Fire at Sea (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Far from each other – but also close to each other

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Italian documentary film “Fire at Sea”, which won the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, simply observes its different human subjects. While life goes on as usual in one small Mediterranean island, there also have been the continuing human struggles of thousands of migrants and refugees around this region, and the documentary gradually make its points on this serious international issue as freely shuffling between the multiple positions which are not only far from each other but also close to each other.

The opening scene introduces to us a 12-year-old boy named Samuele, who is looking for a suitable tree branch for his sling when we meet him. He is living with his family in the Island of Lampedusa, Italy, and the movie informs us in advance that this small remote island, which is situated around 200km off Sicily while only about 100km from Africa, has been the first port of call in the migration route for many African and Middle Eastern people who try to settle or find refuge in Europe.

According to the documentary, around 400,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea during last 20 years while 15,000 of them died in their perilous attempt. During one early scene, we listen to one urgent distress radio call from a sinking boat full of more than 200 migrants, and then we learn from the news announcement of a local radio show host during the next morning that most of these people were luckily saved although at least 34 of them were drowned during the incident.

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Such an incident like that does not shock the residents of the island much, mainly because they have been accustomed to those desperate migrants trying to make it to the shores of their island every day. We see patrol ships moving around the surrounding sea area, and we watch how local coast guards tactfully handle a boat full of migrants. Once they arrive in the island, migrants are sent to the detention facility for them, and their uncertain current circumstance at the facility is palpable as the camera looks into them closely. They all leave behind their home for better or safer life, and there is a harrowing moment when one Nigerian man lets out his painful memories of many hardships through his improvised singing performance in front of his fellow detainees.

These moments are frequently intercut with the peaceful ordinary daily life of several island residents including Samuele. After finding right branches, Samuele makes slings along with his friend, and then they do a target practice together with cactus trees as their makeshift targets. We meet Samuele’s fisherman father who went around many different places around the world in the past as reflected by a number of photographs in his fishing ship, and then we meet Samuele’s grandmother, who cooks your average Italian meal for her family during one scene.

While the migrant problem around his island is surely the last thing to come into his young mind, there comes a serendipitous symbolic moment when it is diagnosed that Samuele has a lazy eye on the left. He is recommended to depend on his faulty left eye more with his normal right eye being temporarily blindfolded, and you can easily discern the metaphoric aspect of his ophthalmic problem even though the documentary does not spell it out loud.

We also meet the only local resident doctor in the island, who has dealt with many cases of migrants as working with local coast guards and authorities. His compassionate professionalism is evident from how he does his jobs. When he is doing an ultrasound scanning on the twin babies of a pregnant migrant woman, he makes her feel safe and comfortable as much as he can, and we see a little glimpse of hope as he confirms to her that her babies are mostly fine. He later has a meeting with Samuele for medical examination, and their engaging interaction is one of a few amusing moments in the documentary.

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The director Gianfranco Rosi steps a little out of his usual austere approach when the doctor expresses his personal frustration over the situation which has been not changed much for many years. The doctor shows us one photograph, and he tells us several gloomy facts behind the photograph. While everyone on the boat in the photograph paid considerable amount of money, many of them had to endure more grueling conditions for days just because they paid less than others, and the doctor presents to us a horrible medical case resulted from the hazardous combination of engine fuel and sea water.

As the doctor bitterly admits, he and others often could not save everyone, and those sad moments of horror and tragedy he witnessed is reflected well by a powerful sequence revolving around another rescue operation on the sea. We see a number of sick migrants who are barely mobile and conscious in their deteriorating health condition caused by severe dehydration, and then there comes a devastating moment when the camera eventually shows us what is left inside the boat after every living passenger has left the boat.

Although it demands some patience from us due to its restrained presentation devoid of explanatory narration, “Fire at Sea” steps aside for letting its captured moments assemble its big, troubling picture for themselves, and the overall result is somehow both distant and immediate. I think some background knowledge on the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe is required for appreciating what Rosi achieves in his documentary, but you will certainly agree to what the doctor in the film says at one point: “It’s the duty of every human being, if you’re human, to help these people.”

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Creepy (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A possibility of unspeakable evil on the next door

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Japanese film “Creepy” works best when it plays with its insidious atmosphere. As it slowly delves into one disturbing mystery step by step along with a number of creepy insinuating moments, a possibility of unspeakable evil on the next door becomes more palpable than before, and we come to fear more for what may lie beneath its seemingly ordinary background. Something does not feel right from the beginning, and the movie keeps us on the edge with its calm but unnerving suspense until the plot unfortunately starts to unravel during its third act.

The early part of the movie revolves around how Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) try to start their life again not long after a disastrous incident shown during the opening sequence. As a detective who was also a criminal psychology expert, Koichi was fascinated with a young culprit who was evidently a textbook case of psychopath in his professional view, but he underestimated how murderous this culprit was, and his mistake led to a shocking consequence which resulted in his resignation.

At present, Koichi teaches criminal psychology at a local college, and he and his wife are mostly satisfied with their new neighborhood although their new neighbors are not very nice to say the least. There are two houses located right next to their new home on the right side, and one of them belongs to a middle-aged lady who is living with her ill mother. When Koichi and Yasuko go to her house for acquainting themselves a bit with her, she coldly responds to their sincerity, and she makes it very clear to them that she is not interested in getting friendly with them at all.

The other house belongs to a guy named Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa), and the movie makes no secret about his unnerving presence right from his first appearance accompanied with a literally shady aura. While he merely looks like a socially awkward man who is often shy and clumsy in interacting with others, there is something odd and uncomfortable about this guy, and that bothers Yasuko a lot during her first encounter with him.

 

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Meanwhile, Koichi is visited by his former partner Nogami (Masahiro Higashide), who wants some assistance from Koichi for an unsolved case which also happens to draw Koichi’s interest by coincidence. Six years ago, three members of an ordinary middle-class family were suddenly vanished without any trace, and the police could not find any clue for what really happened to them. While there was an adolescent daughter who fortunately avoided whatever happened to her family, she could not help the investigation much because she was not even at her home around the time when her family was gone missing.

For his own unofficial investigation, Koichi decides to meet and interview that girl. Saki (Haruna Kawaguchi) is understandably reluctant to revisit that difficult period in her past, but she is eventually persuaded by Koichi, and there is a wonderful sequence unfolded within a college office where Saki tries to remember and tell everything she witnessed from and around her family shortly before their disappearance. While we listen to her words along with Koichi, the director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa dexterously modulates the mood via the careful control of lighting, blocking, and camera movement, and the glassy office environment insulated from another busy day at the college adds more nervous ambience to this memorable sequence. As the camera is patiently looking at Saki, we cannot help but wonder as much as Koichi. Can we trust what she tells? If she does tell the truth, who is that mysterious man who was likely responsible for the missing of her family?

The plot thickens as it becomes quite possible that Nishino is the man Koichi is looking for. Nishino seems to be living with his wife and daughter, but we do not see his wife, who, according to her husband, is too sick to go outside the house. Koichi and Yasuko meet Nishino’s teenager daughter Mio (Ryōko Fujino), and they have a nice dinner with Mio and her father, but then Mio blurts out something strange when she happens to be alone with Koichi.

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Things become weirder as we observe more strains inside the relationship between Koichi and Yasuko. Although she comes to be more unnerved and repulsed by Nishimo as much as her husband, she somehow cannot say everything to Koichi, and we see her slowly and helplessly imploded alone day by day as one dangerous possibility comes to dawn upon her husband during his ongoing investigation.

I have not read the novel of the same name by Yutaka Maekawa yet, but I can say that Kurosawa and his co-adapter Chihiro Ikeda did a good job of building narrative momentum during the first two acts of the movie. As reflected by the frequent presence of cicadas on the soundtrack, many scenes in the movie are filled with the ambience of ordinary sunny summer days, but their shaded tone subtly suggests the constant presence of darkness around the corners, and we are not surprised but terrified when the movie finally uncovers what has been hidden from us and Koichi. Kurosawa also draws good performances from his cast members, and Teruyuki Kagawa certainly has a lot of juicy fun with his potentially diabolical character while Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yuko Takeuchi are convincing in their characters’ gradual descent into darkness.

Like many similar thriller film, “Creepy” becomes less compelling once it places all of its hidden cards in front of the audiences, and its deficient third act, which is hampered by too many contrivances, is unsatisfying compared to what has been built up to that point. Despite this disappointment, the movie is still another interesting work from one of the most fascinating filmmakers working in Japan, and its dark, creeping impression of evil is surely something which will not easily go away from your mind after it is over.

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Seoul Station (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Zombie night in Seoul

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Zombie apocalypse fictions are dime a dozen in these days, but South Korean animation feature film “Seoul Station” has its own disturbing darkness to distinguish itself among other zombie movies. While its zombies are frightening as required, it is also quite unnerving to observe that the society to be turned upside down by a sudden zombie outbreak is a little less grotesque in comparison, and that aspect is the major source of gut-chilling emotional effects to strike us hard in the movie.

But then we should not expect anything less than that from the director/writer Yeon Sang-ho, who gave me darkly harrowing experiences through his two previous animation feature films “The King of Pigs” (2011) and “The Fake” (2013). Both of them show us how the weak and helpless in the lower strata of the South Korean society can be cruelly and ruthlessly abused or exploited, and they leave bitter aftertastes to linger on us as constantly shaking our nerve with the dark, ugly sides of the South Korean society.

The opening scene in “Seoul Station” also begins with a similar gloomy aura of despair and doom shown from Yeon’s two previous works. During one hot summer evening at the Seoul Station, people notice a badly injured old guy struggling to walk to somewhere, but nobody pays any attention to him mainly because it is clear from his appearance that he is one of those shabby homeless people who usually sleep around the station.

Anyway, he manages to arrive at his usual sleeping spot, and his health condition gets worse than before. His fellow homeless guy, who looks rather retarded considering his clumsy words and behaviors, tries to help his friend as much as he can, but then there are not many things he can do about that. A nearby shelter for homeless people is already full, and nobody in the shelter wants to give up his place. For the guards and public servants on duty around the station, homeless people are simply an annoying problem they do not want to handle, and they callously disregard the matter of that ill old man.

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If you have seen Yeon’s first live action feature film “Train to Busan” (2016), which was released in South Korea and US in last month, I am sure you already have a pretty good idea about what is happening to the old man. A deadly zombie virus is taking the first step of its outbreak inside the city, and, once the old man is turned into a zombie shortly after his eventual death, many other homeless people are also turned into zombies within a short period of time.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on the desperate condition of a runaway teenager girl named Hye-seon (voiced by Sim Eun-kyeong, who incidentally played one of the minor characters in “Train to Busan”). She is currently living with her boyfriend Gi-woong (voiced by Lee Joon), but they run out of money now and they are about to be kicked out from their shabby motel room because of that. When she comes to learn that Gi-woong attempts to push her into online prostitution, Hye-seon becomes infuriated about this, and their following quarrel puts her into more pain and despair while her despicable boyfriend eventually walks away from her.

Aimlessly wandering around the Seoul Station after that, Hye-seon happens to come across the beginning of the zombie epidemic, and she soon finds herself running away from zombies. At one point, she and other survivor have to walk along a subway track to find any possible way out of their peril, and there is a brief but memorable moment involved with a subway station which turns out to be full of zombies already to their horror (after watching this scene, you will more appreciate the existence of platform screen doors).

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While Hye-seon is desperately trying to survive her hellish night, Gi-woong finds himself accompanying the last guy he wants to get involved with. After hearing about an online advertisement posted by Gi-woong, Seok-gyoo (voiced by Ryoo Seung-ryong) approaches to Gi-woong as disguising himself as a client, and Gi-woong realizes he made a very big mistake as soon as he meets Seok-gyoo. He has no choice but to help Seok-gyoo finding Hye-seon as soon as possible, but then they also encounter zombies on their way, and we see how the situation only gets worse as they keep searching for Hye-seon. Thanks to the ignorance and incompetence of the police, the city is thrown into more panic and chaos as the night goes on, and Gi-woong and Seok-gyoo come to face a grim possibility while time is running out for Hye-seon as well as other unfortunate people.

Like “Train to Busan”, “Seoul Station” has weak and strong points to notice. While the former is supported by more efficient storytelling and more effective action/thriller moments, the latter is helped a lot by its vivid, stylish depiction of zombies, and its zombies definitely look scarier than their live action counterparts in the former. While the former is hampered a bit by its melodramatic third act, the latter often feels too blatant in its critical view on the South Korean society, and I must point out that it is difficult to care much about many of the characters in the movie, who are pathetic or repugnant to say the least as reflected by their ungainly appearances.

Like “The King of Pigs” and “The Fake”, “Seoul Station” is not a comfortable animation film to watch because of its stark mood and story. It is not as entertaining as “Train to Busan”, but you will probably admire it if you were impressed by “The King of Pigs” and “The Fake”. All hell breaks loose in the end, but it was already a hell for them even before the beginning – and we are chilled by that while scared by those bloody zombies.

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Star Trek Beyond (2016) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Not Beyond Yet

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“Star Trek Beyond” seems to be ready to go boldly where no previous Star Trek movie has gone before, but, again, it turns out to be still trying to warm up its renewed franchise before whatever will follow after this. While “Star Trek” (2009) found considerable potentials in its mostly successful reboot attempt, “Star Trek Into Darkness” (2013) played safe with the established ground of the franchise without much surprise or wonder, and the same thing can be said about “Star Trek Beyond”, which provides some entertaining moments to enjoy but is basically a passable entry which fails to distinguish itself from other notable Star Trek movies while merely being as big, loud, and explosive as many other summer blockbuster movies.

It is now 3 years after the major incidents in “Star Trek Into Darkness”, and the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) and its crew have been going through its five-year space mission. After an unsuccessful diplomatic business at some alien planet, the Enterprise flies to a space station named Yorktown for a brief shore leave, and this massive space station is a wonderful visual pleasure to look around. As the Enterprise goes inside the station, we behold the giant inner frame structure inside its transparent sphere, and we see several amusing sights of roads and buildings being placed horizontally or vertically along the frame.

Meanwhile, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), the captain of the Enterprise, has been restless and uncertain about his life as finding himself beginning to live longer than his dead father. When he receives the news of his possible upcoming promotion, he is surely glad about this good news, but that means he will probably have to leave behind his ship and his key crewmates who have been not only dependable colleagues but also dear close friends.

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In case of Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), he also has his own personal matters to deal with. He receives the sad news about the recent death of his older self who came from an alternative timeline, and he tries to process this news logically as a Vulcan although his human side is deeply mournful about it. In addition, he recently broke up with his girlfriend Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana), but it is apparent to Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban) that Spock and Uhura have some remaining feelings between them, though Spock flatly emphasizes that he and Uhura are officially no longer a couple.

And then, of course, there comes a new threat on the horizon. During the impromptu rescue mission to a planet located somewhere inside a nearby nebular, the Enterprise is suddenly ambushed by Krall (Idris Elba), an alien villain who is about to execute his evil plan he has nurtured on the planet for many years. It turns out that he wants something stored inside the Enterprise, so he and his drone minions mercilessly attack the ship, which eventually crashes down to the planet in a way reminiscent of the similar scene in “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” (1984).

Uhura, Sulu (John Cho), and many other surviving crewmates are captured and then imprisoned by Krall, but Kirk and Chekov (Anton Yelchin, who died shortly before the release of the movie in US) manage to evade the capture, and so do their three colleagues. Although he is seriously wounded, Spock remains calm and logical as usual while helped by Dr. McCoy, and the movie has a little fun with the pointed exchanges between them as they try to locate others. While he happens to wander alone by himself, Montgomery ‘Scotty’ Scott (Simon Pegg, who also wrote the screenplay with Doug Jung) comes across an unexpected help from Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), a native alien girl who impresses Scotty a lot with her combat skill as well as her private technical project.

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As all these plot threads eventually converge on a certain point as expected, the director Justin Lin, who previously directed no less than four Fast and Furious movies before moving onto the universe of Star Trek, keeps things rolling besides serving us a number of big CGI action sequences, but I often felt distant from all those noises and explosions as these action sequences were being busily presented with a very little sense of direction and movement. There are a few inspired things including the use of a song by Beastie Boys during the climax sequence, and I smiled as another recognizable classic song from the 20th Century was used in the other certain scene, but they were not enough for me to be involved in its weak plot decorated with many narrative holes and nonsenses.

The main cast members are reliable as they were in the previous two films. Chris Pine presents a more matured and introspective side of his character while maintaining that brash, confident attitude observed from William Shatner’s version, and Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Anton Yelchin also show more ease and deftness with their respective roles. While Sofia Boutella imbues some spunkiness into her character despite her heavy make-up, Idris Elba is regrettably wasted as being stuck inside his nearly unrecognizable appearance. As a matter of fact, there is not much Elba can act except wielding his distinctive bass voice, and that takes me back to his wonderful recent voice performances in “Zootopia” (2016), “The Jungle Book” (2016), and “Finding Dory” (2016).

I was not bored while watching “Star Trek Beyond”, but then I began to miss again better Star Trek movies such as “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982) or “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986). They have a lot more drama, humor, and intelligence to engage and intrigue me, and they are certainly fun and exciting enough for watching them again. At the end of “Star Trek Beyond”, we are reminded again that the franchise is ready for going boldly beyond its familiar territory, but, boy, when will that really happen?

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Son of Clowns (2016) ☆☆(2/4): Coming back to his circus family

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Dear Mr. Evan Kidd

Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity for watching your first feature film “Son of Clowns” in advance. As a matter of fact, you are the very first guy who has ever sent me a screener to be reviewed, and I really appreciated that you approached directly to me even though there are probably thousands of online reviewers out there who can write and spread words better than me. After thinking about it for a while, I accepted your offer because 1) that would be the interesting first experience for me as a meager movie reviewer who still has a lot to learn and 2) I was intrigued by the main subject of your movie when I watched its trailer.

Sadly, your movie did not engage me as much as I and you hoped, and, as I wrote to you before, I cannot recommend your film even after the recent second viewing. However, I think you deserve a little bit of attention at least considering the efforts glimpsed from your movie which will be soon available for more audiences, so here is what I observed and felt from the film.

At the beginning, a brief scene introduces your hero, a young actor named Hudson Cash (Adam Lee Ferguson), and his clown father for a few minutes, and then the movie abruptly cuts to the next scene showing the hero returning to his hometown in North Carolina. I found this transition distracting even during the second viewing. I think the following driving montage accompanied with the main title could be placed between the first scene and the second scene, and this rearrangement could give us some little spare time to look at your hero and then become interested in who he is.

After this rather awkward opening part which informs us on how Hudson’s acting career comes to take a serious downturn due to the sudden cancellation of his modestly successful TV show, Hudson’s family members are introduced one by one, and we also meet Hudson’s old friend, a chubby guy who works as the host of a local radio show. It is apparent from his first scene that this guy is your average beer buddy to drink with, and that also means he will not be not much of help for a high-functioning alcoholic like Hudson.

The trailer of your movie gave me an impression that you tried to give a close, intimate look at backyard circus business via your character drama, and it seems to be on the right track when it is looking around Hudson’s likable family members. They live in a cozy house decorated with small and big colorful objects to be used for their circus work, and most of their domestic scenes feel warm and sweet although they are always aware of the struggling status of their family business.

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It is too bad that the movie shows their work only during one sequence. They may not be the best in their business field, but they try as much as they can for entertaining little kids during one sunny afternoon, and I was touched by that. For many of us, clowns are frequently associated with horror movies in these days (“Clown” (2014) is the latest example, by the way), and I must say that it is refreshing to see clown jobs presented in earnest attitude without any condescending irony.

I also observed other things which do not work well at least in my opinion. I guess an acting lesson scene is supposed to emphasize what Hudson has tried to reach for as a serious actor, but what Hudson tells his eager audiences is something they probably heard during their first hour of Acting 101. I understand this scene functions as the precursor to an audition scene later in the movie, but wouldn’t it be nicer if he has other insightful advices to tell besides that clichéd one?

In one bar scene, there is not enough space for establishing one certain supporting character who turns out to be more substantial than expected but then is completely forgotten after that point. The character in question merely looks like a minor background character during the first few minutes, and then the history between this character and Hudson is suddenly introduced through their private conversation – but your screenplay inexplicably does not develop this potentially interesting situation further.

And I do not like a number of contrivances around the burgeoning relationship between Hudson and Ellie (Anne-Marie Kennedy), who has a Meet Cute moment with him when he comes into her workplace for buying balloons for his family’s work. While there is nothing wrong with the acting of your two lead performers, your screenplay frequently shifts their characters’ relationship too easily from one point to another, and I must tell you that a few seconds of brief landscape shot is not enough to convey the passage of the time between their scenes. For instance, we see Hudson and Ellie having a long night conversation with each other in Hudson’s room, and then the movie immediately cuts to the next scene showing Hudson searching for his hidden whiskey flask in the bathroom which turns out to be in Ellie’s house. Utterly bewildered by this, I asked to myself, “Wait, when did he move into her house? Did I miss something crucial for a few seconds?”

In case of the scenes involved with Hudson’s worsening alcoholism, they were my deal-breaker which unfortunately induced me to channel Pauline Kael frequently during my first viewing (“Oh! Oh! Oh!”). The family dinner scene is actually handled well as showing the other characters quietly recognizing Hudson’s sullen drunken attitude, but the other scenes feel contrived because of their jarring emotional fluctuations. Alcoholism may be a convenient storytelling tool to move your character up and down according to the demands of your plot, but you need to establish the emotional ground solid enough for that first. Otherwise, you only end up leaving on us the impression of clumsy manipulation instead of organic storytelling.

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The last act of the movie is disappointing too because it is too hurried in its depiction of that painful healing process we can expect from any alcoholics who come to realize they have hit the bottom at last. If I had been around you during the post-production period, I would have advised you to cut that redundant dream scene at the hospital, which has no purpose except pointing out a fact we already know from Hudson’s alcoholic behaviors.

Your movie is not a total failure in spite of all these flaws I noticed. You shot the film with your cast and crew for no more than 10 days, but the overall result is a decent micro-budget work which does not look cheap or shabby despite several glaring moments of technical problems. For example, Hudson’s brother appears out of nowhere without proper entrance in the middle of one certain scene unfolded in Hudson’s room, and I came to wonder whether you did not shoot any shot of Hudson’s brother entering the room. The shaky montage scene which shows the aftermath of one disastrous circus performance is rather confusing; I guess you intended this scene as a punch line for what has been built up right before that, but it does not work as well as intended because we cannot instantly gather what happens on the screen.

They say the success of your movie mostly depends on your cast, and I commend you for casting engaging performers and then drawing good performances from most of them. While Adam Lee Ferguson and Anne-Marie Kennedy are well-cast in their lead roles, my attention was more drawn to Eric Hartley and April Vickery, and I believe the movie should have focused more on their characters, who always suggest the interesting life of their own compared to other relatively underdeveloped supporting characters in the film. In case of Hartley, he is genuinely jolly and amiable, and I think local casting agents should call him first whenever there is a demand for avuncular character, though he may be able to play someone as deranged as Sid Haig in “The Devil’s Rejects” (2005).

It is one thing to distill many hours of collective efforts into a feature film of around 2 hours – and it is another thing to make it into something worthwhile for your audiences to invest their precious time. Now you did the former, so please keep going for achieving the latter someday. Since you contacted me, I have seen you making small progresses while diligently promoting your film, and I am glad for you that “Son of Clowns” got some positive responses from others, which will probably help you take the next steps in your ongoing filmmaking career. Who knows? This small interaction between us may be an amusing episode I will gladly talk about later – especially if your new work surprises me.

Again, thanks for this unsatisfying but interesting experience.

Sincerely,
Seongyong Cho

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Elvis & Nixon (2016) ☆☆(2/4): When Elvis met Nixon

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“Elvis & Nixon” attempts to look behind the most requested photograph in the US National Archives, but its fiction fails to find anything substantial from that brief real-life meeting between two famous American figures, which, as far as I could see from the movie itself, seems to be no more than a tiny eccentric anecdote in both of their lives. In fact, the movie is not even that humorous enough to engage us during its short running time, despite its two wonderful lead actors who surely deserve better than this.

Michael Shannon plays Elvis Presley, and the movie is about Presley’s one quirky day in 1970 December. While spending time alone as usual at his residence in Memphis, Tennessee, he happens to get an unrealistic idea of being appointed as a federal agent, and he promptly steps outside for getting what he wants. He takes an early morning flight to LA to meet his old friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), and then they fly together to Washington D.C. Shortly after their arrival in Washington D.C., they attempt to deliver Presley’s personal letter directly to none other than Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), and then they wait on the top floor of a posh hotel in the city along with their friend Sonny West (Johnny Knoxville), while Schilling is looking for any possible way to have Presley allowed into the White House to meet Nixon and then appointed as a federal agent with a badge.

Meanwhile, Presley’s letter manages to be sent inside the White House mainly thanks to his celebrity status, and two White House staff members Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) are excited about this unexpected opportunity. Although neither their direct boss H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan) nor Nixon is particularly interested, Krogh and Chapin see the potential of good publicity from the meeting between the King and the US president, and they soon come to work together with Schilling to make the meeting possible.

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The movie spends more than a half of its 86-minute running time to this preparation process, but this part is not terribly interesting besides a few small amusing moments. Schilling and the other supporting characters around Presley or Nixon remain to be flat, mediocre caricatures throughout the film, and the screenplay by Joey Sagal, Hanala Sagal, and Cary Elwes just trudges along with them without any sense of narrative momentum. In case of a subplot involved with Schilling’s girlfriend who is not so pleased about his sudden absence, this feels more like standard filling material instead of providing additional dramatic tension, and it only becomes more redundant along the story without generating any significant dramatic weight.

Shannon does as much as he can with his role, and I like how he balances his character between humor and pathos while walking through his scenes with mandatory charisma as required. Although he has been tired of his huge star persona for years, Presley is also quite accustomed to getting whatever he wants through his enormous celebrity, and there is an absurd scene where Presley sincerely tries to convince a baffled DEA deputy director that he is an ideal guy to be an undercover agent for drug cases. It looks like he really wants to help his country in many troubles including the Vietnam War, but he seems to have no idea about how silly his idea actually is.

Astutely maintaining the elusive deadpan attitude of his performance, Shannon lets us glimpse the humanity of his character. Presley is indeed your average capricious superstar full of whims and quirks, but he is also intelligent enough to recognize the gap between Elvis the King and Elvis the man, and Shannon has a small poignant scene when Presley confides his personal feelings on that widening gap to Schilling during their private moment.

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On the opposite, Kevin Spacey is adequate as Richard Nixon although his performance is not allowed to have enough time to establish itself in the movie in contrast to Shannon’s. It goes without saying that he resembles Nixon no more than Philip Baker Hall in “Secret Honor” (1984), Anthony Hopkins in “Nixon” (1995), and Frank Langella in “Frank/Nixon” (2008), but Spacey channels Nixon’s distinctive persona well even though his character often seems to be in the area of Saturday Night Live sketch, and he and Shannon give us a certain degree of expectation while they are acting separately for nearly an hour.

Sadly, the last 20 minutes which finally focuses on the awaited meeting between their two characters is anti-climactic to say the least. While watching them together on the screen, my mind soon began to drift away to how fascinating both Spacey and Shannon have been in their long respective careers. After his Oscar-winning breakthrough turn in “The Usual Suspects” (1995), Spacey has usually been a compelling actor to watch regardless of the quality of his movies, and the same thing can be said about Shannon, who drew my attention for the first time through his rather strained supporting performance in “World Trade Center” (2006) but then has kept impressing me for his fruitful collaborations with Jeff Nichols in “Shotgun Stories” (2007) and “Take Shelter” (2011) as well as his shattering Oscar-nominated supporting turn in “Revolutionary Road” (2008).

If you simply want to watch Shannon and Spacey playing together on the screen, “Elvis & Nixon” can be a lightweight fun for you, but I must point out that there are better films which are more enjoyable and insightful in many aspects. I cannot recall any particular good movie about Presley right now, but “Secret Honor” and “Nixon” tell a lot more about Nixon through their respective fictions, and “Frost/Nixon” provides a far more compelling story via the dynamic interactions between its two real-life title characters. Furthermore, there is also a small political comedy named “Dick” (1999), which deserves to be mentioned for its rich comic elements including Dan Hedaya’s wry performance as Nixon. Compared to all these interesting films, “Elvis & Nixon” looks like a forgettable minor affair – and that is all.
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Miles Ahead (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Miles before moving ahead

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Shortly after the screening of “Miles Ahead” during this Saturday afternoon, I happened to have a brief conversation with one of the audiences. He pointed out how the movie was not so different from another recent jazz musician biography film “Born to Be Blue” (2015), and I could not agree with him more because I kept making comparisons between these two films throughout the screening. Like “Born to Be Blue”, “Miles Ahead” tries to do something different through its own improvisation, but it still feels like a conventional musician biography as dealing with many familiar elements you can expect from a troubled jazz musician’s life, and the overall result is less successful in comparison despite its admirable intention.

Its story casually moves back and forth between two different periods in the life and career of Miles Davis (Don Cheadle), one of the legendary American jazz musicians during the late 20th century. During the late 1970s, Davis has been in a self-imposed retirement status for years, and it looks like he reaches to the end of his career when he is visited by David Braden (Ewan McGregor), a Rolling Stone reporter who wants to scoop any good writing material from Davis. While his record company is still expecting him to make a comeback, Davis does not seem to be particularly interested in recording anything new for now, and his current life has been in disarray as reflected by his despondent appearance mixed with aggressiveness and drug addiction.

While their first encounter at Davis’ residence in New York City was not so pleasant to say the least, Braden accompanies Davis when Davis makes a surprise visit to his record company, and it turns out Davis has a recording session tape he made a few years ago. Many people are interested in that tape although Davis does not want to reveal its contents for now, and one of them is Harper Hamilton (Michael Stuhlbarg), a shady music producer who wants the tape for whatever he is planning behind his back. When Davis’ tape happens to be snatched by Hamilton later, Davis is determined to retrieve the tape by any means necessary, and Braden soon finds himself acting as a reluctant helper in Davis’ rather reckless attempt.

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In the meantime, a series of occasional flashback scenes give us the glimpses into Davis’ relationship with his ex-wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) in the past. Although Davis was not that faithful to Frances even before their marriage in 1958, their love was evident when they met each other for the first time, and she even gave up her promising dancing career just because he demanded that not long after they married.

They have been happy together for a while since their marriage, but then, not so surprisingly, there comes a point where she begins to run out of her patience because of her husband’s personal problems. She becomes more frustrated about his continuing infidelity, and that leads to a big domestic fight between them. While struggling with drug addiction around their later years, Davis terrorizes Frances with his paranoia fueled by drugs, and that is when she finally decides that enough is enough.

The screenplay by Steven Baigelman and Don Cheadle, which was developed from the story written by Baigelman, Cheadle, and their two co-writers Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, incorporates a considerable number of fictional elements into its free-flowing narrative intended to reflect the uncertain and hesitant mood of its hero. For example, Braden is a fictional character to function as our observer, and I must tell you that his potentially dangerous adventure with Davis during the second half of the movie is purely the writers’ creation.

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This is surely an interesting storytelling attempt for reaching to the human essence of its subject, but the movie somehow ends up merely scratching the surface on the whole. While constantly intertwined with each other like two rhythms being played together, its two main storylines do not generate enough narrative syncopation effect between them, and the finale feels lackluster especially when it eventually reveals the answer to the main curiosity in the movie.

Cheadle, who also directed and co-produced the film, gives an engaging performance to watch. Besides looking convincing during the musical performance scenes in the film, he humbly embodies his character while not stepping back from his character’s negative sides at all. It is indeed a cliché to say that some talented artists are difficult jerks, but Cheadle presents that conventional contradiction with honesty and respect, and he also provides a number of good musical moments including when Davis is trying to get a right performance as working closely with his studio session players. As we can expect from any movie about jazz music (or ‘social music’, as pointed out by Davis at one point in the film), the soundtrack is filled with numerous recognizable jazz pieces, and there is also a nice surprise to be enjoyed around the end credits.

“Miles Ahead” is deficient in several aspects including its underdeveloped supporting characters, and it is disappointing to see talented actors like Ewan McGregor, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Lakeith Lee Stanfield being stuck with rote supporting roles. “Born to Be Blue” is a little more successful in its similar storytelling experiment in my opinion, but “Miles Ahead” is not a total waste of time thanks to its few better parts including Cheadle’s performance, and these two jazz music films will probably make an interesting double feature show together in their common ground.

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