changing their very unhealthy work environment.

The movie is also supported well by the colorful performances from its various cast members, some of whom are incidentally interesting color-blind casting choices. Steadily carrying the film as required, Millie Bobby Brown, who has been already ready to move onto the next step of her promising acting career since her breakthrough turn in Netflix TV series “Stranger Things”, effortlessly exudes her character’s irrepressible charm, spirit, and intelligence, and Henry Cavill, who has demonstrated that he can do more than solemnly playing a certain well-known superhero, has his own good moments as a more caring version of Sherlock Holmes. While Helena Bonham Carter, Louis Partridge, Susie Wokoma, and Adeel Akhtar are solid as before, David Thewlis, Sharon Duncan-Brewster, Hannah Dodd, Serrana Su-Ling Bliss, and Himesh Patel are also well-cast in their respective supporting parts, and Thewlis, who can be quite subtle if necessary, willingly chews his scenes as the main villain of the film even though he does not have any moustache to twirl.

Overall, “Enola Homes 2” is one or two steps over the previous film in many aspects. If the previous film is a test run, the movie goes further with what makes the previous film so enjoyable, and Bradbeer and his cast and crew members did a commendable job on the whole. In short, this is one of the best movies from Netflix during this year, and I must confess that I am already looking forward to enjoying its heroine’s next adventure.

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Is That Black Enough for You?!? (2022) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A sincere and enthusiastic presentation of the African American movie history

Netflix documentary film “Is That Black Enough for You?!?”, directed and written by African American critic Elvis Mitchell, is more than a quick and useful guide for the African American movie history. Besides being enlightening as well as entertaining, the documentary works a sincere and enthusiastic tribute to a certain important part of the American cinema, and you can really sense genuine care and passion as Mitchell diligently and excitingly examines one interesting part after another of the African American movie history.

While its main subject is the rise and fall of the African American movies during the 1970s, the documentary also focuses on what came before that. Since the beginning of the American cinema history, African American movie characters had often been grossly marginalized or stereotyped in numerous notable major Hollywood films ranging from “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) to “Gone with the Wind” (1939), but a number of independent African American filmmakers including Oscar Mischeaux tried to present their people more on the screen, and the documentary delves a bit into how they made and distributed their films despite many systemic limits during that period. At least, things began to change around the 1950s with the emergence of African American Hollywood movie stars such as Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Harry Belafonte, but there were still barriers for many African American filmmakers out there nonetheless, and the documentary sharply points out how the Hollywood system kept standing on the road to more changes even after Poitier became the first black Best Actor Oscar winner in 1964.

However, there eventually came a point where Hollywood could not ignore African American people anymore. As the civil rights movement in US gained much more momentum during the 1960s, the need for African American movies grew a lot more than before, and some of notable films during the late 1960s already showed what would come sooner or later. In case of George A. Romero’s seminal horror film “The Night of the Living Dead” (1968), it boldly had an African American hero at the center of the story, and the devastating demise of that character at the end of the film certainly resonated a lot with what was going on outside in the American society during that time.

After making “The Learning Tree” (1969), African American filmmaker Gordon Parks, who was a well-known professional photographer before moving onto filmmaking later, made a little crime action movie called “Shaft” (1971), and, as many of you know, the rest is history. With its confident African American private detective hero coupled with Isaac Hayes’ cool soundtrack (He deservedly won a Best Song Oscar, by the way), the movie opened the door to many different African American stars and films of the 1970s, and it is often fun to see some of them introduced and examined one by one in the documentary.

One of those prominent African American filmmakers during that period is Melvin van Peebles, and the documentary spends some time on showing and telling us how savvy he was as a filmmaker/entrepreneur. As a part of the promotion for his notable films such as “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” (1971), he often hired popular African American musicians for the soundtracks of his films, and that was how movie soundtracks became more popular than before. Many other African American filmmakers quickly followed his smart movies, and, as shown from a certain familiar classic song by Marvin Gaye, some of those soundtracks actually last a lot longer than their movies.

Around that point, African American cinema was not a mere underground area anymore. While “Shaft” and “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” led to the emergence of more Blaxploitation films in the downstairs, there were also more, uh, respectable but equally important movies such as “Sounder” (1972) and “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) in the upstairs, and they all surely gave more and more boost to African American cinema. In addition, a number of African American actors and actresses such as Billy Dee Williams and Pam Grier became far more notable than before, and Glynn Turman, a veteran actor who recently appeared in Oscar-winning film “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020), tells us an amusing episode on how he was approached by Ingmar Bergman (!) thanks to his performance in “Cooley High” (1975), which is incidentally available on Criterion DVD/Blu-ray at present.

However, like many good things, the prime of African American cinema during the 1970s did not last long. With the subsequent rise of Hollywood blockbuster films such as “Jaws” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977), African American cinema became less popular than before, and its cool stuffs were quickly appropriated by many contemporary mainstream Hollywood films including “Rocky” (1976) and “Saturday Night Fever” (1977). Around the point where Charles Burnett’s great film “Killer of Sheep” (1978) is introduced, the mood understandably becomes mournful because the movie, which did not draw much attention at the time of its initial theatrical release, was one of the last notable films of that great era for African American Cinema.

Nevertheless, African American cinema has kept going on during next several decades, and numerous prominent African American filmmakers and performers interviewed in the documentary certainly confirm that to us. Besides Spike Lee, many different African American filmmakers ranging from Barry Jenkins to Dee Rees have respectively carried the torch as learning a lot from that prime period, and we have surely enjoyed their memorable films for many years.

In conclusion, “Is That Black Enough for You!?!” works well as an illuminating film essay, and Mitchell did a commendable job of juggling numerous archival footage and interview clips along with some personal history of his. I love documentaries which make me more aware of blind spots in my inconsequential knowledge, and I am glad to report to you that this is certainly one of such fantastic documentaries.

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The Apartment with Two Women (2021) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A mother and daughter stuck with each other

South Korean independent film “The Apartment with Two Women” is one hell of family drama to say the least. Mainly revolving around the toxic mother and daughter relationship between its two very different main characters, the movie often strikes us quite hard with numerous painful moments of searing emotional intensity, and it is undeniably one of the most impressive South Korean films during this year. To be frank with you, I happened to be quite exhausted when I watched the film during last evening, but my eyes and mind were soon galvanized by what was so powerfully presented on the screen, and I must confess that I often braced myself throughout its rather long running time.

At the beginning, we get to know how things are miserable for a young woman named I-jeong (Lym Ji-ho) as she lives with her mother Soo-kyeong (Yang Mal-bok) day by day in their cheap apartment. As a frequently self-absorbed woman of abrasive personality and attitude, Soo-kyeong does not care that much about her sullen daughter, and I-jeong has been accustomed to how insensitive and abusive her mother can be, but they cannot help but clash with each other over trivial matters, and there eventually comes a point where Soo-kyeong commits something quite serious shortly after her latest fight with I-jeong.

After this serious incident, I-jeong finally decides that enough is enough, but, despite some defiance, she still finds herself stuck with her mother as before just because, well, she does not have enough money to live independently. She does have a job, but her job is not that promising, and she is not even good at her job due to her apparent lack of social skills, though she manages to get better after receiving some advices from her boss.

The movie also pays attention to how Soo-kyeong reaches for a nice chance for better life. There is some widower guy who may marry her someday, and it seems that all she has to do is being nice to not only him but also his adolescent daughter, though that turns out to be not so easy at all. At one point, Soo-kyeong attempts to ingratiate herself with them via her special cooking, but she only finds herself quite embarrassed in front of them to our little amusement.

In the meantime, Soo-kyeong and I-jeong continue to clash with each other as usual, and that eventually prompts I-jeong to leave their apartment at last. Not knowing what to do next, I-jeong comes to depend on one of her co-workers, who generously lets I-jeong stay at her little residence for a while but then quickly becomes wary of I-jeong for understandable reasons. Still being an emotionally stunted kid craving for any kind of care or consolation, I-jeong cannot help but lean and stick more and more on her co-worker as time goes by, and that is certainly the last thing her co-worker wants.

As Soo-kyeong and I-jong struggle to deal with their respective personal issues besides their very problematic relationship, the screenplay by director/writer Kim Se-in does not make any excuse or compromise at all as clearly examining their persistent human flaws. Yes, there eventually comes a point where Soo-kyeong and I-jong confront their longtime emotional issues between them in private, but that does not lead to any kind of reconciliation or ventilation at all. As a stubborn woman who has been adamantly going her way for years, Soo-kyeong refuses to apologize for all those years of emotional and physical abuses inflicted on her daughter, and that makes I-jeong all the more despaired and frustrated than before. Yes, she does know that she should really get away from her terrible mother and her virulent influence as soon as possible, but their emotional bond still feels so strong that she may not be completely free from her mother during the rest of her life.

Under Kim’s unadorned but strong direction, the movie steadily carries the story and characters to the end without never losing its grip on audiences, and its two lead actresses give two of the best South Korean movie performances of this year. While Yang Mal-bok, whom you may recognize her for her small supporting turn in the first season of South Korean Netflix TV Series “Squid Game”, is simply astonishing in her utterly uncompromising performance, Lym Ji-ho is also superlative as her equal acting match, and it is constantly electrifying to watch how their characters dynamically pull and push each other throughout the story. Although the movie does not show much the past between their characters except one moment, Yang and Lym ably let us sense a long history of anger and resentment between them, and we come to understand their complex emotional issues more even though we often observe them from the distance.

Around Yang and Lym, Kim places several good main cast members, who are believable as real human characters to observe. While Kwon Jung-eun has a couple of nice scenes as Soo-kyeong’s best friend, Yang Heung-joo brings some humor to the story as Soo-kyeong’s hapless potential suitor, and Jung Bo-ram is also very effective as I-jeong’s co-worker, who may be not so different from I-jeong despite their personality difference.

In conclusion, “The Apartment with Two Women”, which is incidentally Kim’s first feature film, is a brutal but undeniably compelling piece of work relentlessly fueled by its two unforgettable main characters, and it deserves to be compared with Yang Ik-Joon’s “Breathless” (2008), a great South Korean film which is about another kind of virulent family relationship. This is indeed a very tough and challenging stuff, but it is surely a powerful film you should not miss, and I assure you that you will not regret in the end.

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First Child (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): As she is cornered into motherhood

South Korean independent film “First Child” often feels like a social horror film. As calmly observing its heroine desperately struggling to balance herself between her career and motherhood, the movie makes some sharp points on how harsh and insensitive the South Korean society can be to many women like her, and it is often disheartening to watch her gradually pushed and cornered toward a role imposed upon her right from her pregnancy.

During its early part, the movie shows us how its heroine attempts to resume her career after raising her one-year-old daughter during last several months. While she has been absent for more than one year, Jeong-ah (Park Ha-sun) is ready to work again, and her supervisor does not have seem to have much problem with having her back, though he makes a rather insensitive remark on motherhood in front of her.

As Jeong-ah is absent at her apartment, her dear little daughter is going to be taken care of by a hired nanny instead of a generous neighbor who has usually done that job, but there is one little problem. She wants a South Korean nanny, but the agency sends a Korean Chinese woman named Hwa-ja (Oh Min-ae) instead. At first, Jeong-ah considers simply sending away this woman, but, after seeing how Hwa-ja handles her daughter well, she decides to give a chance to Hwa-ja at least for a while, and Jeong-ah’s husband has no problem with that at all despite his prejudice against Korean Chinese people.

During next several days, everything looks like going pretty well for Jeong-ah at her home as well as her workplace, but, of course, there comes a sudden problem. On one day, Hwa-ja suddenly becomes absent along with Jeong-ah’s daughter for no apparent reason, and Jeong-ah is naturally thrown into panic. Not long after she returns to her apartment in the evening, Hwa-ja eventually returns along with Jeong-ah’s daughter, but she does not explain anything to Jeong-ah or her husband at all.

Quite angry about this incident, Jeong-ah fires Hwa-ja, and Hwa-ja leaves without any protest, but Jeong-ah’s daily life soon becomes quite messy. Because that generous neighbor of hers cannot take care of her daughter due to a personal matter, Jeong-ah naturally looks for any daycare center available to her, but there is not any daycare center which can accept her daughter right now, and that makes her all the more desperate and frustrated than before.

Meanwhile, Jeong-ah’s husband begins to suggest that she should be a full-time mother instead of trying to work again, and she also cannot help but feel more pressured at her workplace as her supervisor demands more from her in one way or another. There is a young female employee who was hired not long after Jeong-ah’s pregnancy, and it begins to look quite possible to Jeong-ah that this young woman will replace her someday if Jeong-ah does not work as much as expected by her supervisor.

Meanwhile, Jeong-ah’s problem with Hwa-ja becomes more complicated than expected. She subsequently discovers a possible sign of physical abuse on her daughter’s body, and her husband is certainly furious when he belatedly learns of that. When they eventually go to where Hwa-ja lives, it turns out that Hwa-ja has a very complicated situation behind her back, and that brings more conflict to Jeong-ah’s increasingly stressful mind. Seeing how Hwa-ja is not so different from her, she tries to make some amends, but Hwa-ja flatly reminds her of the considerable social gap between them, and that makes Jeong-ah all the more regrettable with more stress and doubt upon her.

The final act of the story will not surprise you much as Jeong-ah is thrown into more despair and frustration, but the movie continues to hold our attention under director/writer Hurjung-jae’s thoughtful direction. It does not have anything new to tell you if you are familiar with how many South Korean women have often been repressed and exploited by the patriarchy inside the South Korean society, but many of its key scenes are handled with enough realism and thoughtfulness, and we keep following Jeong-ah’s inevitable narrative course even though we wince more than once for good reasons. Around the end of the movie, the camera simply looks at her from the behind, but that is more than enough for us to sense the quiet emotional devastation below the surface.

Hur also draws the strong lead performance from Park Ha-sun, who ably conveys to us her character’s gradual mental implosion along the story. Park is also supported well by several main cast members including Oh Min-ae and Kong Seong-ha, and both Oh and Kong have each own moment to stand out while never overshadowing Park’s harrowing acting at all.

Overall, “First Child”, which is incidentally Huh’s first feature film, is a solid character drama mixed with some relevant gender issues, and it surely deserves to be mentioned along with many other recent notable South Korean female drama films such as “Kim Ji-young, Born 1982” (2019). Yes, this is surely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is worthwhile to watch mainly thanks to Park’s commendable acting, and I assure you that you will reflect more on its gender issues once the movie is over.

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Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022) ☆☆☆ (3/4): The ladies carry on

We can only imagine what would follow “Black Panther” (2018) if Chadwick Boseman had not died so early, but I am happy to report that its sequel “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” is much more than a mere next chapter. Although it takes a bit too long to build its story and characters, the movie really cares about what is happening among its main characters from the beginning, and that is more than enough for me to overlook its several notable flawed aspects including its overlong climactic part.

After the prologue sequence which is poignant as one last salute to Boseman and his character, the movie moves onto what is going on around Wakanda one year after his character’s untimely death. After Wakanda fully exposed its considerable hidden power to the outside world, many countries including US become all the more eager to get any chance for the access to its precious mineral Vibranium, and Queen Ramona (Angela Bassett), who succeeded upon her dear son’s death, has defiantly been standing on their way because she knows too well the potential dangers from spreading Vibranium all over the world.

Meanwhile, Shuri (Letitia Wright), who is now the queen’s only child, is still struggling with the anger and grief from her older brother’s death. Even though she tries to look all right on the surface, her mother knows better, and we eventually get a little tender mother and daughter moment as they talk with each other a bit on their common loss and grief in private.

However, there soon comes an urgent matter which threatens not only them but also everyone else in Wakanda. A mysterious figure named Namor (Tenoch Huerta, a promising Mexican actor whom you may remember for his notable supporting turns in “Sin Nombre” (2009) and “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (2017)) suddenly breaks into Wakanda, and this dude turns out to be the powerful ruler of a hidden underwater kingdom which has been hidden from the outside world for many years just like Wakanda once was. His kingdom also depends a lot on Vibranium, and he is not so pleased when his underwater territory is being violated by the US government, which has been covertly searching for Vibranium around the world outside Wakanda.

What Namor demands involves with a young but very smart adolescent girl named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), who inadvertently invented something which came to assist the underwater search for Vibranium by the US government. Namor and his mighty marine warriors, who sometimes look like the distant cousins of those alien tribe people in “Avatar” (2009), are quite willing to eliminate Williams for protecting their underwater kingdom, but Queen Ramora does not like this at all, and she naturally comes to seek for any alternative less violent than that.

Instead of promptly going for action, the screenplay by director Ryan Coolger, who has steadily impressed us since his remarkable debut feature film “Fruitvale Station” (2013), and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole, takes a considerable amount of time for character development. While Namor is presented as a reasonable antagonist driven by understandable motives, Shuri’s struggle with her grief and anger along the story is handled with care and understanding, and her relationships with several other substantial Wakanda characters including her mother are depicted well with enough human elements to engage us.

Above all, the movie feels much more distinctive than other run-of-the-mill Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) flicks in terms of mood, style, and details. Costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designers Hannah Beachler and Jason T. Clark are certainly having lots of fun here with mixing various cultural elements into the fantasy world of the film, and I was amused a bit by an underwater sequence showing Namor’s underwater kingdom (I notice that they can somehow speak and hear pretty well in water just like the characters of “Aquaman” (2019)).

In the end, the movie culminates to the climactic action sequence where lots of things busily happen, and that is where my attention dwindled a little. No, Coogler did a competent job of handling all those busy actions on the screen without getting lost at all, but this part is relatively less engaging than the real human moments observed from its main characters, and I do not think what is shown in the middle of the end credits fits that well with what is so powerfully shown from those brave feminist ladies of Wakanda in the film.

Anyway, the movie keeps rolling under Coogler’s deft direction, and he also draws the superlative acting from many of his main cast members. While Letitia Wright ably holds the center, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Guiria, and Dominique Thorne have each own moment to shine, and Bassett is simply indomitable during her several key scenes including one particular dramatic moment later in the story. Around these marvelous actresses, Winston Duke and Martin Freeman are solid as before, and I will let you be surprised by the crucial cameo appearance by some other certain main cast member of the previous film.

In conclusion, “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” wisely takes a new direction, and the overall result is fairly compelling even though it does not surpass its predecessor, which is the best thing from MCU in my humble opinion. I have been getting tired more and more of those MCU products for the frequently glaring lack of individual personality and style, but “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” demonstrates here that there are still interesting things to watch, and I am actually having expectation for whatever may come next.

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Wendell & Wild (2022) ☆☆☆(3/4): Henry Selick’s new stop-motion animation film

Animation feature film “Wendell & Wild”, which was released on Netflix a few weeks ago, deserves to be welcomed for a number of good reasons. Henry Selick, who gave us “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “James and the Giant Peach” (1996), has been rather quiet since his previous work “Coraline” (2009), but “Wendell & Wild” shows that he has not lost any of his dark wit and artistic sensibility yet, and you will willingly overlook its several shortcomings if you admire Selick’s works as much as I do.

At first, the story, which is based on the unpublished book of the same name by Selick and his co-author Clay McLeod Chapman, is mainly about Katherine “Kat” Koniqua Elliot (voiced by Lyric Ross), a feisty juvenile delinquent who, as she admits to us at the beginning of the film, has had some personal demons to deal with for several years. When she was a little kid living in one small town named Rust Bank, her loving parents, who had run a big local brewery together, died at one dark and stormy night due to an unfortunate car accident, and Kat still feels guilty and angry about what happened at that time.

After her parents’ death, Kat were moved around here and there outside Rust Bank without anyone to lean on, and then she is sent back to an all-girl Catholic dormitory school in Rust Bank as a part of its rehabilitation program funded by some wealthy local couple. Right from her first day, she surely shows others around her that she is not someone who will get along well with them, but then she comes to befriend Raúl Cocolotl (voiced by Sam Zelaya) a bit because, well, he is a loner just like her as a trans kid (The level of diversity shown from the characters of the film will put many of recent American major animation films to shame, by the way).

And then something strange happens to Kat on one day. During a class supervised by Sister Helley (voiced by Angela Bassett), she happens to acquire a sort of magical mark which somehow connects her with Wendell (Keegan-Michael Key) and Wild (voiced by co-producer/co-writer Jordan Peele), a couple of frustrated demons who have been hopelessly stuck in their underground world along with their big boss. Having been so eager to build their own amusement park, these two demons certainly welcome Kat because she can open a portal for their escape as a “hell maiden”, and they soon have her make a questionable deal with them.

Of course, their arrival leads to nothing but troubles, and it is fun to see how the film throws lots of various story elements into its plot. Besides Kat’s longtime struggle with her guilt and anger, there are also 1) a sleazy business scheme involved with privatized prisons to be built on the Rust Bank sooner or later, 2) a small but defiant local protest against that deplorable business scheme, 3) a bunch of old corpses to be revived by Wendell and Wild, and 4) a subplot involved with Sister Helley and one cranky disabled school janitor, who turns out to have a little twisted collection in his private place.

All these and other elements do not mix that well together at times, but Selick and his crew members steadily provide good moments to enjoy for style, mood, and, above all, personality. As shown from “Coraline”, Selick does not flinch at all from dark and unpleasant stuffs, and “Wendell & Wild” surely has a fair share twisted amusement for us. For instance, some of the main characters in the film look not just broad but also grotesque, and the film has a lot of naughty fun especially when those corpses are revived to become your average walking dead later in the story.

Furthermore, the film distinguishes itself via its distinctive qualities from stop-motion animation. While you can clearly see that Selick and his crew members also used a considerable amount of CGI for making the characters and backgrounds look more realistic and dynamic, they did put lots of painstaking efforts into every frame as shown from a series of video clips inserted into the end credits (Netflix thankfully lets us watch the movie to the very end this time, by the way), and you will come to appreciate more of their efforts.

I must point out that the film juggles a bit too many things and loses its narrative momentum as a result. Perhaps, it could be tighter and more focused, but this weak aspect is just mildly distracting as the film keeps hoping from one good visual moment to another, and the film has a bunch of good cast members who did a commendable job of bringing enough life and personality to their respective roles. While Lyric Ross holds the center with her plucky voice acting, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele click with each other as well as they did in their acclaimed TV comedy sketch show “Key & Peele”, and several other cast members including Sam Zelaya, Angela Bassett, James Hong, and Ving Rhames are also solid in their respective supporting part.

Overall, “Wendell & Wild” is an enjoyable animation film packed with enough dark goodies for your autumn night, and it is surely a nice treat for anyone looking for something different from those run-of-the-mill digital animation flicks. It does not reach to the level of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) or “Coraline” (2009), but this is still a fun stuff on the whole, and you should not miss it in my trivial opinion. Yes, a good animation film is not just for kids but for everyone, and the boundless spirit and imagination of “Wendell & Wild” prove that undeniable fact again.

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