Movie Review – Holiday (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A gory fun time, with a feminine aesthetic on brutal violence, similar to Coralie Fargeat‘s Revenge.

REVIEW: Have you ever seen a film that was so unexpected in its brutality and its disturbing content that you found it unforgettable? Well, one such example that I’ve seen recently was Isabella Eklof‘s Holiday. Judging from the poster, you would expect some sort of exploitative saga about a woman in trouble, but through Eklof’s eyes, it is nothing like that at all, and that is what makes it all the more haunting than one could ever imagine.

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Young, vibrant and presumably naive Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne) is the new girlfriend of drug dealer Michael (Lai Yde). She joins Michael and a group of friends on a luxury holiday in Turkey, but must accept that this decadent lifestyle comes at a cost, as such is shown in a scene where Sascha overspends on the credit card near the beginning of the film. Also, not least that her own position within this supposed family is as just another prized possession to be owned and displayed by Michael.

While Michael busy with criminal activities that can have him affording all the decadence, Sascha befriends Thomas (Thijs Römer), a man sailing the Mediterranean by himself. Michael is quickly shown to be violent, abusive, and controlling. He has an explicit code of trust and mercilessly punishes those that breach it (like in a scene of violence that is only heard off-screen).

When Sascha needs a break from Michael, she calls Thomas and begins courting him without ever revealing her relationship. This causes major problems when Michael spots her going to visit Thomas.

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There are a few films that come to mind when watching Holiday. One of them is Gaspar Noe‘s Irreversible, which is a crime-drama revenge tale that is told in reverse and the film is infamous for its elongated rape sequence. Holiday also has a elongated rape scene that changes the entire tone of the story and makes the outlook of the characters change drastically.

Another example is Catherine Breillat‘s Fat Girl, where both films, after the shocking sexual violence happens, all storytelling expectations or tropes are thrown out the window. Nothing will go what audiences will think happen and none of the future events happen only for shock value, but are still unbelievably and irredeemably human. None of the characters are explained due to backstories nor flashbacks; but there is a human element in each of them that can be quite empathetic.

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For a film that has subject matter that is pitch-black dark, Eklof and cinematographer Nadim Carlsen lense the film so bright, so vivid and so crisp, that it almost feels like it is a veneer for something sinister; something that is lurking underneath the surface that looks to good to be true.

And that sort of subversion applies to the characters. Despite what Sascha goes through, she is never portrayed as a victim nor as a person that pleads for help. She adapts to the environment that she inhabits in and plays with the cards that she is dealt with. But there are yearnings that she has; as evidenced in scenes with Thomas and how she interacts with him.

Or in another scene set in a nightclub where she stares at herself in the mirror, looking conflicted about whether to become her believed best self and her honest self. But the gradual character arc she goes through becomes gradually toxic and morally perplexing, that it becomes just as unbearable to watch as the violence, particularly when the film reaches its climax.

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Victoria Carmen Sonne does very well in portraying Sascha, guiding her through the character arc convincingly and never resorts to histrionics nor endearing herself to the audience. She gets deep into the dark nature of the film (both physically and mentally, in such brave terms) and conveys her character honestly, making the film effective in shocking the audience due to what she goes through.

Lai Yde is incredibly scary as the gangster, Michael, mainly due to how he underplays the role. At times, he can be quite charismatic and brutish and jovial, but like the film’s glossy exterior, there is something underneath the surface just waiting to come out, and Yde gives it his all, giving a compellingly repentant performance that is hard to watch, yet difficult to look away from.

Holiday is a morally repugnant, shockingly apathetic and yet strangely alluring piece of work from Isabella Eklof that is sure to shock and provide food-for-thought to adventurous filmgoers. Just be sure to have a strong stomach, because this is definitely not for the faint-hearted. Hesitantly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great, uncompromising direction from Isabella Eklof

Convincing performances from the two leads

Thought-provoking moral dilemma adds punch to the story

The storytelling is very subversive, throwing the audience off

CONS

The shocking violence will repel people away

A bit of a slog to get through

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde, Thijs Römer, Adam Ild Rohweder, Yuval Segal, Stanislav Sevcik, Morten Hemmingsen, Bo Brønnum, Michiel de Jong, Saxe Rankenberg Frey, Laura Kjær
Director: Isabella Eklöf
Screenwriters: Isabella Eklöf, Johanne Algren

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Movie Review – The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: No clue, but considering the cast/crew, something noteworthy.

REVIEW: For those who have read my glowing review of American Honey, I praised the main actress Sasha Lane for being a natural on-screen and a talent to look out for. Flash-forward to almost two years later, we have her on-screen again in the comedy-drama The Miseducation of Cameron Post and that had me excited.

But fortunately, that’s not the only reason. The film is directed by Desiree Akhavan, who had directed the acclaimed romantic comedy Appropriate Behaviour, which dealt with its subject matters of gender roles and cultural perspectives very well. That point alone makes it highly appropriate that she is directing The Miseducation of Cameron Post.

And we have the lead actress Chloe Grace Moretz, whose recent work has been quite polarizing lately ever since starring in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. Starring in underwhelming films like If I Stay and films that barely got a theatrical release like November Criminals and Dark Places, the film seems to be the perfect opportunity to get out of that rut.

Will The Miseducation of Cameron Post succeed in making a film that is sensitive in its subject matter about queer people as well as succeed in being entertaining?

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Set in 1993, we follow the titular character Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz). On the outside, she seems to fit the appearance of a normal teenage girl. But she has a secret that she hides from everyone, which is her being a lesbian. She is in a relationship with Coley (actress/director Quinn Shephard in a small role) and it takes a turn for the worst when the two are caught in the backseat of a car.

Cameron is sent away to a treatment center in a remote area called God’s Promise, run by Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). While she is being subjected to questionable gay conversion therapies, she bonds with some fellow residents like the commune-raised sardonic Jane Fonda (Sasha Lane) and the laid-back asexual Native American Adam Red Eagle (Forrest Goodluck). The three gradually become good friends as they pretend to go along with the process while waiting to be released.

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Like the best of coming-of-age films, they all provide an honest outlook in their storytelling. In the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a very well-executed comedy-drama coming-of-age film, indeed. Major credit goes to director Desiree Akhavan, whose direction is never blatant, manipulative and most importantly, judgmental to the characters involved. There is always a human element to these characters that always makes them easy to empathize with, despite their questionable actions.

Even some of the big dramatic scenes of the film are surprisingly nuanced and the small moments in the scene stand out, like in a scene where Cameron makes a phone call, her face is distorted in darkness during the emotional moment and we hear her hand grip the phone.

Characters like that include Reverend Rick Marsh (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a man who is still struggling and refusing to come to terms with his sexuality; Cameron’s overly optimistic roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a teenager who is desperate to believe she’s straight and even Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle) can’t be called a villain (or what she’s called in the film, a Disney villain). But the great thing Akhavan does is that she never gets into the backstories nor lets the audience why they are who they are; she only shows what makes them flawed and remarkably human.

Alongside that, the best choice that Akhavan does is to adapt the final act of the book for the entirety of the film, which is when the lead goes into the gay conversion camp. In terms of the film, it throws the audience at the breaking point (efficiently and emotionally) where the characters come to the realization of their identity and how it affects others; and a sense of claustrophobia i.e. being thrown into a place almost immediately with no clear way out.

Despite the downbeat subject matter of the story, Akhavan adds plenty of understated humour throughout, which shows how ridiculous outside points-of-view can be towards homosexuality or even religion eg. the Christian exercise program called Blessercise that Erin exercises on.

It helps that the cast all give fantastic performances. Sasha Lane proves that her performance in American Honey is no fluke, as she is so comfortable and charismatic on-screen, all of her acerbic line deliveries are right on target. Forrest Goodluck (best known for his role in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu‘s The Revenant) gives a likable and laid-back performance. Jennifer Ehle is compellingly understated as the matriarch who is always stern with her approach, yet Ehle never portrays her as a cartoon. Emily Skeggs is great as Erin, who hides under her guileless facade to look like she’s straight and Owen Campbell has a fantastic moment in the third act that is just heartbreaking.

But the biggest standouts in the film are John Gallagher Jr. and Chloe Grace Moretz. Gallagher Jr. nails the internal conflict of the character, hiding under a facade of jubilation. The cracks of that facade that become more and more noticeable over time that and Gallagher Jr. makes the gradual character reveal a marvel to watch, especially in the final act.

Moretz has played impassive or taciturn characters before like in the horror films Let Me In and Carrie (2013), but her performances were always flawed due to her inexperience at the time or how the character was written in the script. But in the case of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, she really digs into the character, whether its the self-hatred for what she has done or her gradual realization of who she is. It’s a remarkably sensitive and nuanced performance that is the best in her career, hands down.

Overall, The Miseducation of Cameron Post is an understated and quite powerful film that is sensitive towards all of its characters, is remarkable in how inclusive it is, has great performances and has welcome acerbic humor that made me laugh out loud at times. Highly recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Sensitive and passionate portrayals of the characters

Wonderful performances from the cast

Acerbic and observational humour hits its targets

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane, Forrest Goodluck, John Gallagher Jr., Jennifer Ehle, Emily Skeggs, Owen Campbell, Quinn Shephard
Director: Desiree Akhavan
Screenwriters: Desiree Akhavan, Cecilia Frugiuele, based on the novel by Emily M. Danforth.

Movie Review – Tag (2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that takes its cartoonish premise to hopefully hilarious heights.

REVIEW: Here’s a comedy premise for you. A bunch of childhood friends play the classic game of tag. Okay, simple enough so far. But the game of tag has gone on through every month of May for 30 years. Yep, you’ve read that right. 30 years.

And it’s based on a true story where that basically happened, but it was 23 years. Truth is stranger than fiction but you can imagine many film producers would flock to make this story into a movie and after 5 years since the article was published, we now have the simply-titled Tag, directed by first-timer Jeff Tomsic and starring an ensemble cast of comedic players. Will the film bring the goofy premise on-screen with hilarious results?

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The story goes with 5 childhood friends who have been playing the same game of Tag on every month of May for 30 years. All grown up now, we see Hoagie (Ed Helms), Bob (Jon Hamm), Chili (Jake Johnson) and Kevin (Hannibal Buress) reuniting to go after Jerry (Jeremy Renner), the lone wolf of the group that has never been tagged.

News has it that Jerry is about to get married to Susan (Leslie Bibb) and his wedding is his last hurrah of tag before he retires from the game. With the help of Anna (Isla Fisher), Hoagie’s wife and Rebecca (Annabelle Wallis), a journalist who wants to document this game, the race is on.

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The premise for Tag itself is utterly ridiculous, so it’s quite obvious that the filmmakers are not aiming for any semblance of realism. And during the many moments of the game, the film earns its laughs due to their sheer audacity. Many tropes of the action genre get lampooned to hilariously cartoony effect.

One particular example is when Jerry uses his observational skills to attack or evade the others and it is shown in slow-motion, and it lampoons the action scenes in films like the Sherlock Holmes entries and Antoine Fuqua’s The Equalizer. Another example is when Jerry improvises weapons out of household items like a purse or a walker that is very reminiscent of the fight choreography of Jackie Chan. It helps that Jeremy Renner is a good sport and executes all the action scenes convincingly and gets in on the comedy quite well.

And the funniest of all is when Jerry lures the group into a trap in the forest and it makes fun of horror/thriller cliches like setting booby traps or psychological warfare. It’s pure lunacy but it serves the premise well and the physical comedy is a lot of fun to watch. Predator, The Evil Dead, The Blair Witch Project, First Blood, the references are all there. There are even moments where the characters disguise themselves as someone else, even an old lady, and it reaches a funny Looney Tunes vibe that one wishes it kept up throughout.

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Less so however is the verbal comedy. The cast do what they can with their roles and the script, but when you break it down (and there really isn’t much breaking down), the characters are just not worth caring about. They’re completely selfish, unhinged, chauvinistic people that you would never want any association with them. Which is why the jokes that involve laughing at them are funny, and yet most of the jokes that want us to laugh with them fail.

The script co-written by Rob McKittrick (who wrote the Waiting… [sic] films) is littered with jokes about fellatio, drug use, masturbation (an actual threat involves exactly that) and profane language can be executed with flair and sometimes, there are some laughs to be had, particularly from Hannibal Buress, whose oddly inflected line deliveries make rote material work well. But when the film goes on to make jokes about miscarriages and then repeats that joke ad nauseum, it becomes quite repulsive.

And once again, the talents of the actresses are all wasted (except for Annabelle Wallis, who’s character is such a waste of space that if she were removed, it would make no difference to the story), where they saunter into the background and let the boys play. Granted, the true story that it’s based on happened the same way, but seeing it on film done differently would’ve been nice, especially when you have the talents like Isla Fisher and Rashida Jones.

And worse of all, the film takes a sharp turn towards sentimentality that it becomes vomit-inducingly mawkish that you almost can’t believe that the film went toward that route. Jake Johnson’s character Chilli keeps asking everyone whether it was faked and the audience will no doubt ask the same question.

And that ends the game review of Tag, a slipshod comedy that could’ve been an entertainingly lunatic farce (and it sometimes is) but the unlikable characters, the unfunny script and the sharp turn into forced sentimentality will make you to tag out of the film.

Quickie Review

PROS

All scenes involving the titular game are fun

Cast do what they can with the problematic script

CONS

Verbal comedy is subpar

Female roles are wasted

Mawkish turn in third act

SCORE: 5/10

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This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ed Helms, Jake Johnson, Annabelle Wallis, Rashida Jones, Isla Fisher, Leslie Bibb, Hannibal Buress, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Screenwriters: Rob McKittrick, Mark Steilen

Movie Review – Piercing (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A film that has storytelling similar to a BDSM session, with sadistically funny results.

REVIEW: Before I start this review, it has to be said that this reviewer has a sick and depraved sense of humour. So stepping in to watch this sadistic horror/comedy film Piercing for Sydney Film Fest 2018, my expectations were sky-high.

Adapted from a novel by acclaimed author Ryu Murakami, who is famous for novels that get into the sinister nature of the human condition in the backdrop of Japan. With novels like Audition (which was later adapted by director Takashi Miike), In the Miso Soup and Coin Locker Babies (adapted in to a South Korean film, Coin Locker Girl, by director Han Jun-hee), we’re venturing into some very dark territory.

And we have the two talented leads. Christopher Abbott, who’s most well-known for his sweet, tame role in the TV series, Girls, and was most recently in the divisive horror film, Trey Edward Shult‘s It Comes At Night, steps into a role that is uncharted territory for him. Whereas fellow Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has played subtly unhinged roles before like in Park Chan-wook‘s Stoker, Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive and Gus Van Sant‘s Restless.

And the film is directed by Nicolas Pesce, who made the strikingly atmospheric monochrome horror film The Eyes of My Mother, and his next project is directing the reboot of The Grudge, starring personal favourite Andrea Riseborough. So with all this talent of riches and great source material to adapt, will Piercing be a worthwhile endeavour or will it be another example of the sophomore slump?

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The film starts off with a startling image of Reed (Christopher Abbott) staring at his newborn son, whilst gripping an ice-pick. With one of the many demented visions Reed has in the film, the newborn son speaks to him, saying “You know what we have to do, right?”

With the support of his unknowing wife, Mona (Laia Costa), he goes on a business trip. Reed checks into a swanky hotel and arranges for a call girl to come over for him to stage the perfect murder, in order to satiate his inner urges.

With the murder all planned out intricately in his mind, complete with miming out the actions with sound effects of limbs being mutilated and so on, it will be an event that is surely to succeed. Assuming that the call girl doesn’t go off the rails. Enter Jackie, played by Mia Wasikowska.

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What begins as a potentially grisly serial killer film becomes an increasingly demented macabre screwball comedy. With a mix of genres and tones, it takes very assured hands from the cast and crew to walk the tightrope with perfect balance and thankfully, they all pull it off with aplomb.

As expected, director Nicolas Pesce brings his stylistic aesthetic to the film and it brings an enjoyably surreal and dream-like atmosphere, reaching towards a neo-retro sensibility. It comes complete with lovingly art-directed interiors (the skyscrapers housing these rooms are miniatures), distinct visuals captured by cinematographer Zack Galler, sharp editing by Sofia Subercaseaux (whose work is on another SFF 2018 entry, Sebastian Silva‘s Tyrel) and great choices in the soundtrack (mostly compositions from past films by Bruno Nicolai and rock band Goblin) and they both add to the audience immersion of what they can handle when the film will comes up with its bonkers details.

And what the film comes up with is brutal violence, psychological mind-games and pitch-black macabre humour; all exceptionally well-executed, pun intended. One of those details include a spider that looks like it comes out of the mind of of 80’s David Cronenberg. And the humour is of the nature that is sure to elicit awkward fits of laughter, reminiscent of David Slade‘s Hard Candy or Mitchell Lichtenstein‘s Teeth, both horror films where women turn the tables on men. Major props must go to Daniel Sheppard and the sound department, as the sound mix adds punch to the violence, as well as the dark sense of humour i.e. the scene where Reed acts out his actions.

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The storytelling is also noteworthy due to how Pesce tries to screw with his audience and their expectations. First of all, Wasikowska’s character is never depicted as a victim, which makes one question who has the real position of power, making the film a fun game of cat-and-mouse. Second of all, the film shows what its intent is from the very opening shot, mixing comedy with grisly details convincingly as well as providing a litmus test as to whether the audience can handle what is to come. And last of all is the ending, which is so off-kilter and yet so well-timed in how abrupt it is, it comes off as surprisingly chippy.

Yet none of these things would work without the talented leads to keep the story grounded. Laia Costa is likable in a small supporting role as Reed’s wife, who’s more supporting of Reed than one would think. Christopher Abbott does a great job with imbuing Reed with much-needed facets of humanity, making him a character that the audience can empathize with, however much that may be. Think Patrick Bateman, but with much lower self-esteem.

And there’s Mia Wasikowska, who is a captivating firecracker of a woman as Jackie. Usually, female characters in a film such as this (or in many film genres, for that matter) are there to make the male leading characters more enlightened; basically supporting them for what they are going through. Or how female characters in horror films are always in peril and never really any sense of agency or autonomy in the story. In the case of Piercing, that never happens, as Jackie not only has the same amount of oddities and quirks, but she may be more unhinged than Reed is. And on that level, Wasikowska delivers in what may be her most fun performance yet.

Overall, Piercing is a sadistically fun time at the movies with its violent proclivities, its macabre sense of humour, its increasingly insane storytelling chops and of course, director Nicolas Pesce and leads Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska guiding the ship. Highly recommended to those with strong stomachs and those with sick and depraved minds, like yours truly.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic lead performances

Pesce’s delightfully vibrant and prodding direction

Cinematography, sound design and score are all well-executed

Balance between the grisly and comedic is well-maintained

CONS

Abrupt ending

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa
Director: Nicolas Pesce
Screenwriters: Nicolas Pesce, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami

Movie Review – Incredibles 2

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that doesn’t equal the original, but is a fun time nonetheless.

REVIEW: It has been a very, very long 14 years, but the long-awaited sequel that many were asking for is finally here. Toy Story 4 Incredibles 2 has finally arrived! The first film was branded as the Fantastic Four film that people deserved and it catapulted the career of director Brad Bird to new heights, including live-action ventures like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Tomorrowland.

And with the vast amounts of superhero films we have today and many more on the horizon, it is clearly a no-brainer for Bird to make the sequel. Will Incredibles 2 succeed as a sequel that stands on its own as well as a great superhero film in its own right?

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Incredibles 2 starts off where the first film ended, where the Parr family encounter the villain, The Underminer. Although, as a family, they have foiled his plan to rob the major banks, he escapes, leaving the Incredibles with a worse reputation than they already have from government officials.

It only gets worse when Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks, replacing Bud Luckey who sadly passed away) reports that the superhero relocation program is shut down, leading the family to dire straits. But hope comes into the picture when Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) informs Helen (Holly Hunter) and Bob (Craig T. Nelson) about Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), the CEO of a telecommunications company who’s also a superhero fanatic. Alongside her sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener) who is a technological marvel, the two want to bring supers back into the spotlight by changing the public’s perception of them.

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Since Helen is chosen for her light approach to saving the day (in comparison to Bob’s sloppy approach), she is out, doing all the work, advocating superhero rights while Bob is at home, as the stay-at-home dad, taking care of the moody Violet (Sarah Vowell), the hyperactive Dash (Huck Milner, replacing Spencer Fox) and the increasingly troublesome Jack-Jack, who’s experiencing his own super phase.

As the two adjust to their new change in lifestyles and as superheroes come back into the spotlight, a new supervillain comes into the midst, called the Screenslaver, who has the ability to use any screen to hypnotize and control people who look at them.

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Was Incredibles 2 worth the 14-year wait? Thankfully, it is, as it provides younger children a very entertaining respite from the high-stakes storytelling of other superhero films like Avengers: Infinity War and Black Panther. And no, Deadpool 2 is not for young children!

One of the best factors of the first Incredibles film is the integration of the family dynamic into the superhero genre and thankfully, it is kept intact in the sequel; the much-needed grounded feel that audiences can relate to. But this time, focusing on how Bob takes care of the family.

And it is because of that, it ends up being surprisingly funnier than the original. Bob’s reactions to mundane tasks like helping Dash with his homework or trying to put Jack-Jack to sleep are hilarious. Jack-Jack in particular, is the funniest thing in the film. His interactions with the family and a certain creature pay off with the biggest laughs.

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The action sequences, while not emotionally thrilling like the airplane set-piece in the first film, are still a lot of fun to watch, especially when one of them is similar to a set-piece in an infamously maligned sequel. It helps a lot when Bird comes up with new superpowers for the Incredibles to fight against eg. teleportation or hypnosis; or when he gives something new for the Incredibles to do eg. when Helen (aka Elastigirl) rides her motorcycle to scale and jump on tall buildings by splitting apart, similar to parkour.

Like all of Pixar films, they always choose actors who are right for the parts, and not just choose people with massive star power. All the cast members assembled are on point with their characters, including Bird himself as the hoot-and-a-half Edna Mode. The newcomers including Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush and Isabella Rossellini (just her appearance alone makes me laugh) all commit with ease and sound like they are having fun while they’re doing it. Bob Odenkirk needs to do more voicework, that’s all this I’ll say. And the biggest laugh for me is when Samuel L. Jackson (as Frozone) almost does a trademark of his. Almost.

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As for its flaws, it basically comes down to expectations. Since the film came out 14 years after the original, there would be a build-up of audience anticipation that may affect how people would feel about the film. It could easily had come out 2 years later, it’s possible the film would have a better reception.

Back to actual flaws, the film isn’t as emotionally stirring as the original, as the film focuses more on fun and less on stakes. And the motivation for the villainous scheme for what he or she (or they?) isn’t as involving as it could’ve been, particularly in comparison to the motivation of Syndrome, the villain in the first Incredibles film.

Overall, Incredibles 2 is a hell of a fun time for the entire family, providing lots of superhero antics that rival films in the MCU and DCEU, loads more laughs than the original film and the cast and crew all back in the height of their game. Don’t ever get get old, Jack-Jack.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Many, many hilarious moments

Keeps the compelling family dynamic intact

Many memorable side characters, including the villain, the Screenslaver

CONS

Not quite emotionally stirring as the original

Could’ve easily came out much earlier and not have the pressures of the long waiting time

The motive of the villain isn’t as good in comparison to Syndrome from the first film

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Isabella Rossellini, John Ratzenberger, LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Director: Brad Bird
Screenwriters: Brad Bird

Movie Review – The Heiresses (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: None.

REVIEW: If one were to classify this film briefly, The Heiresses could be seen a cross between Wong Kar-wai‘s Happy Together and Albert and David MayslesGrey Gardens. As Kar-wai says about the title of his film, being happy together is being happy with oneself, and it is within that context is where the journey in The Heiresses comes from.

The story follows the lives of Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irun), whom have both descended from wealthy families in Asuncion, Paraguay. The two have been together for 30 years but recently their finances has worsened and they begin selling off their inherited possessions. But when their debts lead to Chiquita being imprisoned on fraud charges, Chela is forced to live a new phase of her life that would force her out of her shell.

Driving for the first time in years, she begins to provide a local taxi service to a group of elderly wealthy ladies, despite her pride. As Chela settles into her new life, she encounters the much younger Angy, forging a new and exciting connection. Chela finally begins to contemplate on her past and starts to ponder major decisions for her future.

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Now that may seem like a depressing story to trudge through, but the characters are well-realized, the performances are compellingly naturalistic and the storytelling is assured and even has a welcome dash of humour, thanks to the sharp, acerbic performance by Marina Martins.

The social context of social status and privileges in Paraguay’s elitist zeitgeist (which is still quite prevalent today) adds a certain punch to the characterizations. In the case of Chela, she is shy of the outside world (and could be suffering from chronic depression) and what it has to offer and yet within the metaphorical shell she has nestled in, she has a sense of pride with what she has before and even after her possessions are taken away.

The storytelling never ventures through predictability nor gets buried in its various subplots and the characters’ growth veers the same way. There are enjoyable moments of intimacy and tenderness like the interactions between Chela and Angy (as well as the housemaid, Pita) that signal the character progression of the former but said attention should also be paid towards the shot selections, which deviate from POV shots and handheld towards more open shots (courtesy of cinematographer Luis Armando Artega), as well as the costume design and make-up, which conveys the gradual vivacity of Chela.

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But none of those things would be effective if it weren’t for the performances. The majority of the cast are all newcomers or those with relatively little acting experience. Brun is understated and yet magnetic in the way she conveys foreign sensations using her expressive face like fear, hurt and hopefulness with aplomb.

Irun is good as Chiquita, the much more grounded of the pair (who can handle the harshness of life more capably) and as mentioned earlier, Martins is a hoot as Pituca, an older neighbour who selfishly berates Chela to drive her to her ladies’ card games. But the other standout of the film is Ana Ivanova as Angy. Convincingly confident, fierce and comfortably sensual, she shares an enjoyable and lovely rapport with Brun.

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While the film may be a bit too understated for its own good (which can test the audience’s patience) and the metaphors may be a bit blatant (one scene involves a spill of a intricately set platter), the film scores mightily with a satisfying ending that achieves what it exactly sets out to do, with a sense of ambiguity as well as a sense of catharsis.

Overall, The Heiresses is a quiet, understated and yet compelling piece of work that is brimming with intimacy, naturalistic performances, assured storytelling and the tactful use of thematically rich subtext. Recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great naturalistic performances from the cast

Strong storytelling, with the social backdrop lending the story punch

Assured direction keeps story on course and tone in check

CONS

Some visual metaphors are quite blatant

May be a bit too understated for its own good

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova, Alicia Guerra, Nilda Gonzalez, María Martins
Director: Marcelo Martinessi
Screenwriters: Marcelo Martinessi

Movie Review – Disobedience (Sydney Film Fest 2018)

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling romantic drama that explores its potent themes thoroughly and has fantastic performances.

REVIEW: To say that the expectations for this film are quite high is quite superfluous, but it has to be said nonetheless. We have Rachel Weisz, one of the most talented actresses in Hollywood, who’s had a great run of recent films ever since starring in the weird and sweet quasi-dystopian romance The Lobster and still going strong.

We also have Rachel McAdams, who’s having a great year in 2018, with the film in question as well as the surprise comedy hit Game Night. And we have the Chilean director, Sebastian Lelio, who has made great films like the 2013 drama, Gloria (which is being remade by Lelio himself, starring Julianne Moore) who’s fresh off his latest acclaimed Oscar-winning hit, A Fantastic Woman.

And last but definitely not least, we have the underappreciated chameleon-like actor, Pollux Troy Alessandro Nivola. Ever since the times playing Nicolas Cage‘s brother in John Woo‘s action extravaganza Face/Off, he’s gone off in indie darlings like Junebug, A Most Violent Year, The Neon Demon and most recently, You Were Never Really Here (also showing at Sydney Film Fest).

With all that talent in the pool, how can one not be excited by this film? Will Disobedience live up to the hype?

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Weisz stars as Ronit Krushka, a shunned woman who works as a photographer living in New York. She lives up a bit of a meaningless existence consisting of work, mindless drinking and sexual dalliance. She receives a message from her home in London, saying that her estranged father had passed away.

Ronit returns to her hometown, which involves the same Orthodox Jewish community that shunned her decades earlier for her past decisions. Her return results in awkward conversations with her relatives, the dedicated Rabbi Dovid Kuperman (Alessandro Nivola) and most of all, Esti (Rachel McAdams), wife of Dovid.

Feeling more out of place than ever and finding out that her father had not lent her any consideration in his obituary or his will, Ronit decides to return back to New York after going to her childhood home. As Esti takes her there, they bond over their past friendship until something rekindles between them. Something that might put their lives and those around them in jeopardy.

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Before I get into reviewing Disobedience, I must say this: I didn’t like Lelio’s previous film, A Fantastic Woman. The main reason is because the film never delves into its main character and tries to bring its point across by bombarding plot conflicts on its main lead ad nauseum that it becomes baffling and eventually boring. If Lelio got us to know the main lead a little better, then it would’ve been a lot easier for the audience to go along with.

In the case of Disobedience, the film takes its time to delve into its characters and how they react to their daily lives, through visual storytelling and little reliance on verbal exposition.

In the case of the impulsive Ronit, we see through a montage of her day-to-day life what she does and it tells in a concise fashion of what her flaws and predicaments are. In the case of the emotionally repressed Esti, her character is gradually revealed throughout the film through what she does that is kept secret from her community (like taking off her wig) until she becomes more emotive. Whereas in the case of Dovid, his dedication to his faith is reflected through all of his actions, although it is repressive of how he really feels, causing conflicting interests.

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The striking yet surprisingly muted cinematography by Danny Cohen, the moody costume design by Odile Dicks-Mireaux and the majestically conducive musical score by Matthew Hubert certainly reflect the gradually brimming passion of the story. Hubert’s score in particular strikes chords that sounds like birds calling, like a beautifully composed swan song.

Speaking of beautifully composed, the performances from its three leads are fantastic. Weisz, who usually plays characters that inert with their emotions, plays a more open personality (in comparison to Esti) during the parts where she converses with the community, especially in a barbed dinner sequence where the plot thickens. She convinces with her anger and hostility and also gets a chance to convey inner emotions like she does best, like in a ice-rink sequence, that is show in a simple medium shot, following her.

McAdams usually plays more extrovert characters, but in the case of Disobedience, she plays Esti as a woman trapped in her own facade and she does it convincingly. Leilo also never makes her performance appear explicit nor does he provide any spoonfeeding to the audience. Nivola, who is an actor who almost appears unrecognizable in every film he stars in, gives a great performance as a man who is trapped between his friendship between Ronit and Esti and his dedication to his faith.

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In the case of its flaws, there is one musical choice, being Love Song by The Cure, that brings the film down to a fault. While it does convey the past nature between the female leads quite well, the song choice itself is too on-the-nose in what it tries to foreshadow how the characters currently feel, and it makes the end credits feel a little jarring when they come up.

As for the sex scene itself, the execution does veer wildly between tasteful and exploitative. When the scene relies more on the expressions of the actresses, it succeeds in providing a satisfying conclusion with what the characters went through prior, particularly in the case of Esti. But when it comes to the actions during the scene, it veers towards something more strikingly prurient, which can turn some audiences off. Granted, the shots that were chosen to linger (like a shot looking down on Ronit) don’t last long as they could have been (as Weisz oversaw the editing of the scene), it is quite noticeable that the gaze is still prevalent.

Overall, Disobedience is a compelling understated drama that seethes with passion thanks to Leilo’s assured direction, compelling storytelling and fantastic performances from the three talented leads. Recommended.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances from the three leads

Leilo’s reliance on visually nuanced storytelling

Emphasis on well-realized characterizations

CONS

A particular song choice that brings the film down to a halt

Mixed results from the sex scene

SCORE: 8/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser, Bernice Stegers, Allan Corduner, Nicholas Woodeson, Liza Sadovy, Clara Francis, Mark Stobbart, Caroline Gruber
Director: Sebastian Lelio
Screenwriters: Sebastian Lelio, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, based on the novel by Naomi Alderman

Movie Review – Believer

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EXPECTATIONS: A vastly different, yet satisfying remake of Johnnie To’s Drug War.

REVIEW: Everyone knows how I feel about remakes, being mostly unnecessary and the ones that stand out strive to be different and so on, yada-yada-yada. Therefore, I won’t be singing the same tune again.

In the case of Lee Hae-young’s Believer, it is a remake of Johnnie To’s stellar crime-thriller Drug War, a film that stood out due to To’s fantastic direction that not only makes thrills with its boilerplate procedural narrative but also sidestepping Chinese film censorship, which is no easy feat.

Believer doesn’t have those obstacles but just the elephant in the room; being that it is a remake of a critically acclaimed film. It can be a simple cut-and-paste of the original, or it will make a deviation from it and stand out from the crowd. That’s where director Lee Hae-young comes in.

Standing out with his directorial debut, the delightfully strange comedy-drama Like a Virgin, which involves a trans-woman who competes in Korean wrestling in order to win money to pay for her sex change operation. That alone already sounds like the type of director who takes the road less traveled. With a talented cast (including the late Kim Joo-hyuk) and crew in tow, will Believer be a remake that finally stands out?

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Basically following the framework of Drug War, the film follows detective Won-ho (Cho Jin-woong) who, to bring down the boss of Asia’s biggest drug cartel, conspires with a drug pusher named Rak (Ryu Jun-yeol) who is a lowly member of the gang seeking revenge against the boss, Mr. Lee, who has never been truly seen as many people out there claim to be him.

From the second the film started, it is very clear that Believer isn’t a straight cut-and-paste remake of Drug War. Taking a different approach in comparison to the almost laser-focused procedural pacing of Johnnie To’s film, Lee Hae-young’s film takes on a more stylish and cinematic approach, adding dimensions to the lead characters, utilizing more unorthodox shot placements (one used on the revolving platter), adding more gore and prurience and making the villains even more larger-than-life (courtesy of actors Kim Joo-hyuk and Cha Seung-won, as a new character not in the original).

In simpler terms, director Lee and scriptwriter Chung Seo-kyung (a collaborator for the acclaimed director Park Chan-wook) takes the framework of Drug War and puts a lot more “movie” into it. Cinematographer Kim Tae-kyung lenses the film stylishly with great results and the propulsive electronic score by Dalpapan adds a lot of energy to the proceedings.

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And on that note, Believer succeeds overall. Starting from the smaller details, the humour is more from the macabre variety, rather than the dark humour in Drug War, and it lends some ample laughs. Whether it’s a character that uses his tongue for more than just profane swearing or a particular use of gore that is reminiscent of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the depravity is sure to startle and induce awkward laughter.

The characters are more overstated than in the original and the actors are more than up to the task in portraying them up to eleven. Last seen in roles like the perverted stepfather in The Handmaiden and the fiendish villain in A Hard Day, Cho Jin-woong fits into the role of Won-ho like a glove and while the script initially gives him an emotional throughline to play with via a character death, it’s largely forgotten until the ending.

Ryu Jun-yeol, fresh from the biggest Korean film of 2017, A Taxi Driver, is compellingly enigmatic as the taciturn Rak. Since the drama is pumped up, the relationship between Won-ho and Rak is put into the spotlight but unfortunately, it’s not developed very much beyond petty squabbles about mistrust and dependence on one another. It also doesn’t help that it’s overshadowed by the vast amount of quirky characters i.e. the villains. And it’s because of that, the contemplative ending, which is incredibly out of place with everything that proceeded it, falls flat.

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But the actors who play the villains do their very best to compensate and they are definitely the most entertaining parts of the film. The late Kim Joo-hyuk gives a spectacular performance as the deranged Ha-Rim, who can be set off by something innocuous as the noise of a LED light bulb. Park Hae-joon is entertainingly boisterous as Sun-chang, a lieutenant of Mr. Lee who can’t keep his mouth shut.

Others include Jin Seo-yeon, who is hot-headed as Bo-ryeong, Ha-rim’s eccentric and fanatical (of Lee Min-ho, of course) girlfriend, while Cha Seoung-won effectively plays Brian, a drug-peddling minister/estranged son of a dead industrialist with a bit of a screw loose. Best of all are Kim Dong-young and Lee Joo-young as deaf/mute brother-and-sister (unlike the two mute brothers in Drug War) drug cooks who are amusingly menacing in dirty clothing, firing off machine guns as well as bicker in hilariously exaggerated sign language.

But the majority of the female characters (apart from Lee Joo-young and Kang Seung-hyun as a member of Won-ho’s team) are portrayed problematically, including the character of Bo-ryeong. Whether they are meant to be leered at as eye candy or only serve as a plot device/character motivator, it’s a problem that not only brings down Believer, but other South Korean films, especially V.I.P.

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The action, which most of it is in the third act, is well-done and ferocious as many South Korean action films can be. Although none of the action scenes are immaculate as in Drug War, it relies on more of an extravagant approach (including scenes of hand-to-hand combat) that works. And there are scenes that are intensely gripping, the stand-out being an elaborate undercover scheme involving scripting and acting skills that shows ,like in Stephen Chow’s King Of Comedy, that undercover cops are the best actors.

And speaking of the best, Believer is the best we could’ve hoped for a remake nowadays. Retaining the framework of the original whilst going on its own path, the cast and crew all deserve kudos for their genuine effort, even if the destination is not as satisfying as the journey. And it serves as a substantial swan song for Kim Joo-hyuk, who steals the show with his towering performance.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give good performances, especially Kim Joo-hyuk

Macabre sense of humour lends plenty of laughs

Quirky supporting characters add loads of fun

Well-executed action, gripping scenes of tension and good pacing

CONS

Problematic portrayal of female characters

Ill-fitting ending

Ineffective human drama between two leads

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Cho Jin-woong, Ryu Jun-yeol, Kim Joo-hyuk, Kim Sung-ryung, Park Hae-joon, Cha Seung-won, Jin Seo-yeon, Kang Seung-hyun, Seo Hyun-woo, Kim Dong-young, Lee Joo-young, Jung Ga-ram
Director: Lee Hae-young
Screenwriters: Chung Seo-kyung, Lee Hae-young, based on Johnnie To’s Drug War

Movie Review – Birds Without Names

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EXPECTATIONS: A compelling dramatic mystery filled with grit. And also, YU AOI!!!!!!!!

REVIEW: Director Kazuya Shiraishi is a filmmaker that has gone of a bit a rise these past few years. Since his breakout hit with the 2013 crime drama The Devil’s Path, from 2016, he’s made five films and they have all revolved or worked alongside on one specific type of genre: the crime film.

Whether he makes a comedy like Twisted Justice, or an erotic drama like Dawn of the Felines, or in the case of this review, a romantic drama, Shiraishi is bound to add a certain amount of grit to make his work stand out.

And now we have Birds Without Names, a romantic drama that revolves around a murder mystery based on a novel by Mahokaru Numata, with a fantastic cast and actress extraordinaire Yu Aoi in the lead role. Will the film stand out and become another stellar entry into Shiraishi’s filmography?

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Yu Aoi stars as the 33-year-old Towako, a woman who has been scrounging off room and board off her live-in-boyfriend, Jinji (Sadao Abe). Jinji is a timid 48-year-old construction worker who keeps Towako fed and clothed while basically not being the boyfriend of the year due to his lack of cleanliness and at one point in the film, his lack of finesse on how to use the toilet.

Towako doesn’t give really care about Jinji, to the point where she verbally abuses him repeatedly. Nevertheless, she needs him to survive. Jinji is submissive and endures the humiliation to keep Towako, while Towako still pines for her ex-lover Shunichi (Yutaka Takenouchi), who broke up with her 8 years ago in a monstrously ugly fashion.

Towako has a weakness for sophisticated looking men, and when Jinji is not around, she sneaks off to love hotels with her current lover, Makoto (Tori Matsuzaka), a married man, who is of course in a designer suit. All of these relationships will coalesce when it is reported to Towako that Shunichi has gone missing.

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Does the film live up to Shiraishi’s stellar filmography? Not only does it accomplish that feat, it might actually be his best film yet. Birds Without Names is based on a novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata, the famous female author who specializes in crime stories that feature manipulative men, brutal women and complicated relationships; basically the dark side of human nature.

Which makes it the perfect source material for Shiraishi to adapt and expand his directorial range. To manage a story like this, a good director would apply an understated approach to the storytelling and thankfully, Shiraishi is up to the task. Learning from his mistakes with his heavy-handed storytelling in The Devil’s Path, he manages to tell the story at a measured pace which effectively brings out a gradual sense of tension; by ably showing reliance on visual storytelling (for the most part) that compels and most of all, being able to milk great performances out of the committed cast.

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Yu Aoi gives one of the best performances of her career as Towako, a depressed and gradually unstable woman who has not moved on from her past boyfriend, who had treated her monstrously. She never tries to make her character sympathetic and delves into the poisonous flaws of her character with aplomb. There’s a point in the film where she really looks like she is about to burst with emotions and it’s a wonder to behold.

Sadao Abe is equally as good, playing a character who’s hangdog behaviour and naivety make him become the glue of the film that holds it together. He may be the most sympathetic character by default, but he also does irredeemable actions that make him flawed, just like Towako. The supporting cast are no slouches, with Yutaka Takenouchi lending credibility and nuance to an incredibly despicable character and Tori Matsuzaka who capably shows shades of his character being more than what his facade conveys.

As for the flaws, there is a through-line of casual misogyny that will definitely put off some viewers. Especially in the case of Towako’s behaviour, where she basically allows the bad behaviour of the male characters to happen and even gets in on it to harm other women i.e. Shunichi’s wife.

But there is the ending to consider, which is quite touching and compelling to the point where it will make audiences re-evaluate what they thought of the characters prior to the climax.

Overall, Birds Without Names is a great piece of work from Kazuya Shiraishi, that not only succeeds as a great romantic drama but as an actors showcase for all involved, especially Yu Aoi.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give fantastic performances, with a career-best from Yu Aoi

Measured, nuanced storytelling

Never shies away nor pulls any punches from the dark nature of the story

CONS

Moments of misogyny

Polarizing ending

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Sadao Abe, Tori Matsuzaka, Yutaka Takenouchi, Eri Murakawa, Masaaki Akahori, Muck Akazawa, Shu Nakajima
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Taeko Asano, based on the novel of the same name by Mahokaru Numata

Movie Review – Be With You (2018) [Far East Film Festival 20]

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EXPECTATIONS: A remake that would equal the original Japanese film.

REVIEW: When one reviews a remake, is it possible to do so without talking about the original assuming if one knows about the original in the first place? Absolutely not. When the remake has the same story and the same name, how can one not talk about it?

In recent times, South Korea has remade Asian films such as Junichi Mori’s Little Forest and Yoshihiro Nakamura’s Golden Slumber. And in the upcoming times, audiences will also get Believer, which is a remake of Johnnie To’s crime-thriller Drug War. And as expected, the overall critical response is mixed. The former has received positive reviews while the latter has received a more negative response.

While Believer remains to be seen, now we have a remake of Nobuhiro Doi’s 2004 romantic drama, Be With You called…well, you get the idea. With a talented cast, a first-time director and the fact that South Korean film specializes in melodramas, how can this remake go wrong?

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The film starts off with the telling of a fairy tale, detailing the story about a mother who makes a promise to her loved ones that she will come back to life to revisit them.

From there we go to Soo-ah (Son Ye-jin), a loving housewife who before passing away makes an unbelievable promise to her husband, Woo-jin (So Ji-sub), to return one year later on a rainy day.

Miraculously, she keeps the promise and reappears before her husband and son but all her memories have disappeared. Tragically, the relief at their reunion is short-lived, because it turns out that Soo-ah has to leave her family once again.

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Does the film stand out on its own as well as being a proficient remake? The answer unfortunately is no. With most remakes, the problem is simple: they don’t stand-out from their inspiration. The best parts of the film are the parts where the original succeeded in, which means that director Lee Jang-hoon knew what made the original work. Scenes relating to the past, with young love are executed well, particularly with the young actors Lee You-jin and Kim Hyun-soo.

And the problematic parts of the film are the parts that were already present in the original (manipulative musical score and suspension of disbelief) and where the filmmakers try to embellish the story with individual elements. The original film is 13 minutes shorter than the remake, which basically means there are 13 minutes of footage that easily could’ve been cut out. Scenes like the telling of the fantasy story and the scene early in the film involving the father and his health feel blatant in what needs to be conveyed.

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Few of the embellishing moments of the film are quite welcome though. An added sense of humour does provide great contrast to the dour nature of the story, with Ko Chang-seok (and Bae Yu-nam) providing great support as Hong-goo, Woo-jin’s best friend. And there’s also a great cameo from a famous actress that got a big laugh out of me.

But the biggest problem of the film is the lack of chemistry between the leads. Son Ye-jin, who’s done many roles of this nature (from A Moment to Remember to The Classic to Spellbound, the list goes on) unfortunately feels distant and cold in the role of Soo-ah. So Ji-sub, who is better in roles of a darker nature like in Rough Cut, is just okay in the role of Woo-jin. He has good scenes with Kim Ji-hwan, as his son and the comedic scenes with Ko are amusing, but the romantic chemistry with Son never lights up.

For both parts, it is quite hard for the audience to be empathetic of their situation romance-wise in the early stages of the film, but when the film reaches its emotional crescendo and it provides the two a chance to sink her teeth into, it’s too little, too late.

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And the nature of the story is quite problematic as the original was. A feminist critique might focus on how Soo-ah’s importance to the family seems to be directly related to her ability to cook, clean, and basically take care of Woo-jin and Ji-ho, and not how the story really affects her. In this day of age, this issue could’ve been the perfect reason for director Lee to address it and make the remake stand out, but unfortunately, it becomes a missed opportunity.

And that’s all the Be With You remake is: a missed opportunity to be something great. It’s not a terrible movie by any means, it just feels like a lot of remakes nowadays: unnecessary.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Some much-needed mirth

The past flashbacks are the best parts, due to appealing leads

Most parts of the film that work in the original work in the remake

CONS

Lack of chemistry between the leads in present day

All problems in the original are present in the remake

Use of musical score is quite manipulative

Fails to address major issue in premise, especially during current political climate

SCORE: 5/10

Cast: Son Ye-jin, So Ji-sub, Lee You-jin, Kim Hyun-soo, Kim Ji-hwan, Ko Chang-seok, Bae Yu-nam, Lee Jun-hyeok, Seo Jeong-yeon
Director: Lee Jang-hoon
Screenwriters: Lee Jang-hoon, Kang Soo-jine, based on the novel Be With You by Takuji Ichikawa