Monsters and Men (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Three different viewpoints on a social injustice

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“Monsters and Men” is a modest but engaging drama calmly examining its relevant social issues via three different viewpoints. Although it is not entirely successful due to its some weak spots, there are a number of powerful moments to remember in the film, and they may make you reflect more on numerous tragic real-life incidents not so different from the one at the center of the movie.

After the opening scene showing an African American man having a rather uncomfortable moment while driving his car, we are introduced to Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), a Latino American lad who is about to have a job interview for getting hired as a security guard at some building located in Manhattan, New York City. Because he wants to be a responsible person to his girlfriend and their little daughter, he is ready to do his best, but we sense his nervousness when he fills out his application form, which contains a question on whether he has any criminal record.

Anyway, things look fine as Manny returns to his Brooklyn neighborhood, and we see him spending some good time with his mother, his girlfriend, and his dear daughter at their cozy apartment, but something terrible suddenly happens when he later hangs around with his friends near a local supermarket. A bunch of police officers arrive and then attempt to arrest an African American guy named Darius Larson (Samel Edwards) for his illegal commercial activity, and the situation quickly becomes quite tense when Larson resists the police officers. While Manny tries to shoot the whole situation with his smartphone, Larson is shot by one of the police officers, and Manny is devastated by Larson’s eventual death as one of Larson’s many acquaintances in the neighborhood.

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After attending Larson’s following funeral, Manny is approached by two cops, who suggest to him that he should not disclose anything to cause more troubles. After silently conflicted over what he saw and shot during the incident, he comes to decide to upload his video clip on the Internet, and, not so surprisingly, he soon comes to face the inevitable consequence of his action. He is arrested and then held in custody by the police for something he committed some time ago, and there is nothing he can do about that except demanding a lawyer for him.

After that narrative point, the movie shifts its focus to Officer Dennis Williams (John David Washington), who is that African American guy shown during the opening scene. Watching Manny being unfairly treated by his system, Williams feels sorry for him, but he also sides with his fellow police officers, and he is even willing to justify their position as shown from one intense conversation scene. When he later meets a federal investigator, he adamantly maintains his detached appearance without saying anything substantial, and there is a brief but striking moment when he phlegmatically watches an African American boy being searched by two cops from the distance.

In the meantime, the movie lets us understand the constant risk and frustration Williams and other police officers face on streets. At one point, he and several other police officers play basketball with local boys, and they have a pretty good time together, but he later finds his patrol car soiled and damaged. When two fellow police officers of his precinct are killed, he is certainly devastated as much as others in the precinct, and he also finds himself conflicting with his wife Michelle (Nicole Beharie), who has understandably become more worried about his risky profession.

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During its third act, the movie moves its focus to Zyrick (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the aforementioned African American boy watched by Williams from the distance. Because he is about to get college scholarship as a promising baseball player, he must be more discreet in his behavior and appearance than before, but he comes to feel that he must do something after watching that video clip posted by Manny, so he approaches to a girl who has participated in the ongoing protest in their neighborhood, though he still does not know what he exactly should do even at that point.

The screenplay by director/writer Reinaldo Marcus Green stumbles a bit during this part as getting a little too preachy and heavy-handed, and the finale does not work that well in my trivial opinion, but there are still several good moments to be appreciated. While the crucial conversation scene between Zyrick and his concerned father Will (Rob Morgan) is shown with restraint and thoughtfulness, the following demonstration scene is presented with considerable realism and verisimilitude, and Green skillfully handles this key scene without sensationalizing it.

Green also draws solid performances from his main cast members. While John David Washington, who has been more notable since his leading performance in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018), gives the most compelling performance in the film, Anthony Ramos and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are also effective as the other crucial parts of the story, and other performers including Rob Morgan and Nicole Beharie are appropriately cast in their respective supporting roles.

Although it is entirely without flaws, “Monsters and Men” is a commendable work on the whole thanks to Green’s competent direction as well as the good performances from his cast members. This is the first feature film from Green, and, considering his small but significant achievement here in this film, it will be interesting to see what will come next from him.

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The Wild Pear Tree (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A young writer returns to his hometown

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Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s latest film “The Wild Pear Tree” is a long, reflective emotional journey which has a number of memorable moments to be appreciated for their interesting mix of ideas, mood, and drama. Although you may frequently feel impatient due to its long running time (188 minutes) and slow narrative pacing, the movie is still a very rewarding experience on the whole, and it is surely another fascinating work from Ceylan, who previously impressed me a lot with “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (2011) and “Winter Sleep” (2014).

The story of the movie mainly revolves around the frustrating struggle of a young aspiring writer named Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol). Having recently completed his college education, he hopes to take the first forward step for his future literature career as soon as possible, but things do not look that promising to him at all as he returns to his hometown located near the port of Çanakkale. Although he already has his first novel to be published, he does not have enough money for its publication, and his family cannot help him much as they have been constantly short of money due to the gambling debts of his school teacher father Idris (Murat Cemcir).

Sinan tries to find any possible way to get his first novel published, but, of course, he gets blocked by his harsh and difficult reality from the beginning. When he visits the mayor of Çanakkale for getting any financial support, the mayor seems to be interested in helping Sinan at first, but he subsequently becomes less interested when he sees that Sinan’s first novel is not particularly associated with the historical aspect of Çanakkale, which has been a popular site for tourists for being near the site of the Gallipoli campaign and the ancient city of Troy. As recommended by the mayor, Sinan subsequently goes to a local industrialist who seems to be interested a lot in local literature, but, not so surprisingly, it turns out that guy does not give much damn about literature, and we get a cringe-inducing moment while he makes condescending remarks on Sinan’s higher education.

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As it seems he will never publish his first novel, Sinan becomes more aware of the possibility of being stuck in his hometown just like his family and many others around him for the rest of his life. Although his first novel is, according to him, “a quirky auto-fiction meta-novel” which makes some philosophical/aesthetical observation on his hometown, he does not like his hometown much as reflected by his brief phone conversation with his friend (“If I were a dictator, I’d drop a f*cking atomic bomb on this place,”), and he surely wants to get away from his hometown as soon as he can, but it looks like he will eventually follow his father’s footsteps in one way or another no matter how much he tries.

Sinan usually regards his father with disgust and disdain, but Idris has no problem with that as a flawed but likable man who has somehow been fine with his meager and pathetic status. Sure, he is an incorrigible gambling addict, and his long-suffering wife Asuman (Bennu Yıldırımlar) had many difficult times because of that, but she has tolerated her husband for many years because, as she points out to Sinan at one point later in the film, he is at least a bit better than many other lousy husbands out there.

Steadily maintaining its calm, thoughtful mood, the movie leisurely saunters from one episodic moment to another. There is a long but compelling conversation sequence between Sinan and a famous local writer who kindly listens to him at first but then becomes quite exasperated for understandable reasons, and there later comes another impressive conversation sequence where Sinan has a sprawling talk on religion and ethics with two local imams as they walk together along a country road.

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The loveliest scene in the film comes from Sinan’s accidental encounter with Hatice (Hazar Ergüçlü), a young woman for whom Sinan once carried a torch in the past. As they talk and interact with each other during their little private time, we come to sense something developing between them, and Celyan and his cinematographer Gökhan Tiryaki, who has been one of Ceylan’s frequent collaborators, gives us a tentatively erotic moment coupled with the palpable sounds of wind and bustling leaves.

Around its last act, the screenplay by Ceylan and his co-writers Ebru Ceylan and Akın Aksu falters a bit, and I am not sure whether the final scene of the movie works as well as intended, but I admire a lot its atmosphere, storytelling, and performance nonetheless. While Aydın Doğu Demirkol is effective as your average disaffected young hero, Murat Cemcir is superlative with his effortless shabby charm, and other performers in the film including Bennu Yıldırımlar, Hazar Ergüçlü, and Serkan Keskin are also solid in their respective supporting roles.

Overall, “The Wild Pear Tree”, which was selected as Turkey’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film category of the 2019 Academy Awards in last year, is definitely not something you can casually watch for entertainment, but it will grow on you once you give it a chance with some patience. To be frank with you, I do not think I understand everything in the film, but I had a fairly interesting time even while recognizing its rather pedantic aspect, and I am certainly willing to revisit it someday for more appreciation.

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MAL-MO-E: the Secret Mission (2018) ☆☆(2/4): Saving Korean language

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South Korean film “MAL-MO-E: The Secret Mission” bored and depressed me. Although I was a little interested at first due to its important historical subject, I was quite disappointed as watching its trite and blatant attempt to squeeze laughs and tears from us as much as it can during its 135-minute running time, and what is shown at the end of the movie only reminded me of the possibility of a more interesting film from its historical subject.

Set in Korea, 1941, the story of the movie is mainly told via the viewpoint of Kim Pan-soo (Yoo Hae-jin), a seedy ex-con who has tried to support him and his two children by any means necessary. When we see him for the first time, he is working at a local movie theater in Gyeongseong (It is the old name of Seoul, by the way), but it soon turns out that he is doing a little criminal activity for getting some extra cash, and he is promptly fired when he gets exposed in the end.

Mainly because his adolescent son needs to pay his school tuition as soon as possible, Pan-soo must find any possible way to earn money quickly, and that is how he comes across Ryoo Jeong-hwan (Yonn Kye-Sang), a Korean language expert who has tried to preserve Korean language along with his several colleagues for many years despite the increasing oppression from the Japanese government. Their first encounter is not exactly pleasant to say the least, but Pan-soo comes to work for Jeong-hwan and his colleagues just because of their mutual acquaintance, and he is certainly glad to get an opportunity of getting paid as well as he hopes.

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As an illiterate, Pan-soo initially does not care much about what Jeong-hwan and his colleagues are trying to do for the language of his country, but he has no choice but to study how to write and read Korean bit by bit when Jeong-hwan demands that as one of several conditions for employment. He is not a very good student, but, what do you know, he makes considerable progress as gaining more trust from Jeong-hwan and his colleagues, and the movie later gives us an amusing moment when Pan-soo happens to read one of the most notable Korean short stories in the 1920s.

In the meantime, their harsh reality comes to threaten them more than ever. After it occupied Korea in 1910, the Japanese government consistently tried to suppress and eradicate the Korean culture, and, as shown from the movie, this vile policy on Korea reached to its highpoint as Japan entered the World War II in 1941. While trying to stamp out the Korean Independence Movement as severely as before, the Japanese government forbade any Korean cultural activity in public, and it even prohibited Korean language in addition to forcing millions of Korean people to change their Korean names into Japanese ones.

Even while very frustrated to see that many of prominent Korean public figures bend under this brutal oppression from the Japanese government, Jeong-hwan and his colleagues try to finish their big project still in progress. They are going to publish the first official Korean dictionary, and they must complete collecting various local dialects around the country before establishing the standard Korean language with a bunch of other Korean language scholars. As assisting Jeong-hwan and his colleagues’ hard struggle, Pan-soo finds himself becoming more active and serious than before, and he even thinks of a clever way to help Jeong-hwan and his colleagues when they must collect those many Korean dialects within a short time.

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When the Japanese government corners Jeong-hwan and his colleagues more and more, the movie tries to increase dramatic tension, but the screenplay by director/writer Eom Yoo-na, who previously wrote the screenplay for “A Taxi Driver” (2017), frequently stumbles due to its poor storytelling. While most of characters in the film are more or less than cardboard caricatures without much human depth or interest, the story is often quite jarring in its contrived mix of silly comedy and heavy-handed melodrama, and it also seriously suffers from its uneven narrative pacing especially during its second half. Dragging from one predictable narrative point to another, it tries to push us too hard into numerous moments of anger and sadness, and its finale is overlong and ponderous with the obligatory epilogue dripping with cheap sentimentality.

The main performers in the film try to fill their respective roles as much as they can, but they do not have much to do from the beginning. While Yoo Hae-jin and Yoon Kye-sang, who previously appeared together in “Minority Opinion” (2013), are good actors, they are mostly wasted in their mediocre stereotype roles, and the same thing can be said about other notable performers in the film including Kim Hong-pa, Woo Hyun, Kim Tae-hoon, Kim Sun-young, Heo Sung-tae and Song Young-chang.

Overall, “MAL-MO-E: The Secret Mission” fails to provide good story and characters to engage us, and it did not even meet my rather low expectation. When I watched its trailer, I clearly saw that it wanted to make us laugh and cry, and I was willing to assess it as fairly as I could, but it was worse than expected, and I walked out of the screening room without much satisfaction in the end. Sure, the movie made me reflect a bit on those real-life figures who bravely tried to preserve the language of my country during that dark, desperate time, but I also think they deserve something better than this hokey piece of work.

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Everybody Knows (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): An engaging letdown by Asghar Farhadi

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The opening scene of Asghar Farhadi’s new film “Everybody Knows”, which opened the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, summarizes well what I felt during my viewing. In the inner space of a church clock tower, the camera looks at the working parts of the clock, and it phlegmatically observes how these small and big parts mechanistically work together second by second. During the rest of the film, I was constantly aware of its clockwork plot mechanism at its every narrative turn, and I only observed it with mild interest without much emotional involvement in its story and characters.

In the beginning, everything seems fine as Laura (Penélope Cruz) and her two children are coming to her rural hometown in Spain for the upcoming family wedding. As soon as they arrive in her hometown, they are greeted by Laura’s parents and several other family members, and it looks like she and her children will have a good time there although her Argentine husband (Ricardo Darín) could not come from Argentina along with them for some reason.

Not long after her arrival, Laura comes across Paco (Javier Bardem), a local guy who was once very close to her in the past. He is currently running a vineyard located on a piece of land he bought from her and her family several years ago, and he is also happily married to his wife Bea (Bárbara Lennie), but it looks like there are still some unresolved feelings left between Laura and Paco, as reflected by one brief scene which shows us a small remnant of their past inside that aforementioned church clock tower.

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Anyway, the wedding ceremony soon begins, and Paco, Laura, and many other people attend the ceremony as expected. Although there are a few problems during the ceremony, things mostly go as well as planned, and the bride and the groom as well as their wedding guests come to be swept into the excitement of the following evening banquet held at Laura’s family house.

And then something happens around the end of the evening banquet. Not long after going up to her room early due to her fatigue probably caused by jet lag, Laura’s teenage daughter Irene (Carla Campra) is disappeared, and Laura soon gets a message from someone who seems to kidnap her daughter. In addition to being warned not to go to the police, she is demanded to pay a considerable amount of cash as her daughter’s ransom, but, alas, neither she nor her husband does not have much money due to his very difficult economic circumstance.

After discussing with Paco and her family members, Laura decides not to call the police, and Paco turns out to be quite willing to do anything for her. While looking for any possible clue to Irene’s kidnapping, he also tries to get enough ransom money, and his wife is not so pleased to see this as beginning to wonder whether her husband is still attached to Laura as before.

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If you have seen Farhadi’s previous works such as “A Separation” (2011) and “The Past” (2013), you will not be so surprised to see how the circumstance of the main characters in the film gets more complicated as his screenplay gradually reveals more of what has been below the surface. It becomes quite apparent that Laura’s family members still hold some grudge against Paco, and the mood surely becomes more awkward as he gets more involved in their situation after Laura reveals to him a certain ‘secret’ which, as the title of the movie already suggests, nearly everybody in the town knows. When Laura’s husband belatedly arrives later in the story, he is a bit too calm about the circumstance, but then he finds himself struggling with it a lot just like others, and there is an expected but poignant scene when he reveals to Paco what he has kept to himself for years.

It is a shame that the mystery of the story is resolved too easily, but the movie still engaged me. Although I was a bit dissatisfied with its anti-climactic ending and several unanswered questions, I enjoyed its nice individual moments generated among its good main cast members, who are all solid under Farhadi’s competent direction. While Penélope Cruz has a number of showy moments as her character becomes more desperate hour by hour, Javier Bardem, who already appeared along with Cruz in several films including “Jamón Jamón” (1992) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008), and Ricardo Darín, who drew my attention for the first time via his haunting performance in Oscar-winning Argentine film “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2009), are well-cast in their respective roles, and the other substantial performers in the film including Bárbara Lennie and Carla Campra also give fine acting to be watched although their supporting characters are relatively underdeveloped in comparison.

Overall, “Everybody Knows” is one or two steps down from what Farhadi has achieved during this decade. I remember how much I was emotionally involved in the very messy and complicated human matters depicted in his great film “A Separation” – or how much I was impressed to see him successfully moving onto a foreign territory in “The Past”. In case of “The Salesman” (2016), which brought him another Best Foreign Language Film Oscar after “A Separation”, it is less impressive in its more straightforward approach, but it has a fair share of powerful moments nonetheless, and it was one of the better films I watched during 2017. I think “Everybody Knows” will be regarded as a minor work in his respectable filmmaking career, but it is mostly engaging at least, and I hope that he will soon move onto better things.

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Leto (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A biographical rock drama set in Leningrad during the 1980s

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Russian film “Leto” tries to give us a glimpse into the Russian rock music culture during the early 1980s, and I admire its attempt to some degree. Although my mind frequently went somewhere when I watched it early in this morning and it was not as informative on its real-life figures as I hoped, I appreciated its melancholic ambience and occasional spirited musical moments at least, and I think these good aspects are strong enough to compensate for its several weak aspects including its rather weak narrative and broad characterization.

The movie opens with a modest rock music concert held at some shabby building located somewhere in Leningrad. As the concert is about to be started, the camera smoothly follows a trio of enthusiastic young women sneaking into the building, and we soon get an amusing moment while Mike Naumenko (Roman Bilyk) and his band members perform their music. Their young audiences are all apparently excited, but no one is allowed to express their excitement freely because the concert is severely monitored by stern government officials. As shown from one brief moment, even a small gesture of showing enthusiasm is not permitted at all, and all these young audiences can do is shaking or tapping a bit while listening to music.

Despite the limits and prohibitions put upon them by the government, Naumenko and his colleagues keep sticking to their passion toward music although his music is not exactly fresh in fact. While Naumenko has been regarded as one of the crucial figures in Russian rock music, many of his songs were blatant imitations of Western rock songs, and that aspect is wryly pointed out by one of his colleagues at one point in the film.

Nevertheless, as a guy who has devoted himself to music, Naumenko knows what good music is, and he instantly recognizes considerable potential from Viktor Tsoi (Teo Yoo), a young Korean Russian musician who happens to be introduced to him by their mutual acquaintance. As listening more to Tsoi’s music, Naumenko comes to discern more of Tsoi’s talent, and he soon becomes a guiding figure to Tsoi while often giving him help and advice.

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This relationship between them becomes a little complicated when Naumenko’s ever-supportive wife Natalia (Irina Starshenbaum) finds herself attracted to Tsoi. As your average free spirit, she frankly tells her husband about her growing attraction to Tsoi, and Naumenko does not mind that at all as your typical liberal-minded rock musician, so she and Tsoi come to have a little private time together when Naumenko is absent for a while, but they do not get closer to each other probably because both of them do not want to hurt Naumenko’s feeling.

In the meantime, Naumenko, Tsoi, and their colleagues continue to struggle under their difficult reality. While they are stuck in their underground status as usual, any new song to be performed in public is checked for whether it can be too negative or subversive, and there is a small humorous scene where Naumenko seriously argues that Tsoi’s new songs are merely satiric.

After successfully doing his first public performance, Tsoi advances further with more songs, and Naumenko later helps him get a chance to record his first album. Although Tsoi is not so pleased with the poor condition of a recording studio they rent, Naumenko persuades him to make the best of that, and he also makes a number of good suggestions during the recording process.

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As leisurely moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie puts more emphasis on mood and music, though its attempt is not always successful. While the screenplay by director Kirill Serebrennikov and his co-adapters Mikhail Idov, Ivan Kapitonov, and Lily Idova, which is based on the memoirs written by Natalia Naumenko, occasionally suffers from its rather flat storytelling, its main characters remain more or less than conventional archetypes, and we come to observe them from the distance without getting any substantial insight or knowledge except their shared passion toward rock music.

While I constantly noticed this flawed aspect of the movie, I was entertained by its music and atmosphere nonetheless. Beautifully shot in black and white film by cinematographer Vladislav Opelyants, the movie provides a number of fine moments full of mood and details, and it also gives us several lively musical sequences which utilize well several famous Western pop songs from the 1980s. For example, I could not help but amused during a musical sequence where Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” is sung by not only Natalia and Tsoi but also a group of citizens who happen to be near them, and I was also delighted to hear Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”, which has always been associated in my mind with a certain memorable moment in “Trainspotting” (1996).

On the whole, “Leto”, which deservedly received the Soundtrack Award at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, was a fairly interesting experience, though I still think its finale could be more impactful if it let us get to know more of its three main characters. To be frank with you, I remained not so enlightened on its subject after the movie was over and I had to check Wikipedia for getting more background information before writing this review, but the movie mostly works in terms of mood and music, so I recommend it with some reservation. Yes, it could be better, but it has more charm and personality than “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018) at least.

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The Heiresses (2018) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): As she tentatively steps out of her hermetic life

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“The Heiresses”, which was selected as Paraguay’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar at the 2019 Academy Awards in last year, is a small but impressive drama about a plain middle-aged woman happening to struggle alone during the absence of her longtime companion. While there are several gloomy moments of sadness and melancholy as we watch her isolated world crumbling bit by bit, the movie also closely observes how she tentatively steps out of her hermetic life, and it is quietly touching when she eventually becomes a lot more active than before.

In the beginning, the movie slowly establishes the deteriorating financial circumstance of Chela (Ana Brun) and her longtime companion Chiquita (Margarita Irún), who have lived together for many years in Chela’s big family residence located somewhere in Asunción. As reflected by the title of the film, there was a time when they were rich and affluent, but now they have mostly depended on selling paintings, furnitures, and other expensive items in Chela’s residence, and the opening scene shows two potential buyers looking for anything to buy as Chela watches them from the distance.

While observing the daily life of Chela and Chiquita, we get to know a bit more about how their longtime relationship have worked. While Chela mostly sticks to her daily routine within her residence, Chiquita is the one who has taken care of many things including their financial matters, and it is soon revealed to us that she is going to be imprisoned for several months at least due to some financial fraud involved with their debt. Chiquita remains calm and resigned about that, but Chela is understandably concerned about how she will live alone without Chiquita. They have a maid who was recently hired, but Pati (Nilda Gonzalez) is not so reliable to say the least, and, to Chela’s frustration, she does not handle daily tasks as well as Chiquita.

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Anyway, Chela has no choice but to keep on alone while routinely visiting Chiquita at the prison. Her close friend Carmela (Margarita Irún) is willing to help as much as she can, but Chela does not want that because of her remaining pride and dignity, which she has to suppress whenever potential buyers come to her residence. While she refuses to sell a certain piece of furniture at a lower price at one point, that furniture is eventually sold later and then replaced with a smaller and tackier one, and she also has to sell an antique musical instrument which seems quite precious to her as shown from a brief moment.

Meanwhile, there comes an unexpected chance to earn extra money via Pituca (María Martins), an old lady who is one of Chela’s close neighbors. When she asks Chela whether Chela can drive her to a routine card game meeting, Chela reluctantly accepts Pituca’s request mainly because she does not want Pituca to delve more into her ongoing domestic difficulties, and she soon finds herself becoming a de facto driver for not only Pituca but also other old ladies in that card game meeting. She initially does not accept the money given to her for her service, but she comes to swallow her pride and dignity in the end, and the movie subtly accentuates her downgraded status, especially when it shows her waiting alone outside a drawing room where that card game meeting is being held.

As continuing to drive for Pituca and other old ladies, Chela encounters a young woman named Angy (Ana Ivanova). While spending more time with her, Chela cannot help but drawn to this spirited lass who is quite different from her in many aspects. Although she does not smoke, she allows herself to smoke a bit when Angy offers a cigarette, and she also tries to wear sunglasses for looking a little more glamorous. As days go by, she feels more of the growing wish and desire in her heart, and there later comes a point where she attempts to get a little closer to Angy not long after she confides to Chela on her rather flexible sexuality.

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While fluidly moving from one episodic moment to another, the movie works as an intimate female character study, and director/writer Marcelo Martinessi did a skillful job of conveying to us Chela’s limited and isolated status throughout his film. As the widescreen of 2.35:1 ratio emphasizes the sense of confinement surrounding her, cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga’s camera usually sticks around Chela and a few other substantial characters in the story, and we come to get ourselves more immersed in their small, quiet world, which makes a big contrast with the busy and lively mood of several prison scenes in the film.

Martinessi also draws excellent performances from his main cast members. Ana Brun and Margarita Irún are believable right from their first scene, and Brun, who deservedly received the Silver Bear award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year, is terrific particularly when she silently handles her character’s anxious feelings during a number of key scenes in the movie. While Irún gets some juicy moments during her prison scenes, Ana Ivanova, María Martins, Alicia Guerra, and Nilda Gonzalez are also solid in their respective supporting roles, and I particularly appreciate how Ivanova and Brun deftly handle their characters’ emotional circumstance during their scenes.

“The Heiresses” is the first feature film by Martinessi, who previously made a couple of short films and a documentary short film. Although his achievement here in this movie looks modest on the surface, it surely deserves to be compared with Sebastián Lelio’s “Gloria” (2013) in many aspects including their common feminist touches, and it may be regarded as the starting point of another interesting South American filmmaker to watch.

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Green Book (2018) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Driving for his black employer

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“Green Book”, which won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival several months ago, is a mild crowd-pleaser film which would probably be more acceptable if it had been made around 30 years ago. While it is a fairly watchable mix of road movie and buddy film mainly thanks to its two charismatic main performers, the movie also feels rather naïve, corny, and biased in terms of storytelling and characterization, and I came to observe it from the distance even while admiring the efforts of its two main performers, who inarguably did their best for elevating their film beyond its clichés and conventions.

Viggo Mortensen, who looks as paunchy as me here in this film, plays Frank Vallelonga, who is your average Bronx Italian tough guy and works as a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub in New York City, 1962. When the nightclub is going to be closed for renovations, Vallelonga looks for any temporary job because he does not have much money for him and his family at present, and he is certainly interested when he hears that someone is interested in hiring him as a chauffeur.

His potential employer in question is an African American classical and jazz pianist named Don Shirley, who is effortlessly played with sophistication and dignity by Mahershala Ali. When Vallelonga visits Shirley’s luxurious residence located right above the Carnegie Hall, there are a few other guys willing to drive for Shirley, and Vallelonga does not give much good impression to Shirley during his job interview as he refuses to do anything else besides working as a chauffeur/bodyguard, but, what do you know, he is hired anyway because Shirley thinks Vallelonga is a right guy who can help and protect him during the upcoming 8-week concert tour around a number of states including the ones belonging to the Deep South.

When he is about to depart from his home in a Bronx neighborhood, Vallelonga receives a certain guidebook for African-American travelers. Written by Victor Hugo Green, the Negro Motorist Green Book contained a list of motels and restaurants that would accept colored people, and this guidebook surely reminds us of how openly racial segregation was accepted in the 1960s despite the ongoing rise of the Civil Rights Movement.

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At first, like many other road movie duos, Vallelonga and Shirley do not get along well with each other mainly due to many gaps and differences between them. While Shirley is annoyed by Vallelonga’s rough, unsophisticated attitude, Vallelonga is not so pleased with Shirley’s uptight, fastidious appearance, and the main amusement during the first half of the movie comes from how frequently they pull or push each other as Vallelonga keeps driving for Shirley as demanded. They do not like each other a lot, but both of them need each other anyway, so they eventually come to reach to a sort of equilibrium status while maintaining some distance between them.

Of course, Vallelonga comes to like and respect Shirley as spending more time with him during their journey. After quite impressed during Shirley’s private concert for a bunch of rich people in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he comes to see more of his employer’s human sides, and the movie tries to generate some laughs when Vallelonga finds how much Shirley is far from the stereotype images of African Americans. At one point, he is surprised to find that his employer is not so familiar with several popular African American pop musicians such as Little Richard, and, during one of the silliest moments in the film, he is quite determined to give his employer a little taste of fried chicken when they enter, yes, Kentucky.

As expected from the beginning, the movie takes a few dark narrative turns when they go through those Deep South states, but its depiction of racism and racial segregation is mostly predictable and superficial. We are not so shocked when Shirley is unjustly discriminated by despicable Southern bigots, and we are not that surprised when Vallelonga becomes angry about that while Shirley keeps his cool appearance as much as he can. Mainly sticking to Vallelonga’s viewpoint, the movie does not convey to us enough what is being at stake for Shirley, and it does not even delve into a certain aspect of Shirley’s personal life, which surely makes him a very specific social minority individual.

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As some of you already know, the movie is inspired by a real-life story and has been criticized a lot for its inaccurate presentation of that real-life story. I am not against any fictional modification, but I must point out that the screenplay by Nick Vallelonga (he is one of Vallelonga’s two real-life sons, by the way), Brian Hayes Currie, and director Peter Farrelly is hampered by several heavy-handed moments such as when its two main characters come to clash hard with each other due to their different views on race later in the story, and, in my humble opinion, the story could be more balanced and interesting if it focused more on Shirley’s position.

Anyway, I still appreciate a solid duo performance by Mortensen and Ali, who will probably get Oscar-nominated together this month. As wielding a thick Italian accent as required, Mortensen somehow makes his rough stereotype character more likable than expected, and Ali, who recently became more prominent thanks to his Oscar-winning supporting turn in “Moonlight” (2016), is suitably dapper and debonair while ably functioning as an effective counterpart to his co-star. In case of the other notable performers in the film, most of them are stuck with their underdeveloped supporting characters, but Linda Cardellini, who plays Vallelonga’s caring wife, manages to hold her own small place at the fringe of the story, and she is one of a few other reasons why the sentimental finale of the movie works to some degree besides Mortensen and Ali.

Overall, “Green Book” is not a terrible film at all, but it is just mildly entertaining without much impression. Compared to recent racial drama films such as “BlacKkKlansman” (2018) and “Blindspotting” (2018), the movie feels dated and edgeless to say the least, and it is even less memorable compared to “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989) and “The Help” (2011), which, despite their mild presentation of the racial segregation in the Deep South in the 1960s, engaged and touched me mainly thanks to their strong characters and performances. It may make its audiences feel as good as expected, but I doubt whether it will be remembered well after the end of the Oscar season of this year.

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