Love & Mercy (2014) ☆☆☆(3/4) : Going down – and going up again

loveandmercy02Brian Wilson has lived an interesting life which is sometimes too dramatic to be believed. After ascending to the top with his legendary band at young age, he tried to move forward with his new ideas, but then he slowly descended to the bottom as suffering from his mental illness and other negative factors in his bumpy life. Fortunately, he came to rise from his lowest point to enter the new chapter of his life and career in the end, and he has lived long enough to see his works becoming more influential over many years.

“Love & Mercy” revolves around two different time periods in his life. While one storyline begins around the 1960s when young Wilson and his fellow members of The Beach Boys attained their wide popularity through their hit songs such as “Surfin’ Safari”, the other storyline starts around the 1980s when older Wilson led a reclusive life after managing to recover a bit from his messy time during the 1970s.

Played by Paul Dano, Wilson during the 1960s comes to us as a shy, nervous lad who is more comfortable with writing his songs than performing them at concerts. After a sudden panic attack he suffers during their recent concert tour, he decides to focus more on composition, and then he begins to believe that he and his colleagues must take a new direction for their future. Although his opinion is not welcomed much by his colleagues or his uncaring father Murry (Bill Camp) who was once their manager, Wilson really wants to push his ideas anyway, and we soon see him being ready for his musical experiment at a recording studio.

loveandmercy01Mainly shot through handheld camera, the recording studio scenes in the film feel authentic with the grainy texture of 16mm film, and it is interesting to watch the recreation of the production process of the Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds”. Closely collaborating with a group of veteran session musicians, Wilson keeps trying different things, and he never hesitates to incorporate more new elements into his arrangement if that just feels right to him. He often looks too fastidious, but the session musicians have no problem with going along with his perfectionism probably because they can see Wilson’s immense talent glinting from his eyes. When he finally gets his music played and recorded exactly he wants, it indeed sounds like something really good, and “Pet Sounds” has been regarded as one of the landmarks not only in Wilson’s career but also in the American pop music history.

While enjoying the success from what would be the second phase of his career, Wilson becomes increasingly unstable and eccentric as time goes by. He starts hearing voices inside his head, and his exposure to alcohol and other substances only worsens his mental state. Wilson during the 1980s, played by John Cusack, mostly looks fine when we see him for the first time, but it is apparent that he is not fully recovered yet from his mental problem as we watch him mainly through the viewpoint of Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), a car dealer who comes across him by coincidence on one day.

As getting to know more about him, Ledbetter sees that Wilson is desperately in the need of help, but she is also disturbed by how much he has been manipulated and exploited by his therapist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy, who has been a Svengali-like figure to his only patient for years, is not going to allow her to interfere with his lucrative business based on Wilson’s money and talent, and it is possible that Wilson cannot escape from Landy’s abusive control even though he sees a chance through a good woman kindly approaching to him.

loveandmercy05Constantly going back and forth between these two storylines, the screenplay by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman gives us some insights on Wilson’s troubled artistic mind, and its seemingly scattershot narrative gradually gains the focus as the two storylines smoothly cross over each other under the competent direction of the director Bill Pohlad, who participated in the production of several notable Oscar-nominated films including “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “The Tree of Life” (2011), and “12 Years a Slave” (2013). The period background for each storyline is recreated well on the screen along with distinctive mood, and many recognizable songs written by Wilson, including the very song which inspired the title of the movie, are effectively used on the soundtrack.

It is initially odd to see two different actors playing the same character in one movie, but this method works here better than expected. Like the multiple versions of Bob Dylan played by various actors in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” (2007), young Wilson and old Wilson in “Love & Mercy” are simply two different versions of the same man, and Paul Dano and John Cusack are seamlessly connected with each other in their performances. While Dano, who resembles Wilson more than Cusack, naturally takes the stage as Wilson goes through ups and downs in his eventual descent, Cusack holds the ground with his understated acting, and he effortlessly conveys us his character’s damaged state through fine subtle touches.

loveandmercy03Although most of the supporting characters in the film are rather underdeveloped, Elizabeth Banks brings lots of warmth and spirit into her character, and she and Cusack have a number of tender scenes as Wilson and Ledbetter get closer to each other in spite of Landy’s interference. Although he looks a little too awkward with his hairpiece, Paul Giamatti is suitably slimy and despicable in his role; some of you may think his character is too exaggerated, but I heard that Landy was as horrible as how he is depicted in the film, and Wilson later said that he was actually terrified by Giamatti’s performance in the film (Landy died in 2006, by the way).

While basically being a typical biopic film about artist’s agony and ecstasy, “Love & Mercy” is a good one handled well with skills and performances to appreciate, and it also feels sincere and intimate in its unadorned storytelling. It does take familiar dramatic routes, but it also takes chances with many things in the process, and it even makes an indirect homage to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) during one hallucinogenic sequence around the ending. It may be pretty weird, but it somehow works as an emotional climax amid its disorienting shots, and then you will be touched by Wilson’s concert clip shown during the end credit of the film. It is probably a cliché to say that he is saved by love and mercy, but that is really true in his case.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Cruise strikes again

missionimpossibleroguenation01“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”, the fifth film of the franchise which was started almost 20 years ago, is packed with action sequences to thrill and excite us. Considering all the exhilarating fun we had with the previous films, that is hardly a surprise, but the movie does a good job of maintaining the high level of tension and excitement as driving along its dizzy, convoluted plot full of danger and intrigue, and it is also firmly held by the undeniably enduring star presence of its lead actor who strikes again with commendable results.

The movie begins at the point not along after the closing scene of “Mission: Impossible – the Ghost Protocol” (2011). While Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) puts himself into another daring secret operation as shown during the prologue sequence, his agency, the Impossible Missions Force (IMF – please don’t confuse it with the International Monetary Fund), is in a serious trouble mainly because of what happened in the previous film. The CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who believes IMF has caused more troubles than successes for the US government, wants IMF to be disassembled and then absorbed into his agency, and IMF Agent William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), representing the currently vacant IMF secretary (you will know the reason if you have seen the previous film), is helpless as Hunley makes his strong argument in front of the Senate oversight committee members.

This is not a very good news for Hunt, who is finally getting closer to a shadowy organization called the Syndicate. Being a sort of ‘anti-IMF’, the Syndicate mostly consists of former government agents presumed to be dead or missing in action, and it is revealed that this organization has been involved in many bad incidents around the world. Their leader is Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), and his brief but striking appearance at the end of one certain scene is more than enough to show us what a ruthless badass this former British Intelligence agent is.


missionimpossibleroguenation03While becoming a rogue agent being pursued by CIA, Hunt keeps tracking down the Syndicate, and some of his colleagues subsequently come to join his independent operation even though they are well aware of the risk of their unauthorized action. Hunt is also helped a lot by a British undercover agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), but Faust is not entirely trustworthy as a double agent tiptoeing between both sides, though she saves him from Lane’s henchmen during their first encounter. Is she just pretending to be loyal to Lane as a part of her mission? Or is she using both Lane and Hunt for whatever scheme she has behind her back?

As Hunt and other characters move around various locations including London, Vienna, and Casablanca, the movie serves us with a number of terrific sequences equipped with each own thrill and suspense. In case of that well-known action sequence in which Cruise actually clings to a big cargo plane leaving the ground (well, how can we possibly expect anything less than that from him?), that moment is as thrilling as expected, but it is just a small portion of what the movie is going to provide us. The sequence in which Hunt should carefully move within the Vienna State Opera during the performance of “Turandot” steadily accumulates tension as he comes to discover the Syndicate’s latest operation, and there is a nice Hitchcockian touch reminiscent of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) and its 1956 remake version. During the sequence unfolded at a covert facility which is so heavily guarded that you may wonder how the hell a certain piece of secret information could be allowed into that facility in the first place, Hunt must succeed in his another nearly impossible task, and I can only tell you that it requires him far more than jumping down into a big hole gaping below him.

The director/screenplay writer Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the story with Drew Pearce, previously directed “Jack Reacher” (2012), where Cruise played your typical stoic tough guy you cannot mess with. I did not like it enough, but I admired its several good things including Werner Herzog’s uncanny villain performance and an impressive vehicle action sequence reminiscent of those dry, gritty American action films made during the 1970s. While “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is more rapid and explosive in comparison, its action sequences seldom feel disorienting even when lots of things happen on the screen, and they are taut, gritty, and propulsive in the confident execution mixed with style and energy. The editing by Eddie Hamilton is precise and efficient, the cinematography by Robert Elswit makes good use of different locations with slick touches, and the music by Joe Kraemer stands aside whenever it is necessary to use other pieces of music including that famous TV series theme composed by Lalo Schifrin.

missionimpossibleroguenation02Although he is 53 in this year, Tom Cruise shows here that he is still a dependable action movie star as he was in “Mission: Impossible” (1996). Besides doing most of the stunt actions in the film for himself, Cruise is always believable whenever Hunt hurls himself into enormous risk without any hesitation, and he is good enough to make us believe many unbelievable things accomplished by his character and then amused by their improbable aspects later. In “Mission: Impossible – the Ghost Protocol”, I was tickled by how Hunt could draw quite a detailed sketch of his suspect’s face within a very short time, and I can assure you that you will be amazed here by how quickly he can memorize a bunch of long serial numbers – or how he can manage to hold his breath in water during no less than 3 minutes.

Cruise is surrounded by an enjoyable array of supporting performers. As a nerdy computer expert who again finds himself doing more actions than he expected, Simon Pegg is entertaining to watch as usual, and he is particularly convincing when his character gets himself stuck in a dire situation in which he and others around him can be killed instantly if they are not careful. Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames are competent as the other returning supporting characters in the film, and Alec Baldwin relishes his uptight bureaucratic character who gets outsmarted by Hunt at every turn. While Sean Harris exudes understated menace with his cold stare and coarse voice, Tom Hollander and Simon McBurney play two small but crucial supporting characters later in the story, and Rebecca Ferguson is a standout in her breakthrough performance both sassy and feisty. Hunt and Faust may be drawn to each other as seeing an equal from each other, but they must also stay in line due to the constant mistrust between them, and that certainly gives an extra spark to the scenes between Cruise and Ferguson.

As another highlight point of the franchise, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is one of the better blockbuster action films in this year. I wonder how long Cruise will be able to carry the franchise with the same strength and commitment we have observed from him, but the movie gives us a strong assurance that he can handle his continuing mission at least for a while (the production of the next sequel has already been green-lighted at this point), and I come to appreciate more of his star quality which has not been faded yet at all. He was a big bankable star when I was merely a 10-year-old boy, and he still retains his status even after more than 20 years. Not many star actors can do that, you know.
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Far from the Madding Crowd (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A woman and three men around her

farfromthemaddingcrowd01“Far from the Madding Crowd”, based on Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel of the same name, is a solid adaptation to admire and appreciate. As a period drama, it looks both natural and gorgeous in its realistic presentation of a peaceful rural area surrounding its heroine and three different men who happen to circle around her. As a romance drama irreversibly driven by fate and coincidence, it engages us through the quiet emotional conflicts among its main characters who are stuck in their complicated circumstance in one way or another, and it certainly helps that the movie is supported by the strong performances from most of its main cast members.

It is 1870 in England, and we are introduced to Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) and Gabriel Oak (Matthias Shoenaerts), two young people living in a small country town in Dorset. When Gabriel proposes to Bathsheba, it seems they can be a good couple with stable income considering Gabriel’s promising economic status, but marriage is the last thing Bathsheba wants for her life. While she probably knows well that she has considerable social disadvantages as a woman living in the 19th Century, she is determined to lead an independent life of her own none the less, and you will not be surprised to learn that the surname of the popular heroine in the Hunger Games trilogy actually came from this spirited young lady ready to step forward on her own terms.

Not long after Bathsheba rejects Gabriel’s proposal, they find themselves in completely reversed social positions. Due to a sudden terrible incident caused by his new shepherd dog, Gabriel loses almost everything including his herd. As a result, he leaves his town for a new start, and he soon gets employed at a farm in the other town. The owner of the farm turns out to be none other than Bathsheba, who inherits it from her recently deceased uncle.

farfromthemaddingcrowd03Gabriel has no problem with working under the woman who could have been his wife, and Bathsheba is glad to have him near her although there is a social barrier between them due to their changed situation at present. While Mulligan instantly holds our attention with her unadorned performance which effortlessly reveals vitality and determination behind Bathsheba’s seemingly docile appearance, Shoenaerts, who has been more notable since his superlative performances in “Bullhead” (2011) and “Rust and Bone” (2012), makes a right balance between roughness and softness for his humble, earnest character, and their scenes are always accompanied with palpable emotional undercurrents thanks to their low-key chemistry on the screen.

With Gabriel as one of her most trusted employees, Bathsheba begins to take care of the farm business for herself, and she makes it clear to her employees that many things are going to be different under her management. She immediately draws attention when she appears along with her maid at a local dealing place full of men, and her forthright attitude in price negotiation surely does not escape the attention of William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), an affluent bachelor farmer living next to her farm.

Bathsheba still does not have much interest in marriage, but, out of mischievous impulse, she sends a card to Boldwood on Valentine’s Day, and, unfortunately, that careless act of hers stirs something inside the heart of this lonely middle-aged man. Sheen is heartbreaking at times as his character becomes miserable and frustrated in his undying passion toward the woman he may not win in the end, and he and Mulligan have a sad, poignant moment when they happen to sing together during a barn dinner held at Bathsheba’s farm. As they look at each other from the distance, Bathsheba clearly sees how hopelessly her neighbor carries a torch for her, but she cannot honestly promise him anything, and that leads to more frustration for him.

farfromthemaddingcrowd04And then there comes Sergeant Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a dashing lad who comes into the town for his private matter. After coming across Bathsheba during one evening, he begins to hang around her, and she cannot help but attracted to him although it is apparent that he is an untrustworthy cad. When she is taken to a nearby forest by him, he gives her one hell of presentation of his swordcraft, and she feels enthralled as he swiftly wields his sword right in front of her without hurting her. She eventually makes a regretful choice, and that ultimately results in an outcome which will affect her as well as her men.

Being the straightforward adaptation of a British literature work, the movie looks like an odd choice in the career of the director Thomas Vinterberg, who has mainly been known for the Dogma 95 movement initiated by him and Lars von Trier. Compared to the raw emotional power of his previous film “The Hunt” (2012), “Far from the Madding Crowd” feels more gentle and polished, but that does not mean it is one of those stuffy, lifeless period drama movies. Its period background is imbued with vivid realism to put us into the world inhabited by its characters, and the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen shines with lush beauty whenever the camera looks at the sky and the wide rambling landscapes below it during early morning or late evening.

farfromthemaddingcrowd02On the whole, the movie is a better film compared to the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger, which is also a handsome period film but riddled with several problems. While it is supported well by its main cast members including Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, and Terence Stamp, the 1967 version is overlong in its bloated narrative, and Bathsheba in this version feels rather superficial as the movie focuses more on her romantic entanglement with the other three main characters than her social struggles. In the other words, she looks more like someone to inspire Bella Swan than Katniss Everdeen.

The 2015 version has its own imperfect aspects. The adapted screenplay by David Nicholls is efficient in its economic handling of plot and characters, but it stumbles a bit during its last act which could be more powerful under slower plot progress. Lacking that magnetic intensity of Terence Stamp, Tom Sturridge is the weak link in the main cast despite his efforts, and Juno Temple is underutilized as a woman as ill-fated as Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

But these flaws are minor problems, and “Far from the Madding Crowd” remains as a well-made period drama film to enjoy not only for its engaging human drama but also for its authentic period atmosphere. I came to feel lots of sympathy for Boldwood, I began to admire Gabriel’s quiet dignity, and, above all, I cared about Bathsheba and her difficult circumstance she must handle for herself. At one point, she is advised to do what she thinks is right, but does she really know what is right for herself? When she later makes a decision on what she should do, you will be glad to see her going forward without sacrificing her integrity at all.

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Cat and her kittens during one summer day (2015/07/30)

Please get out of the building, will you? I need to work.

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Minions (2015) ☆☆1/2 (2.5/4): More Minions, shall we say

minions01Are you familiar with those silly yellow creatures called Minions? If you have seen animation feature film “Despicable Me” (2010) and its recent sequel, you cannot possibly forget their many scene-stealing moments. In “Despicable Me”, they were the goofy workers/cheerleaders of their ambitious master, who was about to commit the greatest crime of his villain career but came to discover something more fulfilling than being bad. And then they became more active in their master’s another adventure in “Despicable Me 2” (2013), where some of them were turned into something purple, hairy, and nasty for our amusement.

Now, like those troublemaking penguins in the Madagascar series did in last year, our nutty minions also get the spotlight of their own in “Minions”, which gives us entertainment as much as we can expect from it. Mainly driven by jokes and actions, this mildly entertaining animation film is often hampered by its thin plot, but that will not be much problem for its target audiences, who will simply enjoy watching Minions’ slapstick misadventures or their nearly incomprehensible dialogues.

The opening scene depicting Minions’ biological origin with the deadpan narration by Geoffrey Rush is one of the funniest parts in the film. They originally lived in the sea at least 500 million years ago, and they have always been around any dominant species to serve and follow since that. After they entered the era of Homo sapiens, they began to follow anyone with power and ambition for domination, but, as shown from many hilarious cases, their bumbling clumsiness always led to mischief and disaster, and now they have settled alone in a wintry cave since their latest failure.

minions06Life has been good in their cave for many years, but then the Minions soon become bored and lethargic mainly due to the absence of a master to follow and serve. One of them, named Kevin (voiced by the co-director Pierre Coffin, who also provided the voices of other Minion characters in the film), decides to go outside to find a suitable villain to lead him and others, and Kevin is joined by other two Minions named Bob and Stewart. I have always found it quite difficult to distinguish one Minion from other one, but these three Minions are a bit easier to recognize. While Kevin does not look that different from many other Minions who all wear similar clothes and goggles, Bob is shorter in comparison, and Stewart has only one eye, though that feature is common among Minions. Seriously, I’d love to get the biological explanation on how Minions can look same or different from each other, but, what the heck, the movie does not even tell much about how they reproduce (considering their possible absence of sex, my best guess is that they reproduce asexually like those monocellular organisms).

At the end of their long bumpy journey, Kevin and the other Minions finally arrive in New York of 1968. After getting some taste of the American culture during the 1960s as going around the city, they come upon the news about the International Villain Convention to be held in Orlando, Florida, so they immediately leave for the convention where they may meet their new master. Thanks to a traveling family who is not as ordinary as they look on the surface (Michael Keaton and Allison Janney give spirited voice performances in their respective roles), the Minions arrive at the convention faster than expected, and, like many other bad guys attending the convention, they are eager to meet Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), an infamous villainess with considerable fame and reputation in her field.

With the technical assistance of her sidekick husband Herb (voiced by John Hamm), Scarlett has another diabolical plan to distinguish her notorious criminal career, and she needs someone willing to do anything under her command. While many attendees cannot possibly be more willing to volunteer, she comes to recruit our goofy trio by coincidence, though you may wonder what kind of potentials she could possibly see from them. They are quickly taken to her big castle which sticks out like a sore thumb near London, and then we get to learn more about her ambitious plot which involves with stealing the Crown belonging to Queen Elizabeth II (voiced by Jennifer Saunders).

minions07As Kevin and the other Minions inadvertently cause many silly moments in their clumsy attempt to serve their new master, “Minions” keeps throwing gags into its plot as the story becomes more absurd and outrageous. While that uptight British attitude certainly functions as the main backdrop for many jokes in the film, we get an amusing moment in which Elizabeth II shows her rather feisty side among her common people at a pub, and there are also several scenes involved with the Minions left in the cave, who eventually have to flee from their lair after their another disastrous happening.

Like many other Hollywood blockbuster animation films, the movie goes for a big action climax sequence with lots of bangs in the end, and that was the point where it became less enjoyable. While Sandra Bullock clearly has a fun with her mean villain character, Scarlet Overkill is not as memorable as the Minions’ future master, and that aspect is further emphasized around the ending (Too bad the Minions were not impressed much by Richard Nixon when they arrived in New York, by the way). The Minions are lovable as before, but I cannot help but feel that they are more effective as sidekicks rather than as lead characters. Maybe I can enjoy 10 or 20 minutes of them, but more than one hour is far more than enough.

Anyway, “Minions” will definitely satisfy you 1) if you enjoyed watching “Despicable Me” and its sequel and 2) if you cannot possibly get enough of these yellow creatures. I gave “Despicable Me” 2.5 stars, and I had to give the same rating to “Despicable Me 2” despite my enjoyment, for I judged that it was no better than the previous film. “Minions” is a lesser work compared to these two films, but it is not without fun, so I gave it 2.5 stars instead of 2 stars. It is not a bad animation film at all, and I will not stop you from watching, but why do you have to watch it when there are better animation films like “Inside Out” (2015) and “Shaun the Sheep” (2015)?

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Shaun the Sheep (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : The Sheep in the Big City

Shaunthesheep01I remember well when I encountered those lovely stop motion animation works from Aardman Animations for the first time during late 1990s. Three short animation films featuring Aardman’s iconic characters Wallace and Gromit, “A Grand Day Out” (1999), “The Wrong Trousers” (1993), and “A Close Shave” (1995), were belatedly introduced to South Korean audiences in 1997, and I could get a chance to watch them all when they were later released together on VHS. They were very funny indeed with many quirky touches to savor and appreciate, and even my mother, who is usually not interested much in animation film, was entertained a lot by that insanely exciting model train sequence in “The Wrong Trousers”, which deservedly won Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 1994.

If you have seen “A Closed Shave” (it also won an Oscar in 1996), you surely remember a scene-stealing supporting character named Shaun, a small but smart sheep who heroically saved the day when Wallace and Gromit and other characters were literally running from a grave (but hilarious) danger during the climax scene. He returned in 2007 with his own TV animation series “Shaun the Sheep”, and the enduring popularity of the TV series led to the production of its movie version.

The movie version of “Shaun the Sheep” is essentially a series of comic slapstick situations following one after another. Shaun, who has been the leader of his herd in a rural British farm named Mossy Bottom Farm, is bored as usual while he and other sheep are taken care of by the Farmer, a slow-witted guy who is pretty oblivious to what his sheep are doing behind his back. On one day, Shaun comes upon a nice idea for having a break while not hindered by the Farmer or his fastidious dog Bitzer, and he and his friends quickly embark on his rather mischievous plan.

Shaunthesheep02Shaun’s plan seems to work well at first as they successfully put their owner into sleep in a clever way you must see for yourself, but then it unexpectedly results in a very messy circumstance. Not long after they put the Farmer in a trailer in the farm, the trailer happens to slide away from the farm, and it takes him to the Big City in the end. Although Bitzer instantly goes after his master, Shaun comes to decide that he should also go to the city for finding the Farmer, and then he finds himself accompanied by his fellow sheep shortly after he arrives in the city.

Many moments during the rest of the movie are too funny and entertaining to describe to you in details, so I will tell you mostly about the problematic circumstance which Shaun and the other characters in the film fall into. The Farmer unfortunately suffers memory loss at the end of his bumpy ride to the Big City, and he is taken to the hospital while still having no idea on who he is. Bitzer, who may be less intelligent than Gromit but is a pretty resourceful dog none the less, attempts to take his master out of the hospital, and there is a very hilarious moment when he happens to be tasked with a job not licensed for any dog in the world.

Meanwhile, Shaun and his fellow sheep unluckily comes to draw the attention of Trumper, a guy from the Animal Containment Center. Thanks to Shaun’s another clever idea, he and other sheep manage to hide themselves from not only Trumper but also other people in the city as keeping searching for the Farmer, but there is always the danger of being exposed in public, and Trumper, who is as mean and cantankerous as Mrs. Tweedy in “Chicken Run” (2000), is always ready to catch and then throw them all into his prison where other unfortunate pet animals are incarcerated.

Shaunthesheep05It is exhilarating to watch how this comic adventure story keeps rolling with more jokes and laughs for us, until it finally reaches to the climax sequence preceded by an amusing reference to a certain famous Monty Python joke. All animal and human characters in the film do not speak while only making sounds when they ‘talk’, but everything in the story can be clearly conveyed even to young audiences through facial expressions and body languages (this is an animation film where you do not need subtitle at all).

While it is partially assisted by CGI, “Shaun the Sheep” is still a traditional stop motion animation film, and its clay figure characters are imbued with each own personality through those tiny details in their appearances and wordless expressions. Making a stop-motion animation work in feature film length is surely not an easy job at all, and you will admire its clay figure characters’ seamless physical movements if you are familiar with that slow, painstaking process in the making of a stop motion animation film (According to its IMDB trivia section, 20 animators worked on the film, and each of them produced 2 seconds of footage per day). Besides our lovable woolly hero, many of the other animal characters in the film are likable in each own colorful way, and the same thing can be said about the Farmer, who gets his own funny moments when he unwittingly causes a trend which goes viral on the social media.

Although “Shaun the Sheep” often feels like being more or less than a special TV episode, that is just a minor complaint considering its effortless charm and bouncy spirit. Like “Chicken Run”, “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” (2005), and “The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists” (2011), this is another enjoyable work from Aardman Animations, and I certainly hope for Shaun and his friends’ next adventure.

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Assassination (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4) : Too many shooters

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South Korean film “Assassination” wants to juggle lots of things at once. Besides attempting a busy mix of action and comedy in the context of history drama, it shuffles between many various characters bound to converge on a certain point for its expected payoff moment. This could be entertaining if “Assassination” were more balanced and focused. Due to the lack of the central narrative momentum to support its sprawling plot, the movie fails to generate enough energy between its characters who are simply moved here and there as demanded by plot mechanism. It is incoherent and overlong with many plot holes, and I could just admire its good elements which are not utilized well to my dissatisfaction.

Its story revolves around one fictional assassination attempt planned by the leaders of Korean Independence movement as another act of resistance against the Japanese Occupation. It is 1933, and Kim Koo (Kim Hong-pa), the highly respected head of the Korean interim government in Shanghai who is incidentally one of a few real-life figures in the film, decides it is the time for another assassination operation against Japan, so he instructs Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae) to recruit suitable people to carry out this dangerous mission.

Secretly going around China, Seok-jin quickly gathers three members for the mission: Rapid-fire (Jo Jin-woong), Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon), and Ahn Ok-yoon (Gianna Jun). As reflected by his name, Rapid-fire is a rambunctious guy with considerable military background, Deok-sam is an explosive expert who happens to escape from prison along with Rapid-fire, and Ok-yoon is a skilled sharpshooter with remarkable precision and efficiency.

Their targets are two men heavily involved in the ongoing Japanese occupation of Korea. One is the Commander of the Japanese occupation force in Korea, and the other one is Kang In-gook (Lee Kyeong-yong), a wealthy Korean business man who has closely collaborated with Japan for many years. As shown during the prologue scene set in 1911, this despicable traitor of his country is willing to do anything to protect his beneficial relationship with Japan, and now his young daughter is going to marry the Commander’s son shortly after she returns to her home in Gyeongseong (it is the old name of Seoul during that period, by the way). Around that time, there will certainly be a chance for assassinating the Commander and In-gook at once.

theassassination03Everything seems to be ready for the assassination team members when they leave for Seoul after holding a small ceremony for their mission (watching them being photographed along with their written resolutions, you may be reminded that they are regarded as terrorists by their enemies), but there is a problem which will jeopardize the whole operation. A spy inside Kim Koo’s inner circle informs Japanese authorities of the assassination plan and then hires a Korean guy nicknamed Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jeong-woo), one of the most fearful bounty hunters in the town. Hawaii Pistol accepts the request with no hesitation because he is told that his targets to be eliminated are traitors, and he also leaves for Seoul with his loyal sidekick Old Man (Oh Dal-soo).

Right after arriving in Gyeongsong, Ok-yoon and her two comrades work further on their assassination plan while Hawaii Pistol is tracking them down step by step. As their D-day is coming, Japanese authorities become more watchful especially after receiving the information on the assassination plan, and, for a reason I will not reveal to you at any chance, the situation becomes more complicated when In-gook’s daughter finally arrives in Gyeongseong.

Besides a number of well-made action sequences including the vehicle action scene reminiscent of Indiana Jones movies, “Assassination” has several surprise plot turns, but the movie is too busy with handling its individual plotlines to pay enough attention to the development of characters or their interactions. The story merely moves through predictable plot points especially during the second act, and then it comes to lose more of its steam as the characters’ circumstance becomes more serious during the third act. The movie tries hard with a lot of bullets and explosions during what is supposed to be its grand finale, but this part is deficient in dramatic impact due to the scattershot treatment of story and characters, and the movie ultimately feels dragged as eventually arriving at its lackluster epilogue sequence set in 1949.

theassassination02Anyway, the movie is impressive in technical aspects. The cinematography by Kim Woo-hyeong effectively generates the stylish period mood taking us to Shanghai and Gyeongseong during the 1930s, and the production design and costumes in the film are gorgeous to say the least. I particularly enjoyed the scenes looking around the sumptuous interior of a big, luxurious department store located in the downtown area of Gyeonseong, and I also liked a lively bar dance scene in which Ok-yoon loses herself a bit along with her comrades and other customers.

The actors are well-cast in their respective roles, though they are not used well in most cases. Gianna Jun is believable as a tough, beautiful woman determined to accomplish her mission by any means necessary, and it is rather a shame that the movie does not delve more into the situation in which her character unexpectedly faces her old past. While exuding his dependable star presence, Ha Jeong-woo mostly stays on neutral mode, and Lee Jeong-jae has his own moments as an activist who becomes involved in the assassination plan more than he initially expected. Jo Jin-woong and Oh Dal-soo are fun to watch in their enjoyable supporting performances, and you may notice other notable South Korean actors including Choi Deok-moon, Lee Kyeong-yeong, Kim Ee-seong, Jo Seung-woo, and Kim Hae-sook.

Although “Assassination” is not a total failure, but this is two or three steps down from the director Choi Dong-hoon’s previous films “Tazza: the High Rollers” (2006) and “The Thieves” (2012), which have more fun and excitement in comparison. I was not that bored, but I was not interested enough while trying to hold onto its rambling plot. There were too many shooters, and I only watched with no particular care to anyone.

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