Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Let good times roll…

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My first days as an undergraduate student of the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology were rather uneventful to say the least. While getting acquainted a bit with my two dormitory roommates, I just simply attended lectures and prepared for exams as demanded, and I kept spending considerable time on books and movies whenever my campus schedule was free. I did not have much interest in having friends or meeting girls (or boys, if you ask), and even joining a music club did not help my social life much.

That is the main reason why Richard Linklater’s new movie “Everybody Wants Some!!” felt quite alien to me from the beginning besides considerable cultural gaps, but I observed its colorful campus characters with a sort of anthropological interest, and I eventually found myself charmed by its good-natured comedy vibrating with humor and intelligence. These characters inhabit in a world far different from my good old campus life in the past, but they are funny and engaging guys to observe and care about, and the movie has plenty of enjoyable moments as they roll here and there around their campus during their few remaining carefree days.

It is the early fall of 1980, and Jake (Blake Jenner) is about to have his first day at a college in the Southeast Texas region, where he is going to play as a new member of its baseball team. Not long after he arrives at one of the two houses for team members, he gets himself acquainted with many of senior members including McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), and Finn (Glen Powell), and he also meets his fellow new players including his roommate Billy “Beuter” Autrey (Will Brittain), who is often ridiculed for being your average Texan country boy.

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Because there are only three days left before the beginning of their upcoming semester, everyone in the team is ready to have all the fun and excitement they can get during this brief period. At the team meeting, their coach emphasizes that 1) no alcohol is allowed and 2) they should be discreet with girls, but his words have already been disregarded even before he said, and the meeting is soon followed by a night party packed with bottles and, of course, girls.

Now this sounds like a generic R-rated college comedy, but, while it does not hesitate to hurl itself into debaucheries like mud-wrestling, Linklater’s screenplay is too smart and thoughtful to allow itself to fall into genre conventions. Jake and his teammates come to us as likable lads who simply want to enjoy themselves together, and we constantly get small and big laughs as observing numerous hilarious moments generated from the ceaseless dynamic interactions among these dudes. Sure, they often look silly and goofy as being a little too competitive in many other things besides baseball, but their brash and cocky behaviors are depicted with recognizable human traits, and some of these guys turn out to be more serious or intelligent than we thought.

As following their wild nights one by one, the movie gives us a vivid, amusing look into the cultural landscapes of the early 1980s. When they get kicked out of a local disco club because of a fight caused by one of them, they go to the other club instead just because they have still more time to spend, and the next scene reminded me of how persistent American country music has been for many years. When Jake comes across his high school friend, he and his several teammates are invited to a punk rock concert, and they understandably feel awkward in front of this emerging musical trend, though most of them manage to dress themselves fairly well for that occasion (I am more amused now by a certain accessory worn by Jake, by the way).

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In the meantime, Jake gets closer to a girl he encountered during his first day at the campus. He and Beverly (Zoey Deutch) do not have many common things between them, but they click well with each other as getting to know more about each other. She invites him to a chic party held by her and her friends in the performing-arts department, and then there comes a sensitive moment as Jake and Beverly have a quiet private time together during the early next morning. Both of them are serious about what will be the next step for their life, and their intimate conversation took me back to what was exchanged between the two characters of “Before Sunrise” (1995), the first chapter of Linklater’s Before Trilogy.

Under Linklater’s seemingly laid-back but ultimately confident direction, the movie always sparks with spontaneity, and he draws the fabulous ensemble performance from his cast, which mainly consists of unknown young performers. I must admit that it was a bit difficult for me to distinguish one performer from another at first, but their characters become more distinctive along the free-flowing narrative of Linklater’s screenplay, and it is really pleasant to see how their individual performances effortlessly work together during one particular sequence later in the story.

Brimming with joyous energy, “Everybody Wants Some!!” invites us to have some good times with its youthful characters, and it will surely have its place right next to Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” (1993). While the movie may look like a minor work compared to his exceptional achievement in “Boyhood” (2014), this is another delightful comedy film from Linklater, and you will not be disappointed by its funny, delicious slice of college life.
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The Witch (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): An isolated terror in the wood

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Shrouded in the gnawing sense of dread and terror, “The Witch” will give you a creepy experience as calmly observing how its characters are slowly crumbled under an unknown influence out there. When it is over, you may wonder about what exactly happened to them, but you will not easily forget its spooky atmosphere enfolding several chilling scenes to disturb and frighten you.

It is around the 17th century, and the opening sequence shows William (Ralph Ineson) and his family being banished from their puritan community located somewhere in the New England region. Although the reason for their banishment is not specified well, it is implied that there was some theological conflict between William and town elders, and William stubbornly sticks to his belief, even though he could compromise with town elders for avoiding the hardships he and his family will have to face once they leave the community.

Along with his wife and their five children, William moves to a remote spot far away from the community. As looking at a new settling place for them, he and his family try to be optimistic while hoping for God’s blessing, but the forest surrounding this place suggests otherwise to us via its moody presence, and this is further amplified by Mark Korvan’s unnerving dissonant score, which often sounds like a malicious vibe generated from somewhere inside the forest.

Not long after the family settles in their new place, a bad thing happens as expected. William’s youngest child is suddenly vanished on one day, and William’s neurotic wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) is devastated by this incident while William’s eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is baffled about it. She can swear by God that her little baby brother was right in front of her eyes during their very last moment, but then he was gone without any trace right after that point, and she knows too well that her grieving mother is blaming her for that.

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As William says to his eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) during their private moment, the baby seemed to be snatched away by a wolf or some other predatory animal in the forest, but then the family becomes more conscious of the possibility of evil force hovering around their place. There is a ghastly scene involved with an unspeakable case of witchcraft, but we are not so sure about whether this is real or imagined. Twin siblings Mercy (Ellie Grainger) and Jonas (Lucas Dawson) look innocuous and mischievous as playing with their family black goat, but they may know more than they tell to other family members. Do they merely imagine things just for fun? Is there really an evil witch lurking somewhere in the forest?

Regardless of what is really happening to the family, the strained relationships among them become more palpable than before as days go by. As the approaching winter time looks gloomy for his family due to their disappointing harvest, William has to confront the price of his pride, and he also has to hide a few things from his wife, who has many things to be bitter about besides the unfortunate loss of her baby son. Both Thomasin and Caleb are well aware of the growing conflict between their parents, but they have no choice but to be dutiful children as well as dependable older siblings in their isolated world – until a certain point.

Under the skillful direction by the first-time director Robert Eggers, the movie keeps accumulating tension step by step as more disturbing things happen later in the story. While there are a few ‘boo!’ moments to jolt us in the progress, their shocks are organically sprung out of the tense ambience established in advance, and we come to fear more for what may happen next.

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Eggers and his crew did a commendable job of creating the authentic period background in spite of their small production budget, and we are immediately drawn into its 17th century world and then involved in its characters’ fearful situation. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is hauntingly beautiful for the superlative use of natural lights reminiscent of “Barry Lyndon” (1975), and the screen ratio of 1.66:1 in the film is effectively utilized especially when the camera looks into the gray dense parts of the forest, which feel claustrophobic with those dark, tall trees exuding inauspicious overtone on the screen.

As mentioned in the end credits, Eggers’ screenplay is mostly based on various writings from its background period, and some of its intense dramatic moments will probably remind you of the Salem Witch Trials or Arthur Miller’s classic play inspired by that infamous historical incident. While desperately holding onto their religion in front of the situation they do not fully understand, the characters in the film become far more susceptible to suggestions and superstitions, and, not so surprisingly, there comes an imploding moment for everyone after one of William’s children gets unhinged by whatever was experienced in the forest. The main cast members in the film are convincing in their unassuming natural performance, and they also handle well their demanding scenes as their characters are pushed into the grim mouth of madness – or damnation, perhaps.

While clearly influenced by “The Exorcist” (1973), “The Shining” (1980), and “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), “The Witch” has its own scary goodies to present and you will enjoy it especially if you appreciate that precious value of mood and suspense in horror films. Considering its characters’ increasingly unreliable viewpoint, I am still not that certain about its final minutes, but I was instantly gripped by its uneasy aura of darkness as admiring its visually impressive scenes, and I was chilled by its genuinely frightening moments. A good horror film is not something we come across often in these days, and “The Witch” is certainly one of a few better cases we have in this year.

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The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): “I had sex today…”

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With vibrant personality and frank attitude, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” gives us a close, intimate look into the bumpy sexual maturation period of its adolescent heroine who becomes aware of her biological/psychological changes more than before. Like many girls around her age, she is willing to go forward for what she desires, and she thinks she knows where she is going, though that inevitably turns out to be a painfully wrong assumption to be followed by some valuable life lessons for her adulthood on the horizon.

When we meet Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) during the opening scene, this 15-year-old girl feels buoyed by the exciting sense of fulfillment. As she directly tells to us, she just has experienced her first sexual intercourse, and things certainly look different to her now as she reflects on how that memorable experience of lifetime happened to her under a circumstance which was not very inappropriate in many aspects.

As Minnie is recording her private diary tape, we come to learn a bit about her family background. Her bohemian mother Charlotte (Kristen Wiig) has been enjoying her carefree lifestyle especially after her divorce with her second husband, and San Francisco during the 1970s is an ideal place for Charlotte and her equally fun-loving friends, who do not mind alcohol and drugs whenever they get any chance. It goes without saying that Charlotte is not someone who can get the Mother of the Year award, but she has managed to maintain a cozy domestic environment for herself and her two daughters, and Minnie and her little sister Gretel (Abigail Wait) have no problem with how frequently their mother enjoys herself inside and outside their home.

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Charlotte is currently in the relationship with a tall, handsome guy named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), and Minnie finds herself being infatuated with this hunky dude as her yearning to be liked and loved grows day by day. She often feels inadequate while looking at her changing body in the mirror, and we can easily guess the reason when she is with her close friend Kimmie (Madeleine Waters), who looks sassier and prettier in comparison.

During one evening, Minnie and Monroe happen to go to a local bar together when Charlotte chooses to stay at home. As they talk and drink more with each other, Minnie comes to feel more attraction toward Monroe, and then she makes an active move toward Monroe, who may have some reservation but does not hide at all how his certain body part reacts to Minnie’s blatant act of flirting. While never overlooking the questionable aspects of their deviant interaction, this scene is handled with considerable emotional frankness, and it comes to us as one of the most humorous (and naughtiest) moments in the film thanks to the effortlessly balanced acting by Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård.

After having her first official copulation, Minnie continues her inappropriate relationship with Monroe while naturally hiding it from her mother, who sincerely encourages her to be more interested in boys while having no idea about how far her daughter has gone recently. When Minnie approaches to one of male classmates in her high school, she already has a clear idea of what she wants from the start, and she surely gets it while they have a little private time at his house.

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Meanwhile, we also observe the gradual growth of her artistic sensibility blooming inside her. She becomes interested in the works of underground comics artist Aline Kominsky, and Kominsky’s bold and provocative style, which is not so far from her future husband Robert Crumb’s works, inspires Minnie a lot as she tries to find her own style. The director Marielle Heller, who adapted Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures” for her movie, inserts several witty animation sequences into the movie for reflecting her heroine’s bouncing artistic imagination which knows no limit or taboo. In case of one animation sequence featuring a big giant girl, we get the humorous reflection of how Minnie virtually emasculates her latest sex partner, and you may appreciate a little naughty touch at the end of the film.

Powley, a young British actress who had just started her movie acting career around the time when she was cast for the movie, is fabulous in what will be her career breakthrough point. Minnie is not exactly a good girl to say the least, but Powley’s engaging nuanced performance lets us understand what drives her character into all those risky behaviors, and we come to worry about Minnie especially when she is later struggling with the consequences resulted from her reckless acts. While Skarsgård is also fine as a flawed man who turns out to be more unreliable and selfish than expected, Kristen Wiig, who has kept advancing into more serious territories as shown from her recent works in “The Skeleton Twins” (2014) and “The Martian” (2015), brings human details into what could be a thankless caricature role, and Christopher Meloni shows his surprising comic side as Minnie’s fastidious ex-stepfather, who instantly senses what is going on between Minnie and Monroe when he incidentally drops by his ex-wife’s house.

“The Diary of a Teenager Girl” did a thoughtful and sensitive job of handling its potentially sensational subject, and the result is a lively coming-of-age drama with recognizable adolescent behaviors we can emphasize with. Like many of us, she did make mistakes, but she did learn something as recognizing the inner changes to affect her life for a long time. Does she really know now who she is as well as what she wants? She will see, no matter what will happen in her approaching future.
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Emelie (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): They get a wrong babysitter…

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There are a number of good things to be appreciated in “Emelie”, a creepy little thriller movie equipped with competent filmmaking skill and solid acting. While it is engaging to see how its first two acts steadily build up tension with the growing sense of danger and dread, the movie is ultimately marred by its weak third act, and that is really a shame considering what has been established so well during the preceding parts.

When their parents are about to go outside for having their own private time together, it looks just like another usual evening for Jacob (Joshua Rush), Sally (Carly Adams) and Christopher (Thomas Bair). Their babysitter will soon arrive with their father, and they will be under her supervision until their parents come back home later. Although their parents never meet her before while only knowing that she is a daughter of one of their neighbors, they are grateful that she is available for them in time, and she instantly gets her employers’ trust as soon as she enters their house.

But we already know from the very beginning that there is something sinister about ‘Anna’. As shown during the opening sequence, real Anna was suddenly ambushed on her way to home, and we have a pretty good idea on what happened to that ill-fated girl as noticing a tiny stain of blood on the sneaker of ‘Anna’, whose actual name is Emelie (Sarah Bolger) as revealed later in the story.

Most of the suspense in the movie is generated from how Emelie gradually reveals her hidden dark side in front of the kids she is supposed to take care of. At first, she lets the kids play freely in the living room, and the kids have no problem with playing a game of pretending as suggested by her. Even when the kids go a little too far, she does not stop them at all, as if she did not give a damn about what her employers will think about that.

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While they have a good time with this seemingly cool babysitter for a while, it does not take much time for the kids to come to sense something weird about her. At one point, she deliberately exposes her certain private biological happening to Jacob, and it goes without saying that this is something he will remember for the rest of his life. When she learns that Jacob has a pet snake, she virtually forces the kids to witness a very unpleasant side of nature, and then there comes a truly twisted moment involved with a certain VHS tape whose visual content is thankfully not shown to us during that moment.

As we watch more of her vicious behaviors, we cannot help but be curious about this possibly deranged babysitter, and Sarah Bolger, a young Irish actress who has built a solid acting career since her notable roles in “In America” (2003) and “The Spiderwick Chronicles” (2008), is compelling to watch for her subtle nuances of wickedness. Looking plain and normal on the surface, she is believable when her character hides her true nature in front of others, and then she deftly dials up the level of creepiness until her character’s unwholesome motive is finally revealed around the third act.

Unfortunately, that is the point where the movie begins to falter irrevocably. Despite Bolger’s commendable efforts, her character remains to be more or less than a stereotype from hell, and that may take you back to many other thrillers like “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” (1992). While the running time of the movie is around 80 minutes, it often feels stretched out a bit too much, and that aspect is apparent especially when it occasionally shifts its focus to the kids’ parents, who absolutely have no idea about what is going on in their house while enjoying their posh dinner time outside.

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I also felt impatient with several contrived moments simply existing for the convenience of the plot. For example, when one character luckily has someone to help at one point, they choose to do a rather unwise thing instead of calling 911 right now because, well, that is necessary for the showdown moment to follow, and the movie even has its background darkened around that point without any plausible reason in the story. In case of the finale, it depends on too many coincidences to be believed, and the final minute of the movie feels like a cheap shot to say the least.

Nevertheless, the better parts of the movie show us that the director Michael Thelin, who wrote the story with his screenplay writer Richard Herbeck, is a filmmaker who knows how to engage us visually. The cinematography by Luca Del Puppo is slick and smooth as imbuing the nervous mood into the screen, and I was also amused by a few oddly anachronistic technical details (Although I spot a Wi-Fi receiver during one brief scene, other electronic equipments in the movie look like belonging to the late 1990s). Three young performers hold their own places well in front of their adult co-star, and we come to care about their characters’ safety thank to their unaffected acting.

I still think “Emelie” is a flawed film which could be better, but you will not forget Bolger’s performance after watching it. What she achieves here can be compared to Terry O’Quinn in “The Stepfather” (1987), and, like O’Quinn, she gives more than her movie deserves. I hope that this talented actress will get better chances in the future.

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Eye in the Sky (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Dilemmas of modern drone warfare

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Through its gripping drama revolving around one tricky military operation, “Eye in the Sky” presents thought-provoking dilemmas of modern drone warfare without easy answers. If the ends can justify the means, how far can they go for preventing the next terror threat they cannot overlook at all? Can they possibly cross some legal/ethical lines just for that? And can they accept its possible collateral damages as well as its potential political repercussions?

After the opening scene unfolded in a poor neighborhood area near Nairobi, Kenya, the movie quickly moves its focus to a clandestine joint military operation in its preparation step. Some of high-level members of a local Islamic terrorist organization are going to have a secret meeting somewhere in Nairobi with two young recruits who have already been on the watchlist, and the purpose of this joint operation is ambushing and arresting them all right on the spot as soon as their meeting is confirmed.

We see how the ongoing circumstance is being monitored from different locations around the world second by second. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a British Colonel in the overall command of this operation, is bracing herself at her commanding post in UK as it seems quite possible that her long search for the targets will finally end within a few hours. At a US Air Force Base near Las Vegas, Lieutenant Steven Watts (Aaron Paul) and his partner Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) are operating a MQ-9 reaper drone flying over Nairobi, and what is captured through the high-tech video camera of their drone is instantly analyzed by their co-working team in Hawaii.

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In Nairobi, a Kenyan army unit is ready for the call at a nearby base, and there is also an undercover surveillance team which keeps a very close eye on the site presumed to be the targets’ meeting place. The depiction of their surveillance technology in the film may not look that realistic to you, but I heard that it is actually closer to reality than we think. When I was watching the gut-chilling finale sequence of “Syriana” (2005), I hastily thought the military technology depicted during that sequence was a bit unrealistic, but then, what do you know, I began to hear about those targeted killings by US Army drones only a few years later.

In London, Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman) and several high-ranking British government officials are patiently watching the progress of the operation. Once two of their targets are spotted and then tracked down, everything seems to go well as planned, but then there comes an unexpected turn which changes the whole nature of the operation. It turns out that their targets are actually preparing for another terror, and, unfortunately, drone attack is the only possible way to stop these terrorists’ terrible plan under this changed circumstance.

While Colonel Powell believes the targets should be eliminated as soon as possible, the British government officials see the situation in different views, and they are concerned about whether there is anything illegal about their authorization of this targeted killing. As a matter of fact, two of their targets are technically British citizens, and the targeted killing of its citizens will not be a good publicity for the British government.

The screenplay by Guy Hibbert shows a wry sense of humor when its government official characters understandably hesitate at their frustrating decision point. The more they discuss about their imminent matter, the more they are aware of its enormous political risk. They eventually choose to seek the approval from their superiors, but their superiors are also reluctant to give their 100% approval despite the full support from the high-ranking US government officials, who are indubitably eager to erase several names around the top of their list of terrorists to be eliminated.

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In the meantime, the situation becomes more complicated than before as another unexpected factor comes into the picture. A little girl is selling bread near the site to be bombed, and that leads to another dilemma for everyone in the operation. Considering that their targets can leave the site at any point and then can cause far more damages and casualties, it can be argued that they should accept the unavoidable collateral damage represented by that girl, but then it can also be argued that the bombing will seriously damage their moral stance in the War on Terror. After all, which one will draw public attention more, a little girl’s tragic death or a prevented terror attempt?

The director Gavin Hood, a South African filmmaker who has been mainly known for his Oscar-winning film “Tsotsi” (2005), did a skillful job of juggling many different elements in Hibbert’s screenplay. The editing by Megan Gill is taut and succinct while never letting us get lost amid multiple plot threads, and it surely helps that many of the key characters in the film are played by recognizable performers like Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, and Alan Rickman, an invaluable British actor who sadly passed away not long before the movie was released in US early in this year.

Because of their shared main subject, “Eye in the Sky” is automatically compared to Andrew Niccol’s “Good Kill” (2014), and I think the former is superior to the latter in many aspects. Driven by its thriller premise, it is more focused and thoughtful with a wider and more complex view on the subject, and it is also compelling to watch how its plot pieces come to gather together at its inevitable narrative endpoint. This is a smart, intelligent war film, and I think you should watch it for some thoughts regardless of your opinion on modern drone warfare.

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Train to Busan (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): South Korean Zombie Express

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South Korean film “Train to Busan” combines one of my least favorite movie subjects with one of my most favorite movie subjects: zombie and train. As you have already guessed, this is basically another typical zombie movie in which a group of ordinary characters struggle to stay or run away from a sudden zombie epidemic, but the movie is scary and thrilling enough to fix us on the edge of our sear during most of its running time, and it also plays well with its refreshing premise while relentlessly passing by its plot points one by one as demanded.

After the unsettling opening sequence which announces a disaster on the horizon in advance, the movie moves onto its hero’s one bad day. Seok-woo (Gong Yoo) is a fund manager working in Seoul, and he is trying to deal with an unexpected trouble associated with some biotechnology company he has recently invested. While occupied with this annoying problem, he manages to prepare the birthday present for his young daughter Soo-an (Kim Soo-an), but he only finds himself disappointing her while being reminded again of how lousy he has been as her father.

Because Soo-an really wants to see her mother who moved away to Busan after her divorce, Seok-woo decides to take a half day-off for accompanying her on their express train to Busan. Although they happen to witness a big accident on their way to the train station during the early next morning, everything mostly looks quiet and normal in the city, and we see them and other passengers going on board one by one before the departure time of their train.

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Not long after the train leaves the station, Seok-woo and other passengers slowly begin to sense that something weird is going on outside. They see TV news reports about numerous violent incidents which are happening in Seoul with no apparent reason, and the government continues to emphasize that there is nothing to be alarmed about, though this ongoing situation seems to be getting worse and worse with more rampages in the city.

Of course, this is just the beginning of a zombie epidemic to sweep across most of the country, and the movie steadily increases its level of tension step by step until it reaches the expected breaking point in the end. Once one unfortunate passenger eventually goes into that fully violent and infectious mode, it does not take much time for most of other passengers to be transformed into a horde of raging zombies not so different from what we saw from “28 Days Later…” (2002), and Seok-woo must do anything to save himself and his daughter from this terrifying circumstance.

As the train keeps staying on its course to Busan, the movie presents several impressive sequences packed with dread, suspense, horror, and action. At one point, there is a frightening moment when surviving passengers belatedly realize an imminent danger waiting right in front of them, and then we get a suspenseful scene when Seok-woo and a few other characters must be very careful in their every small movement for evading zombies. While the zombies in the movie do not bring anything new to their genre, they do look scary and daunting in their murderous group behaviors, and they are effectively utilized to make us involved in what is at stake for our endangered living characters during their desperate action scenes.

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The characters in the movie are simple and broad to say the least, but I guess that comes with the territory, and you may recognize its various stereotype characters with amusement as its supporting cast members fill each own spot as required. We have a pregnant lady and her hulking husband; two old ladies who occasionally bicker with each other; a high school baseball team player and his pretty cheerleader girlfriend; a selfish businessman prick who spells out troubles right from his first appearance; a train conductor and a train engineer who are trying to deal with the situation way over their head; and a questionable stowaway who seems to be still frightened by whatever he saw before getting on the train. As Gong Yoo’s earnest performance holds the center even during the most frantic moments in the film, other notable South Korean performers including Ma Dong-seok, Jeong Yu-mi, and Kim Ee-seong are also effective in their supporting roles, and young actress Kim Soo-an handles well her rather sentimental scenes with Gong.

“Train to Busan” is the first live-action feature film by the director/wrtier Yeon Sang-ho, who previously directed two animation feature films “The King of Pigs” (2011) and “The Fake” (2013). Both of these moody and disturbing animation films were utterly uncomfortable but compelling works which trembled me a lot with its dark, brutal insights on the South Korean society, and I can tell you that a number of certain scenes in “Train to Busan” will probably resonate with South Korean audiences for good reasons. While watching those scenes, I could not help but think of the MERS virus outbreak which happened in South Korea during last summer – and how that outbreak was widely spread around the country mainly thanks to the stupendous incompetence and ignorance of our government as our society was thrown into the panic over that outbreak.

Although it unfortunately loses some of its narrative momentum during its last act coupled with arbitrary melodramatic moments, “Train to Busan” remains to be an entertaining genre piece with enough goodies to thrill and excite us, and Yeon makes a solid forward step into the mainstream as demonstrating his considerable filmmaking skills here. The movie made me frightened for what might happen for its characters, and I think I will be a little more watchful in the next time when I get on a train.

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Good Kill (2014) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): His unbearable lightness of following orders

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“Good Kill” wants to be a thought-provoking drama about the disturbing sides of modern warfare technology of our time, but it only keeps spinning its wheels with no sense of direction. While there are a number of darkly absurd scenes which remind us of “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) and “Catch-22” (1970), the movie does not have any edge to push itself into ironic satire despite its interesting contrast of backgrounds. Although there are also several serious moments of uneasy moral questions, the movie does not have enough narrative pull to grab us, and we merely watch its burned-out hero going through his unbearable lightness of following orders.

Ethan Hawke, who constantly looks numb or alienated in his most parched performance to date, plays Major Thomas Egan, who is doing his usual duty at an Air Force Base near Las Vegas during the opening sequence. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), Egan and his few colleagues are operating an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone flying above somewhere in Afghanistan, and we watch how their mission is done as they carefully monitor the situation for the precise elimination of their target. Once the target is in the right place, the missile launch is ordered by Johns, and the mission is accomplished just after a little more than 10 seconds.

While his colleagues do not have much problem with working inside one of those high-tech trailers placed in the base, Egan has been frustrated because his military career seems to be reaching the dead end. He works in a more comfortable condition than before, and his wife Molly (January Jones) is content to have her husband near her and their kids in their suburban house, but this changed situation remains to feel alien to his detached state of mind. He misses when he could fly jet fighter, and he still hopes that he will be sent to the front line again someday.

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But, as his boss bitterly tells him during their private conversation, nothing can stop the changes in their military world. Drones are replacing jet fighters day by day, and there are not many positions available to Egan nowadays. Most of new recruits in the base are selected because of their computer game skill rather than flying skill, and I can easily imagine their military job being outsourced if that can ever be possible. After all, all you need is knowing what buttons to push during your operation, isn’t it?

While the daily routine for Egan and his colleagues goes on and on, their drone operations become morally questionable especially after they are ordered to work with CIA. At one point, they bomb a building, and then they are ordered to bomb the site again even though it is possible that not everyone gathering around the site after the first bombing is a potential terrorist. Collateral damage becomes acceptable as their drone operations become more expanded and ruthless, and there is a disturbingly ironic moment when Egan and his colleagues spot a local woman being helplessly abused by some guy while their drone camera looks upon her village from the sky. They cannot ignore this terrible moment, but neither the woman nor the abuser is their target, so there is nothing they can do about that.

Despite such provocative moments like that, the director Andrew Niccol’s screenplay is seldom energized as droning on with its military characters’ repetitive operations. Hawke, who previously collaborated with Niccol in “Gattaca” (1997) and “Lord of War” (2005), is believable in his understated presentation of suffocation and frustration, but there is not much depth in his agonizing character who seems to have been drained of his spirit for years, and it is difficult for us to care about him as the movie keeps the clinical distance between its aloof hero and us.

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In case of Egan’s relationship with his wife, its depiction is sketchy at best except keeping reminding us of how much they are estranged from each other, and January Jones, who is still trying to find her next solid career step after TV series “Mad Men”, is wasted in her thankless role. At least, she and Hawke have a good scene together when Egan tries to open himself more to his wife, and this calm but unnerving scene shows us how much their performances could be enhanced if they were served by a better screenplay.

Like Hawke and Jones, the other actors in the film try their best with their underdeveloped characters. Zoë Kravitz is a female soldier who gradually becomes conflicted about her missions just like her senior, and Bruce Greenwood has a couple of nice scenes where his character shows his practical balance between cynicism and common sense as the leader of his unit. He does not like what is going on around him, but he follows orders anyway as a dutiful soldier, while often reminding his soldiers of the human cost of what they do everyday.

As shown from his debut work “Gattaca” and many of his following works, Niccol has steadily shown his interest on the relationship between technology and humanity. While “Gattaca” has been more relevant as biotechnology keeps rapidly advancing, his screenplay for “The Truman Show” (1998) predicted the rise of reality TV shows in advance, and “Lord of War” pungently points out that virulent global cycle between human war and arms dealing. “Good Kill” is not as memorable as these smart works, but its few good moments may make you reflect on the brave new war emerging in our time.

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