February 2018 movies

Here are the movie reviews I wrote for the February issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo last week.

The Beguiled
The MeToo movement gives Sofia Coppola’s adaptation of Thomas Cullinen’s novel, previously filmed in 1971 with Clint Eastwood, an extra layer of subtext that actually makes it more interesting. Colin Farrell plays a wounded Union soldier who is found in the woods of Virginia by a student of a nearby boarding school for girls. The headmistress (Nicole Kidman) takes in the enemy soldier and dresses his wounds, allowing him to stay until they heal. In the meantime, the shut-in students and their French teacher (Kirsten Dunst) develop emotional attachments to the soldier that he doesn’t discourage at all. In fact, it his active toying with each young woman’s affections that eventually leads to tragedy. Coppola indulges her well-known penchant of letting production design speak for her characters, but for once the characters seem fully formed, maybe because Coppola didn’t have to make them up. But the suspense isn’t taut enough, and there’s a frustrating lack of emotional detail that no amount of gingham and lace can make up for. (photo: Focus Features LLC)

The Big Sick
Though it’s promoted as an edgy rom-com that tackles diversity head-on, comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s script, written with his wife, Emily V. Gordon, about how they met and fell in love, covers standard rom-com territory. Nanjiani immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan when he was young, so while his outlook is thoroughly American, his family expects him to uphold their cultural traditions, including Islamic worship and arranged marriages, neither of which Kumail has any stomach for. He pretends to pray several times a day but usually plays games on his smart phone instead, and his parents have become so inured to his objection to their romantic meddling that they don’t even bother to announce they’re bringing over another prospective bride but simply have her show up during dinner and feign surprise. These situations present ripe comic potential, and Nanjiani takes full advantage, but there’s not much difference between them and similar scenes from earlier comedies where a Jewish or Catholic mother did the same for her unattached son. Matters become more interesting after Kumail and Emily (Zoe Kazan) meet cute in the Chicago comedy club where he hones his act. They sleep together in the casual way twentysomethings do, but it takes a lot more nerve on Kumail’s part to advance the relationship to something substantial. What breaks the relationship is Kumail’s stubborn refusal to tell his family that he has a white girlfriend, and when Emily realizes this she cuts it off. But then she falls ill with a deadly infection and goes into a coma, and Kumail is recruited by her small circle of Chicago friends to hold vigil at her hospital bed, so he eventually is confronted with her parents, Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter, Ray Romano), from out of state, and this is where the movie comes into its own as both a comedy and a study of intercultural misunderstanding. Up until now, the film’s jokes about Kumail’s Pakistani heritage were couched in his standup style, which the film effectively lampoons by having him stage a dull one-man theater piece about his thoughts and dreams. In the face of these two resolutely white middle aged people, one the daughter of a Southern army officer, the other a dyed-in-the-wool New York cynic, he has nothing to fall back on but his own personality, forcing him to confront his family while that of the woman he still loves accepts him for what he is. As it turns out, Beth and Terry have been separated, and the medical crisis brings them back together, a breakthrough that Kumail inadvertently helps facilitate. The Big Sick is never not funny, but it becomes something more, a redemption tale that is effortlessly enjoyable. (photo: While You Were Comatose LLC)

The Dark Tower
The first thing you notice about Nikolaj Arcel’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower is how short it is. Granted, maybe it’s only critics who check the length of a film before attending it, but the hour-and-a-half running time seems insufficient for a movie based on a series of 8 books that runs to thousands of pages. Moreover, King adherents (of which I used to be one) consider the epic to be the apex of his ouevre, so Arcel must be uniquely confident of his achievement. Having not read the series, I can’t say for sure how successful he’s been at encapsulating it, but I can say he’s definitely boiled it down to something that holds together as a stand-alone story. Considering its theme, it certainly is no epic, probably because Arcel has decided to center its POV on the adolescent Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor), a New Yorker who has disturbing visions of the apocalypse that he translates into vivid drawings which spook his parents. They’re determined to have him sent away to a psychiatric facility to make him get better, but what Jake is seeing is the work of Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey), otherwise known as the Man in Black, an evil sorceror determined to bring down the Dark Tower, a monolith that prevents the universe from descending into chaos. O’Dim senses Jake’s unique powers, and since only the pure energy of a child’s thoughts can destroy the tower, he dispatches werewolves posing as employees of the clinic his parents are sending him to in order to abduct him. Jake manages to escape and make it to Mid-World, where he meets the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the real hero of King’s opus. Deschain’s self-imposed mission is to destroy O’Dim and everything he stands for and, in the process, save the universe. Given that all this exposition is presented within the first half hour, you have to hand it to Arcel for his powers of condensation, though, necessarily, you obviously lose a lot of King’s purplish detail (maybe a good thing). This approach also necessitates a frantic, breakneck pacing that renders most of the action a blur that, while comprehensible, feels generic and half-assed. Characters are introduced and dispatched with careless regard for how they fit into the plot, and the back stories, especially of Deschainel himself, are so sketchily described that you can’t get a feel for their relevance. You just take it for granted. Consequently, McConaughey’s supreme evil shtick is inadvertently comic. When he kills somebody by simply telling them to stop breathing, I heard people around me giggle. Some of the production values and special effects are pretty neat, but in the end The Dark Tower is indistinguishable from almost every other post-millennial blockbuster about the end of the universe, and I’m sure King intended it to be the pinnacle of the genre. How jaded we’ve become.

David Lynch: The Art Life
The prurient will go to this film to find out why David Lynch’s movies are so transgressive while his personality and attitude is so—for want of a better adjective—Midwestern, and they’ll be disappointed. But don’t blame directors Jon Nguyen, Rick Barnes, and Olivia Neergaard-Holm, who state their purpose in the title. This documentary is more about Lynch’s non-filmic art, and how that art came to inform his filmmaking vision. Much of the setting is Lynch’s studio, which, like all artists’ environments, defies interpretation on a visual level. More revealing is Lynch’s homey narratives about his upbringing, many of which might make great movies, though probably for other directors. Given his own prurient impulses, Lynch’s openness is disarming and, in the end, entertaining in its own right, and while some of the anecdotes overlap with some of the things he’s explored in his movies (like sex), he doesn’t really talk about the movies, except for Eraserhead, and since that may be his most characteristic work as far as “art” goes, it makes sense. A bit poky, but also a bit fascinating. (photo: Duck Diver Films & KongGulerod Film)

The premise of Alexander Payne’s latest work would make for a good comedy, and, in fact, it’s already been made: Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Some will argue that Payne’s movie is a comedy, but the director of Sideways and The Descendants is interested in weightier stuff, and he stuffs a lot of it in Downsizing. Matt Damon plays a very white American, Paul, who, along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), agrees to undergo a new process to shrink people so as to make them less threatening to the planet’s ecology and economy. This process was invented, naturally, in Norway, and then adopted by a very large multinational company for commercial purposes: Entire communities of small people are created and catered to. So right from the start, there’s some cynicism built into the movie’s premise: People are sold on literally getting down to save the planet but somebody’s making a buck. The cynicism curdles when the movie starts inhabiting this reduced space because when everyone consumes less, they actually can have more, meaning material possessions and even money (as you get small, your savings stays the same but is worth a lot more). This latter element is what appeals to Paul and Audrey, who are getting by just barely on Paul’s income as a freelance occupational therapist. The main problem with the downsizing process is that it’s irreversible, and while undergoing it Audrey has second thoughts and bails, while Paul finishes it to the end. He, thus, embarks on this brave new future alone in the community called, appropriately enough, Leisureland, and, of course, the new small life is not what it’s cracked up to be, at which point the movie quickly loses its sense of iconoclastic humor. Leisureland is basically a miniature community for the rich, with the usual class dynamics such a community suggests. The help, for instance, are immigrant small people and Paul’s neighbors are as boorish as their regular-sized counterparts. What gets you through the more didactic second half of the film is the side players, in particular two Europeans inhabitants of Leisureland played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, whose lassitude is both refreshing and understandable. Then there’s Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese housemaid and dissident who charms Paul into becoming an outlaw. If only Payne could have sustained the comic possibilities of Paul’s “greening,” the movie might have delivered on its promises of Swiftian satire, but the laughs become fewer and farther between as the movie loses its thread of meaning and descends into speechifying and stereotypes. Liberals are just no fun, at any size. (photo: Paramount Pictures)

A Fantastic Woman
When her older lover dies suddenly and unexpectedly, Marina (Daniela Vega) is, naturally, bereft, but because she is a transgender woman in the midst of her transition, she is also in a more precarious position than she would otherwise be. The family of her lover, including his ex-wife and adult son, who is the same age as Marina, want nothing to do with her and refuse to invite her to the funeral. At first, Marina accepts their fear and resentment, but as the indignities accumulate—they also kick her out of her lover’s apartment and take her dog—her own resentments come to a boil. Director Sebastian Lelio frames Marina in such a way that we always know what she’s feeling, and some scenes, in particular an assault that happens in the backseat of a car and a full body inspection by a suspicious, overzealous police detective, are too charged for comfort, as they are meant to be. He also films Santiago as if it were a living, breathing thing, and sometimes you wonder if even the city is against Marina. In Spanish. (photo: Asesoras y Producciones Fabula Limitada, Participant PanAmerica LLC, Komlizen Film GMBH, Setembro Cine SLI, and Lelio y Maza Limitada)

The Greatest Showman
Michael Gracey’s musical gloss on the life of circus entrepreneuer P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) goes beyond fake news into the realm of pure fantasy, which is where musicals dwell, of course, but there’s such an atmosphere of phoniness surrounding the path Barnum treads that you wonder if his heirs are planning to resurrect the brand. Barnum in this incarnation is a hard-working businessman-humanitarian. Even when he exploits the “freaks” who first brought him fame, he does it for their sake. The sentiment even gets its own production number. His devoted wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), gives up her considerable inheritance by marrying him for his dreamer mentality (“I think of what the world could be…”), and even the rich theater owner, Carlyle (Zac Efron,) who loses his own inheritance when he partners with Barnum, sees something no one else does. The fact that Carlyle is completely made up seems stretching the point a little too far. In the end, The Greatest Showman is an ode less to Barnum than to capitalism, and thus the perfect foil for our greedy age. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Yorgos Lanthimos’s second English language film again stars Colin Farrell, this time playing a cardiologist, Steven, who lives in a beautiful home with a beautiful wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), and their two wonderful children. Normality is the operative word here, even when a teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan) starts hanging around Steven and mimicking his various tics and habits. It turns out Martin’s father has died, probably under Steven’s knife while the doctor was drunk. Eventually, Martin’s designs are clarified in the most banal way, but the upshot is that someone in Steven’s family must die, too. If this sounds like something that Michael Haneke might like to tackle, it probably means you haven’t seen any of Lanthimos’s previous films. He’s a drier tactician than Haneke, which isn’t to say you’re going to laugh at anything. It’s more like squirming and smiling simultaneuously. What’s immediately unnerving about The Killing of a Sacred Deer is that it feels so familiar, which is not a mood I connect to Lanthimos. Martin’s somewhat autistic scan on life clues you into his pathology, and Steven’s blank acceptance of the boy’s weird foibles indicates he is guilty of something, so what you have is the makings of one of those psychological horror movies, like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, only with lots of monochromatic surfaces and huge empty spaces. Similarly, Anna’s slow uptake on Martin’s designs seems out of character for her and the type of movie Deer endeavors to be. Martin’s revenge is enacted in a realm halfway between horror and fantasy, which leaves the audience in a peculiar place, not knowing what to believe and whether or not Steven’s acceptance of his complicity has any traction, at least dramatically. In fact, you probably won’t know what you’re supposed to feel, even when matters turn violent. As with Lanthimos’s Greek films, Deer is antiseptic in its visual aesthetic, but it’s as if Stanley Kubrick tried to be funny and failed. Even the sex is denatured. It’s difficult to make any kind of investment in a movie as rarefied as this when you don’t care at all for any of the characters, because in the end it means you don’t care about the film either. (photo: EP Sacred Deer Ltd., Channel Four Television Corp., New Sparta Films Ltd.)

The Lion Sleeps Tonight
Nobuhiro Suwa’s second movie in French stars Jean-Pierre Leaud as an actor who abandons a film he’s making in mid-shoot in order to recapture something from his past. What that something is remains vague to the viewer. Ostensibly, he wants to reacquaint himself with an old lover, but we soon learn this woman died many years ago and thus the actor is forced to interact with her ghost (Pauline Etienne). Since these meetings take place in a huge, old abandoned mansion, it is the actor who seems like a ghost, an idea that’s intensified when a group of children invade the space to make their own movie with a digital camera. The actor helps them by lending this crew of little rascals his expertise. Suwa contrasts the past (the woman) with the future (the kids) by showing the actor’s attitude toward both, and while there’s a pleasing matter-of-factness to the situations, they don’t add up to much, and when the actor returns to the movie he’s making, he seems more confident in his work, as if his time at the mansion was merely therapeutic. In French. (photo: Film-In-Evolution, Les Productions Balthazar, Bitters End)

John Woo’s first movie in Japan is partly a return to the hyper-gunplay that made him famous and partly an homage to the late Ken Takakura. International business lawyer Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is framed for the murder of a woman in Osaka after he leaves the employ of a major Japanese pharmaceutical company. He slips the police dragnet and goes on the run, pursued by a dogged detective, Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama). This Fugitive-like premise allows Woo plenty of opportunity to stage his patented “bullet ballets,” though anyone who has lived in Japan for any length of time will wonder where all the guns came from so suddenly. When the action moves away from action, so to speak, the movie gets creaky and silly. Du’s English is much better than Fukuyama’s but the dialogue is highly risible, as are the peripheral characters, especially the Japanese villains and a pair of female trilingual assassins who are meant to remind viewers of Showa era crime fantasies. Manhunt works on a certain buddy movie level, but its crude plotting betrays laziness. In Mandarin, Japanese and English. (photo: Media Asia Film Production Ltd.)

Our Blue Moment
Built around the performances of two popular idols, Rikiya Imaizumi’s romantic dramedy is so lightweight and unchallenging that you wonder if anyone could possibly remember it without taking notes. Fumi (Mai Fukagawa) works at a bakery, basically biding her time until she decides if she really wants to do something with her life. One thing she doesn’t want to do is get married, and she rebuffs her boyfriend’s proposal. Dumbfounded, he retreats, setting the scene for the entrance of Tamotsu (Kenjiro Yamashita), an old high school friend she once had a crush on. Though divorced, Tamotsu believes he can somehow get back with his ex-wife, and his friendship with Mai is cautious and almost eventless. The machinations of the story conspire to get both principals to change their minds in light of their burgeoning affection for each other, and along the way Imaizumi expresses his own feelings about the permanence of love, which is not as assured as most movies have it. It’s a worthy idea, and deserves something a bit more momentous than this. In Japanese. (photo: Eiga Pan to Basu to 2dome no Hatsukoi Seisaku Iinkai)

Paddington 2
Besides being a funny and well made family film, the second installment featuring everybody’s favorite British-accented bear makes niceness great again. Paddington (Ben Whishaw), safely ensconced in the Browns’ London townhouse, decides to get a job and save money so that he can buy a pop-up picture book for his aunt back in Peru, but the book is also desired by a nefarious would-be actor (Hugh Grant), who manages to steal the volume from an antique dealer and frame Paddington for the crime. No one except the neighborhood beat cop, who hates the bear anyway, believes Paddington could do such a thing, so the Browns get to work tracking down the real criminal while Paddington turns the prison into a marmalade factory. Anyone within half a mile of Paddington’s easygoing nature is affected, and so will you, but the real star of the film is Grant, who exaggerates the character he wielded to such great effect last year in Florence Foster Jenkins and comes up with the most hilarious villain you will see in any movie this year. (photo: Studiocanal SAS)

A Perfect Day
The Maguffin in this slight but effective black comedy is a bloated dead body stuck at the bottom of a well in a Balkan village during the Kosovo War. International aid workers, led by a security expert named Mambru (Benicio Del Toro), are tasked with purifying the well, but can’t secure something as simple as a length of rope and spend the bulk of the movie searching for one. During these escapades, the director, Fernando Leon de Aranoa, carefully contrasts the attitudes of the aid workers, which also include a wacked-out American (Tim Robbins), an earnest French rookie (Melanie Thierry), and Mambru’s no-nonsense boss and ex-lover (Olga Kurylenko), with those of the people they are supposed to be helping, but who mostly just get in the way. De Aranoa does good work playing the laughs off some very tense moments, as when the crew has to spend the night in the middle of a road that may or may not be mined, and in doing so shows how good intentions can be rendered pointless. (photo: Reposado Producciones Cinematograficas, S.L.And Mediaproduccion, S.L.U.)

Julia Ducournau’s odd and oddly disturbing movie is set in a French veterinary school where freshmen are brutally hazed on their first day. Our protagonist, Justine (Garance Marillier), is especially bullied because she’s a vegetarian, so of course the upper classmen, which include her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), force her to eat offal, which has an effect that she, and the audience, could never have expected. As Justine’s appetites become bigger and more rarefied, the movie itself loses much of its comic verve, on purpose, I assume, though I’m not completely sure why it has to feel so dark. Since Justine starts out the film as a virgin, it’s easy to guess that sex has something to do with her change of heart and mind, and Ducournau stages the various indignities, sexual and otherwise, with her own brand of cruelty. Of course, in the end, Justine is seen to have not only transcended her oppression but somehow internalized it, which makes you wonder how effective a veterinarian she will become, or, for that matter, if she’ll even finish the semester. (photo: Petit Film, Rouge International, FraKas Productions)

The Scythian Lamb
The government has come up with a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone idea. In order to alleviate prison overcrowding and address rural depopulation, it is cutting sentences short for certain convicts on the condition that they settle semi-permanently in designated towns. In one seaside community, functionary Hajime (Ryo Nishikido) is charged with welcoming and monitoring six ex-cons, whose installment in town is not being publicized to residents, for obvious reasons, and even Hajime doesn’t know the crimes they were convicted of. The main object of his efforts is Ichiro (Ryuhei Matsuda), a very agreeable fellow who is keen to fit in and begin a new life, but when he starts making moves on Hajime’s old girlfriend, Aya (Fumino Kimura), Hajime starts looking into his past and finds out some startling things. Thanks to Daihachi Yoshida’s clean direction, the story’s many subtle touches all make themselves felt and the emotional payoffs are unexpectedly sharp. Moreover, Hajime is a compelling protagonist, a good person because he knows his actions must be driven by his conscience, even when his feelings tell him otherwise. In Japanese. (photo: Hitsuji no Ki Seisaku Iinkai, Yamagami Tatsuhiko, Kodansha)

Sennan Asbestos Disaster
Kazuo Hara spent more than a decade chronicling the lawsuit brought by the residents of the Sennan enclave of Osaka, which contained many asbestos factories. The residents sued the government, which knew that exposure to the fire-retardant mineral was deadly but did not alert factory workers and people who lived nearby until the 90s. As the suit proceeds at a snail’s pace thanks to court foot-dragging and government sandbagging, more and more of the plaintiffs die off from lung disease and cancer, and Hara interviewed every one, not so much to give them a measure of notoriety before they passed away, but to show how contentious the issue was even within the community. One man, days before he dies, still appreciates the job that killed him because it allowed him to raise a family. Matters come to a head when the remaining plaintiffs invade the health ministry office in Tokyo and occupy it until someone with authority comes to talk to them. The film’s inordinate length adds to the viewer’s frustration, but is justified. No documentary has ever presented the bureaucratic mindset so clinically. In Japanese. (photo: Shisso Productions)

The Shape of Water
As with all of Guillermo Del Toro’s movies, his latest has a kind of buffed, magical look to it. Light doesn’t just reflect off of surfaces, it kind of ricochets, and the colors are so anally selected for maximum resonance that you may be spooked by a specific hue for a whole week to come. Most of Del Toro’s movies, however, take place in settings that lend themselves to such stylistic touches. The Shape of Water takes place in Baltimore in 1960, mostly in a drab government facility and in average people’s apartments, all of which, under Del Toro’s watchful eye, look more than artificial. They look like dreams of dreams. Americans may wonder where this place could possibly be. In a way, it makes sense, since the movie is a fairy tale. The government facility is currently hosting an amphibious, anthropoid creature who was plucked from the Amazon. The American government is represented by a nervous, uptight bureaucrat named Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who is in charge of figuring out how the creature can help the U.S. win the Cold War. His moral outlook is shaped by The Power of Positive Thinking. His tool of choice is the cattle prod. You get the idea. Then there’s Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a member of the facility’s cleaning staff who is also a deaf-mute and thus communicates through signing. She sympathizes with the creature, called by the government the “asset,” and she plays him jazz records, feeds him hard-boiled eggs, and comforts him when he’s afraid, which is most of the time. After falling in love with the asset, she enlists the help of her African-American colleague, Zelda (Octavia Spencer), and her gay next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins), to save him from Strickland’s pathological obsessions, and from that point the movie goes a lot further than you’d expect it to without getting as icky as you may feel about what happens. Though Del Toro’s knee-jerk response to the prejudices of mid-century American culture are justified and presented in such a way that they are both entertaining and enlightening, they’re also rather rote by now and the only thing that makes The Shape of Water distinctive is the interspecies sex, whose mechanics are mainly understood through Elisa’s childishly playful descriptions (we get subtitled sign language). There are also Russian spies who are comical in the same way that the Americans are creepy, as if the Cold War were being being stage managed by Mike Nichols and Elaine May. By far, the best thing about the movie is the creature, who, as played by the invaluable Doug Jones, comes up with his own wordless means of communication that doesn’t need subtitles. He provides the movie with its most magical moments. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

A Single Rider
Lee Byung-hun returns to his romantic melodrama roots in this moody low-octane movie about a securities dealer, Kang, who manages to lose the life savings of a good portion of his customers through a high-risk investment. Kang heads to Australia, where his wife (Kong Hyo-jin) lives with his young son, who is studying English. Kang, preternaturally morose, merely hangs around his family’s house in a leafy suburb of Sydney and never makes his presence felt. His stalking ways seem prompted by his realization that his wife may have feelings for her next door neighbor, whose own wife is in the hospital because of an accident. A sideshow plot involves another Korean expat, a young girl (An Soo-hee) who has been swindled out of her own savings by a group of unscrupulous punks. The various threads are handled delicately by first-time director Lee Zoo-young, but there’s a fierce miscalculation in the way the plot resolves itself, as if nothing really matters. The viewer roots for Kang to achieve redemption, but gets something more like abject nihilism. In Korean and English. (photo: Warner Bros Pictures)

In this remake of a French film, Jamie Foxx plays a Las Vegas cop named Downs who, with his partner, Cass (T.I.), steals a load of cocaine from a criminal organization who turns around and kidnaps Downs’ son in order to get the stash back. Due to the crooked nature of his stunt, Downs has to try and get back his son without telling other cops, and the tension inherent in this premise is mostly what keeps the pedestrian action watchable. In fact, the stab wound that Downs nurses throughout the movie is more of a distraction than a plot device because the viewer keeps wondering how he can possibly not die of blood loss considering all the beating he takes along the way. Consequently, even the well-staged fight scenes—one that takes place in a hotel kitchen is a doozy—lack conviction because they don’t always fit into the flow of the story. In actuality, if the movie were a little less ambitious and trashier with its talk it would have been more entertaining, and probably a lot less predictable. (photo: OR Productions LLC)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Frustrated that the local police have yet to catch the man who raped and killed her daughter, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents the titular advertising media to call attention to what she believes is the constabulary’s neglect, thus causing a major scandal in this normally quiet town. I say “normally” because such towns in such movies are never really quiet, and what Mildred’s stunt does is effectively uncover skeletons and mean sentiments that have been buried for ages. In that regard, the two diametrically opposed police officers who are the main target of Mildred’s enmity offer an instructive lesson in the dualities of law enforcement. Woody Harrelson’s cancer-stricken chief of police, Bill, understands his nemesis’s point and, secretly is rooting for her, mainly because he understands he probably won’t live long enough to suffer at her hands. He’s a decent man who knows the limits of his profession and how the law is structured to confound the kind of police work Mildred expects. Then there’s the racist cop Jason (Sam Rockwell), who has been known to hold black suspects overlong and arrest them for no particular reason. Some viewers find fault with the movie because it simply drops this feint to the Black Lives Matter movement and lets it just sit there, and when Jason sees the light, so to speak, and teams with Mildred, the feeling of betrayal is acute, but it’s also unexpected, and that’s the movie’s main appeal. Due to McDormand’s presence and a thick veneer of black humor, Martin McDonagh’s film often comes across as a more diligent Coen Brothers production, though, in fact, the diligence is illusory. If Woody Harrelson’s character is a fully rounded, complex individual, Sam Rockwell’s is given too much of the benefit of the doubt, probably because McDonagh wants to mess with the viewer’s head by showing how a terrible person can be redeemed. And though the movie’s shifting moral center deserves all the controversy it has received, it doesn’t really do anything with it in the end. Certainly, I wanted to know more about the daughter—who is already dead when the movie begins—as well as Mildred’s relationship with her ex (John Hawkes), who has taken up with a new teenage lover. If family is so vital to Mildred’s world view, we should get more than just a peek into it. (photo: Twentieth Century Fox)

The Villainess
Though much of Jung Byung-gil’s hyper-action thriller feels stolen from other, better movies—the relentlessly violent opening sequence is basically cribbed from Old Boy—it manages to make a distinctive impression through its dogged determination to present action scenes that are both complex and coherent, which is important since the story is rather weak. The titular character, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), has been raised as an assassin by criminals, and when they kill her husband, she seeks revenge, but now she’s in the employ of the nominal good guys, Korea’s intelligence agency. That there’s really no difference ethically between these two entities is not an original idea, and Jung doesn’t seem interested in doing anything with it except give Sook-hee more people to kill and more ways to kill them. The storyline zigs and zags as wildly as Jung’s camera and doesn’t end up in a place as satisfying as the action scenes do. Sook-hee’s discipline is her defining characteristic, but it doesn’t explain her emotional arc, which remains mystifying right up to the end. In Korean. (photo: Next Entertainment World & Apeitda)

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