Concussion (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An inconvenient medical truth

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Around late 2011, I read a series of disturbing articles from New York Times. The articles were about a young professional hockey player named Derek Boogaard, and that was the first time I heard about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While he was about to have the 29th birthday shortly before his untimely death, it was revealed via postmortem that his brain was severely suffering from CTE, which must have been caused by those countless physical traumas inflicted on his head during numerous hockey games. Even if he had not died at that time, he would not have lived that long because of the inexorable progress of this slow but ultimately fatal brain disorder.

Boogaard’s story was probably not very shocking to the real-life hero of “Concussion”, a medical/forensic expert who happened to notice a serious medical risk associated with American football and other tough popular sports like ice hockey. The movie tries to tell a dramatic story about his long, frustrating struggle against a big, formidable system willing to disregard his inconvenient medical truth in the name of publicity and profit, but it mostly plays safe with its materials while not being edgy enough to grab my attention, and I was not engaged much as sensing its apparently sanitized storytelling, which often dulls a compelling real-life human story behind it.

Looking as plain and earnest as his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006), Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian physician and forensic pathologist who has steadily built his professional career at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a smart, gentle, and diligent guy with impressive education background, and his decency and intelligence are clearly visible from when he gives a thoughtful forensic testimony at the court or when he respectfully and carefully handles a body to be autopsied at his workplace.

When Mike Webster’s body is sent to the coroner’s office, Omalu has no idea about how famous Webster is in Pittsburgh. Many people in Pittsburgh still remember Webster as one of the best American football players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but something went wrong not long after his retirement, and he became a broken homeless man during his final year. Although he appears only during a few early scenes, David Morse is heartbreaking as a man helplessly being pulled into the abyss of an aberrant condition his mind cannot grasp at all. He knows too well that he has problems, but he only finds himself getting more frustrated, disoriented, and isolated as his health condition keeps being deteriorated day by day.

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After examining Webster’s body which looks far older than he actually is (he was only 50 at the time of his death), Omalu decides to dig deeper into his latest case. Under the permission of his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), he proceeds to the microscopic examination of Webster’s brain, and he is surprised when he looks into a number of specimens prepared from Webster’s inner brain tissues. While his brain looks all right on the surface, all of the specimens show the typical pathological signs of tissue damage usually observed from Alzheimer’s disease patients.

When he later meets other experts to discuss this alarming case, he has a good theory on his forensic discovery. Human brain is usually protected well inside cranium, but, as he explains during this scene, human cranium cannot protect brain from heavy physical impacts beyond its inherent biological limit. Because they are highly sensitive in their intricate neuronal structures on which our mind depends everyday, brain tissues are irrevocably damaged whenever such impactful physical trauma is inflicted on cranium. Considering that football players are far likelier to get serious head traumas due to their frequent rough plays on the field, what happened to Webster’s brain is actually not that surprising at all.

With Dr. Wecht as one of his co-authors, Omalu publishes a paper on a medical journal for reporting what he found and deduced from Webster’s case, but, as warned to him from the beginning, his report is not received well by many people in one of the biggest sports industries in US. The National Football League (NFL) quickly tries to discredit his work while denying any association between American football and the risk of brain damage, and Omalu starts to feel pressured and cornered, though he remains to be supported by his boss and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who has known the problem for years as a doctor who once served the system.

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The screenplay by the director Peter Landesman, which is based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’s nonfiction book “Game Brain”, tries to put some dramatic tension into its plot, but its attempt feels heavy-handled while clashing with the overall low-key tone of the film. While the NFL guys are the villains of the story as we are constantly reminded of their presence via the routine wide shots of big American football stadiums, they are no more than bland, forgettable figures, and Luke Wilson does not have many things to do except looking smug in front of the camera as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is still occupying his position at this point. In case of the scene where Omalu’s wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seems to be followed by a mysterious car behind her, it is so contrived that you can easily discern that this is purely fictional.

Will Smith did a fairly good job of dialing down his star presence and handling his character’s foreign accent without much awkwardness, but his good-natured performance is unfortunately hampered by flat characterization. When I read Laskas’s 2009 GQ magazine article from which her nonfiction book was developed, Dr. Omalu came to me as an interesting human being with whom I am willing to talk on any scientific topic, but his movie counterpart is just your average noble faultless guy in comparison. As his two main supporters, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks are as dependable as expected, but their main task in the movie is showing concern and resignation around Smith. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was wonderful in “Belle” (2013) and “Beyond the Lights” (2014), has a few tender scenes with Smith, but then she is stuck in her thankless role which only demands her to look supportive or worried.

As many of you know, NFL eventually had to admit and accept what Omalu reported as more tragic cases of American football players suffering from CTE were known in public. While the risk of CTE among athletes is certainly an important matter we need to talk and discuss more about, “Concussion” fizzles without enough dramatic or social urgency, and it left me unimpressed even though I watched it with my own academic interest. I was merely confirmed of what I knew, and that was all I could get from it.

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A Walk in the Woods (2015) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A very late self-discovery journey

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During my mildly enjoyable viewing of “A Walk in the Woods”, I got familiar impressions. I have seen other movies which did a better job of handling similar subjects than this passable one. I also have seen other cases where its good actors were utilized better than here. I was not bored, but my mind kept drifting from its rote narrative as occasionally thinking about better things out there.

The movie is based on the memoir of the same name by Bill Bryson, who is played by Robert Redford. The opening scene shows Bryson’s successful travel writer career as he is doing an interview for a morning TV program, but this old guy begins to feel that something is missing in his affluent life, and that feeling is more palpable to him especially after he and his wife Catherine (Emma Thompson, who is criminally under-utilized in the movie) attend the funeral of one of his old friends.

When they return to their cozy suburban neighbourhood in New Hampshire, Bryson comes upon an idea. He notices the Appalachian National Scenic Trail near his neighbourhood, and he decides to do a thru-hiking along this famous long trail which is as difficult and demanding as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail and the Pacific Crest National Scene Trail (These three trails are known together as the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in US, by the way)

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As he prepares for his hiking, it is apparent that he is not well prepared to say the least. He has already entered his 60s, and his concerned wife informs him of how many things can go wrong while he spends several months on the trail which is around 2,200 mile (3,500 km). When he goes to an equipment shop with his son who is as worried as his wife, the owner of the shop, who is played by ever-reliable Nick Offerman, flatly reminds Bryson of his lack of knowledge and experience. During the moment when the owner shows Bryson a certain necessary tool, I was reminded of why I dislike outdoor activities like camping or hiking; I may enjoy those wide, fabulous views of nature for a few hours, but then, as your average fastidious autistic guy, I will desperately crave for nice, stable bedroom and bathroom sooner or later.

When Bryson looks for a partner, nearly all of his friends reject his request for understandable reasons, and then someone unexpected approaches to him. Stephen Katz (Nick Nolte), an old friend whom Bryson has not met for many years since when they were young and wild together, is willing to join the hiking, but you can see that things will not go very well for them, right from when you hear that creaky hoarse voice of Nolte, who looks older and shaggier than Redford although he is actually 5 years younger than his co-star.

They indeed face troubles as they begin their hiking at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. Besides his problematic legs, Katz is sloppy and overweight, and he is also an alcoholic who has been recovering from the bottom he hit recently. While he is healthier than Katz, Bryson also comes to feel his biological limits – especially when he and his friend encounter hikers far younger than them.

Like any movies about long road journey, small and big things happen around Bryson and Katz while they struggle along the trail. They accompany a chirpy young hiker girl for a while, but then they cringe at how insufferable she is (With her irrepressible perkiness, Kristen Schaal is as hysterical as her loony supporting character in TV sitcom series “30 Rock”). They stay at a motel for rest, but then they get into a trouble they manage to run away from. During one night, as predictably warned from the beginning, they find themselves suddenly cornered by one of the most dangerous things they can encounter on the trail, and there is a funny moment when they improvise a silly but surprisingly effective way to deal with their potentially lethal circumstance.

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But the adapted screenplay by Bill Holderman and Michael Arndt, who is credited as Rick Kerb, merely walks by these moments and other ones on the trail. Many of the supporting characters in the film are broad or underdeveloped, and it is a shame to see that Mary Steenburgen, who still looks brimming with life and spirit as much as she did in her Oscar-winning turn in “Melvin and Howard” (1980), is wasted in her thankless role. The movie suggests something going on between her character and Bryson, but then, alas, it throws away that possibility and goes forward for a broader moment associated with Katz.

Redford and Nolte easily fill their roles with each own star presence. As shown from his challenging solo performance in “All Is Lost” (2013), Redford is still an effortless actor with charm and charisma, and not many actors in Hollywood can play a flawed raggedy dude better than Nolte. Considering that Nolte still has his distinctive bad boy charm, it is rather disappointing that the movie does not try something naughtier when Katz flirts with a plump lady he meets at a local laundry. During one scene later in the story, I was reminded of that famous moment in Redford’s certain classic film, but then it turned out I expected too much.

Anyway, the movie is not a total waste of time, and it has a few good things besides its two engaging lead actors. I enjoyed its frequent wide shots of various locations along the Appalachian Trail, and the cinematographer John Bailey did a commendable job of presenting these beautiful sceneries on the screen. If you want a more satisfying movie about nature, hiking, and self-discovery, I will recommend you “Wild” (2014) instead, but “A Walk in the Woods” may be not so bad if you just want to kill your free time.

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Experimenter (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A thought-provoking examination on human nature

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The Milgram experiment is alternatively fascinating and disturbing for good reasons. Demonstrating how easily we can let ourselves obey to authority figures without any thought or question, this famous social psychology experiment suggests a dark, uncomfortable side of our human nature, and it has steadily gained academic significance during last 55 years.

Besides recreating the experiment procedure on the screen, “Experimenter” is genuinely interested in not only a man behind the experiment but also his thought-provoking ideas on human behaviors. Thanks to its intelligent storytelling approach, I was involved in what was presented on the screen, and I observed its thoughtful moments with curiosity and amusement.

The early scenes in the movie show Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) during the initial phase of his research at Yale University in 1961, and we get a detailed look on how his experiment was executed. Under his assistant’s supervision, two volunteers are respectively assigned to the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘learner’, and then the latter goes into a closed separate booth. While the ‘teacher’ and the ‘learner’ cannot see each other, they can communicate with each other, and the former starts a lesson with the series of paired words to be memorized by the latter. During the following test, the ‘teacher’ has to punish the ‘learner’ with electronic shock whenever the latter gives a wrong answer for question, and the former is supposed to increase the level of electronic shock in 15-volt increment for each wrong answer, no matter how much the latter seems to be hurt more and more by this punishment.

Actually, the ‘learner’ is a hired actor faking the responses to supposedly administered electronic shocks, and that was a crucial element in Milgram’s experiment, which turned out to be more revealing than he expected. Even when the ‘learner’ showed more alarming responses than before, most of his volunteers went further to higher levels of punishment, though they showed hesitation and disturbance during the process.

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Although his experiment was not entirely without manipulative aspects which were deemed to be unethical by its critics, most of his volunteers showed positive responses in fact after learning its real purpose. Played by Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Anton Yelchin, some of the volunteers in the movie have each own brief but impressive moment, and we can see how much they are affected by the experience on which they will reflect for a long time.

Meanwhile, Milgram happens to encounter a young woman on his way to a party both of them are going to attend, and he and Sasha (Winona Ryder) quickly fall in love with each other as talking more with each other at the party. Not long after becoming Mrs. Milgram, Sasha goes to her husband’s workplace, and it does not take much time for this smart, well-educated woman to be one of the main supporters of her husband’s research. While her role seems to be thankless at first, Ryder gives a solid supporting performance next to Peter Sarsgaard, and they are believable as two people drawn to each other on both intellectual and emotional levels.

Under its theatrical tone accompanied with a few offbeat touches including an elephant which literally represents a certain familiar phrase, the movie freely looks around Milgram’s academic career and interests, and Sarsgaard is smooth and effortless even when he is talking directly to us. Milgram in the film is not just a talking figure but an interesting guy with ideas to share with us, and Sarsgaard is convincing with his cool professional façade which subtly suggests a curious mind operating behind it.

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The director/writer Michael Almereyda also gives enough space to Milgram’s other intriguing experiments, and he did a competent job of presenting them with humor and insight. When Milgram started to teach at Harvard in 1963, he was widely known in public for his experiment at Yale, and there is an absurd scene where he comes into the class to announce a real shocking news report but nobody believes him just because they thought it was his another experiment. While he was at the City University of New York during the 1970s, Milgram had a number of his students look up to the sky as if there were something to see up there, and what was resulted from this experiment amusingly shows us the susceptibility of human mind to group behavior.

One of the most humorous scenes in the movie comes from when Milgram allows his most famous experiment to be fictionalized for 1976 TV movie “The Tenth Level”, starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis. Wearing a hilariously dated hairpiece, Dennis Haysbert has a short but juicy moment when Davis comes to have a chance to talk with Milgram during the shooting. During their conversation, Davis finds himself revealing how much Milgram’s experiment resonates with his painful personal memory from the past, and we come to reflect on how many incidents of human atrocities including the Holocaust, which was incidentally the starting point for Milgram, echo what is implied from Milgram’s experiment. Sometimes people can be helplessly or thoughtlessly obedient in front of authority, and it can be said that the Milgram experiment exemplifies that famous phrase defined by Milgram’s contemporary Hannah Arendt.

Although it often feels like the dramatized version of a biography documentary film, “Experimenter” works as an unconventional biography film thanks to its smart screenplay and good performances. Human nature is still a compelling scientific/philosophical subject to be explored, and the movie reminds me that there are probably much more things to learn for us out there. We may never fully understand ourselves even at the end of our time on the Earth, but we will certainly not be bored anyway.

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The Wailing (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Driven into insidious chaos

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The deviously overwhelming chaos in South Korean film “The Wailing” disturbed and frightened me. The movie lured me as setting the ground under its unnerving mood, and then it grabbed me tight as going wild with its genre elements, and then it pressed me hard as plunging into gut-chilling inevitability during its breathtakingly intense moments of suspense and dread. To be frank with you, I am not so sure about how I can possibly explain everything in the movie, but I can tell you that this is another superb genre piece from one of the top-notch filmmakers in South Korea.

The first half of the movie is about how a small countryside town in Gokseong, Jeollanam-do becomes disturbed by a series of shocking incidents, and it is mainly told through the viewpoint of a local policeman living in the town. During one early morning, Jong-goo, played Kwak Do-won, is awaken by a call and then goes to some town resident’s house, and he and his colleagues are shocked and baffled by what happened. After suddenly going crazy for no apparent reason, the guy brutally killed two people including his wife, and now he looks blank and bloody like a zombie movie extra.

Not long after that, another terrible incident occurs due to similar sudden madness, and the town people become more baffled and nervous than before as a spooky rumor is spread around the town. Jong-goo casually disregards that rumor at first, but then he cannot help but think more about it as experiencing a number of disturbing things. Did he really see something outside the police station when he and his colleague were on night duty? Is there any truth in that unbelievable rumor about some inhuman entity in a nearby mountain forest?

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Meanwhile, suspicion is cast on a middle-aged Japanese man living alone in a shabby cabin located somewhere in the forest. This man usually spends his time on fishing at the town river while not interacting with anyone particularly, and nobody knows why this silent outsider came here, let alone who he really is. After spotting the Japanese man at the scene of the second incident, Jong-goo begins to suspect him even though there is no clear evidence, and he later hears one nasty rumor about the Japanese man from others. Is this guy really a bad man? Or, is it possible that he is marked just because of that usual prejudice toward foreign outsider?

And there is a mysterious young woman who seems to know more than she suggests on the surface. When Jong-goo happens to encounter her alone, she tells him that the Japanese man is not human, and then she soon disappears from his sight. When she is shown again at an unexpected point, more questions naturally arise. What is she doing there? What does she want from Jong-goo? And can her words be trusted?

Amidst all these questions, there comes a really urgent matter for Jong-goo. After suddenly getting sick, his young daughter begins to show alarming symptoms recognizable to anyone familiar with “The Exorcist” (1973) and its countless imitators, besides one physical sign he noticed from the previous incidents. Is she actually being under the influence from something insidious lurking around the town? Are she and all those crazy people simply very bad cases of mushroom poisoning, as suggested by medical examination?

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Under the masterful direction by the director/writer Na Hong-jin, the movie immerses itself into its mundane rural background as steadily dialing up the level of tension during the first half. Reminiscent of Bong Joon-ho’s “Memories of Murder” (2003) and “Mother” (2009), the plain but vivid sense of places and people is palpable on the screen with considerable realism, and the cinematographer Hong Kyeong-pyo, who worked in “Mother” and was recently praised for his superlative jobs in “Snowpiercer” (2013) and “Haemoo” (2014), did another terrific job here. Even the daylight scenes in the film are accompanied with foreboding undertones to agitate us, and the occasional wide shots of landscapes gradually look sinister as the story gets darker with more panic and confusion to be added into its swirling plot.

As the second half begins, a local shaman is introduced, so some kind of order or explanation is accordingly expected, but the movie keeps rattling and disorienting us as smashing our expectations. I was overwhelmed by that nerve-cracking ceremony sequence which is as intense as the climax part of “Whiplash” (2014). I was involved in a desperate chase scene in the forest, while having no idea on what would happen next. And I was amused during the scene in which Jong-goo and a supporting character visit a local Catholic church for requesting a certain help (Catholic Church usually comes with the territory in this field, you know).

I must point out that the plot is adamantly murky and obtuse with many unanswered questions, but I think that is its main point, and that is also where the undeniable emotional power of the climax sequence in the movie comes from. We can clearly see what is at stake, but we cannot be entirely sure about what should be believed or what should be done before it is too late. While this sequence is unbearably tense and unforgiving, it also has a little sense of dark, twisted humor based on its religious elements, and you may look back on the biblical quote at the beginning of the film after it is over.

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The movie is supported by the strong screen presence of its main cast members. Kwak Do-won, who rose to prominence thanks to his effective supporting turns in “Nameless Gangster” (2012) and “The Attorney” (2013), is convincing as a flawed ordinary man struggling with the situation way over his head. Even if we do not care much about Jong-goo, we care about what is important to him at least, and Kim Hwan-hee, Her Jin, and Jang So-yeon give small but crucial supporting performances as his family members. While Hwang Jeong-min and Cheon Woo-hee fill their respective roles as demanded, Jun Kunimara radiates the elusive aura of menace and ambiguity, and he is unsettling to watch even when his character does not seem to do anything.

When I watched Na Hong-jin’s debut work “The Chaser” (2008) in 2008 February, I was absolutely thrilled by its many memorable moments, and I did not hesitate at all to choose it as my best film of 2008. His next film “The Yellow Sea” (2010) had many imperfect aspects, but I admired and enjoyed its gritty, relentless energy none the less. “The Wailing” is not so perfect either with many plot holes to be filled, but I was hooked by its increasingly chaotic narrative thanks to its first-rate filmmaking, and I was mesmerized by its stupefying moments of sheer intensity and pressure. Seriously, I am curious about what will be the next step for this ambitious and talented South Korean director, who has made a big leap at his every step along with surprises for us.

Sidenote: The Korean title of the movie is “Gokseong”, but this is a homonym different from the name of the area in the movie, which is written as 谷城 in Chinese. Written as 哭聲, the title means “wailing”, which is the exact English title of the movie.

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Overman (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): A genuine feel-good coming-of-age drama with books

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South Korean film “Overman” is a rare type which I and other South Korean audiences do not come across often in these gloomy days: a genuine feel-good coming-of-age drama. Sure, there are several gray moments as its two adolescent characters come to deal more directly with each own trouble later in the story, but the movie is refreshingly bright and hopeful as honestly and touchingly observing how they help each other through their accidental relationship.

The movie begins with the recent trouble of Do-hyeon (Kim Jung-hyun), a high school gymnast who happened to get himself into a fight at his school for some reason. Thanks to his gymnastic teacher, he is only ordered to do the community service at a local public library for 40 hours, but then he begins to have a doubt about whether he really wants to pursue his athletic career. Although he and his colleagues are currently preparing for an upcoming contest, he decides to quit, but his gymnastic teacher, who turns out to be more understanding than expected, suggests that he reconsider his decision for a while.

Do-hyeon has another problem at his home. His divorced mother has been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease during recent years, and he is usually the one who takes care of her. Sometimes she looks all right in her faulty mind, but then she always regresses to her old acting career in the past, and Do-hyeon has no choice but to be her ‘manager’ because she cannot recognize her own son in that frustrating state of oblivion.

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While working as a temporary assistant at the library, Do-hyeon notices a girl around his age, whom he previously came across at a hospital when he took his mother there for medical examination. He becomes more curious about her, and he finds that her name is Soo-hyeon (Kim Ko-woon) when she borrows a couple of books at the library. While Do-hyeon has never been that close to books, she has read lots of books according to her library record – and she wants to read them again.

Of course, this is a typical case of Meet Cute, so we are not so surprised to see Do-hyeon and Soo-hyeon slowly attracted to each other as time goes by. When Do-hyeon actively approaches to Soo-hyeon at a nearby cafeteria, she does not welcome him much, but she begins to be charmed by his jolly spirit, so she lets him into her space. She recommends him to read “Don Quixote”, which tickled me a lot during my first high school year. She also shows him around a local university library, which took me back to my many soothing days at the KAIST library.

Yes, as some of you probably know, I have been a hardcore bookworm since my elementary school years, and I was delighted by those frequent sights of books and bookshelves in the film while also noticing many small authentic details on the screen. At one point, my eyes quickly recognized an old Korean pirate version of Stephen King’s “Cujo”, and I could not help but wonder how the production crew managed to find that cheap book, which was published more than 20 years ago as far as I can remember.

One of the prominent books in the film is Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None”, one of whose key themes inspired the very title of the movie. When the concept of Übermensch, or Overman in English, is explained to Do-hyeon by Soo-hyeon, you can sense a real idea being conveyed from one to the other during that scene, even if you have not read Nietzsche’s book (Full disclosure: neither have I, regrettably). They interact with each other more while surrounded by books, and it is poignant to watch how they come to find each own way to overcome personal pains as becoming closer to each other. Taking the first step out of her shell, Soo-hyeon reveals to Do-hyeon a secret which she has not told to anyone, and Do-hyeon comes to accept the irreversible process of his mother’s illness, especially after one heart-wrenching moment.

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The director/writer Seo Eun-young draws engaging performances from her two lead performers. Kim Jung-hyun is instantly likable in his ebullient performance, and he looks believable whenever he is required to do physical acting as an athlete character. With her unadorned expressive face, Kim Ko-woon conveys well her character’s unspoken feelings and thoughts, and she and her co-star feel natural in their effortless interactions on the screen.

I also like the way how the movie thoughtfully handles other characters. There is a brief scene where Do-hyeon visits his painter father who is living with his new wife, and this scene turns out to be surprisingly subtle and tactful as showing us both affection and awkwardness between Do-hyeon and his father. When Do-hyeon’s aunt makes a hard decision on her sister, we can see that she still cares about her sister as before. Although the movie does not go that deep into the exact circumstance between Soo-hyeon and her mother, her mother is really worrying about her daughter even though they do not say much. Do-hyeon’s two close team members and a library employee look like mere comic relief at first, but they are depicted with more depth along the story, and we get an unexpected moment of revelation when Do-hyeon is confronted by one of them.

While its finale feels like an overextended epilogue, this does not slow down the plucky spirit of “Overman”, and its last shot feels just right with what has been built up throughout the film. Life is indeed hard and difficult, but they are ready to move forward as fully embracing life – and we come to cheer for them with smile.

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The Clan (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4) : A double family life

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A real-life criminal story dramatized in Argentine film “The Clan” is both disturbing and compelling to say the least. Here is the man who is not only a ruthless criminal but also an ordinary middle-class father, and we cannot help but observe his horrible deeds with morbid fascination, while also chilled by how his plain, normal appearance is maintained on the outside by himself and his family members who get involved in his crime in one way or another.

He is Arquímedes Puccio (Guillermo Francella), a middle-aged guy who has some shady connection with the Argentine intelligence service as reflected by his first scene in the film. What he did during that fearful period of the military regime during the 1970s is not explained well in the film, but now he is no longer in service while the Falklands War is over with Argentina’s defeat in 1982, which marked the beginning of the end of the regime.

We meet his family residing in a quiet neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where Puccio runs a small family deli. He has a wife and five children, and his eldest son Alejandro (Peter Lanzani) is a popular rugby athlete who plays for the Argentina National Rugby Union team. Handsome and amiable, Alejandro frequently hangs around with many other young guys, and some of them are incidentally from wealthy families.

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That makes Alejandro very useful when Puccio and his cohorts kidnap one of Alejandro’s rich friends. Once they catch their target through a little help from Alejandro, Puccio calls his hostage’s concerned family for demanding ransom. The hostage is blindfolded and locked up in a small upstairs room in Puccio’s house, and there is a gradually unnerving scene in which the camera fluidly presents the domestic activities inside the house in an uninterrupted fashion while he is about to give a meal to the hostage. His wife has no problem with assisting her good husband while not asking too much, and Alejandro and his siblings are always in the firm grip of their loving but authoritative father as shown from their routine dinner scenes, though one of them left the family some years ago.

As finding himself becoming more than an unwitting accomplice of his father, Alejandro naturally feels conflicted, but he goes along with his family anyway as they enjoy the comfort and luxury based on his father’s continuing criminal business. Their deli is changed into a windsurfing equipment shop, and Alejandro keeps being a popular guy as before. He also falls in love with a nice girl when she happens to drop by the shop, and they soon get pretty close to each other, but he knows too well that he must share his dark family secret with her sooner or later if he is really serious about their relationship.

Because the opening scene shows how everything eventually begins to crumble down for the Puccioes, we already know where the story is heading, but the director/screenplay writer Pablo Trapero, who received the Silver Lion award for his film at the Venice International Film Festival in last year, keeps our attention held tight to a number of vivid, tense moments in his film. Julián Apezteguia’s terrific cinematography and the editing by Trapero and Alejandro Carrillo Penovi are flawless without calling attention to themselves. The soundtrack consisting of various recognizable pop songs is colorful and exuberant, and, like the bright, affluent daily life of the Puccioes, it often functions as a darkly humorous counterpoint to the stark horror of kidnapping, confinement, and murder,

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It is implied that Puccio is allowed to get away with his crimes by some powerful people he worked for in the Argentine intelligent service, and there is a clear parallel between the Argentine society during that time and Puccio’s household. Like Argentine people looked away from many disappearances under the military regime during that time, Alejandro and his other family members choose to look the other way just because that is easy and convenient for them. The movie is rather vague about how much some of Alejandro’s siblings actually know about what their father does behind his back, but then there comes a point when no one in the house can possibly ignore what is being heard from their newly renovated basement – and their world is changing outside in the meantime as returning to democracy.

Looking completely different from his substantial supporting turn in Oscar-winning film “The Secret in Their Eyes” (2009), Guillermo Francella’s chilly understated performance subtly exudes pale intensity mixed with a wry sense of humor, and he is quite good during a few moments when his character happens to break away from his usual detached mode. Although Alejandro is basically a blank paper onto which his father’s evil is projected, Peter Lanzani holds his own place opposite to Francella, and he and Francella are particularly convincing during a twisted private conversation between their characters. The father exactly knows how to push buttons inside his weak-willed son, and he surely gets what he wants, though he probably did not expect what happens not long after that.

“The Clan”, which was Argentina’s official submission to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in last year, is a tough, cold-blooded stuff easier to admire than like. I was not wholly involved in its story, but, considering its strong points, I come to conclude that it did its jobs as well as intended on the whole, so I give mild recommendation with reservation. After all, aren’t they such a horribly interesting family to watch?
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Men & Chicken (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): The story of some brothers

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Danish film “Men & Chicken”, which was submitted to the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in last year, is utterly bizarre and outrageous from the beginning to the end. As a movie not just literally about men and chicken but also about some truly nutty things you have to see for yourself, it will definitely require you to have some sense of humor for appreciating many weird moments driven by its congenitally flawed characters. To be frank with you, I want to stay away from them as much as possible, but it is a sort of twisted fun to watch them struggling with their newly discovered family connection.

At the beginning, we meet two brothers who cannot possibly be more different from each other. While Gabriel (David Dencik), who is a college professor, is the more thoughtful and rational one, Elias (Mads Mikkelsen) is capricious and compulsive with the apparent lack of temperament control. When we see Elias for the first time, he is having a blind date with a psychiatrist he contacted via online, and he thoroughly ruins the evening as he impulsively turns the date into an impromptu counseling session. After that disastrous meeting, he goes to a toilet for masturbation, and I must tell you that this is not the only time when we watch him following his, uh, nature’s call.

Around that point, Gabriel sits beside their dying father at a hospital. Not long after their father is eventually dead, Gabriel finds a video tape, which contains a startling revelation from his father. Both Gabriel and Elias are actually half-brothers who were adopted together when they were young, and they were the sons of Evelio Thanatos, a scientist who was doing some genetic research in the Island of Ork when he gave away his sons to Gabriel and Elias’s stepparents for an unknown reason.

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Curious about their real father, Gabriel and Elias travel to that remote island whose current population is a little more than 40. While riding on a ferryboat to the island, they come to learn that Dr. Thanatos had other three sons who are still living in an old, abandoned sanatorium belonging to Dr. Thanatos, and Gabriel is eager to meet his other half-brothers he never knew.

They are Franz (Søren Malling), Gregor (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and Nicolas Bro (Josef), and they are not very nice guys to say the least. When Gabriel and Elias come to the sanatorium, these socially challenged guys respond like aggressive savages defending their territory, and the blunt instruments wielded by them are another bizarre touch in the film. In addition, they frequently clash with each other, and they do look like the Three Stooges as they try to hit each other hard.

The movie keeps throwing more strange elements into the story as Gabriel and Elias come to stay in the sanatorium. We often see chickens roaming around this shabby, dilapidated place, and there are also other animals including rabbits, geese, lambs, and a stocky breeding bull named Isaac the eighth. Gabriel and Elias are told that Dr. Thanatos has stayed upstairs for a long time, but they are not allowed to see him yet, and Gabriel becomes curious about what is in a basement laboratory, where Dr. Thanatos spent lots of time for his mysterious research (I could not help but be amused when a scientific term I recently wrote into my current manuscript was mentioned at one point).

Mænd og høns (Anders Thomas Jensen, DK, 2015)

The mood becomes creepier as a hidden family secret is revealed, but the director/writer Anders Thomas Jensen, who won an Oscar for his short film “Election Night” (1999) and is also the screenplay writer of “In a Better World” (2010) and “The Salvation”, keeps his characters bouncing amidst lots of oddities and absurdities. When Gregor reveals to Elias how he satisfies his private urge during a scene reminiscent of one of the unspeakable scenes in John Waters’s notorious cult film “Pink Flamingos” (1972), you will definitely wince even if you are amused. As a guy relatively more social and sensible than Elias and his new half-brothers, Gabriel tries to provide a sort of adult supervision, but he only becomes frustrated in front of their unruly lunacy. His new half-brothers may read a sophisticated science book during their bedtime, but they still act like big babies with bad manner and volatile temper although they have managed to live together for years.

The main cast members are fully committed to their caricature roles with no compromise, and that is why the movie is funny both sharply and broadly instead of being superficially whimsical. David Dencik, a Swedish-Danish actor who has become more recognizable to us since his impressive supporting turn in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (2011), anchors the film as the center of relative sanity, and Mads Mikkelsen, who has been known for his stoic turns in “The Hunt” (2012), “A Royal Affair” (2012), and recent TV series “Hannibal”, surprises us as willingly hurling himself into his wild, unhinged performance. Dencik and Mikkelsen have good manic chemistry with Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Søren Malling, and Nicolas Bro, and these five good actors are hilarious whenever their characters have a failure to communicate with each other on the screen.

As I said above, “Men & Chicken” is not for everyone, but I think you will enjoy it if you just can go along with its deranged black comedy like I did. The movie loses some of its loony energy around its last act, but this is an odd, colorful comedy film you cannot forget easily after it is over. As implied in its opening scene, life was not that good to these incorrigible guys from the very start, but they come to find how to deal with that anyway.

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