Kong: Skull Island (2017) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): Welcome to Skull Island

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As a monster flick, “Kong: Skull Island”, another remake of the 1933 classic film “King Kong”, works to some degrees. Besides its gigantic titular monster, it serves us with various big creatures to watch, and it also shows some sense of offbeat humor to amuse us at times. In short, this is a super-size product as huge as demanded, and it will satisfy anyone who simply wants to see big monsters on the screen.

After the prologue scene set in 1944, the movie moves forward to 1973, when the Vietnam War was being over with Richard Nixon’s public announcement. After persuading Senator Willis (Richard Jenkins), William Randa (John Goodman), a senior official of a government organization called Monarch, is permitted to do the expedition of a recently discovered tropical island located somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and it is clear from the beginning that Randa’s purpose is not just exploring the island in question. He wants to be escorted by US Army soldiers armed with weapons and helicopters, so a helicopter squadron led by Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Sameul L. Jackson) is set to join the expedition, and he also hires a British tracker played by Tim Hiddleston.

Also joining the expedition is Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a veteran war photographer searching for scoop. Nothing seems to be suspicious, and nobody stops her from accompanying Randa and his expedition team members, but Weaver senses something fishy about the expedition. After all, who can trust the government when the American society is being shaken by a certain political scandal involved with the White House?

After flying through the stormy region surrounding the island, the expedition team and Packard’s squadron finally land on the island, and then they come across what Randa is looking for. Quite bigger and taller than what was shown in the 1933 film or the 2005 remake film by Peter Jackson (I have not watched the 1976 remake film by Peter Guillermin yet), Kong here in this movie is also quite agile and ferocious in his movements, and Packard and his men soon find themselves outmatched by this humongous ape as it ruthlessly smacks down their helicopters one by one.

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As the characters who survived from this spectacular clash with Kong move around in the island, the movie delights or terrifies the audiences with other creatures of the island including a huge buffalo emerging from a swamp and a big, nasty spider hiding around a forest. In case of a flock of reptilian birds, they merely look harmless during their first appearance, but then they show their vicious side at one point later in the movie.

Of course, there are also a number of monster fight sequences which will definitely excite any monster movie fan, and the director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who previously debuted with small whimsical comedy drama “The Kings of Summer” (2013), handles well these and other big sequences decorated with lots of special effects. I like a certain sequence which took me back to that octopus scene in “Oldboy” (2003) for a good reason, and the climax sequence involved with Kong’s natural enemy species is quite intense and dynamic to say the least.

Compared to these solid visual spectacles, the story and characters of the movie feel rather small and superficial, and the talented main cast members of the movie are mostly wasted due to flat, underdeveloped characterization. Tom Hiddleston, who has shown that he can do a lot more than playing that forgettable villain in “Thor” (2011), does not have many things to do except filling his archetype role, and neither does Brie Larson, who was far more interesting and engaging in “Short Term 12” (2013) and “Room” (2015). Stuck in one-dimensional villain role, Samuel L. Jackson monotonously chews his scenes with his glaring stare, and John Goodman and Shea Whigham manage to leave some impression as ever-reliable character actors.

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The best performance in the film comes from John C. Riley, who simply steals the show as a World War II pilot who has been marooned in the island for nearly 40 years. Watching his character’s first appearance along with a bunch of silent island natives, I could not help but think of Dennis Hopper’s unhinged supporting character in “Apocalypse Now” (1979), and there are in fact numerous references to that great war film or Joseph Conrad’s short story which inspired that film. It is certainly no coincidence that the name of Hiddleston’s character is Conrad, and you will be amused by the name of Riley’s character if you have ever read Joseph Conrad’s short story.

Besides Riley’s delightfully nutty supporting performance, there are also several humorous moments which function as welcoming intervals between big scenes. The period details in the film including a Nixon doll and a magnetic tape player will bring some smile into your face, and I must point out that one particular joke in the film becomes more amusing due to what happened during the 2016 World Series in US.

On the whole, “Kong: Skull Island” is not so successful compared to the achievement of “King Kong” and its 2005 remake. I enjoyed some parts of it, but I was not involved in its story and characters much, so I cannot wholly recommend it although you will not waste your money if you just demand spectacles. If so, I can assure you that, as shown from a teaser scene following its end credits, there will definitely more to enjoy for you in the future – and you will probably not be disappointed.

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Shin Godzilla (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Cheesy but terrifying

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Even though it has been mostly stuck in the realm of B-monster movies for many decades since its first appearance in 1954, Godzilla has been quite an iconic monster figure to many of us. Although I have not watched any of Japanese Godzilla films, I fondly remember their several still shots which I came across during my childhood years, and those memories were revived during my viewing of “Shin Godzilla”, which stays true to its cheesy origin while surprisingly entertaining in more than one way. Unabashedly corny and preposterous, the movie frequently amuses us with its wry social/political satire on Japanese bureaucracy, and, above all, it effectively wields the terrifying glory of its monster star on the screen along with some nice surprises for us.

The movie begins with the early sign of a big disaster to come. After an inexplicable phenomenon in the bay of Tokyo is reported, Prime Minster and his cabinet members gather for an emergency meeting, and everything seems to be under control, but Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary, thinks differently. As the sightings of a giant creature are reported on the media, he fears for the worst, but his senior officials casually dismiss his opinion.

Presenting the following progress of the situation via a deadpan docudrama style a la “The Office”, the movie has lots of fun with how its bureaucratic characters follow their protocols and procedures as usual even after it becomes clear to everyone that the giant creature is moving toward Tokyo. For example, they have to establish an emergency committee before doing anything, but then they must have a preliminary meeting before establishing an emergency committee, and that is just the beginning of many meetings among government officials to follow, which become sort of running gags throughout the film.

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Of course, the giant creature in question is Godzilla, and the movie serves us with big moments of panic and destruction as Godzilla advances into the city. Houses and buildings are destroyed on its way, and we see many people fleeing from this seemingly unstoppable destroyer. When the Japanese and US military later try to attack Godzilla, we all know that they cannot possibly stop it with all those bullets and missiles, and Godzilla turns out to have a few tricks inside his huge radioactive body, which is later revealed to be capable of rapid evolution. When it unleashes its wrathful might onto the downtown areas of Tokyo at one point, the movie goes all the way for the sheer terror of Godzilla’s mass destruction, and it is certainly the most terrifying moment in the film.

The second half of the movie accordingly becomes more serious in comparison, but the movie continues to amuse us nonetheless. As the US government considers using a nuclear weapon to kill Godzilla, Yaguchi and others around him try to find an alternative option as soon as possible, and they particularly focus on a puzzling picture map consisting of dots and lines, left by a dead scientist who dedicated himself to the study of Godzilla before his death. Once the map is decoded in a way you have to see for yourself, there comes a rather preposterous plan to stop Godzilla once for all (is this a spoiler?), and I can assure you that you will be entertained a lot by many improbable aspects of the climactic sequence. It may not look that realistic, but being realistic is the last thing you can expect from a Godzilla film.

The performers keep their acting straight amidst heaps of cheesiness and silliness in the movie. While Hiroki Hasegawa gradually holds the center as his character becomes more prominent along the plot, the other performers including Yutaka Takenouchi and Satomi Ishihara also look serious enough as demanded, and I must confess that I was particularly tickled by a certain brief scene between the American ambassador and Ishihara’s Japanese American character, who turns out to be as ambitious as Hilary Clinton.

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In case of Godzilla, it remains as the big main attraction as before, and I noticed how the co-director/writer Hideaki Anno, who has been mainly known for TV anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion”, and his crew deliberately make Godzilla look as tacky and lumbering as its previous appearances in the other Japanese Godzilla movies. While it is now a CGI creature based on motion capture performance instead of being played by a guy wearing monster suit, it is presented with old-fashioned charm, and using Akira Ifukube’s scores from “Godzilla” (1954) and several subsequent Godzilla movies on the soundtrack surely adds extra amusement to that.

While it is understandably one or two steps below Gareth Edward’s “Godzilla” (2014) in technical aspects, I think “Shin Godzilla” is a better film for having some sense of fun and humor which the former sorely lacks. Although I was bothered by its nationalistic subtext a bit during my viewing, I often chuckled during its satiric scenes, and I was also terrified enough to become involved in the story rather than observing it from the distance.

According to IMDB, “Shin Godzilla” is the 31st Godzilla film, and, considering its big box office success in Japan, there will definitely be more Godzilla movies in the future. The movie shows here that there is still enough potential left with its famous monster star, and you may enjoy it even if you are not a fan of monster flicks.

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Snowy Road (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): Two girls in a sad, harrowing tragedy of war

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The historical subject of South Korean film “Snowy Road” is one of many sad tragedies of the World War II. During that time, numerous Korean women were forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Army, and many of them could not return to their country alive while the rest of them had to hide their painful past due to shame and fear. As told to us at the end of the movie, there are only 40 recognized survivors remaining in South Korea at present, but they have not received any proper apology or compensation yet from the Japanese government.

Although it is fictional, the movie reflects this harrowing historical fact well through thoughtful good storytelling and characterization. It has story and characters we can care about, and that makes us think more about not only the past but also the present. Never overlooking the dark, horrific aspects of its story, the movie wisely avoids being exploitative or sensational, and it eventually comes to us as a respectful tribute to the memory of those ill-fated women.

The main story of the movie is set in 1944, when Korea was going through the Japanese Occupation period. Jong-boon (Kim Hyang-ki) is a young girl living in some rural village, and we get to know a bit about her as she goes through another day in her village. She wants to attend a local school like her little brother, but their poor family cannot afford that, and her mother, who has to take care of their household alone in her husband’s absence, believes that her daughter does not need to be educated.

We also meet Yeong-ae (Kim Sae-ron), the daughter of a rich family in the village. Yeong-ae wants to be a school teacher, and it looks like she will be able to realize her dream within several years considering her solid status at the school. As watching Yeong-ae, Jong-boon cannot help but envy her, and she also finds herself attracted to Yeong-ae’s handsome older brother despite the apparent class difference between them.

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Jong-boon and Yeong-ae’s story is frequently intercut with the other story, which is unfolded in the present. For some reason, old Jong-boon, played by Kim Yeong-ok in this part, has used her friend’s name for 70 years, and she is still haunted by her friend’s ghost, especially after she is informed that Yeong-ae’s father has been recently recognized for his merit in the Independence Movement. Understandably, that means nothing to old Jong-boon at all, but she cannot help but think of her friend – and what happened in their old past.

We see how Yeong-ae and Jong-boon were thrown together into a gloomy circumstance. Not long after she is approached by a suspicious guy, Jong-boon is kidnapped by him and other guys while her brother is helplessly watching all of this, and she is soon being taken to somewhere along with other unfortunate girls. After her father and brother are arrested, Yeong-ae tries hard to distance herself from this incident, and it looks like she is going to Japan along with other students, but then she ends up being locked up inside a train along with Jong-boon and others girls.

The girls are sent to a Japanese military post located in some remote place of Manchu, and each of them is promptly locked in a cell as a ‘comfort woman’, a Japanese euphemism for prostitute. The movie only shows us a bunch of Japanese soldiers waiting outside the cells during one scene, but we are chilled by the atrocity implied in this restrained moment nonetheless, and that reminds me of how exploitative and reprehensible “Spirits’ Homecoming” (2015) is in comparison, another recent South Korean film dealing with the same historical subject.

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Under this horrible situation, Jong-boon and Yeong-ae come to stick together more than they expected. Things do not get better for them at all, but these two different girls find some solace from each other, and there are several poignant moments as the movie observes the gradual development of their relationship. While Kim Hyang-ki, who previously appeared in “A Werewolf Boy” (2012), is engaging in her strong performance, Kim Sae-ron, who has steadily advanced since her breakthrough performance in “A Brand New Life” (2009), is equally fine as her co-performer, and it goes without saying that their duo performance is the emotional center of the film.

As another active part of the movie, Kim Yeong-ok embodies well her character’s long history, and Cho Soo-hyang also gives a small but fine supporting performance as Eun-soo, a problematic adolescent girl who lives alone next to old Jong-boon’s small residence. When Eun-soo really needs help on one day, old Jong-boon does not hesitate to help her even though she does not know her much, and that leads to an unlikely friendship between them, which eventually prompts old Jong-boon to take a decisive step for making a real peace with her past.

Directed by Lee Na-jeong, “Snowy Road” was actually a two-part TV movie broadcast in South Korea in 2015, and what I watched is the theatrical version re-edited from the original TV version. Because I have not watched the latter, I cannot tell you how these two versions are different from each other, but I am mostly satisfied with the former, and this will be a good start for you if you are interested in its historical subject which should be more widely known and discussed.

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Logan (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Wolverine on gritty, elegiac mode

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Besides being the best work in the X-men series, “Logan” is possibly the best superhero film since Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy. While there are several top-notch action sequences in the film, story and characters always come first, and that is why it can do something rarely done in many other recent superhero movies: making us genuinely care about what will happen to its main characters in the end.

The story is set in the near future world where mutants have been almost eradicated mainly because of the absence of new mutants during last two decades, and the early scenes of the movie show Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) slowly going through his own decline. Currently working as a limousine driver around a border area of Texas, he still can pull out his shiny metal claws, but his aging body is not as strong as before, as shown from his accidental encounter with a bunch of hoods in the opening scene.

At least, he is not as senile as Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), who constantly needs to be taken care of by Logan and their fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) due to his deteriorating body and mind. Besides being heavily medicated, Xavier has been kept inside a big empty water tank in an abandoned factory for safety, and we see what danger he can inadvertently cause when his brain happens to have another seizure at one point.

While he goes through another working day as usual, Logan is approached by a Mexican woman named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who wants him to take a little young mutant girl accompanying her, named Laura (Dafne Keen), to some place in North Dakota. Logan initially rejects her, but he comes to agree to help Gabriela when she later offers him a considerable amount of cash, though he already knows well that he will get into a big trouble for that.

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Of course, the trouble comes to Logan faster than expected, and he soon finds himself running away along with Xavier and Laura from a bunch of mercenaries chasing after them. While Boyd Holbrook is effectively villainous as the leader of those vicious goons, Richard E. Grant is slimy and shady as a big bad guy behind them, and their characters feel all the more loathsome to us when we later come to learn more about how cruel and ruthless they can be for covering up their heinous business associated with Laura.

Following its main characters’ perilous journey across the American continent, the screenplay by the director James Mangold and his co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green attempts an interesting mix of western and road movie. With his dark, violent past, Logan can be regarded as a quintessential western movie hero who cannot get away from violence and guilt, and that aspect is clearly accentuated by the brief appearance of “Shane” (1953) in the middle of the film. His relationship with Laura is awkward and rocky at first, but he becomes a father figure to her during their journey, and she gradually comes to learn a few important things through Logan and Xavier.

The action sequences in the movie are quite gritty and brutal to say the least. While one very intense vehicle action sequence will definitely take you back to those impactful moments of Mad Max movies, the movie goes all the way for sheer verisimilitude in case of its physical action sequences. I found myself often cringing during many bloody, violent moments in the film which surely deserve R-rating, but I was also impressed by how these moments are handled well with enough amount of style, energy, and gravitas. We can really sense real dangers from characters’ actions, and we accordingly become more involved in what is at stake in the story. Although the expected climactic part may look modest in its scale, it works nonetheless as driven by story and characters, and that is definitely more impressive than usual CGI spectacles.

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The two main performers in the movie comfortably embody their familiar roles as bringing more human aspects to their characters. Hugh Jackman, who will always be associated with Wolverine for the rest of his career, gives a solid performance as ably conveying his character’s growing vulnerability, and Patrick Stewart is poignant especially during the scenes where his character’s mind is more lucid than usual. They certainly know their characters to the bone, and we can always feel a long history between their characters even though they only mention their past briefly from time to time.

In case of young performer Dafne Keen, she holds her own place well between her two co-stars. I am still horrified by that little murderous superhero girl in “Kick-Ass” (2010), but Laura comes to us as a character as fascinating to watch as the young heroine of “Hanna” (2011) at least, and Keen effortlessly moves back and forth between innocence and ferocity while never softening her character at all.

Since it began with “X-Men” (2000), the X-men series has taken a long, convoluted road during last 17 years. After its first three films, the series went down with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009), but then it came to rebound with “X-Men: First Class” (2011), “The Wolverine” (2013), and “X-Men: Days of Future Past”, though that was soon followed by the bloated CGI spectacles of “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2016).

While it surely energizes the series, the elegiac tone of “Logan” seems to signify the end of a period like some notable western films during the 1960-70s did, and I somehow come to have more worry on its genre, which has felt like reaching to the level of exhaustion during recent years. I am still not so sure about what will happen next, but “Logan” shows some real possibility of significant change anyway, and we must appreciate that for now.

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The Salesman (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The trouble with their new place

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At first, Iranian film “The Salesman”, which recently won Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, intrigues us with a fascinating case of cultural juxtaposition. Its main title sequence shows us a theater stage in preparation, and we soon come to see that it is for the upcoming staging of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”. The staging of a classic American play in Iran may sound unlikely to many of you, but, according to the review by movie critic Godfrey Cheshire, this is not an unusual thing at all in Iranian cities like Tehran, whose theater field has embraced many different western playwrights including Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard besides its own old and new ones.

Anyway, its story revolves around two lead performers of that staging, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti). They are a middle-class married couple living in Tehran, and Emad also teaches drama at a school besides his acting work. During one scene, we see him teaching Gholam-Hossein Saedi’s classic Iranian play “The Cow” to his students, and we get one of the most humorous moments in the film as students are amused by its story (“How do people turn to cows?” – “Gradually!”).

After their apartment building is seriously damaged due to an unexpected incident, Emad and Rana have to find a new place to live as soon as possible, and there comes a good news from a friend/colleague of theirs. He shows them a recently vacated apartment which looks a bit shabby but mostly fine with two bedrooms, and it does not take a long time for Emad and Rana to decide to move into this place.

However, it turns out during their moving day that there is one annoying problem. Because the previous tenant, a woman who is the acquaintance of the aforementioned friend, has not gotten a new place to live yet, her belongings are still left inside one of two bedrooms in the apartment, and they eventually are put outside the apartment as she does not come back to retrieve them. While that woman never appears in the film, we get to know a few things about her; she has a child as reflected by the graffiti on the walls of that bedroom, and she is not so regarded well by the other tenants in the apartment building for some reason.

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Several days later, Rana and Emad successfully finish their first performance, and then Rana happens to go to the apartment first because Emad has to take care of some business before leaving the theater. When she is about to take a shower, the buzzer of the front gate of the apartment building rings. She naturally thinks it is her husband, so she unlocks the front door right before going into the bathroom, but then….

The movie immediately moves forward to the aftermath. Emad finally comes to the apartment, and then he hurriedly goes to a hospital as soon as he realizes something bad has happened to his wife. She is badly injured on her head, and it looks like she was attacked by some guy who entered the apartment at that very moment. Emad later learns from his neighbors that the previous tenant is in fact a prostitute; the guy in question is probably one of her clients, and he seemed to mistake Rana for the previous tenant.

While his wife struggles to recover from the incident, Emad becomes angry and frustrated, and that inevitably affects their stage work. Refusing to report her incident to the police for understandable reasons which indirectly reflect the socially repressive aspects of the Iranian society, Rana tries to continue her work, but then she is overwhelmed in the middle of a performance when she feels like being watched by the man responsible for the incident. As coping with his damaged male pride and then becoming obsessed with finding that guy, Emad comes to feel more anger and exasperation, and that accordingly leads to an intense moment when he goes a little too far on the stage.

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I will not go into details on how this increasingly strained situation around Emad and Rana is further developed, but I can tell you instead how deftly the director/writer Asghar Farhandi, who won the Best Screenplay award for his film at the Cannes Film festival in last year, handles his story and characters. At one point later in the movie, everything seems to be set up to proceed in one direction as Emad is approaching to a certain character, but then things begin to go in the other direction via an unexpected plot turn, and that is just the start of what will follow next.

The performers in the movie are convincing in their nuanced natural performance, which may look merely improvised on the surface but is actually the result of the careful rehearsal process among them and Farhandi. While Shahab Hosseini deservedly won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his superb performance, Taraneh Alidoosti is equally terrific as his main acting counterpart, and the supporting performers around them are also excellent on the whole as the human parts of the realistic background of the film.

While not reaching to the greatness of “A Separation” (2011), “The Salesman” aptly exemplifies Farhandi’s masterful storytelling skill like “The Past” (2013), and I was totally gripped by the dramatic intensity of its last 30 minutes. This is another fabulous work from Farhandi, and you will not be disappointed once you get involved in the specific but ultimately universal human matters of his characters.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) ☆☆☆(3/4): It’s so nice to see you again, Mr. Wick

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In my review on “John Wick” (2014), I wrote, “While it is strewn with lots of dead or injured bodies, “John Wick” looks more like a stylish joke as I reflect more on its rather amusing aspects after watching it.” While this comment of mine can also apply to its sequel “John Wick: Chapter 2”, the movie is a bigger stylish joke with more fun and excitement, and I savored it as appreciating how it skillfully and exultantly delivers what was promised in the previous film.

The movie starts at the point not so far from where the story of the previous film ended. In the previous film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) tried to leave behind his infamous assassin career and live a happy normal life with his wife, but his happiness was cut short due to her terminal illness, and then he found himself thrown into a deadly conflict with a powerful Russian mob organization after its boss’ reckless son stole Wick’s sports car and killed a dog left to him by his dead wife. As an angry man with nothing to lose, Wick went all the way to kill his targets, and the underworld of New York City was certainly shaken a lot thanks to him.

During the prologue sequence, we see Wick sneaking into a place where his stolen car has been kept. That place is owned by a Russian gangster named Abram Tarasov (Peter Stormare), so Wick has to fight against a bunch of Abram’s henchmen, but, not so surprisingly, he succeeds in not only retrieving his car but also getting an agreement on the end of the conflict from Abram, who surely sees that it is wise not to mess further with a guy who was once nicknamed ‘the Boogeyman’ during his active years.

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After that, it seems Wick can go back to his retirement life along with a dog he happened to acquire around the end of the previous film, but, alas, his old underworld pulls him back again when he thinks it is over. Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), a powerful Italian crime lord, comes to Wick’s house, and he wants Wick to assassinate someone as a part of their old deal. According to the rules of their world, Wick must do whatever D’Antonio demands, but Wick says no, and D’Antonio promptly shows that he is not someone who can accept rejection.

After realizing how serious the situation is, Wick goes to Winston (Ian McShane), the owner and manager of a very special hotel which functions as a neutral safety zone in the underworld of New York City. While this hotel looks like just your average luxurious NYC hotel on the surface, its clients are dangerous criminals as shown from the previous film, and I was amused again to see those shiny gold coins which are the common currency in their world.

After the private conversation with Winston, Wick sees that he has no choice but to keep an oath he made to D’Antonio at that time, so he goes to Rome, and the movie delights us as he gets a number of classy underworld services during his preparation process. As soon as he enters a similar hotel for criminals in Rome, he is greeted by its manager played by Franco Nero, and then he visits a number of places which can instantly provide what he needs for his assassination mission.

The most amusing place belongs to a guy called the Sommelier (Peter Serafinowicz). While his workplace is decorated with many bottles of wine as expected, it is also packed with various special firearms and other weapons, and we cannot help but chuckle as observing how courteously he recommends some of these weapons to Wick as if they were first-rate wines to be served during his ‘party’.

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After serving us with such delicious moments like that as appetizers, the director Chad Stahelski moves onto the main course consisting of several superlative action sequences. Shrouded in shadows and lights, the assassination sequence pulsates with its striking noir atmosphere, and I like how it slowly builds up its momentum till a certain dramatic point and then swiftly shifts its gear to tense, visceral action mode. The subsequent sequences are equally impressive in terms of action and mood, and one of them is particularly memorable with the apparent homage to that famous climax sequence in Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai” (1947).

There are lots of physical actions especially after Wick later becomes targeted by numerous assassins, and they feel vivid and impactful because we can clearly see that the performers really put themselves into actions on the screen. While the result is often quite gritty and brutal with lots of killings, this is packaged with style and a bit of deadpan humor, and that is why I enjoy its violence a lot more than that relentlessly grim and blunt violence of “The Raid: Redemption” (2011).

And it surely helps that the performers in the film are convincing as much as the world inhabited by their characters. With his understated agility and gravitas, Keanu Reeves flawlessly inhabits his character, and Common and Ruby Rose are effective as Wick’s two different adversaries who are as lethal as him. While Riccardo Scamarcio is despicable as the big bad guy of the movie, Ian McShane, John Leguizamo, Peter Stormare, Lance Reddick, Franco Nero, and Peter Serafinowicz have a juicy fun with their respective colorful supporting characters, and the same thing can be said about Laurence Fishburne, whose appearance in the film will definitely take you back to when he appeared along with Reeves in the Matrix trilogy.

As the second part of the planned trilogy, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is thrilling and entertaining enough to make us wait for the final chapter. Like the previous film, this is a smart, efficient action film which cares about not only action but also style and mood, and I was alternatively thrilled and delighted during my viewing. It is so nice to see you again, Mr. Wick, and I hope you will come back soon.

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Split (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Shaymalan and McAvoy going way over the top

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Among a bunch of books I have kept since my elementary school years, Daniel Keyes’ nonfiction book “The Minds of Billy Milligan” is one of more notable ones I still remember quite well. Its real-life story of a man struggling with dissociative identity disorder is indeed a fascinating tale, and it is no wonder that Hollywood attempted to make his story into a movie several times after the publication of Keyes’ book in 1981, though none of those attempts led to actual production.

While its premise is partially inspired by that interesting real-life psychiatrical case, M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “Split” is definitely not something which can be described as ‘realistic’ or ‘medically accurate’. This is a dark, twisted horror thriller film willing to go far crazier than you expect, and there are many preposterous things which will definitely require you a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief, but I like how it pushes its premise way over the top as a tense, loony exercise in genre.

The movie opens with the kidnapping of three teenage girls, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson), and Marcia (Jessica Sula), by its deranged hero played by James McAvoy. When these girls are about to leave together after Claire’s birthday party, they are suddenly attacked by him, and then they find themselves locked up in a room when they regain their consciousness some time later. Naturally thrown into panic, Claire and Marcia try to think of any possible way to get out of the room, but they only see more of how helpless they are. Calmer and more composed in contrast, Casey thinks this uncertain circumstance of theirs can be worse than they imagine, and, unfortunately, it turns out she is right as they get to know more about their captor, who is not just sick but quite unstable due to his longtime mental illness.

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As already revealed in the trailer of the film, he has suffered from dissociative identity disorder, which is formerly known as multiple personality disorder, and the girls encounter some of his many different personalities. ‘Dennis’ is the one who kidnapped the girls, and he is intense and menacing while also quite fastidious due to his obsessive-compulsive disorder. ‘Patricia’ is more gentle and courteous in comparison, but she functions as Dennis’ accomplice, and so does ‘Hedwig’, a child-like personality who go long with Patricia and Dennis but may help the girls if he is cajoled enough.

Meanwhile, his psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher (Betty Buckley) begins to sense something fishy behind the seemingly usual appearance of her most interesting patient although she has no idea on what is really going on behind his back, and the movie spends a considerable amount of time on her rather radical theory on dissociative identity disorder. After studying him and other dissociative identity disorder patients for a long time, Dr. Fletcher comes to believe that this mental disorder can affect not only mind but also body, and we see her seriously discussing with other experts via Skype. Her theory may sound outrageous, but it is delivered with dry conviction in the movie, and it accordingly generates both curiosity and amusement like that equally outrageous neurological theory presented in “Lucy” (2014).

However, even she is skeptical about the existence of a hidden personality somewhere inside her patient’s mind, which can be an ultimate proof of her theory. It is gradually revealed that Dennis kidnapped the girls for that personality in question, but we cannot help but wonder whether that personality really exists as Dennis and his accomplice personalities believe. Is it merely a piece of their common delusion? Or is it something real and truly fearsome as suggested?

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As Shyamalan’s notable films such as “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Signs” (2002), the movie steadily maintains its serious tone and mood even during the most deranged moments in the film, and that provides the solid ground for its lead performer’s committed performance. Reminiscent of John Lithgow’s similar multiple performances in Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” (1992), McAvoy has a fun with playing his various roles while smoothly shifting around them without any misstep, and he certainly dials up the manic intensity of his performance to the eleventh level when his character (or characters, shall we say) is driven into full madness mode later in the story.

While the movie is basically McAvoy’s show, Betty Buckley and Anya Taylor-Joy are also engaging in their respective supporting roles. Buckley, who played a small supporting character in “The Happening” (2008), has several good scenes with McAvoy, and I enjoyed the subtle tension in their scenes. Anya Taylor-Joy, who impressed us with her breakthrough performance in “The Witch” (2015) in last year, is convincing as a girl who comes to confront her dark, troubled past through her ghastly ordeal, and her strong performance compensates for the relatively flat, underdeveloped characterization of two other captive girls in the film, who often feel like the characters from a lesser movie.

With his recent success in “The Visit” (2015), Shyamalan bounced from a series of dismal failures including “The Last Airbender” (2010) and “After Earth” (2013), and “Split” fully confirms that he is back in his element. Considering its big box office success in US at present, he will soon move onto a film he is already planning to make, and, considering what is observed from “Split”, I think we can have some expectation on that.

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