Category Archives: Reviews

Despicable Me 3 – Movie Review

Newly married ex-villain Gru (Steve Carrell) discovers he has a twin brother in Despicable Me 3.

Release Date: June 30, 2017
Writer: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin, Eric Guillon
Cast: Steve Carrell, Kristin Wiig, Trey Parker, Miranda Cosgrove, Pierre Coffin

Despicable Me 3 starts a few months after the events of Despicable Me 2, but that really doesn’t mean anything other than Gru and Lucy (Kristen Wiig) are married and now a crime fighting team. This introduces us to the film’s villain Balthazar Bratt, voiced brilliantly by Trey Parker. Bratt is a former child actor, who starred as a really bad villainous child. His show ended once puberty kicked in and is no longer a cute child. Now he is just a villainous villain looking to destroy Hollywood with a giant robot likeness of himself.

When Gru and Lucy fail to stop Bratt from stealing a giant pink diamond, they are fired from the Anti-Villain League (AVL) by its new leader Valarie da Vinci (Jenny Slate). Before I go one, this begins the start of four parallel plots.

The first is defeating Balthazar Bratt. Bratt wants revenge on Hollywood for canceling his show and ending his acting career. He plans to destroy the city using his giant robot and his giant laser. The giant laser can only be used with the giant diamond, he stole.

Second, the recently fired Lucy is finding it difficult to be the mother to Gru’s kids: Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith and Agnes. She gets along with them fine, but she is unable to be a parental authority to the children.

Third, now that Gru is no longer a hero or villain, the minion lead by Mel (Pierre Coffin) quit and look for a new villain to follow. This leads them to slapstick hijinks on their path to jail for more slapstick hijinks.

Fourth, Gru discovers that he has a twin brother, Dru (Steve Carrell). Dru was raised in the country of Freedonia, the world’s largest producer of pigs. Dru feels like a failure in his father’s eyes because he never became a great villain like his brother Gru, Gru tricks drew into stealing the diamond from Bratt…in a villain-like way to foil Bratt’s plan and hopefully get his job back at the AVL.

Let’s start with what’s great about Despicable Me 3. It’s funny. The minions are back with their cuteness and their adult-type humor. I laughed a lot. The kids in the theater laughed and laughed. I had to buy my daughter a minion plush after the movie. Trey Parker is also brilliant as Baltazar Bratt in his first voice role not created by him. He vocally exemplifies evil childishness. He is also accompanied by an awesome 80’s soundtrack. Like the movie, Baby Driver, he can only commit his crimes while playing songs like Michael Jackson’s Bad.

The problem with Despicable Me 3 is the sweetness of the relationship he has with the kids is now passed on to Dru, which is not as sweet. Also, the fact that there are four plots in this movie means that sufficient time is not available to adequately address each plot. Every conflict is resolved quickly we are unable to connect emotionally. That was the charm of the first two Despicable Me film, Gru trying to win the hearts of the three girls.

Despicable Me 3 is a great film for kids and a good time will be had. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have the emotional punch behind it that made us love the previous films.

Cars 3 – Movie Review

The third installment of the Cars saga follows Lightning McQueen at the twilight of his career. McQueen’s ego is challenged with younger, more efficient cars invade the racing tour.

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Writer:  Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich
Director: Brian Fee
Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Christ Cooper, Bonnie Hunt, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion

For years, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has dominated the Piston Cup racing series. Life is good. He is still the hero of Radiator Springs and loved by all including Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Things take an ominous turn with the arrival of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Storm is the latest product of 21st century efficient and aerodynamic design as well as state-of=the-art cyber training.

With Storm’s arrival, more and more old racers are being replaced with newer cars and McQueen is struggling to stay relevant. In the final race of the Piston Cup season, McQueen’s attempt to beat the younger Storm results in a horrific accident. This forces McQueen to reflect with his friends at Radiator Springs and face the ghost of Doc Hudson’s past.

Deciding to give it one last try, McQueen finds himself at the new training facility run by the new owner of McQueen’s sponsor Rust-eze, Sterling (Nathan Fillion). He introduces McQueen to his new trainer Cruz (Cristela Alonzo). The two don’t quite see eye-to-eye.

Cars 3 is a fun and poignant member of the Cars trilogy. It focuses directly on McQueen’s personal journey, instead of the comic adventures of Mater in Cars 2. From the very beginning fans are rooting for Lighting to win and throughout the film, they root for his journey back to the top.

Cars 3 also introduces us to a lot of new characters, almost to the film’s detriment. There is his new trainer Cruz, who wanted to be a racer but the sexism of the racing circuit dashed her dreams instantly. There are also Doc Hudson’s mentor Smokey (Chris Cooper), who along with River Scott (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.) and Louise “Barnstormer” Nash (Margo Martindale) serve as Doc Hudson’s voice and motivation for McQueen.

One thing that stood out in Cars 3 were its visuals. A lot of effort from Pixar animators went into making the world of Cars look real. There were moments in its numerous outdoor and forest settings that the backdrop looked real and not like a photo mural behind the action. The scenery is breathtaking and beautiful.

There is a demolition segment in the middle of the film that is fun to watch, a source of great humor and beautiful to look at. It was real talking cars, in a real mud pit and really wrecking each other up using real car physics.

Cars 3 has heart. It is the story of coming from behind and never giving up. In the first movie, Lightning was a victim of his own grand view of himself. In Cars 3, he is a victim of age and better technology. The only downside is that it can be a little predictable. As the movie progresses, you realize that every misadventure and mishap is just another lesson to winning in the end. The ending itself is revealed a little too soon and its explanation was a little clunky. Can’t say much more without giving it away.

The only other problem is too many characters old and new. The gang from Radiator Springs feel like cameos, the two villains, who never meet, are almost carbon copies of each other and Doc Hudson’s friends are just too much. By the way, Lightning meets them in a “biker” bar with a ton of other characters. It’s just too many characters that we’re required to follow.

Cars 3 is a fun movie with a simple lesson to tell for the kids. The quality of animation continues to cement Pixar as the best in the business. It has enough heart to make you feel good about yourself and buy a lot of Cars merchandise.

Wonder Woman – Movie Review

Wonder Woman is a breath of fresh air…when it comes to DC movies. It used to be that we looked forward to how good a Marvel movie would be and how bad a DC movie would be.

Release Date: June 2, 2017
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright

Wonder Woman follows the demi-god, Diana (Gal Godot). She lives on the island of Themyscira with her fellow Amazons including her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and her aunt General Antiope (Robin Wright). The island is mysteriously hidden from the rest of the world, while the rest of the world slowly destroys itself during World War I.

Wonder Woman is an origins story. It starts by lumbering through an explanation of the Greek Mythology, of Zeus, and of his son Ares. But the real story here is Diana’s struggle to become the greatest warrior of the Amazons and the mystery as to why Queen Hippolyta will not allow this to be.

Meanwhile, as World War I comes to an end, American spy and pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his damaged plane off the shores of Themyscira while fleeing a squadron of German fighter planes. Diana rescues Steve and vanquishes the German soldiers with the help of her fellow Amazons. Untrusted and captive, Trevor tells Diana about the “war to end all wars.” He pleads with her for his release so he can deliver the stolen formula of a potent nerve gas that Germany will use as a last-ditch effort to win the war.

Diana helps Steve escape in order to help him win the ultimate war. After proving herself to her mother, Diana leaves the island as a warrior and with an ominous warning about ever returning. Eager to become the heroine, she is destined to become, Diana finds herself increasingly impatient with Steve’s stalling and British bureaucracies.

Demanding to head directly into action, Steve teams her up with a motley crew of fighters including Sameer (Said Taghmaoui)-master of disguise, Charlie (Ewen Bremner)-PTSD scarred sniper and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock) – Street-smart trader of goods. That’s Wonder Woman.

I mentioned in my Man of Steel review, that Zach Snyder’s depiction of Superman is not Superman. As good as Henry Cavill was, the man on screen is not the Superman I came to see. Thankfully, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. Beauty aside, she is a convincing warrior with moral conviction. She has the confidence and strength to be a hero. She has charm and Patty Jenkins masterfully tells a brighter story in contrast to the dark overtones of Man of Steel. DC finally made a hero that girls (and boys) can admire.

A pre-requisite of a superhero film is good action scenes. The battle on Themyscira was fantastic showing Amazon cunning in a fight of guns and mortars versus swords and arrows. The movie’s set pieces of Diana leading the charge into “No Man’s Land” is a spectacular display of Wonder Woman’s power, strength, and fighting ability.

I have only two minor complaints about Wonder Woman. I won’t belabor it because this is an exceptional movie. One, the origin segment at the start and its mythology, just needed to move a little faster. I think we’re proving that origins are not necessary for all hero movies.

Two, there is a moment when Diana is in London and she is the fish-out-of-water moment. It’s played for laughs and at the expense of this strong character, Jenkins had established for over an hour. While humorous, the sequence is not very original. She is portrayed as a little naïve when she could have been portrayed as regal.

Wonder Woman is a straight up superhero film. It is a story about Diana’s transformation into Wonder Woman. It’s not making a statement about gender. While Diana is a woman. She has no hang up about gender inequality, she’s a powerful confident person with all the experience of being female. She is not fighting men, she is fighting evil. She is not fighting for women only but fighting for all people in hopes bringing peace to a war-ravaged people.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales – Movie Review

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is back in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. He finds himself on a reluctant quest to find the Trident of Poseidon. His journey is complicated by his nemesis Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush) and the ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem).

Release Date: May 26, 2017
Writer: Jeff Nathanson
Director: Joachim Ranning, Espen Sandberg
Cast: Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario

Full Disclosure: I have only seen the first two Pirate movies. I am unaware the events up to Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from too many plots and subplots. The movie really doesn’t take off until the plots find convergence in the second half of the film. Let’s go over the plots. First, Pirates opens on a young Henry Turner (Lewis McGowen) as he summons the cursed Flying Dutchman. This is the ship that is crewed by his cursed father, Will Turner (Orlando Bloom). Henry dedicated his future to finding the Trident of Poseidon, believing that this Trident that controls the seas can release his father from his curse.

Then there is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), who is accused of being a witch by the local townsfolk. Carina is not a witch, but a self-taught astronomer. She was abandoned as a child by her father leaving only a journal with a star chart to the Trident of Poseidon. As an astronomer, she is a woman of science and does not believe in ghosts and curses. She is also attractive and the same age as Henry Turner.

Jump ahead nine years and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) jumps from ship to ship to find clues and a crew to take him to the Trident of Poseidon. While on a British Naval ship, the ship is overtaken by the ghostly shark-like ship helmed by the legendary Captain Salazar.

Captain Salazar was once a captain in the Spanish Navy. His goal in life was to destroy all pirates. He defeated them all, except one. That’s right–Captain Jack Sparrow. Let me just say that Disney has been using CGI to bring a youthful version of their aging stars to life—Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr., Kurt Rusell, Carrie Fisher and now Johnny Depp. The technology walks that fine line of cool and creepy. Back to Salazar, his ghostly goal in life is kill pirates and kill Captain Jack.

More subplots? Yes, Captain Barbosa has a treasure to find thanks to a mystical compass. Captain Jack on the other hand really has not a subplot, Ugh, too much going on. Fortunately, all the subplots and their exposition happen in the front half of the movie. It does feel labored but it’s survivable.

Where Pirates shines is the second half. There’s a lot of action. The battle between naval, pirate and ghost ships are well animated and easy to follow. Disney also does swashbuckling action as good as any studio can. It seems that pirates are actually interesting when they do pirate things.

There is one reveal in the film, that I can’t say anything about, snuck up on me. This final subplot pulled me into the story of two characters, I thought would not connect until it happened.

The main problem that Pirates of the Caribbean suffers from is its own mythology. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter had the luxury of a prolific author, who built the world and its mythology. Thought went into this mythology over the length of its run. The mythology was honed, refined and reflected human nature, so readers could relate to it.

Pirates of the Caribbean is a theme park ride. I don’t believe Walt Disney ever had the world of the pirate in mind when creating the ride. He just wanted to tell a simple story. Finally, when the first Pirate movie came out, it was the first film to be based on Disney rides. My guess is that they just wanted the first film to be successful. The studio was not thinking it would be a five (maybe six) film series, so the world of Pirates is now created on the fly as new films are needed.

Why is this important? Audiences just don’t have an emotional connection to the pirate world, like they do with The Hobbit or Harry Potter. We have no stake in the life path of Captain Jack Sparrow. This reduces the whole series into one action film after the other.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is light fare. It has amazing action sequences but suffers because there just is not enough time to develop any existing or new characters properly.

Bad Rap – Documentary Review

Bad Rap comes to Video on Demand (VOD) this Tuesday, May 23, 2017 on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu.

Since the 70’s hip-hop has made global stars of its finest artist. Those artists are predominantly black, white and brown. Bad Rap follows four Asian-American rappers in their quest to perfect their art and as they try to break into a world that that treats them as outsiders.

Release Date: May 23, 2017
Director: Salima Koroma
Cast: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks, Jin the MC

A documentary, like Bad Rap, is hard to put together. The director, Salima Koroma, masterfully chooses the most pressing topics, present the state of Asian rap and provide insights into the melding of Asian and hip hop culture.

Bap Rap follows four Asian rappers: Dumbfoundead, Awkwafina, Rekstizzy, Lyricks. All at various stages of their careers. It looks at their careers and the challenges they face as Asian breaking into a world that does not necessarily know what to do with them.

The movie starts with the most controversial topics when two cultures collide. The first being Asian in the world of hip hop. Are these artists trying to be an individual rap artist or are they simply Asian-version of rap. Is just enough to bring Asian references into a song or will audiences slap on the label of “Asian” and dismiss the music as second-rate.

Culture appropriate is the next controversy addressed. The idea that hip hop music is an African-inspired form of music and that Asians are trying to make money from an artform that is not there’s to take. Most fascinating is an argument between singer Rekstizzy and producer Jaeki Cho. The two battle over the appropriateness of Rekstizzy’s new music video, where he sprays ketchup and mustard on the posteriors of his Black background dancers. Is it culturally offensive or is it freedom of speech?

Bad Rap also spotlights female singer, Awkwafina, who managed to create her own style of hip-hop-influenced style and music. She created a unique laid-back style of rap and successfully broke into the mainstream. Even with her success, her contemporaries question if her success came, because it’s “easier” to book Asian females over Asian males.

Bad Rap also looks at other pertinent topics of Asians in the arts. For many of these artists, they had immigrant parents, who came to the United States and worked hard so their children would have a better life. Rap was not the life they imagined. For the artist, Lyricks, who comes into conflict with his deeply religious background. He struggles to maintain a mainstream rap career while struggling over his Christian upbringing.

Director Salima Koroma does a few things that are fascinating. She allows mainstream bookers and producers to view the work of the four artists. They give their honest and insightful opinions on the crew’s talent and potential. She also documents Dumbfoundead’s return to his roots of battle rap as he comes face-to-face with celebrity rapper, Conceited. Finally, Koroma jumps forward two years to see how each artist progressed over time.

Full Disclosure: I am not a fan of rap or hip hop, but I am an Asian-American. For me, Bad Rap excels in documenting the struggle of Asian-Americans in finding their individual voices as they blend in with the world they live and the culture they came from. It’s a story of individuals who find that hip hop is the only way they can express who they are and what they experience. It’s the story of these individuals finding meaning in a world they hope sees them as a serious artist and not a novelty.

This is Your Death – Movie Review – 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival

This is Your Death is the Friday Spotlight Movie from the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival. It tells the story of reality game show host, Adam Rogers (Josh Duhamel), after escaping near death, hosts a show featuring live on-air suicides.

2017 Newport Beach Film Festival
Writer:
Noah Pink
Director: Giancarlo Esposito
Cast: Josh Duhamel, Famke Janssen, Sarah Wayne Callies, Giancarlo Esposito, Caitlin FitzGerald

One thing I’ve noticed is that the more known stars you have in an independent film, the more you increase its chances of it being a bad movie. This is Your Death has a lot of stars.

This is Your Death is a television reality show, that spotlights stories of tragedy and each story ends with a live in-studio suicide by subject. The writer, Noah Pink, does a halfway decent job bringing plausibility to the show and how it might actually make it on real television. But from the beginning, This is Your Death is a showcase of over-the-top characters with no self-awareness, whatsoever and tries to mix real dramatic moments with surreal satire.

John Duhamel plays Adam Rogers, the host of a “Bachelor” type reality show. Adam is almost killed with the losing bride kills the show’s groom. Adam has a front row to the horror and almost quits the business altogether, thanks to the fake nature of his show and reality television in general. Adam is grounded to the real world by his sister, Karina (Sarah Wayne Callies), who is his only family and a recovering drug-addict.

Before Adam can quit the business, he is confronted by the head of network programming, Ilana (Famka Janssen) who wants him to host a new reality show about suicide. Adam is at first angered by the idea but finds that good can come out of the show. The first example of good is during the shows first suicide, viewers can call in and donate money to the victim’s daughter. Adam is paired up with Sylvia (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is forced to produce the show, find contestants or be in breach of her contract.

I forgot to mention, Mason (Giancarlo Esposito) the network’s janitor who is holding down three jobs to keep his family’s home out of foreclosure. Any guesses about Mason’s role in the show?

Here is the main problem with This is Your Death. The idea is just so over the top that we just can’t relate to the drama and tragedy of the subject matter. I’m sure at some point the director, Giancarlo Esposito, who also plays Mason, thought that they were making some statement about problems with reality television. But in order to make a meaningful statement, you’re story must connect with the audience. It’s the tongue-in-cheek nature of the film’s events are so surreal, it becomes more of a sad joke in the end.

The dying actors should be commended for admirably acting conflict, pain, and hopelessness, but they shoot themselves in the head and now the moment becomes comedy. The movie is full of good intentions but lacks serious execution.

The story is just a little too predictable. Soon, it denigrates into a struggle for ratings, keeping sponsors and the one person with any moral center getting fired at the end. The studio audience reactions feel forced and the demise of the show is not a lesson in the suicide debate but a quick police investigation.

Ultimately the problem with This is Your Death is the premise. We just can’t buy into it and becomes one of those movies you watch and laugh, while wondering how did this film get made in the first place.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Movie Review

The Guardians of the Galaxy return to the big screen to prove they are more than just misfits prepared to save the galaxy. In Volume 2, the Guardians prove that they need to be a family to save the galaxy.

Release Date: May 5, 2017
Writer: James Gunn
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Elizabeth Debicki

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 starts a few months after the events of the first film. Our brood of heroes, Star Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are hired as the Guardians to protect a power set of batteries from an inter-dimensional monster. The batteries power the race of conceited aliens known as the Sovereign.

As payment, the Guardians take custody of Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan), but as their leaving Rocket steals the very batteries that they were hired to protect. Here starts a series of plots and sub-plots, the main one being the meeting of Peter Quill’s father played by Kurt Russell, who brings Peter, Gamora and Drax to his home planet. For comic book fans, this planet is Ego, the living planet. They also meet Mantis (Elizabeth Debicki), who serves Ego. She has empathic powers.

The other subplots include Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his gang of Ravagers. Yondu has been kicked out of the Ravagers because he betrayed the other clans in the first film. Yondu is then hired by the Sovereign to hunt down the Guardians and return the batteries, but Yondu also had a mutiny on his hands when one of his officers Tazer Face (Pom Klementieff) no longer believes Yondu can effectively act as leader.

While in custody, Nebula plots to get the upper hand on Gamora and ultimately kill her and then her father, Thanos. Rocket continues his own brand of self-destructive and self-loathing behavior and then there’s Baby Groot, who wants to grow up and become a warrior, but he’s only a baby.

There is a lot going on in Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2. You can already see there is literally a shipload of old and new characters. There are about four storylines going on at the same time. Writer/Director James Gunn masterfully manages to keep the storylines interesting and followable which could have easily unraveled at any point.

The main story between Quill and Ego is not the strongest of stories and unfortunately, it is the main spine of the movie. Their relationship feels more like a morality episode of Star Trek. It feels very over-and-done by the end of the movie.

As much as this is a large galactic action movie, the best moments in Guardians are the moments the main characters spend together. Clearly, there is a Sam-and-Diane relationship brewing between Quill and Gamora. So-much-so that Quill calls it out as a Cheers-inspired romance. Drax and Mantis have an opposite relationship, which will make your head spin. Maybe, the sisterly conflict between Gamora and Nebula feels a little forced.

The tone of Guardians of the Galaxy is light, a little gruesome and stands outside the seriousness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on Earth. But this movie is funny and the rollercoaster of action you expect it to be. For a long movie, the pacing is fast and because it is packed with so much plot, characters and action, you leave wanting more. Finally, please stay to the end of the credits.

 

 

Manchester By The Sea – Movie Review

Manchester By The Sea is absolutely one of the most depressing movies you’ll this year. It will drag you through tragedy, depression while sprinkling a few glimmers of hope.

Release Date: December 16, 2016
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, Lucas Hedges

Manchester By The Sea tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a loner living in Boston. Lee is forced to move back to his hometown to attend to the death of his estranged brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler). Lee is the only adult relative of Joe and it is up Lee to not only plan all of the arrangements of the funeral, but also act as temporary guardian to his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is not the social type and he finds it almost impossible to maintain any kind of a relationship because of his drinking and his past.

Manchester By The Sea follows Lee as he figures out what to do with his nephew. Lee is adamant about not being his guardian and just as adamant about Patrick not going back to his birth mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol). The history of the Chandler family is told in flashbacks.

Clearly, the goal of this film is to rip your heart out. Casey Affleck is perfect as the loner, who’s past has shut himself off from the world. He plays guilt and self-loathing with ease. Lucas Hedges has great range having to play the angst-ridden teen, who has no relative left other than his non-communicative uncle.

There’s no better way to put it than Manchester By The Sea is a film that punches you in the face, in the guts and just keeps on punching. It’s clear in this movie about tragedy, that over the course of the film, you will find out why Lee Chandler is a loner with no hope for a future and what happened to his happy life and his three super cute and adorable children.

Let’s also not forget that the tragic flashbacks overlay the films central story, which is the death of Patrick’s father and the current whereabouts of his mother, Elise. More sadness for you, the viewer.

Manchester By the Sea is a good movie. But at the same time, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan presents to his audience an emotionally draining movie. There are times, you wish the actors were not so talented and did not play their characters well, because then you would have a moment to detach from the movie and breath. Ultimately, we do connect with the grief and sadness of the main characters, which I guess is the main goal of the film. This is a film you need to prepare yourself to watch.

The Queen of Crime – Newport Beach Film Festival Review

As part of the Pacific Rim Showcase of the Newport Beach Film Festival, The Queen of Crime is the Korean entrant to this year’s festival. It is the story of a mother, who investigates a $1,200 water bill that was mysteriously charged to her son.

Release Date: April 24, 2017
Writer: Lee Yo-Sup
Director: Lee Yo-Sup
Cast: Soo-Jang Baek, Som E., Ji-Young Park

Mi-gyeong (Ji-Young Park) is the owner of a local beauty salon just outside of Seoul. One afternoon, she receives a mysterious phone call from her son, Ik-soo (Dae-Hyeon Kim). Ik-soo is a law student in Seoul and has somehow managed to rack up a $1,200 water bill in his dormitory. Ik-soo is just 4 days away from taking the bar exam and does not need the distraction of a $1,200 water bill. Rather than just pay the outrageous bill, Mi-gyeong pays her son a visit in order to help investigate the bill.

Mi-gyeong’s arrival is not welcome by her son, who needs to concentrate on his studies in order to pass the bar. Mi-gyeong insists that she will not be a distraction and only needs two days to clear up the matter. In her investigation Mi-gyeong learns that her son’s dorm room shares the water bill with his next door neighbor. Mi-gyeong enlists the help of the building’s maintenance man, Gae-tae (Bok-rae Jo) to help her. In fact, she develops a motherly bond with Gae-tae who has no mother to look after him.

Mi-gyeong finds that her son’s neighbor is less than willing to help clear up the matter. In fact, the other neighbors complained about loud noises and suspicious activities coming from the apartment. It appears there is a larger mystery than the flagrant waste of water. Soon, Mi-gyeong’s meddling begins to interfere with her son’s studying, which leads to him wanting his mother to just pay the water bill and leave.

The Queen of Crime is a light comedy thriller, but very subtle at that. If this were an American film, the story would be littered with goofy over-the-top characters. Everyone would be mugging for a laugh. Refreshingly, The Queen of Crime plays the comedy grounded. These are real people with minor quirks but they could be someone you know. The supporting cast includes a law student, who likes to study outside and has a shoe fetish; a lonely gamer, who left the police academy where her father is the commissioner; and the maintenance man, who is a little slow on the uptake.

The crime story is not complicated. The movie reveals one clue after the other at a nice pace. The real fun is watching Ji-Young Park as the concerned mother, who only wants the best for her son. She plays it normal, not like the stereotypical meddling mother. She has good intentions with the aged wisdom that only a mother can have. She treats everyone vital to the case like only a mother can do with soft assurance that she is their advocate and the stern warnings of a mother lion protecting her cubs.

There are plot holes in the mystery. The film uses flashbacks when witnesses describe what they saw. We start to see the crime played out in interview segments. But there are moments when the camera follows the criminal and although we are a party to the motivation for the crime, there is no way for Mi-gyeong to know any of this information because only the criminal knows this part of the crime.

I enjoy the Pacific Rim Showcase at the Newport Beach Film Festival. It continues to blow my misperceptions of foreign films, thinking that the United States is the best at film and storytelling. There is a level of maturity in filmmaking you see in U.S. films, but one must not confused the cultural differences of foreign films as inferior.

The Queen of Crime is a fun mystery with a fantastic lead in Ji-Young Park. Foreign films are worth the work involved in reading subtitles, but the storytelling is just different than what we’re used to as well as the same.

Hell or High Water – Movie Review

Hell or High Water follows the parallel paths of the Howard brothers, who rob the banks that hold their deceased mother’s mortgage and the grizzled veteran lawman assigned to capture the brothers as his last case.

Release Date: August 26, 2017
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Director: David MacKenzie
Cast: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Hell or High Water is a movie that plays on every emotion. For example, you want to sympathize with the Howard brothers. Sympathize as much as you like, they are still criminals. It makes no judgment, while judging.

Toby Howard (Chris Pine) is a recently divorced father who is about to lose the farm of his youth. The bank that owns the note on the farm is about to foreclose on the farm and the stress of the situation lead to her death. Toby is a man with nothing and sees the farms as the only thing he can give to his children. Tanner Howard (Ben Foster) is his recently released convict brother. His wild side and impulsiveness is nothing but the foreshadowing of trouble.

The boys have decided to rob the very bank that prey upon their mother and ultimately hope to pay off the mortgage in time before foreclosure. In order to get enough money that have to travel throughout the back roads of Texas hitting one branch after the other.

Following the Howard boys is veteran lawman, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges). This is Marcus’ last case before retiring and he brings along his partner, Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who will eventually take over for Hamilton after his retirement.

The setting of Hell or High Water is intriguing, especially for a West Coaster, like myself. Taking place in the outlands of Texas is a return to the old days of crime investigation. Stripped of the internet and high priced forensics and Hamilton and Parker use the old method of fact, evidence and profiling to figure out the pattern of crimes perpetrated by the Howards and where they will strike next.

High or High Water succeeds as a great movie for two reasons. The movie is a cat-and-mouse caper. The Howards try to stay one step ahead of the law, while never knowing who is chasing them or even if they are being chased. They also have to managed to pull off the perfect crime. It’s one thing to commit a crime and bank robbery is a difficult crime to pull off. But it is also another thing to never be caught and never be considered a suspect in that crime. Oh, and did I mention that Tanner is a hot head?

That’s the mouse, there is the cat. Without the high priced technology of CSI or Law and Order, Hamilton and Parker have to catch up to the mouse and see that justice is achieved.

The other reason this movie is great is the characters. Taylor Sheridan gives you a glimpse straight into the heart of the four leads. For the Howards, you want to sympathize with them. You want to root for the bad guys. But at the same time, you marvel at the brilliance of Jeff Bridges the actor portraying a wise and smart mouthed agent. His back-and-forth with his Native American partner is fun to watch and mildly uncomfortable as it walks the line of friendship and racial ignorance.

It is clear that Hell or High Water deserved its Best Picture nomination. It’s a story that’s been told before where its brilliance comes from its character study.