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‘Free Chol Soo Lee’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

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‘Free Chol Soo Lee’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Free Chol Soo Lee is, at its core, a sensitive portrait of a man brutalized by an inhuman system. The film begins in 1973, when San Francisco police arrested and convicted Chol Soo Lee for the murder of Yip Yee Tak, a local gang leader shot in Chinatown. It was known then, among the largely Chinese community, at least, that Lee, a Korean immigrant, was innocent. But the prosecutor’s unrelenting thirst for a sentence coupled with the anti-Asian racism within the city’s police department left Lee with no real chance. He was sent to prison, where he would spend the next decade of his life.

It’s no secret that the United States of America, a carceral state, worships at the altar of its prison system. Recent numbers from Prison Policy paint a bleak picture: The country imprisons nearly 2.3 million people in roughly 7,000 facilities, ranging from federal prisons and juvenile corrections facilities to local jails and immigration detention centers. Not only does the U.S. have the highest incarceration rate in the world, but every state also imprisons more people than most other democratic countries. The effects of this are staggering, and the system’s burden reverberates beyond those it imprisons.

Free Chol Soo Lee

The Bottom Line

Steady and sensitive.

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Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary)
Directors: Julie Ha, Eugene Yi


1 hour 23 minutes

Free Chol Soo Lee vibrates with this broader understanding of incarceration. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi piece together a compact story about Lee’s life and the role his case played in galvanizing generations of Asian Americans. In 1977, four years into Lee’s sentence, an enterprising Korean investigative reporter came across his case. K.W. Lee saw that the circumstances that befell the young Korean American were failures of the state; he was drawn to the story and published a two-part investigation in The Sacramento Union, which brought unprecedented attention to the case. University students took up his cause and eventually joined forces with community elders via local churches. Generations of Korean Americans and, more broadly, the Asian American community in California, came together in support of Lee. They advocated for a retrial, which, after much persistence, was granted in 1982.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this capacious documentary, which adeptly interweaves archival footage with interviews with Lee’s supporters and friends, is the filmmakers’ precise, unwavering focus on constructing a complex portrait of Lee, who died in 2014. The film opens with a court interview of its subject — affable, striking, handsome. He speaks with inspiring clarity about his case. One wonders if, in another life, he could have been a movie star.

Ha and Yi supplement this intimate footage with interviews from Lee’s longtime friend Ranko Yamada, a young Japanese woman who befriended Lee before his arrest, and a scripted voiceover (read by Sebastian Yoon) composed of his words and speeches as well as excerpts adapted from Lee’s posthumously published memoir, Freedom without Justice: The Prison Memoirs of Chol Soo Lee. Together, these bits build a loving depiction of a lonely and often misunderstood man.

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Lee was born in 1952, during the Korean War, in Seoul, South Korea. He spent his early years with his aunt and uncle before joining his mother, who had emigrated to the U.S. earlier, in 1964. Life was difficult for 12-year-old Lee, whose American story would be marked by an acute sense of solitude and misunderstanding. He struggled with English and, without access to any Korean interpreters (his school was made up of mostly Chinese students), could not navigate the educational system for support. A tantrum, driven by an inability to communicate, landed him in a psychiatric facility with a diagnosis as an adolescent schizophrenic. This initiated a constricting cycle, with Lee going from institution to institution — from the facility to juvenile detention to foster care and back again.

Marked by the state and without any support, Lee spent his young adult years doing odd jobs. He became friends with Ranko by chance, frequenting the pearl store her sister ran in Chinatown. When Tak was murdered, Lee was not even at the scene of the crime, but the police department failed to follow up with any of his alibi witnesses. And after determining that the bullets fired at Tak matched a gun Lee had (this ballistics report was later considered invalid), they did not care. This was followed by a rushed and sloppy trial before Lee was sent to prison.

The two narrative threads of Free Chol Soo Lee converge after Lee’s newspaper investigation brings a community together. Its here that Ha and Yi consider the impact the case had on Lee, whose life up until then had been lived in relative anonymity. They pull poignant passages from his memoir, where he speaks of thankfulness and guilt in the same breath. On the one hand, Lee took comfort and found solace in the hundreds of community members advocating for him outside of his cell; on the other hand, the pressure to perform gratitude and graciousness, to hide himself away, began to mount and became untenable.

Free Chol Soo Lee follows Lee’s life up until his recent death. The documentary’s third act, which traces Lee’s eventual exoneration and challenges reentering society, is particularly powerful. It’s here that you can feel the full force of the carceral system on Lee’s psyche. It nurtured his isolation and fed internal demons he could not quiet. He struggled to maintain a job, eventually became a drug addict and almost died in a botched arson job (for which he was arrested and served probation).

In the film’s final moments, Ha and Yi narrow their scope, focusing exclusively on Lee, who lived out his last decades doing odd jobs, writing his book and speaking to students in the Bay Area about the importance of building community. There is an understated calm about him in those later videos — a quiet dignity I could not help but feel moved by.

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

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Review: SAMARITAN, A Sly Stallone Superhero Stumble

Hitting the three-quarter-century mark usually means a retirement home, a nursing facility, or if you’re lucky to be blessed with relatively good health and savings to match, living in a gated community in Arizona or Florida.

For Sylvester Stallone, however, it means something else entirely: starring in the first superhero-centered film of his decades-long career in the much-delayed Samaritan. Unfortunately for Stallone and the audience on the other side of the screen, the derivative, turgid, forgettable results won’t get mentioned in a career retrospective, let alone among the ever-expanding list of must-see entries in a genre already well past its peak.

For Stallone, however, it’s better late than never when it involves the superhero genre. Maybe in getting a taste of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with his walk-on role in the Guardians of the Galaxy sequel several years ago, Stallone thought anything Marvel can do, I can do even better (or just as good in the nebulous definition of the word).

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The property Stallone and his team found for him, Samaritan, a little-known graphic novel released by a small, almost negligible, publisher, certainly takes advantage of Stallone’s brute-force physicality and his often underrated talent for near-monosyllabic brooding (e.g., the Rambo series), but too often gives him to little do or say as the lone super-powered survivor, the so-called “Samaritan” of the title, of a lifelong rivalry with his brother, “Nemesis.” Two brothers entered a fire-ravaged building and while both were presumed dead, one brother did survive (Stallone’s Joe Smith, a garbageman by day, an appliance repairman by night).

In the Granite City of screenwriter Bragi F. Schut (Escape Room, Season of the Witch), the United States, and presumably the rest of the world, teeters on economic and political collapse, with a recession spiraling into a depression, steady gigs difficult, if not impossible, to obtain, and the city’s neighborhoods rocked by crime and violence. No one’s safe, not even 13-year-old Sam (Javon Walker), Joe’s neighbor.

When he’s not dodging bullies connected to a gang, he’s falling under the undue influence of Cyrus (Pilou Asbæk), a low-rent gang leader with an outsized ego and the conviction that he and only he can take on Nemesis’s mantle and along with that mantle, a hammer “forged in hate,” to orchestrate a Bane-like plan to plunge the city into chaos and become a wealthy power-broker in the process.

Schut’s woefully underwritten script takes a clumsy, haphazard approach to world-building, relying on a two-minute animated sequence to open Samaritan while a naive, worshipful Sam narrates Samaritan and Nemesis’s supposedly tragic, Cain and Abel-inspired backstory. Schut and director Julius Avery (Overlord) clumsily attempt to contrast Sam’s childish belief in messiah-like, superheroic saviors stepping in to save humanity from itself and its own worst excesses, but following that path leads to authoritarianism and fascism (ideas better, more thoroughly explored in Watchmen and The Boys).

While Sam continues to think otherwise, Stallone’s superhero, 25 years past his last, fatal encounter with his presumably deceased brother, obviously believes superheroes are the problem and not the solution (a somewhat reasonable position), but as Samaritan tracks Joe and Sam’s friendship, Sam giving Joe the son he never had, Joe giving Sam the father he lost to street violence well before the film’s opening scene, it gets closer and closer to embracing, if not outright endorsing Sam’s power fantasies, right through a literally and figuratively explosive ending. Might, as always, wins regardless of how righteous or justified the underlying action.

It’s what superhero audiences want, apparently, and what Samaritan uncritically delivers via a woefully under-rendered finale involving not just unconvincing CGI fire effects, but a videogame cut-scene quality Stallone in a late-film flashback sequence that’s meant to be subversively revelatory, but will instead lead to unintentional laughter for anyone who’s managed to sit the entirety of Samaritan’s one-hour and 40-minute running time.

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Samaritan is now streaming worldwide on Prime Video.

Samaritan

Cast
  • Sylvester Stallone
  • Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton
  • Pilou Asbæk

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Matt Shakman Is In Talks To Direct ‘Fantastic Four’

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According to a new report, Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct the upcoming MCU project, Fantastic Four. Marvel Studios has been very hush-hush regarding Fantastic Four to the point where no official announcements have been made other than the film’s release date. No casting news or literally anything other than rumors has been released regarding the project. We know that Fantastic Four is slated for release on November 8th, 2024, and will be a part of Marvel’s Phase 6. There are also rumors that the cast of the new Fantastic Four will be announced at the D23 Expo on September 9th.

Fantastic Four is still over two years from release, and we assume we will hear more news about the project in the coming months. However, the idea of the Fantastic Four has already been introduced into the MCU. John Krasinski played Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The cameo was a huge deal for fans who have been waiting a long time for the Fantastic Four to enter the MCU. When Disney acquired Twenty Century Fox in 2019 we assumed that the Fox Marvel characters would eventually make their way into the MCU. It’s been 3 years and we already have had an X-Men and Fantastic Four cameo – even if they were from another universe.

Deadline is reporting that Wandavision’s Matt Shakman is in talks to direct Fantastic Four. Shakman served as the director for Wandavision and has had an extensive career. He directed two episodes of Game of Thrones and an episode of The Boys, and he had a long stint on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There is nothing official yet, but Deadline’s sources say that Shakman is currently in talks for the job and things are headed in the right direction.

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To be honest, I was a bit more excited when Jon Watts was set to direct. I’m sure Shakman is a good director, but Watts proved he could handle a tentpole superhero film with Spider-Man: Homecoming. Wandavision was good, but Watts’ style would have been perfect for Fantastic Four. The film is probably one of the most anticipated films in Marvel’s upcoming slate films and they need to find the best person they can to direct. Is that Matt Shakman? It could be, but whoever takes the job must realize that Marvel has a lot riding on this movie. The other Fantastic Four films were awful and fans deserve better. Hopefully, Marvel knocks it out of the park as they usually do. You can see for yourself when Fantastic Four hits theaters on November 8th, 2024.

Film Synopsis: One of Marvel’s most iconic families makes it to the big screen: the Fantastic Four.

Source: Deadline

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Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase Star in ‘Zombie Town’ Mystery Teen Romancer (Exclusive)

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Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase have entered Zombie Town, a mystery teen romancer based on author R.L. Stine’s book of the same name.

The indie, now shooting in Ontario, also stars Henry Czerny and co-teen leads Marlon Kazadi and Madi Monroe. The ensemble cast includes Scott Thompson and Bruce McCulloch of the Canadian comedy show Kids in the Hall.

Canadian animator Peter Lepeniotis will direct Zombie Town. Stine’s kid’s book sees a quiet town upended when 12-year-old Mike and his friend, Karen, see a horror movie called Zombie Town and unexpectedly see the title characters leap off the screen and chase them through the theater.

Zombie Town will premiere in U.S. theaters before streaming on Hulu and then ABC Australia in 2023.

“We are delighted to bring the pages of R.L. Stine’s Zombie Town to the screen and equally thrilled to be working with such an exceptional cast and crew on this production. A three-time Nickelodeon Kids Choice Award winner with book sales of over $500 million, R.L. Stine has a phenomenal track record of crafting stories that engage and entertain audiences,” John Gillespie, Trimuse Entertainment founder and executive producer, said in a statement.

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Executive producers are Trimuse Entertainment, Toonz Media Group, Lookout Entertainment, Viva Pictures and Sons of Anarchy actor Kim Coates.  

Paco Alvarez and Mark Holdom of Trimuse negotiated the deal to acquire the rights to Stine’s Zombie Town book.

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