Tag Archives: entertainment

Seoul Searching

Return to Seoul

by George Wolf

“Your birth name is Yeon-Hee. It means ‘docile’ and ‘joyous.'”

None of those things apply to Frédérique (Park Ji-min), whose name was changed after a French couple adopted baby Yeon-Hee and moved her from Seoul to Paris.

25 years later, she’s back.

In Return to Seoul (Retour à Séoul), the trip “home” becomes a catalyst for one woman’s search for identity, as director and co-writer Davy Chou crafts a relentlessly engrossing study of character and culture.

Now 25, “Freddie”‘s planned vacation in Japan is diverted by a typhoon, and she lands in Seoul “by surprise” – or so she tells her adoptive mother in France. But it isn’t long before Freddie is visiting the agency that handled her adoption, and reaching out to her birth parents to gauge interest in a meeting.

And from the minute we meet Freddie, she is purposefully upending the societal expectations of her heritage. When Freddie laughingly explains it away to her friend Tena (Guka Han) as “I’m French,” Tena quietly responds that Freddie is “also Korean.”

Freddie’s birth father and mother have very different reactions to her outreach. Chou moves the timeline incrementally forward, and Freddie’s two-week holiday becomes a new life in Seoul, one that’s fueled by restlessness and unrequited longing.

In her screen debut, Park is simply a revelation. Her experience as a visual artist clearly assists Park in realizing how to challenge the camera in a transfixing manner that implores us not to give up on her character. Freddie is carrying a soul-deep wound and pushes people away with a sometimes casual cruelty, but Park always grounds her with humanity and restraint.

As the narrative years go by, Chou adds flamboyance without seeming overly showy, and manages to toe a tricky line between singular characterization and a more universal comment on Korean adoptees.

Freddie begins to embody the typhoon that pushed her toward this journey of self, and Return to Seoul becomes an always defiant, sometimes bristling march to emotional release. And when that release comes, it is a rich and moving reward for a filmmaker, a performer, and all who choose to follow.

Press To Play

Kubrick by Kubrick

by George Wolf

Stanley Kubrick gave so few interviews in his lifetime that an early striking moment in Gregory Monro’s Kubrick by Kubrick comes the first time you hear his voice.

It doesn’t really seem to fit, until you remember Kubrick wasn’t French or British, he was a native New Yorker. And he had a clear penchant for precise, matter-of-fact observations.

Film critic Michel Ciment was lucky enough to get some of those thoughts on tape over the course of several years, and Monro surrounds highlights of those cassette recordings with still photos, movie clips, and interviews with various cast and crew from Kubrick’s 13 movies.

Monro anchors the film with a recreation of the hotel suite from 2001. This one is adorned with mementos from Kubrick’s catalogue, which Monro spotlights as Ciment and Kubrick move their conversations from film to film.

Obviously, film fans will get critical insight into Kubrick’s mindset and interpretations of the stories he told (horror fans may especially take note of his far-from-the-rabbit-hole thoughts on The Shining).

But however much time Ciment spent with Kubrick, it seems Monro only found enough usable material for a heavily padded, barely one-hour running time, which leaves plenty unsaid. It’s certainly great to see all the classic clips from Kubrick’s films, but after actors such as Jack Nicholson, Malcolm McDowell, Sterling Hayden (Dr. Strangleove) and Marisa Berenson (Barry Lyndon) comment on Kubrick’s legendary perfectionism, you wait for reactions from the man himself that never come.

Maybe beggars like us can’t be choosers, and there are fascinating answers from Kubrick here, chief among them some suddenly prescient thoughts on HAL’s A.I. awareness. Kubrick by Kubrick is the rare chance to get inside the mind of a guarded legend, and even when it leaves you wanting more, that somehow feels like an ending he had planned all along.

The Write Side of History

Boston Strangler

by George Wolf

Writer/director Matt Ruskin wants us to remember that decades before the events of All the President’s Men, Spotlight or She Said, journalists – specifically women journalists – were heroically committed to finding the truth.

Wading through historical record with a detailed screenplay that’s surprisingly unaided by any source material, Ruskin crafts Boston Strangler as a salute to two dogged reporters and the mystery that still surrounds their biggest story.

In the 1960s, Loretta McLaughlin (Keira Knightley) was a lifestyle reporter for Boston’s Record American. She pressured editor Jack Maclaine (Chris Cooper, reliable as always) for a better beat, but got approval to work the Strangler story only on her own time. As Loretta’s promising leads met increasing roadblocks, street-wise veteran Jean Cole (Carrie Coon) had her back and the two “girl” reporters started lighting up the front pages.

Knightley and Coon make for a team just as formidable as their characters, highlighting the contrasts of the two women’s lives while making it clear how much they came to depend on each other. The always welcome Alessandro Nivola adds solid support as Detective Conley, a sympathetic cop who proves useful to the case.

And you might remember that case eventually led to the confession of Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian). But Ruskin is arguing that bit of history is far from settled, and he methodically makes his case via the work of McLaughlin and Cole.

Ruskin’s storytelling is patient and assured, nicely mirroring the ladies’ work ethic and building a subtle bridge from past to present through the sexism and police corruption that made the truth even more evasive.

The film is more compelling than thrilling, striking a tone that fits the material. It’s not the splashy headline that’s important, it’s what kind of substance is delivered underneath. Boston Strangler delivers a relevant history lesson, and another salute to the ones that keep asking questions.

Missions Possible

The Magician’s Elephant

by George Wolf

Anything is possible, just believe in your dreams.

That’s a fine moral for The Magician’s Elephant. But much like the film itself, it’s a bit generic and less than memorable.

Based on the children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, this Netflix animated adventure takes us to the land of Baltese, where strange clouds have rolled in and “people stopped believing.” Young orphan Peter (voiced by Noah Jupe) is being raised by an old soldier (Mandy Patinkin) to live a soldier’s life, which will be hard because “the world is hard.”

It gets harder when Peter uses meal money for a fortune teller (Natasia Demetriou) to tell him how his long lost sister can be found. The soldier told Peter the girl died at birth, but that’s not what he remembers, and a palm reading confirms that she is indeed alive.

To find her, Peter must “follow the elephant.”

But there are no elephants in Baltese, at least until a desperate magician (Benedict Wong) makes one fall from the sky. And after the magician and the elephant are both locked up for causing trouble, Peter begs the King (Aasif Mandvi) to let him care for the beast, as it is “only guilty of being an elephant.”

The King agrees, providing Peter can complete three tasks. Three impossible tasks.

Ah, but remember, nothing is impossible!

Director Wendy Rogers (a visual effects vet helming her first feature) and screenwriter Martin Hynes have plenty of threads to juggle, from animal cruelty to the costs of war to a Dickensian twist of fate. The resulting narrative ends up feeling overstuffed and convoluted.

The muted coloring no doubt reflects the village’s cloudy atmosphere, and the stiff animation may be intended to recall a children’s popup, but there is little in the film’s aesthetic that is visually inspiring.

Mandvi and Patinkin are the most successful at crafting indelible characterizations, while the rest of the voice cast (also including Brian Tyree Henry and Miranda Richardson) manages workmanlike readings that neither disappoint or standout.

Same for the film. The Magician’s Elephant pulls plenty from its crowded hat, but has trouble conjuring anything that is truly magical.

Rising Up to Meet You

The Quiet Girl

by George Wolf

This has been a fan-fecking-tastic awards season for the Emerald Isle. Multiple Oscar nominee The Banshees of Inisherin has racked up plenty of other noms and wins these last few weeks, and the sublime short feature An Irish Goodbye is a recent BAFTA winner and leading Oscar contender ahead of Sunday’s ceremony.

But the hometown favorite might well be The Quiet Girl (An Cailín Ciúin), up for a Best International Film Oscar after winning seven of its ten nominations at the recent Irish Film Awards.

So yes, it’s feckin’ good, and it’s so exquisitely, heartbreakingly Irish.

In fact, the feature debut from writer/director Colm Bairéad is the first Irish language film to be nominated for an Oscar, but it begins speaking through the subtle foreshadowing of a cuckoo’s song – the bird known for laying its eggs in the nests of others.

And in rural Ireland circa 1981, young Cáit (an astonishing debut from Catherine Clinch) is sent away from her dysfunctional family to live with “her mother’s people” for the summer. Middle-aged couple Seán (Andrew Bennett) and Eibhlín (a marvelous Carrie Crowley) have never met the shy and introspective Cáit, but they welcome her into their home.

Seán spends most days working the farm, so Eibhlín tends to Cáit with an unconditional affection she has never known, and the young girl begins to blossom. But after Eibhlín declares “if there are secrets, there is shame,” Cáit discovers a secret that permeates the farmhouse.

Like Belgium’s Close (also up for Best International Feature), The Quiet Girl features a terrific debut from a child actor and is draped in a tender stillness that gently cradles the building of its central relationship. Clinch and Crowley are absolutely wonderful together, rendering it nearly impossible not the care whether this wide-eyed young girl and her wounded mother figure will feel safe enough to open their hearts.

In adapting Claire Keegan’s novella, Bairéad’s storytelling is confidently restrained and overflowing with compassion, as it builds to one of the most quietly devastating final shots in years. The Quiet Girl is an intimate, beautifully realized take on finding what we need to heal our pain – and knowing when to rise up and meet it.

Frenemy Mine

Creed III

by George Wolf

Re-igniting the Rocky franchise by way of Apollo Creed’s son was a genius move by writer/director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan. Better still, 2015’s Creed was a tremendously effective example of honoring the past while looking toward the future.

Coogler stepped aside for Creed II five years ago, and while that film seemed a bit more calculated, it had the sentiment, heart and conviction to come out a winner. Plus, it gave the Rocky Balboa character a respectful signal that things would be moving on without him, a choice that seems right (well, mostly right) for Creed III.

Jordan again brings the fire in the title role, and also makes a fine debut behind the camera, directing a somewhat wandering script from Keenan Coogler (Ryan’s brother) and Zach Baylin (an Oscar nominee last year for King Richard).

We find Adonis and Bianca (Tessa Thompson, always a treat) Creed now parents of young Amara (Mila Davis-Kent) and transitioning to new professional roles. Bianca’s now more of a music producer than a performer, and “Donny” has similarly retired from the ring to open a gym and manage new heavyweight champ Felix Chavez (Jose Benavidez).

And then Donny’s childhood friend Damien “Dame” Anderson shows up, which means Jonathan Majors shows up. And neither one of them are playin’.

Majors commands the screen with a portrait that recalls Max Cady in Cape Fear. Like DeNiro, Majors makes sure Dame’s early smiles don’t mask the violent intent of his Adonis agenda. A fateful event years earlier put the two young friends on different paths, and Dame has come to take what he feels should have been his all along.

Jordan, Coogler and Baylin wisely realized that after two Creed films built around Rocky bloodlines, it was time to freshen the stakes. And aside from one blatant bit of contrivance, this new feud has roots that feel authentic, thanks in large part to the terrific performances from both Majors and Jordan.

But the film has shaky legs when it strays from the two rivals. Threads about Amara’s interest in fighting and Mary-Anne Creed’s (Phylicia Rashad) health problems seem desperate to find some resonance. And though Rocky’s name is mentioned once or twice, he’s strangely missing from the one moment when it would make the most organic sense to include him, even in passing.

Director Jordan steers the ship gamely, keeping his eye on where these films deliver their emotional highs. It’s the same place his camerawork will impress the most: the ring.

By now, we know the torrid pace of the action, the superhero stamina of the fighters and the stilted commentary from the ringside announcers will be less than authentic. But here, the boxing sequences accept their cinematic pass and soar, elevated by Jordan’s new vision. The camera bobs, weaves, and clinches, with blows landing even harder via slow-motion and one completely stop-the-presses sequence that wows unlike anything seen in the entire Rocky universe.

Nearly fifty years later, who could have imagined that surprise Oscar winner would have such a legacy? But Creed III is more proof that this is Donny’s time to fly now. And Jordan’s.

Write What You Don’t Know

A Little White Lie

by George Wolf

If I see Michael Shannon’s name in the credits, I’m interested. It’s just math. And Shannon gets the lead in A Little White Lie, a comedy that benefits more from its winning ensemble and breezy attitude than any sustained humor or underlying substance.

Shannon plays Mr. Shriver, a struggling barfly who happens to share a surname with reclusive novelist C.R. Shriver. After penning the counterculture classic “Goat Time,” C.R. retreated from the limelight and his legend only grew, which is why Prof. Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson) needs to find him so badly.

Simone is in charge of the annual literary festival at tiny, cash-strapped Acheron College, and that festival is going to be cancelled after 91 years unless she can land C.R. Shriver for a special guest appearance.

Well, what are the odds that her invite lands in the mailbox of Shannon’s Shriver, and he thinks there’s a new car in it for him, so he decides to play along? And, wouldn’t you know it, the festival’s theme this year is the Alanis Morrisette-approved “Truth, Fiction and Alternative Facts!”

Writer/director Michael Maren is again setting his sights on literary integrity, but much like his 2014 debut A Short History of Decay, he can never probe more than surface deep.

Though Shannon is effectively befuddled and Hudson is sweetly desperate, a succession of supporting actors (including Don Johnson, Zach Braff, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Wendie Malick) run in and out of the hijinks with little more than funny hats available as character development.

Maren is clearly frustrated by a book culture where writing “absolutely nothing is more than enough,” but cannot draw enough drama or humor from his own script to make this film memorable in any way.

The only draw is how gamely Shannon and Hudson navigate the paper-thin hoax shenanigans of A Little White Lie. They do it well. And after the recent successes of equally forgettable fluff such as Ticket to Paradise and 80 for Brady, that may be more than enough.

No Regrets


by George Wolf

So you’ve got the final draft of your first full screenplay, which you plan to develop for your debut feature as a director. It’s a solid script, but it treads some familiar ground, and there’s never much doubt about where it will lead in act three.

What’s the smart play? Cast esteemed talent that’s capable of elevating that material at every turn. And writer/director Matthew J. Saville is no dummy, letting the great Charlotte Rampling leave a memorable mark all over Juniper, a family drama blessed with fine performances across the ensemble.

Rampling is Ruth, an alcoholic and former war photographer who has moved in with her estranged son, the recently-widowed Robert (Marton Csokas), as she recovers from a broken leg. But Robert must attend to some business out of town, leaving his teenage son Sam (George Ferrier) to assist Nurse Sarah (Edith Poor) every time Ruth rings that damn bell.

She rings it often, and Sam is not amused by this grandmother he’s never met before suddenly barking orders at him.

But Sam isn’t amused by much. The death of his mother is still a fresh wound, his father seems clueless to his needs, and the young ladies aren’t too interested lately. Plus, Sam’s been suspended from school, which gives Robert an excuse to punish him with elder-sitting duties.

Can this resentful teen and his feisty granny find some common ground in their anger at the world, maybe even develop a begrudging respect on their way to learning from each other, and cherishing this new family bond?

The things Ruth has seen have hardened her to pretense and empty gestures, and she’s only too happy to dig into everyone around her as she searches for those with substance and a zest for living. Rampling brings all of this to the screen with wonderful authenticity, sometimes needing only a steely glare to get the job done. She’s a treasure.

And kudos to the young Mr. Ferrier. He doesn’t let Rampling’s shadow block him out, and the two share a natural chemistry that fuels the organic melting of the ice between their two characters.

Saville’s storytelling is sound and well-intentioned, it’s just not overly profound. Much like nearly every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, the trick for Juniper is how well it gets to where you know it’s going. And thanks to Rampling and her solid support, the trip is constantly engaging.

Friends to the End


by George Wolf

Belgium’s Close is one of two current Oscar nominees for Best International Film (along with Ireland’s The Quiet Girl) to draw its emotional power from the sensational debut performance of a teenager.

Director and co-writer Lukas Dhont met young Eden Dambrine on a train ride, ultimately offering him an audition after watching his facial expressions from a few seats away.

Dhont’s instincts were spot on. Dambrine proves a natural at communicating complex emotions with understated effort, propelling the film’s tender and sweetly heartbreaking take on friendship and innocence lost.

Thirteen year-olds Léo (Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends with a wonderfully expressive and joyous bond. But their first year in a different school brings whispers from new peers, leading to a disruption in the boys’ relationship. Slowly, Léo begins reaching out to Rémi’s mother Sophie (Émilie Dequenne), in hopes of reconciling his mix of feelings.

There is no shortage of films reflecting on the years when two young friends begin to explore different paths. Dhont reinforces that theme with subtle details, such as when the boys choose different routes on a bike ride home. But Dhont is also interested in how the path to adulthood has changed, and how today’s young people must often grapple with emotional questions that should never be asked of them.

And as heartbreaking as the film can be, it’s careful to retain a sense of tenderness. From bathing Léo in a field of golden flowers, to the patience with which Sophie waits for Léo to include her in what he’s feeling, Dhont’s second feature displays an assured command of tone. Sad but never maudlin, telling an intimate story with universal resonance, Close becomes a small miracle of healing.

Big Things, Small Packages

The Oscar Nominated Short Films

by George Wolf

Several years back, someone who deserved a promotion came up with the idea of packaging the year’s Oscar nominated short films into three separate features, and making them available to theaters. Every year, it’s a wonderful chance to get the local big screen experience for films often only available through festivals or smaller screen streaming.

And again this year, the programs are well worth seeking out.

Animated Block

An Ostrich Told Me the World Is Fake and I Think I Believe It Australia 11 mins. Writer/Director: Lachlan Pendragon

It had you at the title, didn’t it? In a bit of Office Space meets Wallace and Grommit absurdity, an online toaster salesman gets red-pilled by a wise flightless bird. A stop-motion gem.

Ice Merchants Portugal 14 mins. Writer/Director: João Gonzalez

In this lovely short, a father and son live in a frigid house attached to a cliff, parachuting down each day to a village where they sell their ice. On its face, a parable on climate change, but works real magic through the abstract nature of a late surprise. Our pick for the hardware.

My Year of Dicks Unted States/Iceland Writer: Pamela Ribon Director: Sara Gunnarsdóttir

Another arresting title. And this nominee, based on Ribon’s memoir, is a charmingly honest look back at one young woman’s attempts to get some. Utilizing a mix of animation styles, the film speaks sweetly to how friendship can often help get us through those awkward years.

The Flying Sailor Canada 8 mins. Writers/Directors: Amanda Forbis, Wendy Tilby

Based on an incredibly true event from 1917, a sailor is blown skyward from an accidental explosion, soaring naked as he contemplates life in a state of near-death. The latest from a Palme d’Or-winning duo is eight minutes of surprising profundity.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse United Kingdom 32 mins. Writers: Jon Croker (from the book by Charlie Mackesy) Directors: Peter Baynton, Charlie Mackesy

Was unable to preview this one.

Live Action Block

An Irish Goodbye Ireland 23 mins. Writers/Directors: Tom Berkeley, Ross White

With Banshees of Inisherin all over the feature nominations, this one gives the Emerald Isle some short subject love. In rural Northern Ireland, two brothers reunite after their mother’s passing. One brother wants to quickly sell the house and leave, while the other aims to complete Mom’s bucket list. Two fine performances drive a warm and human tale.

Night Ride (Nattrikken) 15 mins. Norway Writer/Director: Eirik Tveiten

On a very cold winter night, Ebba is force to wait outside for a tram while the driver takes a break. Some unlikely events later, she’s driving the tram and picking up a few other passengers. What begins with hi-jinks becomes a poignant lesson in empathy.

The Red Suitcase 18 mins. Luxembourg Writers: Guillaume Levil, Cyrus Neshvad Director: Cyrus Neshvad

A 16-year old Iranian girl is hesitant to pick up her suitcase from baggage claim at the Luxembourg airport. The new life that the girl’s father has arranged for her is a life she does not want, and the film becomes an effectively tense attempt to evade the man waiting at the gate with flowers.

Ivalu 16 mins. Denmark Writers: Anders Walter, Morten Dürr (graphic novel) Directors: Anders Walter, Pipaluk K. Jørgensen

Pipaluk is desperate to find her sister Ivalu, who has suddenly vanished. Though their father seems unconcerned, Pipaluk begins a search through the wilderness, where memories may reveal painful secrets. It’s a bit obvious, but beautifully realized.

Le Pupille 38 mins. Italy Writers: Alice Rohrwacher, Carmela Covino Director: Alice Rohrwacher

From Disney and producer Alfonso Cuarón comes a Christmas story based on a letter that the Italian writer Elsa Morante wrote to a friend. Set in Italy at a Catholic boarding school for girls during WWII, the film employs gentle humor and wonderful performances to comment on religion, power, sacrifice, mercy and the lure of lusciously moist cake. The likely winner.

Documentary Block

The Elephant Whisperers India 41 mins. Writers: Kartiki Gonsalves, Priscilla Gonsalves, Garima Pura Patiyaalvi Director: Kartiki Gonsalves

This touching doc takes us to South India, where a couple raises orphaned elephants as if they were their own children. It’s a beautiful testament to an intelligent and sensitive species, and to the bond possible between humans and the animal world.

Haulout 25mins. United Kingdom/Russia Writers/Directors: Maxim Arbugaev, Evgenia Arbugaeva

For ten years, scientist Maxim Arbugaev made an annual trek to a small hut in the Russian Arctic to observe walrus migration. What he found over the years is heartbreaking, and (hopefully) eye-opening. Haulout stands as an intimate example of just one stark consequence of our warming oceans.

How Do You Measure a Year? 29 mins. United States Director: Jay Rosenblatt

From the time his daughter Ella was two, until the day she turned eighteen, Jay Rosenblatt filmed an annual question-and-answer session between them. What is power? What are dreams? What do you want to be when you grow up? Sure, it’s a sweet and personal keepsake of their relationship, bit it’s also a universal look at how our children become their own unique selves. Parents, get ready for the feels.

The Martha Mitchell Effect 40 mins. United States Directors: Anne Alvergue, Debra McClutchy

The title refers to a real psychological term for when a patient’s accurate perception of events is misdiagnosed as delusional. If you don’t remember Martha and her role in the Watergate scandal, this will be a fascinating introduction. And if you lived through those endless news reports, the film is a must-see closeup on an angle you may have glossed over.

Stranger at the Gate 29 mins. United States Director: Joshua Seftel

What happens when a former U.S. Marine meets the very individuals he was planning to kill with a homemade bomb? A simply jaw-dropping story of forgiveness, enlightenment, and how the ignorance of blind hatred can be healed. The Oscar favorite.