Title: Death Note | Rated: TV-MA | Runtime: 101 min | Netflix streaming
Since I’m not familiar with the Death Note manga and anime, I can’t comment on the recent Netflix movie’s fidelity to the source material, but I can say that as a movie, it’s a wild mess that leaves much to be desired. The plot moves at such a rapid pace that investing in the characters and buying what unfolds prove to be difficult (if not impossible) tasks, though the movie is admittedly never boring. It doesn’t help that the characters act stupidly and make downright inexplicable decisions, requiring ridiculous suspension of disbelief. Despite its intriguing concept, the movie is scared of expanding its mythology and truly diving into the wider implications of using the Death Note. The tone routinely veers left and right, providing (unintentionally?) hilarious moments aplenty. His high-pitched screaming aside, a miscast Nat Wolff cannot save the character of Light from blandness. Margaret Qualley makes Mia fun to watch, and Lakeith Stanfield’s jittery performance as investigator L actually suits the movie’s pace and tone. The death god Ryuk is mostly sidelined, which is a shame because Willem Dafoe tackles him with much gusto. Director Adam Wingard is quite the visual stylist, with David Tattersall’s cinematography enlivening the frame through shadows and neon colors. Ironically, it feels like this movie wrote its own name in the Death Note itself, and we are here to witness its demise.
Title: Gook | Rated: Not Rated | Runtime: 94 min | Theaters limited
With the intentionally titled Gook, writer/director/actor Justin Chon crafts a vivid picture that slowly builds in intensity. Despite leading into the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the film doesn’t center on the unrest at all, instead using it as the backdrop for an intimate and deeply compelling story about the friendship between an African-American girl named Kamilla (Simone Baker) and Korean-American women’s shoe store owner Eli (Chon). The characters – particularly Eli – initially see-saw erratically between extremes with their behavior (the first act feels choppy as a result), but Chon patiently peels away their layers to reveal their complexity, and from that answers any questions the story raises. While apolitical, the film confidently navigates through a rich symbolic and thematic landscape, exploring keenly felt motifs like displacement, inter-generational conflict, and masculinity. Baker’s magnetic performance showcases a tremendous maturity, and Chon often lets his expressive face and body language speak for Eli. Also terrific are the other cast members, namely David So, Sang Chon, and Curtiss Cook, Jr., who command the screen with their dynamism. The decision to shoot in black and white results in some striking images, though the camera’s twitchy and zippy movements make the frame difficult to comprehend at times. An unflinching exercise in empathy, this film boasts incredible heart.
Steven Soderbergh is back, and it feels so good. After flirting with the possibility of retirement since 2011, the filmmaker – known for his eclectic filmography – took a sabbatical from directing feature films in 2013 after completing Behind the Candelabra. That isn’t to say he hasn’t been busy since; aside from serving as an executive producer and cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews, his longtime pseudonym) on a few films and TV shows, he directed the entire two seasons of The Knick, Cinemax’s acclaimed TV series. At long last, he brings his sabbatical to an end with Logan Lucky, a gleeful, rip-roaring, and surprisingly poignant flick.
Title: Wind River | Rated: R | Runtime: 107 min | Theaters wide
Capping off his frontier trilogy that consists of Sicario and Hell or High Water, screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gets behind the camera for Wind River, a somber picture that’s rough around the edges yet thoughtfully told. Sheridan once again proves to be a great storyteller, as he not only raises questions and provides key answers at the right times, but also trusts his audience to connect the dots. The story here operates well as a meditation on grief and how people deal with it, though it stops short of reaching its full potential. It’s not as immersive as the other two films in Sheridan’s trilogy, which impart a strong sense of their environments and the lifestyles they portray. What plays a significant part in this is that the picture doesn’t really dive deep into the Native American characters and their way of life. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are quite solid, with the former effortlessly carrying the film. Gil Birmingham is the real highlight here, as his performance as a grieving father boasts incredible weight. The film’s production values are fairly decent, with Ben Richardson’s cinematography capturing some impressive vistas of the Wyoming wilderness. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score features a haunting leitmotif, though the sound mixing is a bit off since dialogue can’t be heard very well at times. Overall, the film makes for a satisfying adult drama to catch at the theater.
To me, A Taxi Driver feels like a culmination. Ever since the news of last year’s South Korean political scandal broke, I’ve been following the nation’s political chatter and goings-on with great interest. Assessing the impeachment of disgraced former president Park Geun-hye, the months-long peaceful protests against her that mobilized millions of citizens, and the presidential elections naturally led me to read all that I could about modern Korean history. As I explored further and further, I couldn’t help but think of my father, who grew up in Korea for most of his now 57 years. I remembered his stories about how he – as a university student – protested against the regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan and also how he argued with his father regarding those presidents. I remembered him being distraught for days when former president Roh Moo-hyun committed suicide. I remembered all the times when I asked him for his opinion on various South Korean political figures and issues. Following the news coming out of my native country certainly put my father’s experiences and thoughts in perspective, but if there’s one thing that encapsulates all that I just described, it’s this heartfelt and polished picture.
Title: The Dark Tower | Rated: PG-13 | Runtime: 95 min | Theaters nationwide
One year ago, MediaBrewPub’s resident low-brow Andrew – a fanatic Stephen King fan – was amped for the film adaptations of The Dark Tower and It that were set for release the following year. He asked resident high-brow Jun if he’d like to read The Dark Tower series (which comprises 8 novels) and discuss them in the buildup to the movie. Jun agreed, and Andrew was kind enough to buy and send him copies of the first two books. Jun began reading, as did Andrew. One year later, days before The Dark Tower arrived in theaters last weekend, Andrew finished his third readthrough of the series. As for Jun? He was a single chapter into the second novel. Needless to say, they were prepared, and the two of them watched the movie on opening night. This edition of the High-Low Report commences on the following day. While they will venture into spoiler territory, spoiler tags have been added, so consider this a safe read if you haven’t seen the film.
Title: Detroit | Rated: R | Runtime: 143 min | Theaters nationwide
America is built on blood and skin. We don’t seem to have much trouble accepting the former (violence has and will always have a place in our nation), but the same can’t be said for the latter. As far as my American history education goes, my classes covered the essential facts about slavery and the Civil Rights movement and then skimmed over other race-centered topics like the Trail of Tears, the Mexican Repatriation, the internment of Japanese Americans, and so on. Sure, certain college courses delve into those, but there remains this impression that we Americans in general are ignorant of or simply don’t like to talk about how prominent of a role racism plays in our nation’s history. Couple that with the news of racism popping up on a daily basis now, and it’s clear that we must confront this ugly reality head-on by acknowledging it, educating ourselves, listening empathically, and actively amending where need be. Cinema can play a role in these processes, particularly when it comes to portraying events or people that we know little (if any) about. That’s where director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, the team behind The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, come in. Their latest venture Detroit, which tackles the Algiers Motel incident during the 1967 Detroit Riot (take a moment to ask yourself if you ever heard of it), is a bit narratively unbalanced and emotionally stunted, but there’s no denying its immersion and intensity.