American Honey (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Selling and drifting on the road

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“American Honey”, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, gives us a vivid, realistic glimpse into a certain type of lifestyle which is not so familiar to many of us. Because I had never heard about its subject, I observed the movie with curiosity, and then I found myself gradually involved in its seemingly aimless journey with a bunch of young characters wandering around the American midwestern regions. I was excited by a number of small but wonderful musical moments brimming with life and spirit, and I also felt a bit saddened as observing that its characters will probably go on and on until they are no longer young.

In the beginning, we meet Star (Sasha Lane), a poor adolescent girl living in some town located in Oklahoma. Because her stepmother left her and her two younger siblings and her father is nothing but an alcoholic bum, she is the one in charge of taking care of her family, and the opening scene shows her searching a trash container and then eventually finding something fairly edible: a package of frozen chicken which is almost thawed now.

When she and her two younger siblings are around a town supermarket building, a van passes by them, and then she comes across Jake (Shia LaBeouf) and his fellow young drifters. When Rihanna and Calvin Harris’ song “We Found Love” is played in the building, these young people joyously dance to the music, and that brief moment of joy and freedom surely impresses Star. When she approaches to Jake later, he gives her a chance to join his bunch, and she grabs it as hoping for the escape from her poor neighbourhood.

Mainly through Jake, Star comes to learn how to earn money like other members in the bunch. Under the strict management by Krystal (Riley Keough), who is the forewoman of the bunch, they have to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door during their work time, and Krystal emphasizes to Star that she will not be generous to anyone who does not earn enough.

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Jake has always been the number one salesman in the bunch, and Star watches how he works when they go together around a suburban neighborhood. When he rings the doorbell of one house, a teenager girl opens the door, and he quickly ingratiates himself with that girl. When that girl’s mother appears, he swiftly moves his focus to her, and we get a humorously tense moment as he tenaciously tries to persuade that woman to buy anything. The woman does not seem to be persuaded at all, but he keeps talking and talking while the woman’s daughter is having a fun, lively musical time with other girls outside, and this situation is eventually punctuated by Star when she refuses to go along with his tactic.

Instead of being plot-driven, the movie drifts around such good scenes like that as its characters move from one region to another. At one point, Jake and Star come across a trio of apparently affluent middle-aged guys, and this encounter leads to an amusing scene unfolded around the swimming pool of a big house. When Star and other members of the bunch approach to a group of oil field workers, we get another wonderful musical moment as the aforementioned song by Rihanna and Calvin Harris is played, and then it is followed by an unnerving private moment between Star and a worker who makes an offer she cannot refuse easily.

And we get to know the bunch a bit as feeling the sense of community around them. Besides vividly capturing small and big moments of natural beauty on the screen, cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who previously collaborated with director/writer Andrea Arnold in “Fish Tank” (2009) and “Wuthering Heights” (2011), did a splendid job of conveying the intimacy among characters whenever they spend time in their van, and the screen ratio of 1.37:1 furthers accentuates that. While Jake and Krystal are naturally more prominent in comparison, the other members of the bunch are colorful in each own way, and the performers playing these characters, most of whom are non-professionals, are believable as distinctive individuals to watch. McCaul Lombardi is particularly hilarious as a showier member of the bunch, and I also liked the gentle supporting performance by Arielle Holmes, who plays a shy, sweet girl in the bunch.

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In case of Sasha Lane, a non-professional performer who was picked by Arnold at the last minute, she is simply fabulous in her unadorned acting which is as memorable as Katie Jarvis’s equally impressive performance in “Fish Tank”. Beside a few early scenes which succinctly establish the world in which she has been stuck, the movie does not show or tell much about Star, but Lane makes every moment of hers in the film feel true and genuine, and she ably carries the movie even when the movie falters around its arrival point.

Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough are also very good in their respective roles. Suitably looking wily, shabby, and charming, LaBeouf shows that he is still a good actor despite his recent career trouble, and he and Lane click well together as their characters are slowly drawn to each other. Tough as nails as required, Keough has a couple of juicy moments, and I appreciate how she indirectly suggests her character’s hardened humanity during these scenes.

“American Honey” is not entirely successful. While its heroine’s journey is the whole point of the movie, the movie becomes a little too repetitive during its second half, and, in my opinion, the finale does not work as well as intended. Nonetheless, I admired its authentic mood and commendable performances, and I think it is another fascinating work from Arnold.

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Yongsoon (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A country girl’s hot, problematic summer

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While it is uncomfortable to watch at times for good reasons, South Korean film “Yongsoon” comes to us as an engaging coming-of-age drama about its adolescent heroine’s hot, problematic summer. Although it is inarguable that she clings to a very inappropriate relationship, the movie maintains its non-judgmental view as closely observing her tumultuous emotional struggle, and we come to care and worry about her a lot while watching her recklessly swaying along with her hormone-charged feelings.

Yong-soon (Lee Soo-Kyeong) is an 18-year-old high school girl living with her widower father in some country village, and she tells us a bit about herself during the prologue sequence. Her mother died early when she was young, and she still remembers her last moment with her mother, who left her husband and then went to her first love when there was not much time left for her.

That probably made Yong-soon go for her first love, but the person in question is not so suitable to say the least. As summer begins, she joins the athletics team of her high school along with her close friend Moon-hee (Jang Haet-sal), and everything looks fine on the surface as she and other teams members go through training under their coach’s guidance, but it is gradually revealed that Yong-soon has been in relationship with the coach for a while. Although the movie never clarifies how far they have gone in their hidden relationship, they did spend time together several times, and, as reflected by her sincere present to the coach, Yong-soon is totally serious about her first romantic relationship like any girls around her age.

However, it turns out that the coach is less serious about their relationship. On one day, Yong-soon’s another close friend Pak-kyoo (Kim Dong-yeong), who has had some feelings toward her for years, shows her a video clip of the coach going inside a local motel along with an unidentified woman, and Yong-soon naturally feels angry about this. She becomes determined to find who that woman is, and Moon-hee and Pak-kyoo agree to help her although they have reasonable concern about their friend.

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The mood often becomes humorous as Yong-soon and her friends try to find the identity of that woman, but the movie does not overlook the serious aspect of Yong-soon’s circumstance. While it is undeniable that the coach did a wrong thing to her from the very beginning and he should have ended their relationship as soon as possible, he remains indecisive even when she makes clear to him that she is suspicious of him, and that makes her all the more exasperated and frustrated.

Meanwhile, Yong-soon’s father decides to marry a young Mongolian woman who has corresponded with him for a while, and this causes more emotional turmoil inside Yong-soon. Although Her father’s new wife is ready to be nice to her stepdaughter, Yong-soon is hostile to her stepmother right from their first encounter, and she frequently throws harsh words at her stepmother just because she has been angry and annoyed. As a woman genuinely cares about her husband and her stepdaughter, Yong-soon’s stepmother tries to be patient and understanding, but there comes a point where she decides that enough is enough.

The situation becomes more complicated when Yong-soon and her friends eventually discover the identity of the woman involved with the coach. As the movie arrives at a certain expected narrative point, we brace for what may happen among Yong-soon and some other characters when they happen to be in the same space, and this moment strikes us hard with considerable emotional intensity thanks to director/writer Shin Joon’s competent direction and his performers’ convincing performance.

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As the feisty center of the movie, Lee Soo-kyeong, who previously played a minor supporting character in “Coin Locker Girl” (2015), is commendable in her unpretentious performance, and she conveys well her character’s dynamic emotional state to us while never making any excuse on her character’s self-absorbed aspect. Simply not wanting to give up her first love, Yong-soon is willing to go as far as she can, but she only finds herself going down into more misery and unhappiness, and she surely gets some important lessons from that.

Lee is surrounded by several good supporting performers who are equally solid in their respective roles. While Jang Haet-sal and Kim Dong-yeong are likable as comic foils to Lee, Choi Deok-moon and Mongolian performer Janska have their own small tender moment as their characters’ relationship turns out to be deeper than we expected, and Park Keun-rok is adequately cast as a guy who certainly deserves what he gets in the end.

“Yongsoon”, which is developed from Shin’s short film “Yongoon’s Summer” (2014), is a modest character drama on the whole, but it deserves to be mentioned along with other recent notable adolescent drama movies such as “The Diary of a Teenager Girl” (2015) and “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016). Like “The Diary of a Teenager Girl”, the movie handles its rather sensitive subject well while never going too far, and it also captures well the emotional difficulties of adolescence as “The Edge of Seventeen” did. In short, this is one of interesting South Korean films of this year, and it is definitely a nice alternative to those brainless summer blockbuster films like “Transformers: The Last Knight” (2017).

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Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) ☆1/2(1.5/4): Another unbearable epic mess

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It is an understatement to say that “Transformers: The Last Knight” is a cinematic equivalent of blunt instrument. This is another unbearable epic mess as brainlessly loud and bombastic as three previous sequels following “Transformers” (2007), and it will relentlessly bludgeon your aural and optic nerve system for no less than 149 minutes while making no sense at all in terms of story and characters.

Accompanied with the narration by Anthony Hopkins, the prologue sequence of the movie ridiculously attempts to mix the legend of King Arthur and his knights with metallic CGI figures. When King Arthur and his knights are about to face a grim moment of certain death by their barbaric enemies, a guy named Merlin (Stanley Tucci) saves the day at the last minute through a little help from his big alien robot associates, and we are served with an outrageous moment featuring a flying dragon robot with three heads, while also being bombarded with lots of bangs and clangs to numb and bore us.

The movie subsequently moves forward to the present point not long after the events depicted in “Transformers: Age of Extinction” (2014). As more alien robots come to Earth, they are regarded as enemies to be destroyed as before, and Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has been accordingly hiding along with a bunch of robots including Bumblebee, but then he and Bumblebee happen to draw the attention of the US military and the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF) when they come across a young girl named Izabella (Isabela Moner) in an abandoned area of Chicago. Although it may be a bit amusing to see Bumblebee showing his hidden ability for a while, the movie indulges in lots of loud noises and frantic special effects again, and we only get more numbing confusion as a result.

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While saving Izabella and her little robot Sqweeks from their danger, Yeager comes to acquire a mysterious object, and that eventually leads him to a character played by Hopkins. This is surely a paycheck role to play for Hopkins and the movie does waste his undeniable talent, but he did what he could do with his role, and I can only tell you that he manages to maintain his dignity amidst heaps of nonsense and numerous silly cheap jokes. During his obligatory expository sequence, he looks as serious and authoritative as demanded despite its sheer nonsense, and he sells it to some degrees even though the movie annoyingly interrupts him more than once.

From Hopkins’ character, Yeager comes to learn about a big, imminent danger approaching to Earth, and he is accompanied with Vivian Wembly (Laura Haddock), a young professor who suddenly comes to realize her destined role in this very urgent circumstance. As they hurriedly search for a clue which will lead them to a certain old object belonging to Merlin, the movie mindlessly pushes them from one moment to another without any tangible sense of direction, and I must confess that I gave up discerning the exact details of how they eventually arrive at a certain underwater spot.

The movie tries to generate some sparks between Yeager and Wembly, but they do not have much human depth to engage us, and neither do other noticeable human characters in the film besides Hopkins’ character. For example, Yeager’s assistant is no more than your average black sidekick, and Izabella and her shabby robot often look like an insipid version of Rey and BB-8 in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (2015), though it should be mentioned that Isabela Moner brings some pluck into her rather bland character.

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In case of the robot characters in the film, they do not interest me a lot as before. Bumblebee and other good robots including the ones voiced by John Goodman, Omar Sy, Ken Watanabe, and Steve Buscemi are just a little more distinctive and colorful than those bad robots led by Megatron (voiced by Frank Welker), who are mostly indistinguishable from each other in their uniformly ugly appearances. As the villainess who brainwashes Optimus Prime (voiced by Peter Cullen) for her diabolical plan, Quintessa (voiced by Gemma Chan) is not particularly scary or menacing, and that is one of the main reasons why the climax sequence of the movie does not work at all while merely being an incoherent series of CGI actions which are utterly joyless and unimaginative.

While I did not like “Transformers” enough to recommend it to others, I enjoyed it to some degrees, and it has been disappointing to see how the series has consistently gone down from that point. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” (2009) is still the lowest point in the franchise thanks to many unforgettably awful things including that robot dog humping on Megan Fox’s leg, but the following two sequels are also pretty lousy to say the least while demonstrating the worst sides of director Michael Bay, whose recent cinematic aesthetics mainly consists of endless explosions and chaotic actions.

“Transformers: the Last Knight” is no exception, and watching it along with many audiences including a friend of mine was one of the most depressing movie-watching experiences I have ever had during recent years. I later apologized to him, but he said he disliked it less than me, and I am glad that this crappy piece of work did not hurt our relationship. I think I really should show him something a lot better someday.

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Antiporno (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Another perverted exercise in style from Sion Sono

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You cannot possibly expect anything normal from Sion Sono, who is surely one of the most interesting filmmakers working in Japan at present. “Cold Fish” (2010) was a bleak, disturbing psychological thriller about an ordinary family man gradually influenced by a diabolical serial killer he happens to be associated with, and I sort of admired how willingly that movie pushes its hero into the stark pit of evil madness. Although I cringed at many extremely violent scenes in “Why Don’t You Play Hell?” (2013), I could not help but laugh as excited by its manic comic spirit, and that movie remains to be one of the funniest (and bloodiest) movies I have ever watched during recent years.

In case of “Antiporno”, Sono tried another perverted exercise in style. Cheerfully morbid and colorfully stylish, the movie prances from one bizarre moment to another as deliberately disturbing and confusing us during its rather short running time (75 minutes). While I was not very comfortable with its sensational subject, I enjoyed its wild, bold madness surrounding its increasingly neurotic heroine, and you may also enjoy that if you are familiar with Sono’s other works and admire his own no-holds-barred approach.

During its first part, the movie seems to be about a virulent relationship between two different characters. Kyôko (Ami Tomite) is a popular novelist who has been known well for her unorthodox method of creating story and characters, and she does not seem to feel that well as trying to figure out what will be her next novel. Full of self-disgust and repulsion, she wildly bounces around in her apartment alone while heedlessly making supposedly feministic statements during the opening scene, and that further accentuates the stylized reality of the movie, which is mainly represented by the bold color scheme of her apartment and occasional gauzy shots.

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It looks like Kyôko wants to write about female freedom this time, and that is certainly ironic considering how she cruelly mistreats her long-suffering assistant Noriko (Mariko Tsutsui). When Noriko comes to Kyôko’s apartment for notifying today’s schedule to her, Kyôko mocks and abuses Noriko a lot just because she can, and Noriko tolerates all these abusive behaviors from her boss while barely maintaining her meek, submissive appearance.

This sadomasochistic relationship of theirs is further explored when there come a bunch of chic female visitors to Kyôko’s apartment, who are going to interview and photograph Kyôko. Kyôko does not hesitate to show more of her cruelty to Noriko in front of them, and these visitors do not mind that at all. In fact, they willingly join her acts of cruelty, and there is a darkly absurd moment when they and Kyôko push Noriko into more humilation as Kyôko finally gets an idea for her new novel.

Around that point, “Antiporno” suddenly shifts itself onto a different situation, so now I advise you not to read further if you want to fully enjoy the movie. Its first 30 minutes turns out to be a part of a softcore film in production, and Kyôko and Noriko’s relationship is presented in a completely different light as they are revealed to be performers playing their respective roles. As the lead actress of the film, Kyôko tries to play her cruel character as believably as possible, but she cannot pull it off well to the frustration of everyone including her, and she is constantly bullied by not only the director but also her co-star Noriko, who could play Kyôko’s character instead considering how mean and uncaring she is to Kyôko in front of others on the set.

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As Kyôko becomes more nervous, her state of mind gradually gets unhinged as the line between reality and fiction is blurred along with a series of weird moments. There is a hilariously blatant conversation on sex and pornography among Kyôko and her family, and then there comes a brief disturbing moment involved with Kyôko’s sister, whose fixation on butterflies leads to another odd moment to remember. These moments and other ones in the movie may reflect whatever has been suppressed in Kyôko’s mind, but then it is also possible that the second half of the movie is merely a fiction being written by Kyôko the author.

I must admit that the movie was a little too confusing for me from time to time, but I appreciated its mood and style at least. I was entertained to some degrees as the movie kept going on and on with its wry bad taste till the end, and I was often amused by the ironical use of classical music pieces throughout the film. The movie seems to be spinning its wheels around the ending, but then it jolts us with one hell of excessive moment as we can expect from Sono, and that is certainly a big finishing gesture to behold.

“Antiporno” is a part of the movie project in which Sono and four other prominent male Japanese filmmakers attempt to deconstruct and reconstruct Nikkatsu Roman Porno films, Japanese softcore films made by the Nikkatsu Studios during the 1970-80s. According to the pamphlet of “Antiporno”, the project intends to bring female perspective to softcore films, but I am not so sure about whether the movie is successful in that aspect. While it does work as a send-up and criticism of its subject, the movie still feels as gaudy and sensational as your average softcore film, and that makes me have some reservation on its overall result. Anyway, like Sono’s other works, the movie is something you cannot easily forget after watching it, and I recommend it with caution.

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I Am a Cat (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): Aren’t they cute?

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South Korean documentary film “I Am a Cat” is full of cats, and I enjoyed that as a longtime cat lover. Since I began to photograph those stray cats living in the campus of Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, my affection toward cats has grown for years, so I could not help but smile during my viewing, and I also came to reflect on how harsh South Korean society has been to many stray cats out there.

The documentary begins its story with one particularly cold winter in Seoul. A guy drives his motorcycle around narrow alleys during freezing nighttime for checking stray cats in his neighborhood, and then he comes across a dead cat on the one side of an alley. Life is always hard for stray cats, but winter is especially difficult for them due to not only low temperature but also the lack of food to eat, and they have to depend on the kindness of strangers like this guy whenever winter comes.

As the narrator of the documentary, who assumes the role of the representative of stray cats in South Korea, tells us how they struggle to survive and live everyday, a number of unpleasant news reports are quoted. One news reports tells about someone trying to poison stray cats, and we hear that the residents of one apartment building attempted to get rid of a bunch of stray cats in a very cruel way. I must tell you that I and other South Koreans frequently hear about such incidents like them; I remember the case of one poor stray cat who was burned alive by some vicious prick, and it broke my heart to see the harrowing photo of that cat, who was luckily rescued and then survived.

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After making its points on how much cats are disregarded and mistreated in South Korea, the documentary moves its focus to Japan, where cats are adored more by people in comparison to South Korea. We see large cat dolls, and we hear about how cats have been regarded as a sign of good luck in Japan for a long time. As the movie looks around Tokyo and several other cities and places in Japan, we meet several people who take care of stray cats with lots of affection and attention, and we see how they do many other things besides merely feeing cats. For example, neutering stray cats is essential for decreasing their number, and there is a little intriguing moment showing how stray cats are carefully captured through cage traps prepared with little yummy baits.

The highlight of the Japanese part in the documentary is two islands which are virtually a heaven for cats. The cats in these island live freely and casually along with the residents of the islands, and these cats certainly attract many visitors who would like to stroke them or photograph them. As some of you know, cats can be terrific photo models, and I must confess that I envied a South Korean photographer in the documentary as I watched him photographing those adorable island cats.

Cats are treated well also in Taiwan, and we meet an middle-aged lady who has diligently taken care of stray cats of her neighborhood in Taipei for many years. Her dedication to them is palpable especially when she shows us a big map showing where they respectively live around the area, and she tells us that she has seldom taken a break as taking care of them everyday.

In case of a rural mining town named Houtong, it is virtually saved by cats. After its coal mining business declined and its many residents accordingly left, the Taiwanese government tried to promote the town as a historic site at first, but it was many stray cats in the town who actually attracted visitors. Houtong soon became one of the best places for cats in the world as the focus of its local business was shifted to cats, and one middle-aged guy tells us a little interesting story on how he left the town but then came back later.

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These comfortable living places for stray cats in Japan and Taiwan are naturally contrasted with the continuing harsh reality for stray cats in South Korea. Fortunately, there are some people who care about cats as much as their counterparts in Japan and Taiwan. In case of a young amateur photographer, he feeds or photographs stray cats in his neighborhood while delivering newspapers at early dawn, and we later see him holding a small private exhibition of cat photographs in front of his fellow cat lovers.

We also meet an association dedicated to protecting or rescuing stray cats. Association people often get calls about stray cats in the need of help, and there is one urgent case involved with a cat which happens to be trapped in the narrow space inside a concrete wall. It is apparent that the cat went into the hole in the wall before the hole was sealed, and it was really lucky for the cat that somebody heard its faint meowing from inside the wall before it was too late. Eventually, the cat is rescued thanks to association people and others, and it recovers well as reflected by a photograph shown at the end of the documentary.

Through its earnest approach accompanied with occasional animation scenes, “I Am a Cat” works as a sweet, sincere documentary which will appeal to any cat lover. I wish it showed more cats, but that is just a mild grumble from your average incorrigible ailurophile, and I am satisfied with the overall result. After all, how can I possibly say any bad word to all those precious cats on the screen?

Sidenote: The title of the documentary comes from Natsume Sōseki’s novel of the same name.

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The Villainess (2017) ☆☆(2/4): She’s lethal….and sappy

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“The Villainess” is probably one of the most exciting bad South Korean films of this year. While there are several first-class action sequences to be admired for heaps of efforts and techniques put into them, it is unfortunately stuck with third-rate plot and characterization, and this gap distracted me a lot during my viewing. To my disappointment, the movie is not bold or crazy enough to go all the way with its badass heroine, and it only gets worse as mired in a sappy, hackneyed melodrama which does not mix well with its gritty, ruthless action.

Evoking the merciless energy of “The Raid: Redemption” (2011), the opening action sequence of “The Villainess” is visually arresting and pulsating right from its first minute. Someone suddenly comes into a shabby building which turns out to be the headquarters of a big criminal organization, and then lots of goons are swiftly maimed or killed right in front of our eyes as the camera mostly sticks to the viewpoint of the intruder. Although this impressive long-take sequence sometimes feels like watching someone playing a violent video game, I must say that it also feels quite visceral and electrifying as the intruder relentlessly advances from one spot to another in the building, and there are a good number of amazing moments which will surely make you wonder how the hell they shot these moments. For example, when the intruder smashes into a window and then hangs on a rope in the air, the camera also hurls itself into the action along with the intruder, and it goes without saying that this is one of the most awesome moments in the film.

The intruder in question is Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), a young Korean Chinese woman from Yenbian, China. After her father was killed when she was a little girl, she grew up to be a tough, ruthless killer under the guidance of a local gangster named Joong-sang (Shin Ha-kyun), and this quality of hers draws the attention of a secret government agency not long after she is arrested by the police in the aftermath of her carnage. The agency is interested in her particular set of skills, so she is sent to a clandestine training place, and her handler Kwon-sook (Kim Seo-hyeong) promises to her that she will be free after working for the agency as a spy/assassin for 10 years. Sook-hee initially resists, but she comes to accept her circumstance because of an unexpected reason, and she soon finds herself going through her training period there along with other female trainees not so different from her.

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Now many of you are probably reminded of “La Femme Nikita” (1990) and other similar films, and the movie gives us obligatory training scenes as required, though they are perfunctory at best and shallow at worst despite a few nice touches to amuse you. As a part of her training, Sook-hee learns acting at one point, and that leads to a brief moment which utilizes well the undeniable star presence of lead actress Kim Ok-bin, but other scenes do not add much to what was already established in the early scenes. While Sook-hee surely looks different in her more refined and sophisticated appearance around the end of the training, we do not get much sense of character development, and the supporting characters around her including Kwon-sook mostly remain one-dimensional without any discernable depth.

Anyway, the second act of the movie starts as Sook-hee begins her new life outside several years later. On her moving day, she comes across a guy living next to her apartment, and he seems to be interested in getting closer to her, but the guy is so awkward and clumsy that it would not be not much of spoiler to tell you that he is an agent assigned to monitoring her closely, even if the movie did not show you his identity in advance.

Sook-hee’s present relationship with that guy is juxtaposed with flashback scenes showing her past relationship with Joong-Sang, who is revealed to be more than a father figure to her. The screenplay by director Jeong Byeong-gil and his co-writer Jeong Byeong-sik tries to develop a melodramatic situation from that after a certain narrative turn, but it fails to engage us on the emotional level mainly due to its superficial characterization and heavy-handed plot. Kim is solid and believable in her physical performance, but her character is a rather bland cypher defined by a few characteristics, and Shin Ha-kyun and Seong Joon are woefully wasted in their mediocre roles.

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As I felt more depressed by the jumbled narrative of the third act of the movie which does not make much sense, I came to appreciate more its technical prowess. I was thrilled by a long-take action sequence where our heroine busily fights with a trio of goons chasing after her while all of them are running rapidly on motorcycles. And I was also impressed by another long-take action sequence which culminates to a pulse-pounding climax unfolded inside a speeding vehicle.

However, I am reminded of better films out there. “La Femme Nikita” is still one of more memorable works in its genre territory, and I may revisit it someday for appreciating not only its striking action sequences but also its poignant emotional power. In case of “Coin Locker Girl” (2015), this small South Korean noir film did a better job of presenting tough, strong female characters, and that is why it is more engaging to watch than “The Villainess”. Although I did not like “The Raid: Redemption” and its sequel enough for recommendation, I sort of admired how they were willing to push envelop relentlessly, and they certainly made “The Villainess” rather tame in comparison.

While I gave “The Villainess” two stars mainly because of its poor storytelling, I guarantee you that you will not waste your ticket money if you just want to enjoy well-made action sequences. Sure, we all can agree that its stunt performers and technical crew members deserve praises for what they achieve here, but the movie did not succeed in engaging me in terms of story and character, and I only observed during its final scene that its heroine looks too sappy for its title.

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The Mummy (2017) ☆☆(2/4): A mummy comes to London

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“The Mummy”, a reboot of the Mummy series which is also the first installment in the Dark Universe film series of Universal Studios, is dour, bland, and joyless while not proving anything particularly fun or scary. This unexciting blockbuster product merely exists for whatever will come next as planned by Universal Studios, and it only gets worse in its lumbering steps even when you hope for any possible improvement.

Like the 1999 film of the same name, the movie gives us a long obligatory expository sequence unfolded in the era of, yes, ancient Egypt, and then the movie promptly moves forward to the present era as introducing Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), an American soldier who has looked for a big opportunity along with his sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) in a desert region around Mosul, Iraq. Officially, they come into this dangerous area riddled with ISIS fighters for a reconnaissance mission, but their private purpose is finding some ancient site which may contain valuable artifacts they can take and then sell later, and Morton does not hesitate at all although the site in question seems to be located in a small village which happens to be occupied by a bunch of ISIS fighters.

Not long after they manage to survive their clash with ISIS fighters and the subsequent drone strike, an underground tomb is revealed, and an archaeologist named Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) comes to the site along with Colonel Greenway (Courtney B. Vance, who is criminally under-utilized here). Because Morton stole the information about the location of the tomb from her, Halsey is certainly not so pleased to meet him again, and neither is he.

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Anyway, she and Morton soon go down inside the tomb along with Vail for investigation, and then they come upon a mysterious sarcophagus hidden inside the tomb. Halsey decides to take it to London, but, not so surprisingly, the sarcophagus in question is not just an invaluable artifact but something quite dangerous, and Morton and Halsey belatedly come to realize that when they are on a cargo plane along with it.

As already shown from the aforementioned expositive sequence, the sarcophagus contains Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was mummified alive around 5,000 years ago but is still quite alive. When her father came to have a male heir to succeed him instead of her, she made a deal with God of death and became an immortal entity with four pupils (don’t ask me whether that physical change can improve eyesight or anything else), but her attempt to usurp the throne and then have her god come into the human world was eventually thwarted by priests, and that was how she came to be locked inside that tomb.

After making the cargo plane crash down to a rural region outside London, Ahmanet quickly embarks on her old unfinished business. For restoring her physical shape, she sucks life force out of many unfortunate victims who are subsequently turned into withered zombies under her control, and this may make some of you a little nostalgic about Tobe Hopper’s “Lifeforce” (1985), which incidentally features a female supernatural entity who also sucks life force out of her victims and then turns them into similarly withered zombies.

After miraculously surviving the crash unlike others on the plane, Morton and Halsey become more aware of their urgent circumstance as confronting Ahmanet, who sets her eyes on Morton and is going to sacrifice him as the vessel for her God. Marked right from his first encounter with her, Morton often finds himself under Ahmanet’s influence, and he also sees his dead sidekick at times, who is cursed just like Morton while being as wisecracking as that dead friend of the hero of “An American Werewolf in London” (1981).

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Fortunately, Halsey knows someone who may help them. I am not sure about whether I can reveal who that is here in this review, but I think I can tell you instead that 1) he is played by Russell Crowe as shown from the trailer of the movie, 2) you will instantly see something hidden behind his character mainly because he has been one of the most famous horror literature characters, and 3) I enjoyed to some degrees how Crowe handles his scenes with some gusto as the only performer in the movie who seems to be having any real fun.

When the movie eventually arrives at its climax, it continues to be disappointing as before. As it hurriedly moves from one place to another with lots of actions and special effects, the movie frequently loses its footing in terms of narrative and character, and it does not have enough urgency to hold our attention. The screenplay by director Alex Kurtzman and his co-writers Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman, which is based on the story written by Kurtzman, Jon Spaihts, and Jenny Lumet, frequently feels heavy-handed and half-baked, and that is particularly evident from how the movie constantly and blatantly emphasizes that Morton is basically a good guy in his heart.

Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis try as much as they can do, but their flat, mediocre characters have no chemistry between them on the screen. As the title character of the movie, Sofia Boutella is adequate, but there are not many things she is allowed to do, and I do not think the movie will boost her career as much as “Wonder Woman” (2017) is currently catapulting Gal Gadot’s. In case of Jake Johnson, he is evidently cast as a comic relief, but the movie does not seem to know what to do with his character, and he is accordingly wasted as much as many of his co-performers.

As feeling depressed more and more during the early morning screening of “The Mummy”, I found myself wistfully reminiscing the goofiness of the 1999 film and its two subsequent sequels. Sure, I laughed at their many corny, ridiculous aspects, but they were not entirely without amusement and entertainment at least. Maybe I should watch any of them right now for getting less depressed.

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