Cold War (Zimna wojna)


Love and war are often indistinguishable.

(2018) Romance (Amazon) Joanna Kulig, Tomasz Kot, Borys Szyc, Agata Kulesza, Cėdric Kahn, Jeanne Balibar, Adam Woronowicz, Adam Ferency, Drazen Slivak, Slavko Sobin, Aloise Sauvage, Adam Szyszkowski, Anna Zagórska, Tomasz Markowicz, Izabela Andrzejak, Kamila Borowska, Katarzyna Clemniejewska, Joanna Depczynska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski

 

We like to think of love as a redemptive, enhancing feeling that makes us better people. Love can also be toxic, blinding us to that which can destroy us and leave us bitter and broken. Love is two sides of the same coin and when you throw a repressive regime that discourages individuality into the mix, love can be all but impossible.

In 1949, Poland like all of Europe is digging itself out of the rubble of World War II. Now under communist control, the government has sent Wiktor (Kot), a pianist/composer/arranger out into the countryside along with dance instructor Irena (Kulesza) and driver Kaczmarek (Szyc) to seek out the songs and singers of traditional Polish folk music, something like the Folkways project that the Smithsonian undertook during the Depression. A school/troupe of singers and dancers of traditional Polish folk songs and dances is being put together and Wiktor and Irena are tasked with selecting the songs and dances as well as the artists who will perform them.

One woman in particular catches the eye of Wiktor; Zula (Kulig), a brassy, effervescent sort who has a criminal record and all sorts of stories to explain it. She’s beautiful in a kind of Pia Zadora/Bridget Bardot kind of way and certainly sensual; it isn’t long before she and Wiktor are having a torrid affair, one that threatens to consume them both.

As the 1940s ease into the 1950s, there is a subtle change in the mission of the troupe. No longer content to save and extol Poland’s musical and artistic past, naked propaganda has begun to work its way into the program, songs praising Stalin and communism in general. Wiktor wants none of it. He was content to save music that might have been lost but he is not one who follows any party line and he is determined to pack up his toys and depart that particular sandbox.

But Zula has been passing on information about Wiktor to Kaczmarek who has become a minor commissar who is rising up in the ranks of the bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Wiktor convinces Zula to flee the communist bloc with him when they are performing a concert in Berlin shortly before the Wall was erected. However, she doesn’t show at their planned rendezvous and bitterly disappointed, he steps into the West, never for one moment forgetting what he left behind in the East.

The film follows them through their tempestuous romance over the next 15 years, the height of the cold war. Pawlikowski based the couple on his own parents who had a stormy relationship of their own, although I’m pretty certain it didn’t go down quite the same path as Wiktor and Zula go. Both of them are scarred by the times but mostly by each other. Wiktor becomes weak, directionless and obsessed with the love he lost; he ends up in Paris, playing with a jazz combo and scoring films. Zula, volatile and occasionally cruel, gets married but still loves Wiktor even though she knows any sort of relationship with him is doomed to fail. Love, sometimes, isn’t enough and this movie certainly makes that point. Wiktor and Zula clearly love each other deeply but they are fighting an uphill battle from the very beginning. The Iron Curtain will end up crushing them both.

The performances here are strong, particularly Kulig who is one of Poland’s most popular actresses and a dynamite singer in her own right. There’s a scene late in the movie where Zula is performing in a nightclub revue in the mid-60s that is absolutely horrible by our standards today. She knows what she has been reduced to. Onstage she’s all smiles and even the presence of her lover doesn’t overcome her own revulsion of what she’s become; she runs offstage past her husband, son and yes Wiktor too and vomits. It’s powerful and resonant all at once.

Pawlikowski is best-known for his Oscar-nominated Ida and what was excellent about that film is present in his latest one. The cinematography from Lukasz Zal who did that film (as well as the brilliant Loving Vincent) is in gorgeous black and white, often accompanied by a smoky jazz score. Speaking of the score, the folk music both of the troupe and that which Wiktor and Irena find in the sticks is absolutely gorgeous and while I’m less impressed with the more modern jazzy takes of the music, this is regardless a soundtrack worth seeking out.

Powerful and tragic, this is a movie that spends a lot of time getting started – the early scenes at the Palace which is the headquarters for the troupe become overbearing as we watch the girls practice dancing and singing endlessly and as Wiktor and Zula’s love begins to blossom, we sense that this is a relationship that is not built for longevity but that’s not because of the depth of their love or lack thereof but sadly, about the times they are in. It’s still playing at a few scattered theaters across the country (including right here in Orlando at the Enzian) but will be making its home video debut shortly, although if it should do well at the Oscars that might change. I suggest seeing it on the big screen if you can – you’ll want to enjoy the cinematography the way it was meant to be enjoyed.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is breathtaking. The folk music is hauntingly beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third drags a little too much – all the training sequences could easily have been excised.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, brief nudity, profanity and some mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cold War has been nominated for three Oscars this year; Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director and Best Cinematography.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/5/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The English Patient
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Golem

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Then Came You


Caught in the web of their own making – and a callous fate.

(2018) Dramedy (Shout! Factory) Asa Butterfield, Maisie Williams, Nina Dobrev, Ken Jeong, David Koechner, Tyler Hoechlin, Peyton List, Tituss Burgess, Sonya Walger, Margot Bingham, Colin Moss, Briana Venskus, Ron Simons, Angel Valle Jr., L. Steven Taylor, Francesca Noel, Ann Osmond, Ken Tsukada, Crystal Tweed, Terri Gittens, Ashlyn Alessi. Directed by Peter Hutchings

 

All good things must come to an end, including (and especially) life itself. However, knowing that you’re dying doesn’t mean that you have to stop living.

Calvin (Butterfield) is a college drop-out who is working as a baggage handler at a regional airport along with his Dad (Koechner) and big brother Frank (Hoechlin) whose wife (Walger) is about to have a baby. Although he vehemently denies it, Calvin is a bit of a hypochondriac, taking his own vitals hourly (his watch alarm reminding him to do so) and obsessively writing down his symptoms in a journal. Most of those by the way are pretty much in between his ears.

His frustrated doctor, wanting this healthy young man to get some perspective, sends him to a cancer support group where he meets Skye (Williams), a manic pixie dream girl from a long line of them, who reacts to being told her tumor is not responding to treatment by shrugging at her shattered parents “You win some, you lose some.” She’s the kind of girl who gives a goldfish as a gift to a friend, swimming happily in an IV bag.

She recognizes the depressed and introverted Calvin as a project she can take on and manages to convince him (overwhelming what few defenses he has) to help her achieve all the entries on her “To Die List,” which is essentially a bucket list with a cooler name. In doing so, she begins to coax Calvin out of his thick shell as he begins to learn how to really live, something he gave up on years earlier after a tragedy left his family shattered and his mom essentially catatonic. He even manages to work up the courage to ask out the girl he’s been crushing hard on, a lonely stewardess named Izzy (Dobrev) who, as Skye helpfully points out, is way out of his league. So is Skye for that matter but don’t tell her I told you that.

Izzy gets the mistaken impression that Calvin is the one with terminal cancer and neither Skye nor Calvin are disposed to setting her straight which from the moment she confides to Calvin that she broke up with her last boyfriend because he was untruthful to her tells you all you need to know about where this relationship is going. As for Skye, she’s going somewhere herself but will she able to get all the things on her list done before she sets sail for the shores of the undiscovered country?

Dying teens have been a staple of music and movies since people figured out that teens could die and it was a tragic thing when they did. There have been plenty of dying teen movies – Me and Earl and the Dying Girl for example – and while they usually don’t make for extraordinary box office, they are generally inexpensive to make and can pull a tidy profit when done right. They almost have to since they are not generally fodder for sequels if you catch my drift.

Butterfield is a handsome devil with big soulful eyes in a puppy dog sense. He has been around the block a few times but has never really demonstrated the screen presence to be a big star. Still, his performance here feels a bit more authentic than that of Williams, the Game of Thrones star whose bonhomie seems a bit forced in places. Still, she manages to be more unforgettable than her bland co-star and ends up carrying the movie for the most part even though this is ostensibly Calvin’s story.

Dobrev who has done the manic pixie dream girl role herself a time or two is the most authentic of the three leads even though she isn’t given a ton to work with. It’s hard to figure out what she sees in Calvin other than sympathy for his mistakenly perceived plight although by the movie’s end we see that there might be more to it than meets the eye initially. Koechner and Jeong, two comedy pros, have some surprising moments of pathos during the course of the film and show off their versatility in doing so.

The soundtrack is decent enough and the filmmakers show off their taste in music during several montages which are almost de rigueur for a film like this. The issue is the filmmakers are almost trying too hard to set the mood both light and dark and resort to familiar clichés in order to get their points across. This is going to seem depressingly familiar to those who have seen a few of these kinds of movies up to now.

Still, their heart is in the right place and to the credit of the filmmakers the movie gets better as it goes along. In the first twenty minutes, I was thoroughly prepared to despise this movie but it is rescued particularly in the last third by strong performances by Dobrev, Koechner and Jeong (and to a lesser degree, Butterfield) and a memorable take on things by Williams whose Skye may be an amalgam of other MPDGs but Williams has the presence to pull it off pretty well. This isn’t going to replace your favorite tearjerker but it does make a decent substitute to listening to a Morrissey record or whatever angst-ridden pop star has the attention of young people this week.

REASONS TO GO: The quality picks up towards the end.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers try a bit too hard.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some sexual content and plenty of adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Much of the movie was filmed in upstate New York in the Capital District; the airport scenes were mainly filmed at Albany International Airport.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fault in Our Stars
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Cold War

Solo: A Star Wars Story


“Chewie, I’ve got a bad feeling about this..”

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney/Lucasfilm) Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau (voice), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (voice), Erin Kellyman, Linda Hunt (voice), Ian Kenny, John Tui, Anna Francolini, Andrew Woodall, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Anthony Daniels, Charlotte Louise. Directed by Ron Howard

 

Prequels can serve one of two purposes; to give insight to an established character or franchise, or to forever tarnish them. The much-anticipated Solo: A Star Wars Story could go either way…or both.

Han Solo (Ehrenreich) is an orphan committing crimes for a kind of reptilian Fagin named lady Proxima (Hunt). He and his best girl Qi’ra (Clarke) plan to get out of the life and find a life of their own but their plans go awry and the two are separated. Indy..I mean Han…resolves to come back for her and joins the Imperial Stormtroopers as a pilot. Eventually, he meets scoundrel Tobias Beckett (Harrelson) who along with his squeeze Val (Newton) are planning a big heist, one which may finally get him the opportunity to finally rescue his girl. First he will have to avoid the wrath of the crime boss Dryden Vos (Bettany) and meet up with future allies Chewbacca (Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Glover).

This is a movie in which the sum of its parts exceeds the whole. An underrated cast, writer Lawrence Kasdan who wrote arguably the best installment in the series (Return of the Jedi) and one of Hollywood’s most respected directors (Oscar winner Ron Howard). Still, despite exceptional turns by Harrelson and particularly Glover (who at one time was rumored to be toplining a Lando Calrissian movie of his own) the movie feels curiously flat. Perhaps it was because Howard was brought in late after much footage had already been shot by departing directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who were (depending on who you ask) shown the door or found it on their own after artistic differences with Disney brass. More likely, it’s because Ehrenreich who is a very talented actor, was given a no-win situation in which he was given. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is one of the most iconic roles of the last 50 years and most people can’t see anyone playing Solo except Ford. I will say that Ehrenreich does his level best but for whatever reason his performance didn’t resonate with me. Great effects, great pacing and great cinematography can take a movie so far but it also has to connect, to inspire and amaze. Solo does none of those things.

REASONS TO GO: Glover and Harrelson do bang-up jobs.
REASONS TO STAY: The film left me feeling flat and was overall a disappointment.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some science fiction-type violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fertility idol from the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark can be seen on a table in the meeting room of Dryden Vos, the villain.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Then Came You

Dead Ant


Rock on!!!

(2017) Horror Comedy (Cinedigm) Tom Arnold, Sean Astin, Jake Busey, Rhys Coiro, Leisha Hailey, Michael Horse, Danny Woodburn, Sydney Sweeney, Joy Llaye, Natasha Blasick, Michelle Campbell, Angelica Chitwood, Cameron Richardson, Nick Mason, Amber Martinez, Nic Novicki, Ewart Chin, David A. Lockhart, Camilla Jackson, Cortney Palm, Abigail Johns. Directed by Ron Carlson

 

Some movies should be seen in an art house, preferably one with a bar where you can hang out with fellow film buffs and discuss the nuances of the filmmaking you just witnessed – this isn’t one of those. Other movies should be seen in the local multiplexes with lots of popcorn and ice cold soda – this isn’t one of those either. No, this is the type of film that should be seen in a Times Square grindhouse circa 1979 – or in my case, the Jose Theater in downtown San Jose circa 1985.

Aging metal band Sonic Grave hasn’t gotten the memo that the 80s are long over. They’ve essentially made a career milking their one and only hit, a power ballad that now the band detests. They have been just hanging on through the machinations of their ruthless manager Danny (Arnold) but even he knows the band is fast approaching the end of the line. They have one shot at a comeback; a gig at a music festival in the California desert. No, not that one; the organizers of Coachella wouldn’t even take his calls. Instead, they’re going to “No-Chella,” a kind of Slamdance to the better-known festival’s Sundance

Danny knows they need to write some songs that will blow everyone away and get the band’s name known again so he takes the into the desert with a brief pit stop for some shrooms so that the band can get creative. They meet with Native American shaman Bigfoot (Horse) and his bodyguard Firecracker (Woodburn) who I must say has an impressive arsenal. Bigfoot is known for his variety of psychedelic mushrooms called The Moon but he has an even more potent fungus for sale – The Sun. He warns them that while under the influence they must not harm any living thing on the sacred grounds and that the mushrooms must be taken after sundown.

The rockers, being rockers and all, don’t listen and their train wreck of a bass player, Art (Astin) goes out to – um, relieve himself – and drowns a hapless ant in a stream of his own relief. The group, including shrieking singer Merrick (Busey), stoner guitar God Pager (Coiro) and level-headed drummer Stevie (Hailey) as well as two party girls Sam (Sweeney) and Lisa (Llaye) are attacked by ants that grow in size every time the hapless musicians kill one of them. Can these metalheads outwit the giant ants or will they become ant food?

This movie is actually a mash-up of a lot of different kinds of grindhouse films, from giant critter horror to stoner comedy to 80s music videos to psychedelic road trip. It never takes itself completely seriously but it doesn’t fail to deliver the goods either. That’s not to say there aren’t some missteps, but at least they are honestly come by. The movie declares it’s intentions from the very first scene in which a nubile hippie chick is chased through the desert by a gigantic ant. As she flees, she sheds her clothes and throws them in the general direction of the oncoming ant. I don’t know how much more grindhouse a film can get than that. Oddly enough, that is the last nudity seen in the film so arrive at the theater on time for those who are fans of the female form.

Arnold has made a career out of playing the same sort of guy pretty much in every role (which I suspect is pretty much the same guy that Tom Arnold actually is, although not as much of a schmuck). Most of the really funny lines in the movie are his and to his credit he gives it the same kind of effort that he gave in True Lies. That’s what you call a pro, right there.

The movie is filled with the kind of clichés that metal lovers have had to endure for years and I suppose some of them are earned, but there are plenty of people who play and love heavy metal who aren’t dumber than rocks and not all of them have fried their brains with sex, drugs and rock and roll, not necessarily in that order. Some of you fans of the music may find the portrayal of your kind to be wearisome, but I think (I may be wrong about this one) that it is meant in good spirit.

The mainly CGI special effects are cheesy as all get out and that may not necessarily be a bad thing. It at least keeps with the film’s oeuvre. While this isn’t going to break any records for originality, the filmmakers at least have the courage of their convictions and have crafted a pleasant and occasionally charming entertainment that wouldn’t feel out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s VHS collection (if ever a 21st century movie screamed for a VHS release it’s this one) and that’s pretty high praise in my book.

REASONS TO GO: The film is goofy and charming from the get-go.
REASONS TO STAY: The special effects are downright cheesy.
FAMILY VALUES: Where to begin? There’s plenty of violence and gore, a whole lot of drug use, a boatload of profanity, a few horrific images and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson’s last film was set in a cold climate. Not wanting to undergo that kind of hardship again, he deliberately wrote this film set in a warmer climate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Colossal
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
How It Ends

The Final Wish


Mirror, mirror on the wall…

(2018) Horror (Cinedigm) Lin Shaye, Michael Welch, Melissa Bolona, Spencer Locke, Tony Todd, Kalwi Lyman, Jonathan Daniel Brown, Jean Elie, Christopher Murray, Douglas Tait, Larry Poole, Garrett Edell, Michelle Burke, Timothy Oman, Dey Young, Gordon Woloson, Mohamed Mohson, Diane Markoff, Jeffrey Reddick, Zebulun Huling, Barbara de Normandie, Randi Lamey. Directed by Timothy Woodward Jr

 

The old saying goes “Be careful what you wish for” and that is especially true in a horror film. Wishes may from time to time be granted, but almost never in the way you expect and always – ALWAYS – at a price.

Aaron Hammond (Welch) graduated law school from essentially an online school but that hasn’t led to the dream job at a prestigious firm he was dreaming of. He is basically unemployed, unable to pay his rent on his squalid Chicago apartment and being demeaned at interviews by haughty lawyers who prefer Ivy League candidates.

Locked out of his apartment for failure to pay the rent, his day goes from awful to horrible when his ex-girlfriend calls to inform him that his father has passed away. Coming home to his small central California town isn’t exactly the tonic he was looking for; his mom Kate (Shaye) is almost bi-polar, at turns happy to see him and then furious at what she sees as his abandonment of his parents. The aforementioned ex, Lisa (Bolona) is married to Derek (Lyman), known as “Douchebag Derek” back in high school in Aaron’s circle and now the town sheriff when he isn’t busy physically abusing his wife.

Clearing out Dad’s antique shop has yielded some curious looking artifacts, including an urn with a ram’s head on the cover. As a depressed Aaron wishes for a better life, his wishes start to come true but in awful ways; a wish that he could be better looking results in him being hit by a car driven by his friend Jeremy (Elie) and requiring plastic surgery. A wish that his mother could be happy leads to his father returning as a zombie. You know, those sorts of things.

This is where Dad’s antiques buyer Colin (Todd) drops into the picture to explain what’s going on. It turns out that the urn is actually the receptacle for a djinn and no, this is not the kind of blue genie that croons “You never had a friend like me.” This is a hideous creature that draws its power from wishes and once seven of them have been granted, takes possession of the soul of the user. And Aaron has used up six of them…

This is a fairly clever horror flick from the writer of Final Destination. Some of the death scenes have that kind of Rube Goldberg-like complexity to them which made that franchise so entertaining; some are much more straightforward. Some of these complex scenes have nothing to do with deaths either which is an interesting twist on the FD franchise.

Any horror movie that has Lin Shaye in it is welcome and in that regard The Final Wish doesn’t disappoint. Shaye is at the top of her game, giving Kate a truly hard-to-read character. She may be a little over-the-top in places but only when the scene calls for it. Horror icon Tony Todd also has a cameo and while he does as good a job as always, the part feels like it was hastily added for expository purposes, dropped suddenly into the film and dropping just as suddenly out of it.

Welch is a competent lead; Aaron is something of a selfish jerk and Welch is able to make the character somewhat sympathetic nonetheless. This is a good performance for the resume. Bolona is pretty and present as the girlfriend but she’s given not a lot to work with. I did like Jonathan Daniel Brown as the nerdy best friend who carries with him a whopper of a secret.

I have to say that the production design is impressive; the interior of the house is suitably spooky with Dad’s very creepy antiques scattered around. Since a lot of the action takes place at night, the shadows add to the tone. It’s not haunted house spooky but you are always nervously glancing at the shadows waiting for something to leap out; something with fangs and horns, most likely.

I can’t say that this is groundbreaking; it really isn’t. There are plenty of djinn tales that are plenty more interesting than this one. Frankly it could have used a little more camp. However, it has enough going for it that horror buffs are likely to find this entertaining. Everyone else it’s probably not going to be too high on the list, although the end twist is a pretty cool one.

REASONS TO GO: The production design is really well done.
REASONS TO STAY: The writing is more than a little bit sloppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and gore, plenty of profanity, some disturbing images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the same house that was used in Annabelle: Creation.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/25/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wishmaster
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Dead Ant

Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

Adult Life Skills


Jodie Whittaker feels at home in the shed that is as cluttered as the TARDIS.

(2016) Dramedy (Screen Media) Jodie Whittaker, Lorraine Ashbourne, Brett Goldstein, Rachel Deering, Eileen Davies, Alice Lowe, Edward Hogg, Ozzy Myers, David Anderson, Andrew Buckley, Christian Contreras, Alfie Wheeler. Directed by Rachel Tunnard

 

In 2018, British actress Jodie Whittaker made history becoming the first female Doctor in the beloved sci-fi series Doctor Who. Before that, she was largely unknown other than appearances on the British TV show Broadchurch and the independent sci-fi flick Attack the Block. She also did indie films like this one which opened in the UK two years ago.

Anna (Whittaker) is days away from her 30th birthday and she’s stuck in a garden shed. Not literally; she’s been using it as a studio for her short films of her thumbs made up as astronauts on a doomed space trip in which they are crashing into the sun. Life must feel a lot like that to Anna; she used to make little videos with her twin brother Billy (Hogg) until he passed away unexpectedly. She essentially lives in the shed which sits on her mother’s property in West Yorkshire. Occasionally, she forgets to bring in clean clothes with her and so has to make a mad dash to the house half-naked to get some.

This has been her living arrangement for some 18 months since her brother died and her mum (Ashbourne) is sick of it. She desperately wants her remaining daughter to move on and start living her life again. Anna’s grandmother (Davies) is a little less frantic about it than her daughter who seems bound and determined to make matters worse but still she knows her granddaughter needs to make changes, although the grandmother thinks a good shagging is all Anna needs.

Brendan (Goldstein), a work colleague (Anna works at an outdoor activities center part time) would dearly love to supply Anna with just that but Anna has decided in her head that Brendan is gay. Brendan is not but he is a realtor who is enlisted by Anna’s mum to find a cheap flat for her daughter which turns out to be a disaster; most of the properties that Anna can afford are absolutely hideous.

When Anna’s best friend Fiona (Deering) returns from travelling, she also tries to kickstart Anna’s life with some success but things really start to change when she meets Clint (Myers), a young cowboy-obsessed boy who is just as quirky as Anna who is undergoing a similar trauma to the one that Anna suffered and the two begin to identify with each other but Anna is an expert at pushing people away. Will she ever find her way back to the land of the living?

The film not only serves as a treatise on grief but also as a paean to the deliberately weird. Nearly all the characters here are off-kilter in one way or another not unlike certain American indie films that star Greta Gerwig. Like those films, sometimes the quirkiness wears on the viewer and becomes almost forced but the good news is that it does only to a lesser extent. However, the thick Yorkshire accents used by the character can be incomprehensible at times; home viewers should definitely watch this with subtitles turned on. The dialogue though when you can understand it is actually quite clever; lines like one in which Fiona, exiting a pub, exclaims “It’s like The Wicker Man in there” can be quite brilliant.

A lot of Whovians are going to want to see this because of Whittaker and to be honest her performance is worth seeing whether you’re a fan of the series or not. It’s a very different role and some of her fans from the venerable BBC sci-fi show may not be able to accept her in a role like this. Anna is far from the self-assured and brilliant Doctor; she is a woman-child coping with an overwhelming tragedy and not always doing it well. In the hands of a lesser talent viewers might just shut down watching Anna make terrible choices and do things that are weird in an eye-rolling sense but Whittaker’s charm carries the day. Like other actors who have taken on the role of the Timelord, she has enough screen presence to continue with a career that transcends the TARDIS; I wouldn’t be surprised if she eventually gets lead roles in franchise films or maybe even some Oscar bait films. She’s truly an incredibly versatile talent.

Like a lot of British films, the soundtrack is absolutely brilliant. The supporting cast is solid and the production design gives the film a cluttered but lived in tone. At the end of the day my recommendation is going to depend on your ability to tolerate quirkiness; those with low tolerances should probably skip this one but those who don’t mind a little off-beat with their independent cinema may well find this delightful.

REASONS TO GO: The film is blessed with a terrific soundtrack. Whittaker is sublime in a very different role.
REASONS TO STAY: The film rapidly goes from quirky to annoying. The dialogue is occasionally incomprehensible.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity as well as one sexual scene. There are also some fairly adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The feature film is based on a 2014 short that also starred Whittaker.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rabbit Hole
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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Burning