The Two Faces of January (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : Triangle in Greece

thetwofacesofjanuary01 During the summer of 2009, I happened to read three Tom Ripley novels written by Patricia Highsmith, and it was one of the most entertaining reading experiences I have ever had. While it was chillingly compelling to see how its smart, amoral criminal hero got away with his crimes including cold-blooded murders, his odd relationships with other characters who unfortunately happen to get involved with him was another fascinating thing to observe in these crime novels. For example, Ripley and his dying opponent in “Ripley’s Game” hate each other’s guts from the start, but they also get closer to each other as becoming partners in crime through Ripley’s fiendish scheme, and it is intriguing to watch how mutual attraction and repulsion are intertwined with each other with no clear lines in their bizarre relationship.

“The Two Faces of January”, which is based on Highsmith’s novel with the same name, also gives another interesting example of two men who get involved with each other through crime, but it hesitates to go deeper into its characters. There are several good moments of tension and suspense as its plot thickens, but the movie ultimately fizzles around its third act, and we are only left with the impression of something which could be more interesting in a better film.

It is 1962 in Greece, and Rydal(Oscar Isaac) is a young American guy who has worked as a freelance guide for tourists. As a well-educated guy who can speak several languages including Greek, he looks like a good tour guide, but we also see his small criminal activities for earning extra money. Besides language barrier, many tourists usually have difficulty with foreign currency, and we see how he exploits that during one brief scene in which he swindles a little money from an American girl he has been getting along with.

thetwofacesofjanuary02 And then he comes across one American couple, and they instantly draw his attention. Chester MacFarland(Viggo Mortensen), who looks like some wealthy financial guy enjoying his Europe vacation with his young wife, also notices Rydal, and they soon get acquainted with each other through Chester’s wife Colette(Kirtsten Dunst). Rydal becomes their helpful tour guide as they go around a local market, and he and Mr. and Mrs. MacFarland spend some good time together in the evening although Chester is a little suspicious about Rydal.

But it turns out that Chester is no better than Rydal as a guy who has been hiding something behind his back. Not long after he and his wife come back to their hotel room, he gets a sudden visit from an American private detective, and it is revealed that he and his wife ran away from US because of his financial crime. While trying to wiggle out of this difficult situation, Chester unintentionally kills that private detective, and then he happens to come across Rydal when he is trying to move away the private detective’s body. Chester lies to Rydal that the private detective just loses his consciousness, so Rydal comes to assist Chester while not realizing that he has become Chester’s accomplice, and he also lets Chester and his wife stay at his residence for a while.

Because it takes several days to prepare their fake passports for getting out of Greece, Chester and Colette go to Crete with Rydal for evading the police search. While they become a little more relaxed, Rydal and Colette come to spend more time with each other, and Chester becomes suspicious about what is possibly happening between them. As the older guy in this triangle, he becomes naturally jealous, but he only finds how helpless he is when he goes out alone for looking for Rydal and his wife. In the case of Rydal, he becomes angry about Chester after he realizes how serious their situation really is, but he has no choice but to stick to their plan for getting out of the trouble as soon as possible.

thetwofacesofjanuary04The movie did a good job of building up tension around its three main characters during its first half. The cinematographer Marcel Zyskind provides a warm, sunny Mediterranean atmosphere with the nostalgic touches to be expected from its period setting, and Alberto Iglesias’ anxious score, which is reminiscent of his works in Pedro Almodóvar’s films, effectively conveys the unsettling feelings beneath the surface during a number of key scenes in the film.

The actors in the movie are engaging in their depiction of the unstable dynamics between their respective characters. While Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Issac take the center of the story as two men increasingly opposing each other, Kirsten Dunst also holds her own place between her co-stars as another important part of the story, and she has a sad scene which reveals how much her character has felt frustrated and suffocated behind her chirpy façade.

Things eventually culminate into a certain irreversible incident which leads to more conflict between Chester and Rydal, but the movie begins to lose its steam after this point. The director/screenplay writer Hossein Amini, who previously wrote the screenplay for Nicholas Winding Refn’s “Drive”(2011), attempts to add an Oedipal element to the antagonizing relationship between his characters, but it is less successful than intended while feeling too obvious right from the beginning, and its finale is not exactly convincing because of that problem.

“The Two Faces of January” is not a bad film when being judged on technical aspects, but it is still an unsatisfying work which made me want to read the novel someday when it was over. During its end credits, Amini shows his personal thanks to Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella, and that certainly takes us back to “The Talented Mr. Ripley”(1999), which was incidentally directed Minghella and produced by Pollack. That film was surely less edgy compared to Highsmith’s novel, but it was a compelling adaptation which presented an interestingly different version of Highsmith’s famous criminal hero, and you may have a better time if you watch it instead.


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Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Same old dirty city

sincity201 Welcome back to Sin City, that dark, seductive noir world where lonely tough guys walk around its mean streets and sexy but lethal ladies are ready to seduce them at its every shady corner with troubles and dangers to come. Effectively bringing us back to that memorable world which impressed me and other audiences in “Sin City”(2005), “Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” gives us more of the same style we experience before, and that was fine with me for a while, but, sadly, it looks more like a bunch of footnotes to its predecessor. It certainly looks good, but it lacks that visceral energy we experienced from the 2005 film, and that deficient aspect is further magnified by its weak stories which do not hold our attention a lot.

After its prologue sequence which shows another violent, confusing night experienced by one of its main characters, the movie begins its first story with Johnny(Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young, cocky gambler who looks quite confident about his luck and dexterity. As soon as he arrives in Sin City, he goes into a shabby strip club and then promptly participates in a high-stake poker game which is being held at a hidden room in the club building. He has just gotten enough money for the game thanks to his usual luck, and he is ready to win like he always did.

The room is full of people whom he should not mess with at any chance, but Johnny does not seem to worry about the possible danger he might get into – even when he happens to have the final showdown with Senator Roark(Powers Boothe), a corrupt politician who is also the most powerful man in the city. When he eventually defeats Senator Roarke, Johnny unwisely thinks he can handle the resulting risk, and he soon finds himself tumbled into a very serious trouble which will punish him with no mercy.

sincity205The second story is about Dwight, a private detective character we encountered in the previous film(While he was played by Clive Owen in that film, he is played by Josh Brolin in this film). Not long after he finishes one of his usual dirty jobs, he gets an urgent call from his former lover Ava(Eva Green), and our hardboiled detective hero cannot possibly say no to this treacherous woman who still can put him under her sensual spell in spite of their rocky past. While she lives in luxury thanks to her recent marriage to some rich guy, she wants his help right now, and Dwight decides to accept her alluring plea even though it does not look a wise decision to say the least.

Of course, it eventually turns out that Ava has a diabolical plan for herself as your typical femme fatale, and we are served with tons of familiar noirish shots further spiced up by sex and nudity which were surely unthinkable during the era of Hollywood classic noir film. True to Frank Miller’s graphic novel it is based on, the movie throws us into a highly stylized CGI world drenched in black and white film atmosphere which is sometimes punctuated by the striking use of primary colors, and Eva Green’s fatal beauty is effectively conveyed through her green eyes and red lips as well as the beguiling presentation of her naked body.

The third story is also connected to one of the main characters in the previous film. After Detective Hartigan(Bruce Willis) sacrificed himself to save her from Senator Roarke and his twisted yellow scumbag son, Nancy(Jessica Alba), the most popular dancer in the aforementioned strip club, is still struggling with Hartigan’s death. While desiring for the death of Senator Roarke more than ever, she also begins to drink more than usual, and Hartigan, who has been watching her as a wandering ghost, feels sad and bitter because there is nothing he can do for her.

sincity203 To make the matters worse, Senator Roark, who is still quite angry about his son’s death, recently comes to know where she is, but Nancy already has a plan for her revenge, and that is where Marv(Mickey Rourke) comes into the picture. Like he gladly helped Dwight before, he is willing to help the girl he has always guarded from many unruly customers of her strip club, so they head into Senator Roark’s place while being well prepared to kill anyone standing on their way.

Like the previous film, the movie has a fair share of brutal, ruthless violence to jolt us, and you may cringe at a gruesome moment which involves with the loss of an eyeball belonging to a certain supporting character. Thankfully for us, such graphic depiction of violence in the film is filtered through its stylish approach, and the movie sometimes shows a twisted sense of humor as handling its wild, extreme moments of violence.

However, the movie did not grab my interest as strongly as the 2005 film. Although I enjoyed its style as before and I understood well that it was bound to feel not so fresh as a sequel, it is far less memorable compared to the previous film mainly due to its less interesting stories. While I was particularly disappointed with the lackluster ending of its third story, its second story is utterly predictable to the bone with no big surprise, and what finally happens at the end of its first story could be delivered more effectively if there were a little more build-up process before that.

sincity204 As a consequence, I became more conscious of its artificial aspects including its broad characters, but I appreciated the performances from its actors, who must have spent lots of time in front of the green screen during the shooting but look convincing in the final product as the gray denizens of Sin City. While Mickey Rourke, whose electrifying comeback performance was one of the best things in the 2005 film, is again the most enjoyable element in the film as an urban savage who will not miss any opportunity of fight hurled at him, Josh Brolin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt acquit themselves well despite thin characterization, and Powers Boothe virtually oozes sleaze and menace while chewing his scenes as the big bad wolf of Sin City. The female characters in the film are mostly depicted as the objects of desire, but Eva Green, Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jamie Chung, Jaime King, and Juno Temple inject enough spunk into their characters, and they look as bold, sexy, and vibrant as required.

The director Robert Rodriguez, who struggled to make this film despite the critical acclaims he received for the 2005 film(the movie did not do well on the box office, by the way), does not completely fail here, but his movie merely trudges within its style which was already established a long time ago, and I was not very excited during my viewing. This is the same old dirty city we saw before, and, to be frank with you, I am getting a little bit tired of that now.


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Hill of Freedom (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A fragmented search for his love

hilloffreedom01 South Korean film “Hill of Freedom” has everything we can expect from Hong Sang-soo, who has delighted us with his small but witty human comedies. What we have here is another amusing tale of men and women from one of the most distinctive South Korean directors, and we have a pleasant time with its lightweight stroll which is alternatively baffling and tantalizing.

The movie revolves around a personal story which is told through a bunch of letters left to Kwon(Seo Young-hwa). They were written by a Japanese guy named Mori(Ryo Kase), and we gather a few pieces of the background information about their relationship in the past as she begins to read his letters. They once worked at some language institute where they taught English, and Mori proposed marriage to her as a guy who loved her, but he was rejected by her. He instantly left for Japan after that rejection, but then he came back to Seoul for his second chance two years later.

Unfortunately, though he managed to find where she lives, he could not find Kwon because she took a long vacation due to her illness, so, as waiting for the chance to meet his love again, he stayed for a while at a nearby guest house, and the movie shows us how he got acquainted with a number of people he encountered during his short stay. While Yeong-seon(Moon So-ri), a young woman who runs her cozy cafe near the guest house(the title of the movie comes from the name of her place), becomes more intimate with Mori as they meet each other more, we also observe the growing friendship between Mori and Sang-won(Kim Ee-seong), a jolly guy who has been allowed to stay at the guest house for free by its kind middle-aged owner Goo-ok(Yoon Yeo-jeong).

hilloffreedom02 This is a very simple plot, but the movie presents Mori’s story in a non-chronological fashion, for Kwon happens to get Mori’s letters dispersed with no way of finding their correct order. As Kwon continues to read the letters one by one despite that, we see Mori and Yeong-seon coming across each other as an owner and a customer at one point, and then we see when they become far closer to each other than before at the other point, and then we get more information as watching their other scenes which probably happened somewhere between these two time points.

As trying to figure out the chronological order of the scenes in the film, we are constantly baffled. Even when it arrives at the ending, a number of things in the story are not clear to us, and we come to feel the certain blanks between Mori’s letters. For instance, we are told that he had a fight with some guy during one scene, but the movie never shows how that exactly happened, and we can only guess that it might have involved with a guy whom Mori met at Yeong-seon’s cafe on one unspecific day. In addition, because we frequently see Kwon reading Mori’s letters, we also come to have a couple of questions about what is shown and told in the movie, and there is more than one way to interpret the final scene considering what precedes that ambiguous scene.

You may lose your way in this small labyrinth of space and time as a result, but the movie keeps our interest intact through its humorous moments of silly, amusing human interactions which are sometimes accompanied with drinking. While soju, Korean distilled liquor which has been one of usual props in Hong’s films, appears less frequently than before, we often see Mori and others drinking wine instead, and Mori finds himself stuck in a rather embarrassing situation as he keeps finding himself being with Yeong-seon even though he knows he should not do that considering the purpose of his visit to Seoul.

hilloffreedom03 Like Hong’s previous film “In Another Country”(2012), many of the dialogues in the film are spoken in English, and that becomes its another source of fun as Mori and Korean characters try to communicate with each other through English. While the Korean characters in the film are clumsy at times with the language foreign to them, their clumsiness with English feels as natural as my own clumsiness in speaking with my foreign lab colleagues, and there is a funny moment between Mori, Sang-won, and Sang-won’s foreigner friend(Do Soo-cheon) as they spend their evening with bottles of wine. According to what I have heard, Kase Ryo and other actors really drank on the set as encouraged by the director while the camera was rolling, and the drinking scenes in the film certainly reminded me again that you should think twice about working with Hong Sang-soo if you are a recovering alcoholic.

Under Hong’s relaxed direction based on his frequent improvisations on the set, his actors look lively and spontaneous in their likable performances. Ryo Kase is amiable as the drifting center of the story, and he is nicely supported by several actors who previously worked with Hong before. Moon So-ri, Kim Ee-seong, Yoon Yeo-jeong always provide good entertainment whenever they interact with Kase, and Jeong Eun-chae briefly appears as an oversensitive girl whose personal situation leads to one of the best scenes in the film.

“Hill of Freedom” is quite short even when it is compared with Hong’s recent films(its running time is only 67 minutes), and it passes lightly as we enjoy its individual moments one by one under its leisurely mood. While seemingly staying in his usual territory, Hong Sang-soo tries a different way to present his familiar story, and I watched it with amused smiles even when I felt a bit lost during my viewing. I felt like doing the same things again whenever I wrote about his films, and this film is no exception as expected, but I will not deny that watching this small playful movie was a nice experience to end the last day of my holiday vacation.


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Tazza: The Hidden Card (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : New players and some old players

tazza201 South Korean film “Tazza: The Hidden Card” is another fun game of greed and crime with a number of new players and several old players ready to play their risky game. While it does not surpass the previous film, it knows how to deal the cards skillfully on its formulaic table, and it can hold your attention to its increasingly(and expectedly) complicated plot even though you do not know any damn thing about the rules of a Korean card game which is its main subject. I must confess that I have never played ‘hwatoo’ in my life and my head was spinning whenever the characters in the film used the terms I am not so familiar with, but the movie succeeded in making me interested enough in its plot and characters, and I was satisfied with that.

Although the movie is not about Goni, the hero of “Tazza: The High Roller”(2006), it shows its connection to the previous film through the opening scene. We meet Goni’s young nephew Dae-gil, and this boy already possesses his own potential just like his uncle, who became a legendary high roller through what happened in the previous film. When he grows up to be a young man later, Dae-gil(Choi Seung-hyeon) is still a small-time gambler operating in his neighborhood, but he is always the one who gets the money whenever hwatoo game is played around him, and he has been dreaming of going up to the next big level for him.

On one day, an opportunity comes to him through an unexpected situation. While trying to helping his family member who gets himself into a trouble with the local gang running an illegal gambling house, Dae-gil finds himself in a more serious trouble, so he has to leave his hometown at least for a while. Through the help of his hometown friend, he gets a job in some lucrative illegal gambling house in Seoul, and it does not take much time for him to be recognized as a talented gambler with lots of promise.

As Dae-gil rises in his position, we are introduced to a number of dirty rotten criminal figures operating in the world where everyone will not hesitate to use any chance to snatch away money from others. There are always people out there who cannot possibly say no to another chance of gambling, and such people are always potential targets to prey on – especially if they come with lots of money in their hands.

tazza203 When Dae-gil and others begin to work on their latest target at one point, we see how they seduce their target with a number of elaborate strategies which ensure their high chance of success(“Tazza” is a Korean term for those sneaky gamblers who are expert on grifting others). I still do not understand how to play with those small plastic cards which are drawn with various colorful designs of flowers and plants and other things, but the director Kang Hyeong-cheol makes it sure that we always get a clear idea of what is going on the screen while never getting lost in mere details during the card game scenes in his film. We always see what is at stake among its gambling characters who may have one or two neat tricks under their sleeve, and then we are surprised at times by what eventually happens when the game is over with the final victor who gets all the money.

Not so surprisingly, Dae-gil learns a hard lesson from this tricky world full of danger and double-cross, but he is helped by two people he comes to care a lot about. Mi-na(Sin Se-kyeong), a girl on whom he had a crush before leaving his hometown, becomes another tarnished figure of his world when they come across each other again, but there is still a feeling between them, and Dae-gil wants to help her especially after learning how hard she has fallen to the bottom because of Dong-sik(Kwak Do-won), a cruel and ruthless gang boss who also has some history with Dae-gil.

In the case of Gwang-ryeol(Yoo Hae-jin), a pathetic one-armed gambler who once worked with Goni, he becomes a mentor to Dae-gil as teaching his young pupil several valuable professional lessons. The sequence in which he and Dae-gil work on their incidental target is one of the most amusing moments in the film thanks to brisk pace and snappy dialogues, and Yoo Hae-jin, who reprises his comic character from the previous film, brings lots of humor and life into that part as before.

tazza204  The movie eventually arrives at the finale in which several main characters gather together for one big game to be played, and Kim Yoon-seok, who also reprises his role from the previous film like Yoo Hae-jin, has a relaxed fun with his expected appearance around this climax part. As a guy at the top, his character knows well the risk he is about to impose on himself and the others around him, but he takes it with amusement and some calculation while ready to strike anyone who dares to cheat him.

As shown in his previous film “Sunny”(2011), Kang Hyeong-cheol is a good director who can deftly handle story and characters, and he shows an efficient handling of many various characters to be rolled along the plot packed with a number of twists and turns for us. These characters may be broad, but they are colorful ones to remember, and they are well played by the good actors in the film. While Choi Seung-hyeon did a fairly competent job of carrying the film as its rather colorless hero, Kawk Do-won is simply despicable as the main bad guy of the movie, and Lee Honey and Sin Se-keyong are effective as two contrasting female characters around Dae-gil. Several minor but crucial supporting roles in the film are filled by a number of notable South Korean actors including Kim In-kwon, Oh Jeong-se, Lee Kyeong-yeong, and Go Soo-hee, and they also have their own moments to play something interesting.

Although it loses some of its energy and then becomes less compelling around its third act, “Tazza: The Hidden Card” is an enjoyable sequel which does not overstay its welcome despite its several weak points including a number of plot contrivances solely existing for its finale and its running time which is a bit too long. I do not think it is a better film than its predecessor, but it scores nicely in its own card-playing, so I will not complain considering a fair amount of fun I had with that.


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Lucy (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Bound for 100%

small_lucy01 Rarely do we come across a wild, crazy movie like “Lucy”, which is utterly preposterous and ridiculous from the start but is also amusing and entertaining for its willing attitude to push a silly but interesting science fiction premise all the way to the top and then shoot it way over the top. The movie is constantly driven by its sheer nonsense during its every minute, but this is an exhilarating mind-bending joy ride if you are ready for its no-hold-barred approach. You cannot help but be amused and intrigued by its relentless parade of stylish visual moments, and they are guaranteed to excite your sensory nervous system more and more as it keeps accelerating itself along its loony plot.

As a biology major, I certainly found its premise too absurd, but I must admit that I observed it with fascination. It is said in the movie that we use only 10% of our brain, and here comes an interesting situation thrown by its plot; what will happen if a human being happens to be capable of using more portions of our brain than usual? And is it possible to reach to the level of 100%?

At the beginning, we see how Lucy(Scarlett Johansson), a young American girl who has been studying in Taiwan, happens to get herself into a very serious trouble. When her untrustworthy boyfriend Richard(Pilou Asbæk from “A Hijacking”(2012)) asks her to deliver a suspicious briefcase to some people, she does not particularly want to do that job, but she is eventually forced to do it, and then she is suddenly caught by a bunch of Korean gangs working for Mr. Jang(Choi Min-sik from “Oldboy”(2003)), a ruthless crime boss who will not let Lucy easily get off the hook.

While his purpose behind the delivery is not that clear,  it is revealed that a new kind of drug is developed by Mr. Jang’s organization, and Lucy comes to face more predicament when she finds herself becoming a drug mule against her will. A package of that drug in question is put into her abdomen through surgery, and then she is thrown into a cell where she has to wait before everything is ready for her.

lucy05 But then something unexpected happens. The drug package inside her gets busted by accident, and we are served with a rather hilarious CGI scene showing the blue drug particles rapidly spread inside her body. As the drug does its tumultuous biochemical firework inside her, her convulsing body behaves as if it were being possessed, and then she becomes a lot different than before when she regains her consciousness later. She shows a far quicker coordination of her body which helps her escape from the cell, and she also finds herself being capable of absorbing and processing tons of information within a short time. It is apparent that her brain becomes more fully active than before, and she can vividly feel that the degree of her brain activity is getting higher and higher every passing hour.

She needs an expert for understanding what is exactly happening to her body, and that is how Professor Norman(Morgan Freeman) comes into the picture. Although his lecture scenes mainly exist for explaining the ongoing situation in the story, Morgan Freeman is one of the great actors who can instantly grab our attention even if he merely reads a telephone book, and we come to accept his character’s ‘scientific’ theory for a while although it does not sound very plausible when you reflect on it later.

As Lucy experiences more things full of wonder and fear, the story goes wilder along with her increasing brain power, and the director/writer Luc Besson puts everything but the kitchen sink into his busy mix of dynamic actions and fun ideas. While there are impressive moments which will take you back to National Geographic documentaries, Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi trilogy, Ron Fricke’s “Baraka”(1992) and “Samsara”(2011), and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”(2011), the movie also has lots of pulpy fun with its premise as Lucy’s power is further increased to the level of super heroine. We get a visually arresting moment when she not only sees every communication signal flowing around the city but also extracts a crucial piece of information from these countless flows of electronic waves, and then there is an intense vehicle action sequence crackling with thrill and tension. Although it is filled with lots of quick cuts and loud clashes, it rarely loses the sense of direction amid its gritty chaotic actions, and it is surely more exciting to watch than those mindless actions in Transformers movies.

lucy02And Scarlett Johansson, who gets another interesting opportunity here in this film after playing an artificial intelligence character in “Her”(2013) and an alien entity in “Under the Skin”(2013), is effective as a human center we can hold onto. Her character’s rapid transformation along the story looks convincing thanks to her good physical performance, and she also has a brief but poignant scene when Lucy talks with her mother on the phone; her change makes her feel her old memories more vividly than ever, but it is also taking her away from her former normal self, and we can sense her fear of that unstoppable process as the camera is fully focusing on Johansson’s conflicted face in its close-up shot.

The movie eventually goes into a far more overblown mode as Lucy throws herself into her own ultimate trip to behold during its psychedelic climax which is an obvious homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968). This part surely looks pretty outrageous to say the least, but it is presented with the sense of awe and grandeur, and I enjoyed it while having some laughs on its inherent absurdities.

“Lucy” is far from being perfect as being riddled with many plot holes(why are Korean gangs operating in Taiwan instead of South Korea, for example?), but it is a fun SF action movie packed with enjoyable goodies. It still looks like a silly mess on the whole, but the movie boldly leaps forward with style and confidence, and that is something we do not see everyday.

 Sidenote: The Korean dialogues in the film are not translated, but I and other South Korean audiences understood them very well unlike non-Korean audiences, and that was certainly one small guilty pleasure for us.


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My Brilliant Life (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : An aging kid with young parents

mybrillianlife01 The young hero of “My Brilliant Life” is an ideal son any parents want to have. Ah-reum is a smart boy who has lots of interest in astronomy, and he also shows his potential as a writer. When we meet him for the first time, he is occupied with writing a story about how his father met his mother and then accidentally got her pregnant on one fresh, green summer day.

If you think this does not look that realistic, I will tell you there are many other things in the movie you will find quite unrealistic. Although they happened to have their son even before they graduated from high school, Ah-reum’s parents have worked hard to make a good environment for raising their precious son, and they have been leading a modest but cozy family life at their home which sometimes looks too good considering their economic status.

This happy family does have a problem, but it is also something which can happen only in fiction. Ah-reum, played by young actor Jo Seong-mok with lots of make-up, was diagnosed with progeria disease, and that makes him age far more quickly than normal people. Although the patients with this rare genetic disease usually die even before entering adolescence, Ah-reum manages to live longer than expected; he is already 16, and he still feels optimistic about his few remaining years – or days, perhaps.

mybrillianlife04 His parents are also as optimistic as him even though they know that they will lose their dear son sooner or later. Dae-soo(Kang Dong-won) has some immature sides which make him look like a big baby whenever he is with his precocious son, but he is a good dad who will do anything for Ah-reum, and the same thing can be said about his wife Mira(Song Hye-kyo), who has always stood by her son with lots of care and love since he was born.

As Ah-reum’s health condition is deteriorated day by day, Dae-soo and Mira face more medical bills than before(Ah-reum has to take many kinds of pills every day just like old people), so they appear in one of those sentimental TV programs which show poor people struggling with their hard life. Their TV appearance succeeds in drawing the attention from others. They are noticed or ridiculed by many people on the streets, and they also get many small donations along with a considerable amount of money from some anonymous donor, and Ah-reum begins his treatment at the hospital even though, as his kind doctor admits, it is just for merely slowing down the progress of his disease a bit.

Nevertheless, Ah-reum does not lose his spirit, and he comes across a possible romantic circumstance on one day. He gets a kind e-mail from someone unknown, and he begins to wonder whether he can get a short but valuable chance of romance through this anonymous friend with whom he shares lots of his personal feelings and thoughts.

mybrillianlife03 This is a good set-up for your average weepy melodrama, and the movie initially seems to be ready with every material we can expect from ‘the disease of the week’ movie, but the movie curiously lacks a strong narrative drive to hold our attention. While it does arrive in its expected tearful third act with the appropriate amount of sadness to touch you, the screenplay by the director Lee Jae-yong, Choi Min-seok, and Oh Hyo-jin frequently feels loose and unfocused in its uneven mix of comedy and sentimentality, and its good moments do not connect with each other well enough to generate strong emotional effects. The screenplay is based on popular South Korean novel “My Palpitating Life”, and, as I started to become increasingly distant to the inattentive narrative of the movie, I came to have a feeling that there are probably a lot more things in the novel than what is shown in the film.

In the case of the actors in the movie, they are the last ones to be blamed. Kang Dong-won, who was a ruthless villain in “Kundo: Age of the Rampant”(2014) right before this movie is released in South Korean theaters, takes a 180 degrees turn here with his goofy but sincere performance. While his scenes are not always successful(I am not sure whether a subplot involved with Dea-soo’s new job is really necessary, for example), he and Song Hye-kyo are believable as caring parents on the screen, and they also do not look that awkward when they appear as the younger selves of their characters during a number of flashback scenes in the film.

Between his co-performers, Jo Seong-mok holds his own place as an aging boy who sometimes looks like a cheery live action version of that little old kid from Japanese animation film “Akira”(1988). In spite of my rather sarcastic reaction to his appearance, I came to sort of like Ah-reum although I was distracted by his way of speaking which feels more like an experienced adult than a teenager kid, and I also enjoyed the amusing interactions between him and a grumpy old neighbor played by Baek Il-seob.

“My Brilliant Life” shows admirable degrees of restraint during its weepy moments, and I appreciated its good parts, but it is still an unsatisfying work which could do better with its materials. I cannot overlook its visible flaws in storytelling, and I cannot possibly forget its artificial aspects which sometimes bothered me during my viewing. Considering the reactions I observed from the audiences surrounding me during last evening, I think this movie will appeal more to some of you, but I am now wondering whether I should have read the novel instead.


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The Fault in Our Stars (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : Meet Cute – with cancer

thefaultinourstars01 We may die at any moment, but the young couple in “The Fault in Our Stars” knows that truth too well because of their illness. It is always possible that they may die sooner than they expect, so they want to enjoy their precious time together as much as possible while feeling alive and happy in the company of each other.

Their story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Hazel(Shailene Woodley), a teenager girl who has to go through every moment of her daily life with her medical complications. Although she miraculously survived when her thyroid cancer metastasized to her lung several years ago, she always needs to carry an oxygen tank to support her damaged lungs, and that disability limits her life in many ways to her frustration. She stays at her home while being taken care of by her loving parents, but she wishes to be a little more normal even though she is well aware of her fragile condition.

Persuaded by her mother, Hazel reluctantly attends a support meeting for young cancer patients, and that is how she meets Gus(Ansel Elgort), an easygoing teenager boy who also does not seem to need this meeting but gladly introduces himself to the others in the meeting. He lost right leg due to osteosarcoma, and we see his prosthetic leg which he frankly reveals with good humor at one point.

thefaultinourstars05 Hazel and Gus later come across each other after their meeting, and we get a typical Meet Cute moment as watching something click between these two smart kids who come to find many common things between them including their acerbic wits. They soon hang around together frequently, and they also support their fellow cancer patient Issac(Nat Wolff), Gus’ close friend who lost one of his eyes due to retinoblastoma and now is going to lose the other one because of the same cancer.

And they share their favorite books. Hazel recommends “An Imperial Affliction”, a novel which means a lot to her, and Gus really enjoys reading it. That book is written by an author named Peter Van Houten(Willem Dafoe), and Hazel wants to meet and then ask Van Houten so many things about her favorite book, but he has been leading a reclusive life in Amsterdam – and it is not recommendable for her to travel that far considering her medical condition, which can be suddenly worsened as shown through her emergency situation during one night.

It will not be much of a spoiler to tell you that our young couple eventually gets a chance to fly to Amsterdam in spite of several setbacks on their way. It will also be not much of a surprise to many of you to see that Hazel and Gus become disappointed and disillusioned when they finally meet their favorite author. And it will also be not much of a shock to many of you when it is revealed later that there is some bad news for them to deal with.

The movie intends to be a tearjerker, and I do not mind about its intention to induce tears from us, but it sometimes seems to be more interested in its main characters’ romance than the grim reality involved with their illness. Gus and Hazel are engaging teenagers to watch, and I was amused by several humorous scenes between them, but the movie feels a little too nice and ideal while being rather tame in the depiction of what they have to struggle with as cancer patients. Although they do suffer in one way or another around the third act, their painful moments are too mild to leave impressions on us, and the movie never goes deeply into their hardships even during their saddest(and darkest) moment.

thefaultinourstars03 I cannot say anything about John Green’s young adult novel the movie is based on because I have not read it, but I was disappointed because the adapted screenplay was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote the screenplays for “500 Days of Summer”(2009) and “The Spectacular Now”(2013). While these movies brought a fresh air to their respective genre conventions, “The Fault in Our Star” just stays on a safe mode as moving along its predictable plot, and I kept losing my interest when I was supposed to be emotionally involved with what was going in the story. With a guy with two intact eyeballs, I have no idea on how much Issac feels depressed about losing his sight, but the movie just shrugs off his gloomy situation so easily that I did not buy a supposedly funny scene in which Hazel and Gus help Issac executing his small personal revenge.

Since her breakout performance in “The Descendants”(2011), Shailene Woodley has been a young promising actress to watch, and she is well-cast here as the ailing but plucky heroine of the movie. While her co-star Ansel Elgort, who incidentally appeared with Woodley in “Divergent”(2014) as one of the supporting characters in that film, has less interesting things to do in his role, he and Woodley get along well with each other on the screen, and they certainly look good as they walk around the streets of Amsterdam. There is a scene involved with a certain historical site in that city, and these two likable performers make that scene somehow work, even though you can clearly see how blatantly the movie is trying to pull your heartstrings.

thefaultinourstars04 In comparison, the supporting performers surrounding them are stuck in the functional roles. As Hazel’s supportive parents, Laura Dern and Sam Trammell do as much as they can do with their underdeveloped characters which mostly demand them to look 1) caring or 2) concerned, but at least they have more screen time than David Whalen and Milica Govich, who play Gus’ parents. Willem Dafoe is appropriately cast as a sour novelist who may have his own pain, but his character is more or less than a plot device, and we get a very little understanding of his alcoholic bitterness.

The director Josh Boone did a competent job in making his film look nice and appealing, and its gentle soundtrack is filled with a number of good songs as the suitable accompaniment to the bittersweet romance in the story. It is a well-made product indeed, and most of its target audiences will get exactly what they want from it, but I somehow did not feel enough to care about its story. As quoted in the movie, pain demands to be felt, but I only saw it while not feeling it that much.


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