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David Oyelowo Pretty Solid in the Dipped in Saccharin ‘Selma': A Review

David Oyelowo Pretty Solid in the Dipped in Saccharin ‘Selma': A Review

David Oyelowo Pretty Solid in the Dipped in Saccharin ‘Selma': A Review

Selma is the very poorly-titled Martin Luther King Jr. biopic from Ava DuVernay. The title is bad because it’s boring and non-descript and despite its roots, doesn’t tell us enough about the star of the story, Civil Rights leader and legend, Dr. Martin Luther King. David Oyelowo does his best to rescue the film that follows MLK’s march in Selma, Alabama. The story is steeped in history and is a monumental point in the history of our nation, unfortunately, in the too often clumsy hands of DuVernay, we’re left with a would-be weeper that doesn’t cut to the heart of the man and his struggles to achieve this significant outcome. Cue the heavy violins, since we should be touched.

Selma sees a host of civil rights activists, led by MLK, perform non-violent protest, in opposition to a lack of right to vote. MLK did it the way that Malcolm X couldn’t. The story is well-known for anyone who made it through the 8th grade and therefore, a greater probing of the man with less sentimental actions would have served the film better. MLK leads his followers, blacks and women, who eventually are joined by other races, up against the tyranny of the US government and its racist ways. The politicians and president are typical villains and MLK the righteous man standing up the injustice.

Hard not to be moved by the march moment in the poorly-titled 'Selma.'

Hard not to be moved by the march moment in the poorly-titled ‘Selma.’ but DuVernay tried to ruin it.

Oyelowo, though pequeno in stature, does his best to embody the legendary MLK. I have a little issue with a Brit portraying such a significant man, but he is solid enough in handling the task. What his performance can’t overcome are the stereotypes in the writing and directing that seem paint-by-numbers in these stories. A man is beaten down, but he rises up and the music swells to accompany it. A stare down in public is counterbalanced with tears and emotional strife in public. However true these cliches may be, I would have preferred a more intimate, even look at the man rather than a fairytale-like take.

Selma isn’t a bad movie per se, but it breaks no ground for a man that broke it all. This, in and of itself, is enough to turn me off. I wanted to feel this man’s journey rather than have the film try to manipulate my feelings. I’m capable of getting there on my own with a great story, acting and directing, instead I get tried and true tropes that are a disservice to the historical events and my time and intelligence. There were a handful of scenes that hit the right notes, but far too few in the grand scheme. Too bad, because the man and moment deserved more.

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A Long Road to Nowhere: The Experience of Watching ‘Boyhood’ – A Review

A Long Road to Nowhere: The Experience of Watching ‘Boyhood’ – A Review

A Long Road to Nowhere: The Experience of Watching ‘Boyhood’ – A Review

Considering the critical praise that has been leveled on the odds-on Oscar favorite Boyhood, a viewer can surely go in hoping that film would be a worthwhile experience. With Patricia Arquette, director Richard Linklater and the film itself bagging award wins everywhere, I wish I could say I did not expect the film to be what it is – a snoozefest leading to nowhere. I hate to be that guy – the bearer of bad news – and hate being right sometimes.

Boyhood spans twelve years, capturing a boy and his somewhat dysfunctional family’s experiences over that time frame. The film felt like it took twelve years (2:45 runtime to be exact) to finish with zero payoff. I think Linklater is being lauded for presenting life as he believes the experience to be like. Kids and parents growing up or growing old and little experiences along the way that shape who they are and what they do or do not achieve. This may be true on a surface level but is certainly not something that any of us need to watch to capture.

The boy dramatically changes hairstyles and fingernail color, throughout 'Boyhood.'

The boy dramatically changes hairstyles and fingernail color, throughout ‘Boyhood.’

Arquette plays a mother to a boy and his sister; she is divorced/separated from Ethan Hawke, the boy’s father at the beginning of the film. Hawke spins his wheels while the single mother Arquette soldiers on. We see her relationships with men and the effect it has on their kids. All of this is in theory fine and dandy. The problem is, there is no captivating storyline to keep us engaged in the proceedings. Again, I see Linklater winking at the audience (“just like life!” he says), alas, that is not entirely true. Life is far more interesting than the stilted dialogue and overhyped performances seen here. The boy is by no means good, while Arquette and Hawke are serviceable, but the concept is clearly what has attracted audiences to this film, but…nothing happens.

I can in no way recommend this movie. Regardless of the director’s intentions and meanings, movies should generally have some narrative, but this doesn’t. One could argue that taking a child and having him eventually move out of the house to become an adult is narrative enough, but the wooden performances from nearly everyone involved has me seriously questioning Linklater’s talents as a writer and director. Speaking of directing, the film lacks any flair or visually interesting shots. To that end, I truly believe that a film school student could do just as well as this in most cases. I’d like to say I am shocked, but my faith in the film and those that heap praise upon it has long ago been swallowed up by the drain hole. To review this on a bad/good scale is almost pointless. It simply is not that well done, conceived or most importantly, entertaining. Skip it and live your own life instead.

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‘American Sniper’ Review: Cooper & Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

‘American Sniper’ Review: Cooper & Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

‘American Sniper’ Review: Bradley Cooper & Clint Eastwood Team For Intense Tale

The first trailers for American Sniper were effective at hooking audiences. That is not a new phenomenon. What is important is that the trailers give an effective glimpse into the actual film. There are few false notes and the film – based on the life of Chris Kyle, known as the most lethal sniper in US military history – reels you in from the first frame. While Kyle (Bradley Cooper) looms silently behind a rifle with targets in sight, captivation ensues. Sniper is an important comeback for Clint Eastwood and another benchmark performance for Cooper, who after earning his third straight acting nod at the Oscars has become a keystone star of the modern era. Sniper has already banked $200m in under two weeks at the domestic box office and each dollar is rightfully earned.

After a brief intro showing us how Kyle came to be and his desire to enter the armed forces, the bulk of the film is made up of Kyle’s forays into battle and his ensuing battles on trips home, where he struggles to leave the war behind. Raised to be a fighter, Kyle not only becomes a deadly sniper, he also enters into Call of Duty-style front lines combat. The amount of violence in Sniper is coming under fire by critics, but that is misguided, because what is war if not violence? The film also has been viewed by some to strike an anti-war tone, one that I won’t argue but ultimately fall in the middle of the debate. Cooper, who put on forty pounds to play Kyle works wonders under Eastwood’s guidance. His embodiment of Kyle’s violence internal and external is true to life.

Bradley Cooper targets the foe in the intense 'American Sniper'.

Bradley Cooper targets the foe in the intense ‘American Sniper’.

Director Clint Eastwood smartly never veers into the sentimentality that he can swerve into as shown by some of his recent past. This is a Hollywood sort of theme as well, but importantly Eastwood lets the action and Kyle’s actions speak for themselves. There is little score to speak of so we are not hammered with violin strings to tell us we are supposed to be moved or haunted by particular moments, though a patriotic drum beat can be heard during scenes leading up to battle. This is part intense video game and part heavy drama, where Kyle’s home life with his wife (Sienna Miller) and two kids are affected by Kyle’s status as a Navy Seal “legend.” I can only imagine war at its most affecting being similar to what Eastwood and Cooper provide us. That is a testament to the powerful film that we are privy to in American Sniper. It may not be the best film of the year, but it is certainly in the top handful and one that deservedly should be talked about during this awards season.

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‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

‘The Imitation Game’ Review: Movie Imitates What Academy Loves

The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing, the man who developed the world’s first computer. He was an outcast, a genius, a social misfit and a closeted homosexual at a time when the truth of his sexual preferences would in no way be acceptable. Turing (embodied well by Benedict Cumberbatch) applies for a job with the military during WWII hoping to help crack an Enigma code machine from the Nazi-Germans which relays their missions and attacking desires. If the machine can be hacked and the codes deciphered, then the war could be won.

Turing, however, is the least type of candidate that the military desires. He’s flippant, has no political aspirations and is only there for the challenge. He manages to land the gig, agitate his superiors by gaining control of the team in place and launches into his scheme alone – while the team works on their own operatives – attempting to design a computer to Enigma’s codes. The Imitation Game is a double or triple layered title, meaning someone is imitating something, someone, etc.

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Turing (Cumberbatch) and crew work to screw the Nazi’s over.

The film focuses on two eras a decade apart, Turing in present day (1951) and a decade earlier working for MI6 in the war. We don’t learn until later what the modern day Turing looks like compared to the earlier man working against Enigma. Game allows for Turing to meet a woman (Keira Knightley), have a few laughs and go about his business. The threats lie in his ability to keep his sexuality a secret and keep his job. Turing must maneuver his way through a world which doesn’t quite jive with him, a feeling not unfamiliar to many of us, no doubt.

That is where Director Morten Tyldum’s Game suffers. His 2011 thriller Headhunters (shot in his native language) is superior and more entertaining in almost every way. Here, for Hollywood, he dances around the fringes of everything. We are able to enjoy the drama unfolding on screen enough, but the stakes don’t seem particularly heightened. The war is happening, but is only a backdrop in the story at most. His sexual feelings are probably given proper weight, but most of that is shown via flashbacks with a boy he “loved” as a youngster. Thus, despite strong performances and a solid enough film, The Imitation Game simply imitates a better movie. It’s the type of film that wins over the often snooty Academy, but won’t win over the hearts of those who care about movies. That is another area, I suppose, in which it is simply an imitation of something more meaningful and tangible. It’s sufficient but not transcendent filmmaking, so give Cumberbatch his props, but that’s where it stops.

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Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

Oscar Isaac Heads Into Chaos & Corruption: ‘A Most Violent Year’ Review

A Most Violent Year begins with a driver for Abel Morales’ (Oscar Isaac) Standard Oil Co. being robbed of his truck for fuel and beaten to the point of a broken jaw. This has been a frequent occurrence for Standard, leaving Abel to ponder whether he can continue to play it straight in a corrupt New York in 1981. With the mob, law enforcement and even his own wife (Jessica Chastain) serving as potential rivals to his methods, Abel may have to stand alone while risking his entire savings in trying to close the most important deal of his career in the next month.

Writer-director JC Chandor brings Year to life by placing a good guy in a nefarious environment. Abel tries to buy a property he can’t afford that is critical for Standard’s expansion while balancing a life in complete chaos. The violence is as much inner as outer for him. He must track down the money he needs and discover why his company and family are being harassed before the deadline. Balancing big business and a family can be tough when you are trying to play it straight.

The violence referred to in 'A Most Violent Year' is often within Abel.

The violence referred to in ‘A Most Violent Year’ is often within Abel.

Isaac first raised my eyebrows in Sucker Punch. In a role not worthy of being noticed, he stood out and remained etched in my memory as a talent to look out for. Here he plays to his strengths, acting like a pot of water on boil. He holds in rage with occasional bursts that indicate the pressure that weighs on Abel and the severity of the circumstances he’s in. His work is such that I wouldn’t be surprised if his name is at least thrown in a hat come awards season.

Chastain’s wife shows sex appeal, strength and vulnerability at apropos times. Her collection of credits continues to impress. Throw in Albert Brooks and nice work from relative unknown, Elyes Gabel and you have the makings of a fine, brooding piece. Chandor shoots the film in dark shadows to convey the sense of struggle building upon Abel. Fresh off of Robert Redford’s All is Lost, Chandor remains a talent worth checking on. His diminutive body of work is diverse and off to strong results.

Where Year stumbles is in the aftermath of its conclusion. There are many questions left unanswered about where the characters go from here and what is still to come. While the film brings satisfactory resolution while you watch, my thoughts quickly turned towards what happens next. In some ways, that can take place with almost any film. It’s fine when the beauty and the nerd decide to have a relationship and we cheer at the end but do they really have staying power? In this case, the questions are more realistically tied to the events we just witnessed which caused me a bit of head scratching. Still, A Most Violent Year is an interesting and telling title; it’s a film that simmers with rage and deserves to be seen.

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Posted in 3 Nests, Reviews1 Comment

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Korea’s Best Foreign Film Oscar Submission ‘Haemoo’ Review

On his 2009 stand-up album, “Midlife Vices,” comedian Greg Giraldo has a running gag using “…but in this economy” as the punchline. He talks about how thankful Americans were at the time if they were still employed, no matter how much they may have hated their jobs. It then devolves into a guy who gets anally raped while all his possessions were torched, “but in this economy” he was happy to even have stuff to burn.

The 2008 economic crisis has been covered by many American films, such as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” J.C. Chandor’s “Margin Call” and Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” All those movies happen to focus completely on, well, Wall Street. In 1997, the Korean government was in a similar situation, requiring $55 billion in bailout money – mainly from the International Monetary Fund – in order to restore financial order. The entire country felt the brunt, as unemployment within the nation’s borders nearly tripled. “Haemoo” takes place during the heart of this economic climate. Though it has nothing to do with anyone who controls the money, it’s about how such hardships can warp moral character.

While things on land are in a state of disrepair, things at sea aren’t doing much better for Captain Cheol-joo (Kim Yoon-seok). His fishing vessel is old and broken down, but more importantly the fish just aren’t leaping into the nets at any rate which would allow him or his crew to provide for their families. In order to make ends meet, Cheol-joo agrees to smuggle a large group of Korean-Chinese immigrants from China into South Korea. The crew is not particularly excited about the idea, but with their financial fate in their captain’s hands, money is money.

Anxiety is high on the seas, with the illegal activity and constant threat of being caught by the coastal authorities, added to the general nature of the ocean making its inhabitants sick, both physically and mentally. When an unforeseen disaster occurs, all the characters cope and react in different ways.

If Michelangelo set "The Creation of Adam" in Seattle.

If Michelangelo set “The Creation of Adam” in Seattle.

The title of the film translates literally as “sea fog,” and co-writer/director, Shim Sung-bo (the other co-writer is “Snowpiercer”’s Bong Joon-ho), makes this natural element just as dangerous to his characters as John Carpenter or M. Night Shyamalan managed. The “haemoo” (I’m going to assume I’m using the word correctly) infects the seaman aboard the floating coyote transport to the degree where when bad things happen, bad choices are made.

Like a mixture of “Titanic” and “Lifeboat,” Shim’s film contains a forbidden romance in the midst of tragedy, which grounds some of the more reprehensible actions which take place with something a little more relatable. Though it’s Shim’s first time in the director’s chair, he’s no novice within the medium, having written Bong’s great serial killer drama, “Memories of Murder.” The writing is where the film stands out like a light amidst the fog of other dramas. It’s a beautiful marriage of a fictional concept tied to a true-to-life event, which still happens to retain a bit of that beautiful Korean bloodletting.

As Giraldo has proven, tragedy plus time equals comedy. Though there’s nary a laugh in “Haemoo,” it proves an equation just as potent: tragedy plus time plus Shim Sung-bo equals fantastic filmmaking. Though I wish ill on no one, if something terrible befalls South Korea, like an economic collapse or a crazed serial killer, it may be worth enduring to later experience Shim’s spin on the subject.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Amazing One Shot Movie ‘Fish & Cat’ Review

The majority of American states just transitioned from daylight savings to standard time. Everyone got some extra sleep because we set our clocks back an hour. This’ll usually be done prior to going to sleep or after waking up, but the time switch technically happens at 2:00 a.m. when most people are asleep. But what happens during that hour when knowing it’s necessary to know the exact time? If a doctor pronounces someone dead at 2:01 a.m., he can also pronounce someone dead at 2:02 a.m., but their deaths can actually be an hour apart. There’s a 60-minute period where time is a Mobius strip, repeating itself. Now imagine that Mobius strip of time lasts for 2:15 and there are about eight different strips in one. That’s “Fish & Cat.”

Written and directed by Shahram Mokri, “Fish & Cat” is an Iranian film which takes place near a fairly-secluded lake where college-aged students meet up each year for a kite festival, showing off their colorful models while camping and hanging out with their friends. The film begins with a warning to set the scene with a true tale. There is a restaurant near the lake which was shut down for serving non-animal meat. The movie opens just outside the establishment in question and follows the couple of restaurateurs as they meet a couple of lost students looking for directions to the kite festival. If you think this sounds like the set-up of another teen slasher flick, you’d be right. But it’s not. At least that’s not the way it’s executed. Either way, the film is not necessarily interesting for what it’s about, but for how it’s about.

I now know how “Shawshank’s” Warden Norton felt (“I’d like to think the last thing that went through his head, other than that bullet….”), as my mind was blown. If this film was directed by Michel Gondry, it would finally serve as the cinematic encore we all wanted him to make after taking the leap from his improbably gorgeous music videos to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”  Alas, Gondry’s name is not in the credits as the man behind the camera. Those accolades behind to Mokri. Allow me to explain.

We’ve touched upon the art of the one-shot film before for “Silent House” and “Rope,” and the technique was most recently just deployed again in “Birdman.” Whereas Alfred Hitchcock had to make cuts in “Rope” as film reels were only so long and “Silent House” and “Birdman” had hidden cuts in them preventing a true one-take flubbed-line-loses-all style. “Fish & Cat” is the real deal. Mokri set up his camera, made a movie for two-plus hours and he was done. Though this sounds impressive enough, shooting something in one-shot isn’t necessarily all that challenging (after all, you could conceivably set up a camera in front of a stage, have a play performed in front of it and that could be called a “one-shot film,” too), it’s what Mokri does with that initial concept that expands the creativity and ups the difficulty factor to an almost unbelievable level.

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What are the preferable contents of that bag? Borat-style poo or human flesh?

Similar to the Doug Liman-directed “Go,” “Fish & Cat” tells the same story from different points of view. How does it do that with no cuts? Are you saying that only each point-of-view story is done in one take? No. That’s where the brilliance comes in. At times, the camera follows a set of characters having a conversation as they walk along the bank of the lake, they’ll encounter another character and follow that person’s journey. That person’s journey will loop back around to where the camera first picked up those initial two characters. Confused? This is where the Mobius strip analogy makes the most sense. It’s largely all one big loop, just with multiple diversions within it.

I’ve never encountered this type of storytelling trickery on a large scale outside of a time-travel film. Duncan Jones, the director of “Source Code” had to create a diagram to figure out the time-twisting storyline of that film. I can’t wait to watch “Fish & Cat” multiple times in order to draw such a diagram for myself to determine if what I saw truly worked in the way it was presented. It’s like the end of “The Sixth Sense.” M. Night Shyamalan understands you probably don’t trust his twist ending, so he goes back and does a quick recap of the film, showing you how he pulled the wool over your eyes. “Fish & Cat” can’t do so due to its technique, leaving it up to you to trust your eyes.

Outside of perhaps “Primer” (which is a time-travel film, so there’s obviously an insane logic to it), Mokri has created the biggest brain-bending “how did he do that?” since Michel Gondry’s video for Cibo Matto’s “Sugar Water.” It’s an awe-inspiring achievement which elevates the somewhat blasé story and it’s one that truly needs to be experienced. A lot of “challenging” films don’t completely connect the dots, “Fish & Cat” traces through all of them. For his latest feature, Mokri learned how to bend time. For his next trick, he might be able to stop it. He already left me breathless.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings – Korean Thriller ‘A Hard Day’ Review

If there’s one genre which stands above the rest as having the best chance to connect with me, it’s a thriller. It’s why Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most enduring cinematic figures in my life. The rules of the genre handed down by “The Master of Suspense” are still alive today. Hitchcock broke down his definition of the words “surprise” and “suspense” to Francois Truffaut in the book of interviews between the two directors, “Hitchcock/Truffaut.” “Surprise” is when two people are sitting at a table and a bomb underneath it blows up. “Suspense” is when the audience knows the bomb is there, but the characters don’t. Right now, no one is making thrillers as taut and gripping as the filmmakers of South Korea. They come in the form of the twisted and depraved, like Park Chan-wook’s seminal “Oldboy.” They can be more sick and more depraved, like Kim Jee-woon’s “I Saw the Devil.” Or they can be comic-adapted sci-fi fantasies like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.” Either way, they all seem to center around a flawed detective. You’d think this could get to be as tired and stale as a man continually put on a cape to save the world and you’d be right, unless excellent craftsmanship differentiates it from the others. Director Kim Seong-hun’s “A Hard Way” does just that.

Ko Gun-su (Lee Seon-gyun) is a detective whose mother has just died. He stops for a drink on the way to her funeral to try trapping some of his emotions inside. It seems to have impaired him in the desired way, but with that comes unintended effects, too (as Homer Simpson once told Marge, “remember when I took that home winemaking course and forgot how to drive?”). Detective Ko swerves out of the way of a stray dog in the middle of the street (that’s good!), but hits the dog’s owner, instead, killing him (that’s bad!). As if losing your mother isn’t hard enough to handle on a given day, imagine being the reason someone else will join her in the grave.

Ko is not a righteous character. From the outset, its’ extremely difficult to root for a guy who accidentally kills someone and mourns the loss of life by shoving the body into his trunk. He also happens to be a corrupt cop, responsible for distributing ill-gotten cash to his law enforcement cohorts. However, Lee plays Ko as if Pusha T from the Clipse went solo – no Malice. Lee is apparently a star known for his turns in romantic comedies. His natural likeability and his previous onscreen reputation (though likely unknown to American audiences) provide Ko with an endearing quality, regardless of whether or not the camera is following him around.

Detective Ko strikes his “deer-in-headlights” pose.

In addition to focusing his narrative around a character with which audiences may not identify, director and co-writer, Kim, pulls a trick even most Korean films of this type don’t truly manage. He imbues it with comedy.

The first third or so of the film is hilarious. Though it’s certainly not a comedy (in so much as you probably wouldn’t classify Quentin Tarantino’s films as “comedies” – although Q.T. himself would), the movie knows it’s funny. It just doesn’t reach for jokes. Everything is completely organic in that the humor never undercuts the suspense. Instead, it lightens the mood just enough to let the audience know it’s okay to root for Ko. Then, before the laugher fades and smiles wear off, it puts you right back on the edge of your seat.

Kim follows the Hitchcockian tenets of both surprise and suspense beautifully. The reason you, dear reader, are only getting one paragraph of plot from me is because I don’t want you to know where the bombs are hidden. Kim knows how to set them off just right. The structure of his script and placement of this camera are so finely tuned, you are fully prepared to give yourself over to his visual orchestra.

I mentioned earlier three films from Korean auteurs I happen to love. I also know those aren’t necessarily for all audiences. Though “Snowpiercer” is an English-language film and “Oldboy” was remade to the dismissal of American audiences (though I still loved the story) and “I Saw the Devil” is slated for remake, “A Hard Day” is almost certainly more accessible for a broader audience than any of the three. Hell, there was at least one child at the AFI screening I attended (whose parent I prejudicially loathe) and it didn’t seem to be an issue. Though a Hollywood reinterpretation may seem like a great compliment to the film, the best one I can give is, “A Hard Day” is a movie which anyone can watch and enjoy. It’s a complete crowd-pleaser, requiring zero pandering to get there. It can be the gateway to discovering more Korean gems. Might I suggest starting with thrillers?

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