Another Child (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Two mothers, Two daughters

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South Korean film “Another Child” surprised me. Although it begins with a rather soapy promise, the movie engaged and interested me more than expected as showing considerable humor, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness in its deft handling of story and characters, and it also distinguishes itself a lot as something quite rare in South Korean movies these days: a complex character drama mainly driven by female characters.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Joo-ri (Kim Hye-joon), an adolescent girl who has recently found that her father Dae-won (Kim Yun-seok) has been cheating on her mother. He has had an affair with a woman named Mi-hee (Kim So-in) during last several months, and we see Joo-ri secretly watching on her father as he and his colleagues go inside a restaurant run by Mi-hee, but then she happens to be spotted by Mi-hee by coincidence.

And that is how Joo-ri comes to encounter Mi-hee’s teenage daughter Yoon-ah (Park Se-jin), who has incidentally attended Joo-ri’s school. On the next day, they meet each other again, and they come to see that both of them do not like what has been going on between Mi-hee and Dae-won, but, unfortunately, they only find themselves conflicting over what to do about that. Joo-ri wants her father’s affair with Yoon-ah’s mother to be ended as soon as possible without being exposed to her dear mother Yeong-joo (Yun Jung-ah), but, after some quarrel with Joo-ri, Yoon-ah promptly discloses her mother’s affair to Joo-ri’s mother.

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What follows next is a tense but amusing situation for Joo-ri and her parents. Quite oblivious to what is going on behind his back, Dae-won does not sense anything wrong from his wife and daughter, and Joo-ri cannot help but feel nervous about what may happen sooner or later while Yeong-joo is understandably a little more distant to her husband than usual.

Meanwhile, the situation turns out to be more complicated that it seemed at first. Mi-hee has been pregnant with Dae-won’s child as a matter of fact, and, to Yoon-ah’s displeasure, she seems to be willing to raise the child regardless of how that will affect her relationship with Dae-won, who still does not know anything about her pregnancy.

Of course, there subsequently comes a breaking point for the four main female characters in the film, but the movie rolls its story and characters further in an unexpected way. While there are a couple of catfight scenes as expected, the movie generates more humor and drama as calmly showing what happens next among its four female main characters, and we cannot help but amused and touched as observing the dynamic and complex interactions among them. All of them are presented with considerable human depth, and we come to emphasize more with them while also caring a lot about how they are going to handle their complicated circumstance.

Constantly balanced well between humor and drama, the screenplay by director Kim Yun-seok and his co-writer Lee Bo-ram, which is based on a play written by Lee, smoothly moves from one narrative point to another. While the situation becomes a bit more melodramatic during its last act, the movie does not lose any of its sense of humor at all, and I must say I was quite amused by a rather morbidly humorous aspect of its final scene.

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By the way, the movie is the first feature film directed by Kim, who has been mainly known for his excellent performances in a number of notable South Korean films including “The Chaser” (2008). While its overall result looks rather modest on the whole, the movie shows that Kim is a good director who really knows how to present story and characters well enough to hold our attention, and I particularly appreciate one major scene between his character and Yeong-joo, which effectively and succinctly utilizes lighting and scene composition for intended emotional effects.

Besides willingly throwing himself into the pathetic aspects of his character, who is inarguably unlikable as the origin of all the troubles in the movie, Kim humbly steps aside for the other four main performers in the film, who surely have each own juicy moments throughout the movie. While Yum Jung-ah, who recently appeared in “Intimate Strangers” (2018), and Kim So-jin, who previously played supporting roles in “The Spy Gone North” (2018) and “The Drug King” (2018), complement well each other with their contrasting personalities, newcomers Kim Hye-joon and Park Se-jin hold their own place well as another crucial part of the story, and I sincerely hope that we will see more from these two young talented actresses. In case of other cast members of the film, Lee Hee-joon, Lee Jeong-eun, Lee Sang-hee, Yum Hye-ran, and Kim Hee-won are also fun to watch in their small supporting roles, and the special mention goes to Jeong Jong-joon, who provides some gravitas to a certain scene later in the movie.

In conclusion, “Another Child” is not only the brilliant showcase of its four female main cast members but also a wonderful debut work which surely demonstrates another side of Kim’s talent. Considering all those gritty male characters he played during last 10 years, the movie is a total surprise, and it will be really interesting to see what may come next from him after this small but significant achievement.

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The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): Blood fraud

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Not long before watching HBO documentary “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”, I happened to have a small conversation with some of colleagues in a biotechnology company where I have worked during last two years. The subject of the conversation was a newly developed machine from a certain other company which can automatically handle, analyze, and visualize a bunch of DNA samples within a considerably short time, and, even though I am a guy with a doctoral degree in biological science, I could not help but amazed by how much technology have advanced, while also wondering how far it may advance in the future.

However, there are always limits for what technologically can be done for now, and that is what Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, willfully overlooked from the very beginning. She may really have believed that she could lead her biotechnology company to a revolutionary technology breakthrough via her supposedly innovative idea, but she only came to sell her shiny vision to numerous investors without achieving anything at all, and her rapid rise and fall is certainly another cautionary tale from Silicon Valley.

In the beginning, Holmes looked like another young, promising figure to be as famous as, say, Steve Jobs. Although she was only 19 when she was attending Stanford University in 2003, she was already driven by her vision and ambition while impressing others around her a lot, and she eventually quit her education course and then came to found Theranos although she clearly did not have much knowledge on her business field. She thought she could develop a machine which can execute various medical tests at once even with a few drops of blood, but her advisor professor was naturally skeptical for good reasons, and I must say I even found myself rolling my eyes during my viewing. Sure, her idea sounds pretty awesome on the surface, but, though I am one of those defective products from the biological science department of Korea Advanced Institute of Advanced Technology (KAIST), I could think of at least ten reasons why her idea is practically unfeasible. For example, how can you maintain stable and constant test conditions while hundreds of activities are being done inside the machine? And, above all, how can you deal with inherent blood contamination problems?

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Anyway, Holmes was very good at attracting the attention of people who could help and support her company. She recruited one prominent Stanford professor as the science advisor of her company, and she also managed to persuade a number of wealthy investors including George Shultz, who were quite impressed by her ambition and vision just like many others encountering her. In addition, she packed her company board with several prominent public figures including Henry Kissinger, and it did not take much time for her and Theranos to become the new toast of Silicon Valley.

With the considerable money and support from Shultz and other influential figures around her, everything seemed to be aligned well for Holmes, but there inevitably came the reality which was not as rosy as her vision. Her machine, which was called Edison, remained stuck in its development stage without much progress, and there were numerous technological problems which frustrated the technicians of her company at lot. For instance, it could not execute well even a few medical tests, and that was certainly far from whatever was envisioned by Holmes.

Nevertheless, Holmes kept pushing her vision in public. While continuing to promote her machine aggressively, she adamantly hid what was actually going on inside Theranos, and, as several former employees of her company tell us, the mood inside her company was on the verge of paranoid as she virtually prevented them from telling anything about her company outside. Taylor Shultz, who was incidentally Shultz’s grandson and came to work as an intern at Theranos, finally decided that enough is enough, but then he soon found himself cornered by lawyers hired by Holmes not long after quitting his job, and the same thing can be said about Erika Cheung, who eventually decided to act as a whistle blower for exposing Holmes’ fraudulent activities.

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Meanwhile, John Carreyrou, a journalist working in the Wall Street Journal, sensed something fishy about Theranos, and that subsequently led to a series of investigative articles in late 2015, which ultimately resulted in the quick downfall of Holmes and her company. At its peak during 2013-4, the estimated value of Theranos was no less than 10 billion, but, once it was more thoroughly inspected after Carreyrou’s articles came out, the company fell down to the bottom, and it became defunct in last year.

As deftly mixing interview and archival footage clips, director/writer Alex Gibney, who has been known for several acclaimed documentaries films such as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005), “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), and “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” (2015), gives us a clear and sobering presentation on how Holmes managed to get away with her fraudulent activities until she got caught. Although she is presented on the screen only via archival footage clips, Holmes comes to us a darkly compelling figure with her unblinking zealous eyes, and we can see how she could deceive not only others but also herself.

I wish it could delve deeper into some parts including the one involved with a certain renowned documentary filmmaker who made a commercial for Theranos, but “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley” is still a documentary both informative and fascinating, and its cautionary tale may make you reflect a bit on that faulty side of our human nature. Sometime we tend to stick to what we want to believe too much, don’t we?

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Dragged Across Concrete (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A gritty and vicious crime thriller

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S. Criag Zahler’s latest work “Dragged Across Concrete” is a gritty and vicious crime thriller film testing our patience and tolerance in many different ways. Mainly revolving around two undeniably racist cop characters, the movie often unnerves us with their viewpoint and behaviors far from political correctness, and it also strikes us hard with several brutal and nasty moments of violence you will not easily forget. This is certainly not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but I sort of admire how steadily and confidently the movie rolls its story and characters during its rather long running time (159 minutes), and I found myself more entertained than expected during viewing even though I observed its story and characters from distance.

When the movie introduces to us Detective Brett Ridgeman (Mel Gibson) and his younger partner Detective Anthony Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), they are in the middle of their latest mission, and we see how they eventually arrest their target with no mercy after their patient waiting – and how they cruelly handle their target’s girlfriend just for finding the evidence they are looking for. Shortly after they send away these two arrested figures, Ridgeman and Lurasetti are notified by their supervisor that their harsh arrest process happened to be caught on video, and their supervisor tells them that he has no choice but to have both of them suspended without pay for several weeks for avoiding the criticism from the public and media.

While Lurasetti is not particularly concerned about this problem as hoping to find a right moment for his marriage proposal to his girlfriend, Ridgeman becomes more bitter about the system he has served for many years, and he also comes to worry more about his family’s desperate situation. His adolescent daughter happens to have another unpleasant experience in their neighborhood which is not exactly a good place to live, and his wife, who was also a cop before retiring due to her serious illness, has considered moving to a safer neighborhood, but, unfortunately, they do not have enough money for that.

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And then Ridgeman comes to have a certain idea for solving his family problem once for all. Through a criminal figure for whom he once did some small favor, he obtains a piece of information which may lead him to a considerable amount of cash, and then he attempts to enlist his partner in this criminal plan of his. Although he is understandably reluctant at first, Lurasetti eventually comes to agree to help Ridgeman because, well, he does not want his partner to be left alone in any potential danger.

Of course, as some of you have already guessed, their situation turns out to be far more complicated and perilous than expected, and several other characters come into the picture. There is an ex-con who has just been released from prison but then is drawn into his old criminal world because he really needs to get money for his poor family right now, and then there come a couple of masked figures who are quite ruthless and efficient in their criminal activities, and we also have an emotionally fragile woman who finds it very hard to be away from her newborn baby when she is about to go to her workplace.

As gradually moving his characters toward a certain narrative point later in the story, Zahler, who also wrote the screenplay, deftly maintains the dry but increasingly tense ambience surrounding the characters in his film, and he gives us a series of calm but suspenseful sequences including the one where Ridgeman and Lurasetti patiently follow their target step by step. As shown from his previous films “Bone Tomahawk” (2015) and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (2017), Zahler can go all the way for extreme violence, and we surely get several grisly moments such as when a certain supporting character gets eviscerated for what he has just swallowed (He dies before that happens, by the way).

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I must point out that it is frequently uncomfortable to watch those blatantly racist moments from Ridgeman and Lurasetti, and you may be also bothered by how callously many of substantial female characters in the film are handled. At least, the movie sticks to its cold, non-judgmental attitude without making any excuse on its two main characters, and it is also supported well by its two terrific lead performers who carry the film well together. Although his acting career has been less prominent than before during recent years, Mel Gibson shows here that, despite all those troubles in his life and career, he has lost none of his acting talent, and he is matched well by the no-nonsense low-key performance from his co-star Vince Vaughn, who previously demonstrated a more serious side of his talent via his electrifying performance in “Brawl in Cell Block 99”.

In addition, Zahler assembles an array of good performers around Gibson and Vaughn. As another crucial part of the movie, Tory Kittles holds his own place well on the whole, and I also enjoyed the fine supporting performances from other cast members including Don Johnson, Michael Jai White, Jennifer Carpenter, Fred Melamed, and Udo Kier, a wonderful German actor who has always been fun to watch for his uncanny presence.

Overall, “Dragged Across Concrete” is a pretty tough stuff, but I appreciate the efforts and skills put into it, and that is a bit more than enough to compensate for its rather self-indulgent exercise in brutality and nastiness. I do not think I will soon watch it again, but I will not deny that it is a solid genre piece nonetheless, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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On the Basis of Sex (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A lawyer who changed the world

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“On the Basis of Sex” focuses on the early career period of US Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a legendary American figure who is still actively keeping on in the US Supreme Court for civil equality and liberties even at this very point. Although it occasionally feels a bit too conventional considering its extraordinary human subject, the movie did a fairly respectable job on the whole, and it surely helps that the movie is supported well by a solid lead performance to be appreciated.

In the beginning, we see young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) attending the enrollment ceremony of Harvard Law School along with hundreds of male students and a few other female students besides her in 1956. While she and other female students are ready to do their best, they are not so welcomed much by the dean of Harvard Law School at the following evening party, and that is just one of many obstacles they are going to face during their first year at this prestigious law school.

Nevertheless, Ginsburg does not give up at all while also excelling most of her colleagues – even after her husband Martin (Armie Hammer), who has also studied at Harvard Law School, gets suddenly sick due to cancer. Besides concentrating on her study as usual, she also steadily helps him continue his study at their home, and, fortunately, he is eventually recovered from his illness and then graduates some time later.

When Martin is subsequently hired at a New York law firm, Ginsburg requests a permission to finish her Harvard law degree at the Columbia University in New York City, but, not so surprisingly, the dean refuses to make an exception, and she has no choice but to transfer to the Columbia University without any advantage. She eventually graduates from the Columbia University, but no law firm in New York City wants to hire her just because of her gender, so she comes to accept a teaching position at Rutgers Law School instead, and we soon see her teaching her students on the sex discrimination in laws.

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As feeling how much the American society is changed for women around 1970, Ginsburg feels more compelled to do more for women’s rights than before, and that is when her husband gives her a certain tax case in Denver, which is involved with a male bachelor denied of tax deduction for the nursing care for his old mother. Although she is not particularly interested in this case at first, she soon comes to discern an unlikely opportunity from this case. If she makes a successful legal argument on the sex discrimination in the tax law preventing the plaintiff from getting his tax deduction, this legal victory will definitely open the door for more court rulings against the sex discrimination in many other laws, and that will legally guarantee gender equality more than before.

Of course, the situation does not look that bright to Ginsburg from the very beginning, because, though Martin is ready to support her personally as well as professionally, others around her including Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), who works for American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), are not particularly sure about whether she will succeed. The US Department of Justice is already quite ready for winning the case, and their young representative attorney James H. Bozarth (Jack Reynor) gets the full support from his boss, who does not want any ‘radical social change’ which may be resulted from this case.

What follows next is a series of predictable dramatic ups and downs, and the screenplay by Daniel Stiepleman, who is incidentally the nephew of Ginsburg, is rather clichéd particularly during this part. It tries to generate some dramatic tension as Ginsburg often gets frustrated with numerous obstacles on her road to the Court of Appeals, but the result is a bit mild and contrived while also slowing down the narrative to some degree, and I must say that I felt impatient from to time while watching this part.

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Nonetheless, under the competent direction of director Mimi Leder, the movie remains to be driven by its earnest storytelling, and it eventually arrives well in the expected finale sequence unfolded in the Court of Appeals, which is evidently spiced ups with some fictional elements. We already can see from the very beginning that we will get a big moment when Ginsburg courageously stands up and then impresses the judges in front of her with her shrewd and succinct legal argument, but that moment is delivered with considerable sincerity and restraint at least, and we are touched as being reminded of how the subsequent court ruling did open the door for more changes for gender equality during next several years.

Above all, Felicity Jones ably carries the film with intelligence, sensitivity, and dignity, and it is certainly another notable performance in her growing career which has been more prominent since her Oscar-nominated performance in “The Theory of Everything” (2014). She is also supported well by other notable prominent cast members including Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, Sam Waterson, Jack Reynor, and Stephen Root, and the special mention goes to Cailee Spaeny, who is effective as Ginsburg’s feisty adolescent daughter.

In conclusion, “On the Basis of Sex” is your typical plain biographical drama film, but it is engaging nonetheless mainly thanks to Jones’ commendable performance, and it will certainly make a nice double feature show along with “RBG” (2018), an acclaimed Oscar-nominated documentary film about Ginsburg’s life and career. Sure, it is flawed to some degree, but it did its job as much as intended, so I recommend it without grumbling much.

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Asako I & II (2018) ☆☆(2/4): Between two same but different men

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Japanese film “Asako I & II” rubbed me in a wrong way. While I observed its first two acts with mild interest, I was quite baffled and annoyed by its contrived third act which takes a sudden plot turn without much conviction, and I only found myself grunting a lot in discontent during the rest of the movie as being more aware of its artificial aspects in terms of story and character.

In the beginning, the movie opens with the Meet Cute moment between Asako (Erika Karata) and Baku (Masahiro Higashide). Right from when they come across each other during one fine summer day in Osaka, something clicks between them even though they are total strangers to each other, and we subsequently see them going through a number of happy moments including the one when they happen to have a minor traffic accident on the road but feel blissful nonetheless as lovingly looking at each other (They miraculously do not get injured much, by the way).

However, as her friend Haruyo (Sairi Ito) warns in advance, Baku turns out to be not a very good lover for Asako. During one evening party at his friend’s house, he simply walks from her just because he want to go outside for buying some bread, but he does not come back for a while, and this certainly makes Asako anxious. He eventually returns in the next morning with an excuse which may make your eyes roll, but then he disappears again a few weeks later, and that seems to be the end of their relationship.

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Two years later, Asako is now living in Tokyo while working at a local coffee shop located near some prominent sake company. When she comes to that company for delivering coffee, she happens to encounter a guy named Ryohei (Masahiro Higashide), and she is quite shocked to see how much he resembles Baku. Once she discerns that he is not Baku, she tries to stay away from him as much as she can, but, of course, she finds herself often being around him via a series of coincidences, and he becomes attracted to her as feeling more curious about her.

Thanks to Asako’s actress roommate Maya (Rio Yamashita), Ryohei is invited to Asako and Maya’s residence along with one of his colleagues, but Asako remains as reserved as before, and the mood later becomes more awkward when Ryohei’s colleague comes to make a rather rude comment on Maya’s acting talent. He sharply points out how artificial and narcistic her acting feels, but then you may also sense how strained the four performers on the screen look as flatly delivering their lines, and I guess that is a sort of intentional meta-irony.

Anyway, once Ryohei’s colleagues apologizes to Asako’s friend, the mood becomes less tense than before, and these four people come to spend more time together. Although Asako is still distant to Ryohei, Ryohei keeps trying to win her heart, and Asako eventually comes to open her heart to him after another unbelievably coincidental moment involved with that earthquake which happened in 2011 March.

Five years later, Asako and Ryohei are now living together in their small but cozy apartment. Although they are not married yet unlike Maya and Ryohei’s colleague, they are very happy to be with each other, and they also have a cute cat which, in my humble opinion, steals the show every time it appears on the screen.

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And then, not so surprisingly, there come an unexpected change. On one day, Asako and Ryohei happen to come across Haruyo, who is surely surprised by Ryohei’s uncanny resemblance to Baku. When Asako and Haruyo later come to have a private conversation during Ryohei’s momentary absence, Haruyo informs Asako that Baku returned a few years ago and then became a famous actor and model, but Asako does not seem to mind that much, and she subsequently says yes to Ryohei when he suggests that they should marry after moving to Osaka together for his work.

I will not describe in detail what happens next after that narrative point, but I guess I can tell you instead that the movie seriously lacks logic and credibility in depicting Asako’s confusion and conflict between two same but different men in her life. Sure, they say heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing, but we cannot discern at all what Asako sees from Baku, who is merely a self-absorbed prick living by his childish impulse and does not feel like someone who can stir Asako’s heart. In the end, we come to observe Asako’s certain decision and its consequence without much care or attention, and the adapted screenplay by Ryūsuke Hamaguchi and his co-writer Sachiko Tanaka, which is based on “Netemo Sametemo” by Tomoka Shibasaki, simply trudges toward to its unresolved finale which is empty and superficial to say the least.

Overall, “Asako I & II” could be an interesting romantic drama about that elusive nature of love, but it is frequently hampered by its ham-fisted storytelling and half-baked characterization instead, and I still remember well how I sarcastically reacted to its problematic third act. To be frank with you, I actually felt a strong urge to shake its heroine hard for making her more sensible and then kick that prick really hard in the groin – and that is not a good sign, you know.

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Unicorn Store (2017) ☆☆(2/4): A whimsical mess

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“Unicorn Store”, which was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in late 2017 but only got released on Netflix yesterday, is a whimsical mess which is incoherent and confusing in terms of what is about as well as how it is about. As far as I can see, this is supposed to be a quirky little comedy about a flawed heroine struggling to get out of her state of arrested development, but the movie is not funny at all despite all those offbeat moments in the film, and it is actually tedious and annoying in its relentless quirkiness from time to time.

Brie Larson, who also directed the film, plays a young woman named Kit, who has recently got kicked out of her art college as showing no particular potential as an aspiring artist. In the opening scene, she zealously draws her abstract painting, but that does not impress her professor much, and I must confess that I agree to her professor’s written opinion, because the only thing to distinguish her, uh, artistic work from others’ is those bright rainbow colors which may remind you of your kindergarten years.

After that, Kit returns to her family house, where she is greeted by her irritatingly cheerful parents, played by Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford. They sincerely want Kit to join their activities for those emotionally troubled young people, but she is not interested at all, and we soon see her spending her days on a couch with a TV turned on all day long.

Anyway, after coming across a TV advertisement at one point, Kit eventually decides to get a job for making her life better, and she is subsequently employed at an advertising company, where she is usually tasked with several menial jobs including copying magazines while getting some inappropriate attention from her rather creepy supervisor play by Hamish Lincklater. Like the other supporting performers in the film, Linklater looks and sounds so offbeat and mannered that I occasionally wonder about how he was directed by Larson behind the camera.

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However, the most bizarre performance in the film comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a mysterious (and suspicious) character who approaches to Kit on one day via sending her a very colorful invitation letter. While quite baffled about this invitation letter, Kit decides to go to a place which is simply called ‘The Store’, and then she encounters Jackson’s character, who surely impresses her a lot with his strikingly colorful attire and campy attitude as explaining what is going to be given to Kit.

Of course, as you have already guessed, the object in question is a unicorn, and Jackson’s character tells Kit that there are several requirements for getting a unicorn, and she does not have much problem in accepting the condition just because, well, it really looks and feels like to her that unicorns really exist. Larson tries to make this weird moment convincing as much as she can, but, alas, it is so preposterous from the beginning that it does not work at all even with a talented actress like her.

One of the requirements demanded by Jackson’s character is building a stable for the unicorn, and, because she does not know anything about building a stable, Kit comes to recruit a kind hardware store guy played by Mamoudou Athie, who does a bit more than functioning as the voice of reason in the movie. While often confounded by her odd aspects, Athie’s character is clearly attracted to Kit, and Athie’s no-nonsense acting conveys well to us why his character keeps hanging around Kit instead of instantly staying away from her.

Meanwhile, the movie continues to supply us lots of quirky moments. For instance, there is a predictable moment between Kit and her parents when she joins her parents’ activities for those emotionally troubled kids, and we later get a wacky moment of glittering exaggeration when Kit enthusiastically attempts to present her loony advertisement idea in front of her supervisor and other company executives.

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However, none of these and other supposedly comic moments in the film do not stick that well. The screenplay by Samantha McIntyre surely tries very hard in shoving whimsicality into its story, but the overall result is jumbled and disjointed to say the least, and we only find ourselves bored and annoyed while not so sure about how we should regard its story and characters.

“Unicorn Store” is the first feature film directed by Larson, who made two short films before her acting career became more prominent with “Short Term 12” (2013) and “Room” (2015). She certainly tries to expand the range of her talent here in this movie, and her efforts behind the camera are sometimes shown on the screen mainly through the constantly bright color scheme of the movie, but the movie is still a very disappointing dud on the whole. In addition, she and many other notable performers in the film are unfortunately wasted in their broad caricature roles, and this considerable waste of talent made me more depressed during my viewing.

In conclusion, “Unicorn Store” is not recommendable at all even if you are an ardent fan of Larson, and I strongly recommend you to watch “Short Term 12” and “Room” instead unless you can go to movie theater for watching “Captain Marvel” (2019), where Larson and Jackson are definitely more amusing and entertaining to watch in comparison. To be frank with you, I do not mind whimsicality at all, but “Unicorn Store” has too much of it, and it is not even interesting at all in my humble opinion.

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Shazam! (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A goofy lightweight superhero movie

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“Shazam!”, the latest installment from the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), is a lightweight superhero movie as funny and goofy as expected from its silly promise, and that is surely a nice fresh change compared to the grim ponderousness of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016) or the bloated campiness of “Aquaman” (2018). Although it sometimes feels like an overextended one-joke movie especially during its final act, the movie still has some spirit and charm to engage us, and the overall result is better than other DCEU movies except, yes, “Wonder Woman” (2017).

Mainly set in Philadelphia, the story of the movie is about a 14-year-old orphan named Billy Batson (Asher Angel). When he was a little kid, Billy happened to be separated from his dear mother at a local carnival, so he was put into foster care after being taken by the police, but he has stubbornly searched for his mother while becoming a troublemaker who has bounced from one foster home to another during next several years. After his latest trouble, he is sent to another new foster home, and his new foster parents, Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans), warmly greet him along with several other kids in the foster home, but he still wants to keep looking for his mother even though his search has already reached to dead end.

On one day, something very strange happens to Billy shortly after he runs away from a couple of school bullies and then gets on a subway to evade them. He is suddenly transported alone to a dark, mysterious place, and then he comes across an old wizard played Djimon Hounsou, who has been looking for a right guy to succeed him for many years. Although Billy does not look that promising as his potential successor to protect the Rock of Eternity, the wizard transfers all the power he has to Billy before being perished, and Billy is surprised to see himself transformed into an adult superhero played by Zachary Levi.

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What follows next is not so far from those comic situations in “Big” (1988), which incidentally receives a nice homage at one point in the story. Quite perplexed and awkward with how he looks now, Billy seeks help from Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the kids in Billy’s new foster home who is also your average nerdy superhero expert. Quite willing to be Billy’s sidekick, Freddy helps Billy testing his superpower step by step, and we accordingly get several humorous moments including a silly but uproarious scene where Billy and Freddy happen to come across a couple of armed robbers at a local supermarket.

Of course, their circumstance later becomes quite serious with the expected appearance of a powerful villain. Since he was rejected by the wizard many years ago as shown during the prologue scene, Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) has looked for any possible way to access to the Rock of Eternity, and he finally goes to that place and then unleashes seven powerful demons named after, what do you know, the Seven Deadly Sins. Shortly after getting his own private payback moment, Dr. Sivana looks for his destined opponent as instructed by these demons, and it does not take much time for Billy to discern how serious the situation becomes for not only him but also several others around him including Freddy.

Although the movie loses its narrative pacing a bit around that narrative point, the Henry Gayden’s screenplay, which is based on the story written by him and his co-writer Darren Lemke, maintains its irreverent sense of humor at least, and director David F. Sandberg, a Swedish filmmaker who previously drew our attention via his first two feature films “Lights Out” (2016) and “Annabelle: Creation” (2017), steadily balances the movie between humor and drama. While we continue to get plenty of small and big laughs along the plot, Billy’s continuing search for his mother is handled enough gravitas and poignancy, and that is the main reason why his predictable moment of realization later in the film works on the emotional level.

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I must point out that the movie eventually becomes less interesting during its final act, which is packed with lots of busy CGI actions. At least, Sandberg and his crew did a fairly competent job of generating enough fun and excitement, and I came to forgive several notable shortcomings including those plainly hideous CGI monsters, which are not very distinguishable from each other in my humble opinion.

As the comic center of the film, Zachary Levi, who has been mainly known for TV series “Chuck”, willingly throws himself into absurdity and preposterousness. While I think his broad performance could be more organically connected with Asher Angel’s relatively more earnest performance, Levi ably delivers numerous comic moments with gusto, and he is also matched well by Jack Dylan Grazer, who simply steals the show with his authentic quirkiness. While Djimon Hounsou and Mark Strong look as serious as required, Cooper Andrews and Marta Milans imbue their supporting roles with warm, gentle decency, and Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, and Faithe Herman bring considerable colorful life and personality to their respective supporting roles.

While “Shazam!” is not something as ground-breaking as “Wonder Woman” or “Captain Marvel” (2019), I like its spirited moments of unadulterated fun and excitement, and I will not deny that I chuckled as watching its funniest moments during my viewing. Sure, it could have been more refreshing if it had been released around 10 years ago, but it is still an enjoyable product distinctive enough to distinguish itself from many other superhero films out there, and I guess we can have some expectation on what may come next after this promising start.

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