House of Hummingbird (2018, Kim Bora)

Eun-hee (Park Ji-hu) is an average Seoul eighth grader circa 1994, which would be fine if being average weren’t a one-way ticket to nowhere. Park’s the youngest of three children; while presumably eldest sister Park Soo-yeon has already screwed up and is going to a crappy school across the bridge, son Son Sang-yeon is doing great. Studies hard, works hard; sure, he regularly beats the crap out of Park, but it’s actually just one of the things making her average. At least Son doesn’t hit her in the face—Park’s best friend, Park Seo-yoon, gets hit in the face and has to hide it.

The only thing Park’s got going for her at the start of the film is boyfriend Jung Yoon-seo. Except working class Park isn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. She’s not supposed to karaoke either. She also smokes. Her classmates think she’s a troublemaker and her parents—well, mom Lee Seung-yeon is worried about it. Dad Jung In-gi has long since decided all the hopes and dreams are on Son. Though we find out in the first act, when mom’s drunken brother Hyung Young-seon shows up and establishes she had the smarts as a kid and Hyung screwed it up for both of them as it turned out.

This visit from Hyung is one of the inciting actions. It kicks off the sibling comparison subplot—theme, theme seems more appropriate—while Park goes through her routines until something else interesting happens. She gets a new Chinese teacher. Instead of a boring straight-edge guy, it’s cigarette smoking—out the stairwell window no less—Kim Sae-byuk. Thanks to some drama in Park’s friendship with Park Seo-yoon, she unexpectedly has the opportunity to bond with follow flounderer Kim. Of course, Kim’s at least ten years older—or more, she’s on an extension of an already extended break from university—and she’s had some time to think about how damaging reality can be on eighth grade girls.

Except reality also doesn’t let Kim intervene. There’s this frangible quality to Kim and Park’s relationship and their scenes are probably the film’s best in terms of character development. The limited character development is generally fine—Park’s like fourteen, right? It’s a character study in how it’s studying how her character develops.

Because it’s a big year for Park. Six major events. Seven if you could a first kiss. One of them is national news and presumably the point of the precise 1994 setting. No spoilers but… turns out House is going to have deus ex machinas to its deus ex machinas. Kim’s script stays fairly loose given how much it’s got to lead the narrative–House’s lyricism is in Kim’s direction and maybe what the script skips, not the script itself. The story—in an epical sense—is anticlimactic; thanks to Kim’s direction, the film instead gets to be passively climatic. Or at least significantly cumulative.

Park’s performance is good. Very strong performance. Not… singular. You keep waiting for Kim to throw something at her she obviously can’t handle. There’s something askew about the narrative distance, just a bit, and it ends up hurting more than helping. Because all it helps with is some narrative shortcuts—Kim maintains the same narrative distance throughout, even when it means dropping entire plot lines in addition to an indifference to the passage of time. They’re things you can cover with some nice direction and Kim indeed makes it up with nice direction. Kang Guk-hyun’s photography is good, Zoe Sua Cho’s editing is good.

Matija Strnisa’s music is fine. It never really sweeps when it needs to sweep. Sound is really important in the film only there’s no precision in the score… it always feels vaguely like stock music. Good stock music. But stock music.

Most of House of Hummingbird is really good. Until Kim gets to the third act and panics. It’s not one of those things where the deus ex machina is necessarily bad—or even the second one—but the work from the first to the second isn’t there. Kim employs this combination of a twist and a bait and switch; it doesn’t seem craven but it does seem cravenly pragmatic. The film’s pace slows down in the second act then speeds up so much in the third—when calling a scene a scene (versus, say, a snapshot) is a stretch—it feels like they needed another fifteen minutes.

Lots of House of Hummingbird is excellent and the way it showcases Park’s performance is at times just the right coming-of-age picture exquisite. But the finish is a mess of a mess of a mess of a mess.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Bora; director of photography, Kang Guk-hyun; edited by Zoe Sua Cho; music by Matija Strnisa; production designer, Kim Geun-a; costume designer, Yang Hee-hwa; produced by Zoe Sua Cho and Kim Bora; released by At9 Film.

Starring Park Ji-hu (Eun-hee), Kim Sae-byeok (Young-ji), Jeong In-gi (Eun-hee’s father), Lee Seung-yun (Eun-hee’s mother), Park Soo-yeon (Soo-hee), Son Sang-yeon (Dae-hoon), Park Seo-yoon (Ji-suk), Jung Yoon-seo (Ji-wan), Seol Hye-in (Yo-ri), and Hyung Young-seon (Eun-hee’s uncle).


A New (temporary?) Format

Outside some special posts–Josh Hartnett movies coming up, y’all–and anything Vernon wants to post, I’m moving all new material (for the time being) over to a TinyLetter newsletter. Lots of reason, lots of things, maybe I’ll write about them in it, maybe it’ll just be endless “Doctor Who” posts.

TinyLetter archives them, which will show up here somehow, someday.

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The Alienist (2018) s02e01 – Ex Ore Infantium

Dakota Fanning gets the “and” credit in “The Alienist: Season Two: Angel of Darkness: Ex Ore Infantium.” She doesn’t die (at least not in this episode, and since it’s based on a novel I could just spoil myself), but the “and” credit is quizzical because it’s very clear this time around she’s the star.

The first season of “The Alienist” came after years of trying to turn the 1994 Caleb Carr novel into a movie. Serious screenwriter Hossein Amini had a bunch of the credited episodes and John Sayles even did a few. The first series showed just how important casting, direction, and production are to adaptations because big name Oscar-nominated screenwriters aren’t enough to make things good.

Second season of “Alienist” is just TV, albeit with a decent-sized effects budget. Lots of great CGI establishing shots of late 1890s New York City. Sadly it seems they spent all their money on the effects—or maybe getting Fanning back—because the supporting cast is exceptionally wanting, with everyone except maybe Matt Letscher (guesting as William Randolph Hearst) doing an impression of Bugs Bunny doing an Edward G. Robinson impression. Ted Levine is back on hand to play the Lucky Charms Leprechaun bureaucratic villain; a now ex-police chief who interferes with Fanning and company.

The episode opens with top-billed Daniel Brühl recapping some of the previous series, but mostly just the cast. They apparently couldn’t get Brian Geraghty back for even a single episode Teddy Roosevelt cameo so instead there’s a “let’s talk to him on the phone” reference, which is some 1970s level sequel returning cast desperation.

Brühl’s story this episode has him upset about Hebe Beardsall being executed for killing her baby even though we—the audience—know shitty doctor Michael McElhatton has something to do with it. McElhatton is shitty both as a character and in terms of the performance. Fanning figures in because Spanish ambassador’s wife Bruna Cusí’s baby gets kidnapped too.

I’m assuming the novel source is all about putting babies in grave danger—there’s some intense gross when they start finding the bodies–even though that novel source is from 1997, this season feels very much like “Call the Midwife” but with TV movie horror movie thrills. Episode director David Caffrey is slightly more impressive than writer Stuart Carolan, but only because Carolan’s exposition heavy writing is quite bad.

Bad writing is just what Brühl needs to woodenly–but moistly, Brühl’s like a moist wood, ickiness intended—perform his role.

“Alienist” season two isn’t off to a great start, which isn’t much of a surprise. When Luke Evans commands more presence than the enigmatic “lead”… I mean, maybe it’ll give Fanning some experience she can use in a good project later on.

Doctor Who (2005) s03e10 – Blink

Blink is apparently not a backdoor pilot to a “Doctor Who” spin-off where recognizable cast—in this case Carey Mulligan on her way up—interacts with the world of Doctor Who without necessarily having to do a lot of scenes with David Tennant. Or Freema Agyeman, who’s second-billed but feels like she left the show and everything is to pretend she didn’t.

Mulligan is a single young Londoner who takes photographs of sad things because doing so makes her happy who discovers a surprising message from “The Doctor” somewhere there can’t possibly be a message. Especially not one for her.

She gets her pal, Lucy Gaskell, to go look again at the message on the wall—which warns of “weeping angels,” these stone statues all around the abandoned, haunted house Mulligan is investigating. Also investigating is fetching young copper Michael Obiora, who’s got all sorts of chemistry with Mulligan. It’s actually an obscene amount of chemistry and amazing the show’s able to get away with it. Technically speaking, the only thing wrong with the episode is Murray Gold’s music. Hettie Macdonald’s direction is fantastic. She totally gets the episode through the concept episode setup and does an excellent job with the actors. It’s a bummer there’s not a romcom spin-off for Mulligan and Finlay Robertson, who plays Gaskell’s DVD rental shop owning brother. Robertson finds evidence of “The Doctor” on various DVD Easter egg hidden features. It’s a weird way to date the episode.

I wonder what kind of special features this season had as far as Easter eggs. Mind you, Agyeman doesn’t appear in any of those Easter eggs segments, which are Tennant apparently answering unheard questions. It’s quirky but not successful. Especially not given Agyeman’s not around because—we later find out—she’s working in a shop to support Tennant as they’re trapped in the past.

So basically the episode is a “Doctor Who” episode like if they made a “VHS board game,” cut out the interactive parts and threw in footage from a different movie. In this case, Mulligan’s murderous weeping angel statues.

It’s a bunch of randomly excellent pieces baked into an outstanding whole.

Until the jaw-dropping bad end stinger. It’s a disaster.

But mostly a big win for Mulligan, Macdonald, and writer David Moffat.

Doctor Who (2005) s03e09 – The Family of Blood

So I thought this episode—wrapping up a two-parter about the Doctor (David Tennant) turning himself into a human so as to avoid some aliens who are hunting him and losing himself in early 1900s England—wasn’t going to get any worse after Tennant, having regained his memory and alien… superpowers (sure, okay), asks his human love interest, Jessica Hynes, who he no longer can feel the same way about, if she’d like to join him on the TARDIS.

In order to have this moment, the episode needs to ignore the following. First, Hynes is an early 20th century racist White woman who has been overtly racist to Freema Agyeman. We don’t get to see Tennant and Agyeman reunite, not really, even though she’s spent two episodes catering to his similarly racist White 20th century man when he didn’t have his memory back and had to keep him (and his lady) alive while he was ready to surrender the secrets of the universe to the bad guys. The human Tennant. Because he was a dipstick.

Second, Hynes has already rejected him in his alien capacity. Not just because Tennant no longer loves her—it was a fairly chemistry-absent love in the first place—but also because we’ve done the “the Doctor’s a violent, cruel guy” actually reveal in this episode. The Doctor is willing to do the violence so others don’t have to… which even figures in with the pre-WWI boys school militarization thing—macho imperial British jingoism in 2007—there’s a lot wrong with this episode and the previous one, it’s just not worth going through all the things. Even if they are fascinatingly dated for their time period.

Third, there’s no impression Tennant has checked with Agyeman about Hynes joining them. Like. Two episodes about Tennant being apathetic to the companion and he’s just as apathetic as before. Even though he remembers everything from the human phase, including Agyeman confessing her love. So he’s intentionally cruel.

But fourth, it doesn’t matter because the episode manages to get worse with the Saving Private Ryan postscript.

It’s a big episode full of bad ideas. Agyeman ends up as dissed a companion as Billie Piper and, even more striking, Tennant’s stopped being enough of a draw on his own.

Samurai Marathon (2019, Bernard Rose)

Samurai Marathon has some strange epilogue problems; all of a sudden the movie’s about marathons, when it turns out the marathon isn’t a particularly big deal in the story. It’s central to the story, but as a narrative tool. It provides the right stage for these characters. Though, with a title like Samurai Marathon, you’re thinking how important the marathon’s going to be.

It’s not.

Director (and co-screenwriter) Rose doesn’t rush through the marathon—no pun—but he keeps up a good clip. Especially after he establishes the shenanigans. At least two people in the marathon—high ranking samurai—are cheating, which is in addition to one of the runners being a spy, which is in addition to another of the runners being the Lord’s runaway daughter (Komatsu Nana). Satoh Takeru is the spy—raised from a child to be the Shogun’s spy in the Lord’s court, a life-long sleeper agent—Moriyama Mirai is the Lord’s favorite, who gets to marry Komatsu, who’s so thrilled with the prospect she runs away in the first place. Then there are nice guy runners Sometani Shôta and Joey Iwanaga, they’re just out to win and better their lives. Sometani might be able to elevate his position, which would help with the family, and Iwanaga needs a promotion to impress a girl.

It’s never soapy because Rose keeps Marathon grounded when it’s time for the dramatics. The first act also has a lot of Philip Glass music over fading shots, it’s very much a Philip Glass scored movie; he’s good at a lot of it, even some of the action, but if the main theme isn’t a nod to Liz Phair’s cover of Chopsticks… then it’s just Glass doing Chopsticks and not doing anything with it.

So. Could use a better theme.

There’s a cute subplot about old retired samurai Takenaka Naoto who bonds with former colleague’s son Wakabayashi Ruka. Rose seems very aware things are only going to look nice living in the 1850s for so long so he rushes through a bunch, which is particularly noticeable with Komatsu, whose female empowerment arc works because Komatsu’s appealing and pretty good and Rose’s direction is good, not because it’s a real arc. It’s less substantive than, say, that Takenaka and Wakabayashi arc, which is very much background and Komatsu is very much foreground.

Similarly, Satoh’s arc is a tad too pragmatic.

Not to mention the whole thing with Danny Huston, playing the U.S. Navy Admiral who shows up in Japan trying to start trade, which sets off cultural panic. Part of that panic is regional lord Hasegawa Hiroki deciding his men are too weak in the face of Colt revolvers so they need to do a thirty-six mile marathon. But the movie’s not about them running thirty-six miles in kimonos with a very rigid running stance, it’s about Satoh sounding the alarm on his spy channel without realizing Hasegawa just wants some pageantry not to revolt against the Shogun. So these samurai have to fight an invading force, turning it in a war movie. There’s a little bit of Western in it too, the way Rose establishes the characters; just not really any sports movie.

Until the end.

When it’s forced in and is absolutely bewildering.

But Samurai Marathon’s pretty good. Strong performances without any particular standouts, gorgeous photography from Ishizaka Takuro (love the primary color use), Glass-appropriate editing from Kamitsuna Mako, and decent direction from Rose. Solid sword fights.

I’m sure every fourteenth shot is an homage to one of Rose’s favorite Japanese movies, but adequately wraps them in a compelling story.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Bernard Rose; screenplay by Rose, Saitô Hiroshi, and Yamagishi Kikumi, based on a novel by Dobashi Akihiro; director of photography, Ishizaka Takuro; edited by Kamitsuna Mako; music by Philip Glass; production designer, Sasaki Takashi; costume designer, Wada Emi; produced by Iguchi Takashi, Ikegami Tsutakasa, Nakazawa Toshiaki, Ohno Takahiro, Sasaki Motoi, Yagi Seiji, Zushi Kensuke, and Jeremy Thomas; released by GAGA.

Starring Satoh Takeru (Jinnai), Komatsu Nana (Princess Yuki), Moriyama Mirai (Tsujimura), Sometani Shôta (Uesugi), Aoki Munetaka (Ueki), Kohata Ryu (Hayabusa), Koseki Yûta (Saburo), Fukami Motoki (Momose), Kato Shinsuke (Okajima), Joey Iwanaga (Kakizaki), Wakabayashi Ruka (Isuke), Tsutsui Mariko (Kiyo), and Takenaka Naoto (Mataemon).


Doctor Who (2005) s03e08 – Human Nature

I didn’t have a great feeling when I saw Paul Cornell with the writing credit but I forced myself to be hopeful. Plus, Charlie Palmer directing, surely it would be all right. What’s the worst Cornell would do, another overly melodramatic time waster… And, yes, he does do another overly melodramatic time waster only this time he does it while taking away the Doctor and replacing him with a human.

Still David Tennant, which you’d think would make it okay, but strangely… David Tennant playing an early twentieth century racist, sexist, elitist, warmongering British school teacher isn’t as amusing as watching Tennant play the Doctor. Especially not when Freema Agyeman, a Black woman living in a more racist, sexist, and elitist time now too, has all her memories and it’s her job to babysit Tennant until they can go back to their day jobs.

The episode opens with an intentionally confusing sequence—which, frankly, was the ice skates on the Bat boots and is when you toss the script—but we gradually find out Tennant is hiding himself as a human, lost in time, trying to avoid these aliens who are after him. Agyeman’s job is to look after him until the short-lived aliens die off.

It’s all very humane.

Timelorde.

Anyway.

What no one counted on was Tennant falling in love with school nurse Jessica Hynes.

I’m not sure how it played in 2007, but Tennant going back in time as a White man and falling for a White woman who then proceeds to be overtly racist to Agyeman, leading to Tennant backing up Hynes… I mean, there are optics to it. Especially since Agyeman—who, let’s not forget, started this season as a doctor herself—is reduced to mooning over Tennant to fellow maid Rebekah Staton.

Some trivia—Cornell based the teleplay on his Dr. Who novel of the same title (which started as fan fiction so score Paul Cornell, I guess). Also of note is a new producer, Susie Liggat.

Unfortunately, neither Liggat’s producing or Cornell’s writing are very impressive but… at least there seem to be some obvious reasons it’s not good. In addition to it being a rip of the fireplace episode from last season just double-sized.

And Hynes being a chemistry vacuum.

The worst part is it’s a two-parter because it can’t even just be over.

Rock Jocks (2012, Paul V. Seetachitt)

Rock Jocks is full of “it’s not racist because” jokes. There’s even a moment early on when Felicia Day tries explaining to Gerry Bednob how he’s actually a racist even though he says he’s not. When he disagrees, Day gives up, which is a fairly good place to give up on Jocks. You’ve hit the peaks worth sitting around for, namely Bednob is funny as the crotchety old White bigot who just happens to be of East Indian descent. It’s real cheap, real easy jokes. All of Rock Jocks is real cheap, real easy, real problematic. Writer and director Paul V. Seetachitt likes teasing racism, sexism, homophobia, whatever, but he never commits to it.

Well, wait. The sexism. There’s some real committal to the sexism.

The movie’s about the night crew at the United States’s secret remote asteroid destroyer program. If you’re good at video games, you get recruited and then you save the world from big asteroids the rubes don’t know about night after night. The captain is burn-out waiting-to-happen divorced bad dad Andrew Bowen. Bowen’s never anywhere near as bad as some of the other actors in the movie, which is the closest his performance gets to deserving a compliment. Day’s his first officer. She’s overly ambitious because she’s a woman and so it’s funny. He’s going to mansplain to her fierce and her other major subplots involve asteroid shooter Kevin Wu trying to humiliate her—his commanding officer—while captain Bowen ignores it to mope.

Part of the joke is supposed to be how all the Jocks are actually just shallow, thinly written assholes, but Seetachitt makes Wu the biggest asshole of all. Wu’s the shooter with the big ego, but Justin Chon’s still got the higher scores. Chon… could be worse. Wu could not be worse, not without supernatural intervention or something. He’s real bad and not funny.

Jocks hits occasionally—almost always in some way thanks to Bednob—but it’s a very low success rate on the jokes working with the acting working with the directing. In some ways, Rock Jocks is impressive. It’s low budget, but Seetachitt knows how to shoot everything in the script, he just doesn’t have a great editor in Adam Varney and for some reason Seetachitt and photographer Polly Morgan really want to do shaky-cam and shaky-zooms. Just, you know, because.

It’s annoying.

And invites you to ignore the performances because the camera’s ignoring them.

Supporting cast. Mark Woolley’s bad as the bean counter who just happens to be there on the night of the biggest, most important asteroid strike on the planet Earth in… at least a couple days. Who knows.

Doug Jones is great as the space alien who just walks around the base. There’s a bunch of nonsense about Jones having a giant Rube Goldberg contraption in his quarters but it’s all time waster. Lots of time wasting in Jocks, which would be fine at twenty-two—as a TV pilot—or maybe seventy as a goofy low budget, independent pop culture reference comedy….

But it’s ninety minutes.

There are subplots.

There are Robert Picardo and Jason Mewes as the security guards who sit and bullshit all night. It is very awkward. Especially since Picardo and Mewes aren’t bad. They’re just not funny. Ptolemy Slocum is bad as Bowen’s ex-wife’s boyfriend, who shouldn’t be in the movie but again, Rock Jocks really wants to hit that ninety minute runtime so let’s do full subplots for these jerks.

Day and Wu both have moments good and bad. Middling would be an accurate descriptor.

Rock Jocks proves you can be not competent while also not being incompetent.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Paul V. Seetachitt; director of photography, Polly Morgan; edited by Adam Varney; music by S. Peace Nistades; production designer, Greg Aronowitz; costume designer, Jenny Green; produced by Sheri Bryant and Craig Lew.

Starring Andrew Bowen (John), Felicia Day (Alison), Justin Chon (Seth), Kevin Wu (Danny), Gerry Bednob (Tom), Mark Woolley (Austin), Zach Callison (Dylan), Ptolemy Slocum (Roger), Robert Picardo (Guard 1), Jason Mewes (Guard 2), and Doug Jones (Smoking Jesus).


Doctor Who (2005) s03e07 – 42

There have to be TV shows where they unintentionally duplicate episodes. Soap operas, whatever. The same plot must get repeated. Unintentionally. Because it very obviously happens intentionally, such as with 42, which is a riff on a great two-parter from last season, only without anything similarly great.

Like, if you’re going to remake something… don’t remake something great and do a middling job of it. It doesn’t help the supporting cast is wanting. It doesn’t help it’s a horror episode with a director who can’t do horror. Though Graeme Harper’s direction is rather wanting overall.

It also has, maybe, a reveal from a “Star Trek” episode. Maybe. It’s from something—and it was used again in an excellent Mike Carey Barbarella comic—but last season’s original version of 42 was also a riff on something else. Riffing on riffs in genre is fine… just have something to do with it. Writer Chris Chibnall has got zip. Oh, wait, he gives Freema Agyeman a love interest—William Ash—but just a temporary one. I guess Ageyman gets a substantive subplot to herself, leaving David Tennant to deal with the more wanting supporting actors. Ash is at least cute (ish), whereas Tennant’s hanging out with captain Michelle Collins (her ship is falling into the black hole… sun, sorry, sun). Collins is… miscast. The part’s not good, Harper’s direction’s not good, but it does seem like Collins is supposed to be doing something more in the part and it never clicks. It’s peculiar.

Or maybe I was just remembering how good the actors were in the previous version of this episode.

Either way… Collins and Tennant are not magic together or even mildly amusing like Agyeman and Ash.

There’s a do-it-yourself Cyclops (X-Men Cyclops) thing going on with the possessed astronauts. Or whatever they’re called. Doesn’t matter.

It’s a pointless episode but should be a lot better.

Upload (2020) s01e10 – Freeyond

After ignoring the initial A plot but actually the B plot because Robbie Amell and Andy Allo are cute for eight episodes, this episode’s almost entirely about the mystery behind Amell’s death. And his missing memories. The ones he didn’t find out about until halfway through the season but didn’t care about because… bad writing?

Except the show wants to do some big twists, starting with Amell waking up after—presumably—getting his memories back as a side effect of a system upgrade. Think there’s a chance a show like “Upload” would pull some twisty shenanigan so it can split Allo and Amell onto their own subplots for a while before bringing them back together.

Except it runs twenty-four minutes so it’s like three minutes of the show, maybe four. If Greg Daniels had just written it out, he might have given Allo and Amell something sincere to perform (so obviously not) but it’s frustrating how lazy “Upload” gets.

Though there is a lot of action this episode. Daina Reid directs. She does a good enough job given the constraints. See, it’s time Allo to be put in actual danger. Season finale only has nineteen minutes to go and the show has three big changes it needs to get set up.

Instead of doing anything with its first season, “Upload” has done a “totally different season two” setup. I didn’t see some of the twists coming—mostly because they’re all pretty terrible—but I’m still not exactly disappointed. I didn’t have any hope for “Upload” to get to a good place with this season or to get set up well for next season.

Amazon ought to cancel this one and put Allo and Amell in something else, something with better writing. Zainab Johnson ought to get her own show, however. Then you’ve got all the best pieces of “Upload” in at least not this project. Because it’s not a good showcase for Allo or Amell.

Maybe I did expect the season finale to be better.

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