The Mustang (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): The Prisoner and a wild horse

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The story and characters of “The Mustang” are familiar to the bone. Here is a violent, troubled man who has been struggling with his guilt and anger, and the movie simply observes he gradually goes through a process of rehabilitation and redemption as training a wild animal. While its rather predictable narrative may not surprise you much, the movie brings considerable realism and emotion to its seemingly plain story and characters, and the result is quite more powerful than expected.

After the prologue scene unfolded somewhere in the remote wilderness region of Nevada, the movie introduces us to Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoennaerts), a prisoner who has been recently transferred to the Nevada State Prison. More than 10 years ago, Roman was arrested and then incarcerated for a serious case of domestic violence, and he is not particularly interested in rehabilitation because he knows too well that he is still coping with his short temper and violent tendency, which were the main cause of that irreversible tragic incident. When his daughter visits him because he needs to sign some documents for her, he does not even try to reconciliate with her, and she is not so surprised while showing more bitterness toward her father.

Anyway, through the recommendation of the caring prison counselor, Roman is subsequently assigned to outdoor maintenance, and that is how he encounters a rehabilitation program involving the training of wild mustangs. As mentioned at the beginning and ending of the film, such a rehabilitation program like that really exist in not only Nevada and several other states in US, and it was actually reported that prisoners participating in this kind of rehabilitation program have showed less tendency to re-offend.

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Although he is not that interested in this rehabilitation program at first, Roman eventually comes to participate in it under the guidance of a cantankerous old rancher, and he is subsequently assigned to train a wild mustang which looks quite difficult to handle for its wild temper. He gets some help from one of his fellow prisoners, but he keeps struggling in his attempt to tame and connect with that horse, and, not so surprisingly, he soon comes to lose temper again.

As a result, Roman is thrown into solitary confinement, and it looks like he will never be allowed to be back in the program, but, as spending more time in the cell, he comes to think more about that horse. He does some study on horse training (How he obtains a magazine on horse training is one of the fascinating realistic background details in the movie, by the way), and then he applies what he has learned to a sudden emergency situation where every horse has to be put inside a prison building as soon as possible.

Thanks to his good effort, Roman can go back to the program, and we soon see his continuing attempt to tame and connect with that horse, which is subsequently named ‘Marquis’ by him. Of course, he becomes more frustrated and exasperated than before as Marquis stubbornly sticks to its position, but he manages to contain his temper, and, what do you know, there eventually comes a moment of breakthrough for both of them, which is subtly but powerfully presented with admirable simplicity on the screen.

After that point, things get better bit by bit for Roman. As building the bond between him and Marquis, he becomes less antisocial than before, and there is a little poignant moment when he and his fellow prisoners say honestly about their crimes in front of the prison counselor. In addition, he also sincerely tries to reconciliate with his daughter, though it turns out to be quite hard and difficult for both of them due to many years of emotional pain between them.

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Of course, the movie later takes a dark turn because of Roman’s cellmate who coerces him to steal some drug from the program, but the screenplay by director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-writers and Mona Fastvold Brock and Norman Brock thankfully does not overplay that part. While the story expectedly culminates to the key sequence associated with the final stage of the program, the movie keeps focusing on characters and, yes, horses as before, and it certainly earns the following melodramatic finale.

Matthias Schoenaerts, a charismatic Belgian actor who has been always compelling to watch since his remarkable breakout turn in Oscar-nominated Belgian film “Bullhead” (2011), demonstrates again that he is a peerless master of stoic masculinity and aching vulnerability, and he is also supported well by several good supporting performers including Jason Mitchell, Gideon Aldon, Connie Britoon, Josh Stewart, and Bruce Dern. In case of the horse playing Marquis in the film, it always looks convincing as another main character throughout the movie, and I would love to learn more about how it was handled for its good performance during the shooting of the film.

“The Mustang” is the first feature film directed by de Clermont-Tonnerre. who has also worked as an actress in a number of notable films including “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007). The movie shows that she is a good filmmaker who knows how to engage us with mood, storytelling, and performance, and I particularly admire how she deftly balances her movie well between raw realism and dry but lyrical sensitivity. On the whole, this is surely a promising start for her directorial career, and it will be interesting to see what she will give us next in the future.

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Booksmart (2019) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): Their wild night before graduation

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My high school life was pretty uneventful on the whole. While bullied and ridiculed for my odd personality from time to time, all I cared about was books, movies, and, above all, grades, and having a fun was the last thing to come to my adolescent mind during those years. In the other words, I was your average plain model student far from any kind of transgression except alcohol, which has often been in my blood since, I am not kidding at all, I happened to consume it for the first time at the age of 2.

That is why I usually observe a number of recent entertaining American teenage comedy films with a certain degree of envy and fascination, and “Booksmart”, which is incidentally Olivia Wilde’s feature directorial debut film, is one of such cases. While amused and fascinated to watch a broad but lively and colorful world of American high schoolers, I also happened to see a lot of myself from its two main adolescent characters, and I certainly came to root and cheer for them a lot around the end of their wild nocturnal adventure.

They are Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever), and the movie opens with how they confidently begin the day before their high school graduation. While Amy will go to Columbia University after spending some time in Botswana, Molly is going to go to Yale University, and they are ready to be busy and diligent as before during this day as your typical adolescent overachievers.

However, there suddenly comes a moment of the shock to the system for both of them. By coincidence, Molly comes to learn that many of students they have disregarded for seeming to be dumb, thoughtless, and superficial will also go to good colleges despite having had lots of fun times during all those years in their high school, and she and Amy come to reflect seriously on how pathetic they have been for spending too much time and effort on being model students bound for better things in the future.

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In the end, Amy and Molly decide to go for all the fun and excitement they can possibly have before their graduation, but they soon face several setbacks. While they manage to go outside together instead of having a celebratory dinner with Amy’s over-generous parents, they must find the address of a place where a certain handsome and popular boy, who is incidentally the vice student president of their school (Molly is the president, by the way), is going to hold a big evening party for every cool kid in the neighborhood.

Of course, things do not go that well for them as Molly and Amy go around here and there for getting the address of that place in question, and the screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, and Katie Silberman cheerfully and wildly bounces from one comic episode to another along with its two main characters. At first, we get an outrageous part involved with a duo of wild rich kids, and then there is an unexpected scene where Amy and Molly come across one of the last figures they want to meet under their ongoing situation, and then we are later served with a hilariously hallucinogenic scene depicted via stop motion animation.

While never losing its comic momentum, the movie also shows more emotional depth than expected. Around the narrative point where Molly and Amy finally arrive at the party place they are looking for (Is this a spoiler?), they are already developed fully as two engaging human characters, and the movie go further along with them as they come to learn more about not only themselves but also their relationship via a series of impactful moments happening around them. While many of supporting characters in the film are more or less than comic caricatures, the movie treats them with respect and affection, and they often surprise us nonetheless as revealing their recognizable human sides.

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Under Wilde’s skillful direction, the story keeps rolling as continuing to generate good moments for laughs. During its last 20 minutes, the movie seems to sag a bit, but then it virtually races to the finale with more amusement and delight for us, and you will surely appreciate how the last shot of the film is balanced well between genuine humor and sentiment.

It certainly helps that the movie is constantly buoyed by its two wonderful lead actresses. While Beanie Feldstein, who previously gave a terrific supporting performance in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” (2017), confirms to us that she is indeed a talented performer to watch, Kaitlyn Dever, whom I fondly remember for her harrowing supporting turn in “Short Term 12” (2013), is equally fabulous as effectively complementing her co-performer, and they effortlessly handle many uproarious moments in the film while not losing any of their characters’ humanity and intelligence.

Around Feldstein and Dever, the supporting cast members of the film have each own small fun as dutifully filling their respective parts. While Jessica Williams, Lisa Kudrow, Will Forte, Mike O’Brien, and Jason Sudeikis are suitably cast as a few adult characters in the story, the young cast members in the movie are commendable in their well-rounded ensemble acting on the whole, and the special mention must go to Billie Lourd and Skyler Gisondo, who are utterly hilarious and endearing as the aforementioned duo of wild rich kids.

In conclusion, “Booksmart” deserves to be mentioned along with other recent excellent American adolescent comedy films such as “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016) and “Eighth Grade” (2018), and Wilde, who recently impressed us a lot with her gritty performance in “A Vigilante” (2018), gives the exemplary demonstration of another side of her considerable talent. In short, this is one of the best comedy films of this year, and I urge you to watch it as soon as possible.

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Woman at War (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): Her comically defiant activism

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“Woman at War”, which was selected as the Icelandic entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is a dry black comedy film packed with whimsical touches to delight us. While steadily and seriously maintaining its deadpan attitude along with its defiant heroine, the movie often catches us off guard via a series of oddly humorous moments, and we gladly come to go along with that while rooting more for the heroine of the film.

The story mainly revolves around Halla (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir), a choir conductor who has recently become quite radical for her social/political belief. During the opening scene, she is cutting off the power line supplying electricity to some big aluminum plant located in the middle of the highlands region of Iceland, and we later come to learn that this is her latest act of sabotage for stopping the rise of global capitalism, which is a serious theater to society as well as environment in her viewpoint.

Once her latest mission is accomplished, we see how Halla cleverly evades the pursuit of the local police. When a helicopter is coming toward her, she instantly finds a spot where she can hide, and she also happens to be helped by a local farmer, who is willing to borrow his old car to her because, well, he does not welcome much that industrial change coming upon his area.

In addition, it later turns out that Halla has an informant in the Icelandic government, who happens to one of her choir members. Quite nervous about whatever is committed by her, her informant always makes sure that there is no possibility of being wiretapped, and there is a running gag involved with where they put their smartphones during their clandestine meeting.

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Meanwhile, there comes an unexpected news to Halla. Around four years ago, she applied for adoption without much expectation, but now she is notified that she is selected as a foster parent candidate for some little orphan girl in Ukraine, and that makes her ongoing situation a little more complicated. She is willing to continue to fight for her supposedly noble cause, but raising a child will certainly demand a lot from her, and she becomes more conflicted while going through the procedures for adoption as required.

Halla chooses her twin sister Ása, who is also played by Geirharðsdóttir, as the backup custodian for that child , but, though she also applied for adoption at the same time, Ása is mostly occupied with taking her spiritual journey in India at present. That means Halla must be more serious about taking care of that Ukrainian child, but she still finds herself driven by her cause – especially when the Icelandic government and police come to push her further with their retaliation strategies against her radical activism.

Things accordingly get more tense and serious when Halla becomes determined to go further in response, but the screenplay by director Benedikt Erlingsson and his co-writer Ólafur Egill Egilsson, which won the SACD award when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year, keeps maintaining its lightweight sense of deadpan humor as continuously providing small and big moments for laughs. While we are tickled a lot by how Halla manages to go through a police checkpoint with a vehicle containing a substantial amount of explosive material, we also get a good laugh from how boldly Halla tries to shoot down a drone at one point, and then there is a very unlucky foreign guy who frequently functions as an unintentional decoy to draw the attention of the police.

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The most amusing element in the film comes from a trio of musicians who always appear along with the offbeat score by Davíð Þór Jónsson. Whenever Halla makes any decisive action on the screen, these musicians phlegmatically play tuba, keyboard, and percussion in the background while also accompanied with a trio of Ukrainian folk singers from time to time, and that surely accentuates the absurdities surrounding her increasingly silly circumstance.

Firmly holding the center without any misstep, Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir is dryly hilarious in her staunch comic performance. Besides willing to throw herself into a number of outrageous moments including the one when her character has to hide below a bunch of lambs, she deftly handles several key scenes between Halla and her twin sister, and that is one of the main reasons why their last scene works while balanced well between comedy and drama.

In case of a few substantial supporting performers around Geirharðsdóttir, they are also effectively funny with their serious attitude. While Jörundur Ragnarsson is hysterical as Halla’s neurotic informant, Jóhann Sigurðarson is solid as a no-nonsense rural guy who comes to like Halla a lot after their accidental encounter, and Juan Camillo Roman Estrada earns our pity as that unfortunate foreign dude.

“Woman at War” is the second feature film directed by Erlingsson, who previously debuted with “Of Horses and Men” (2013). Although I have not watched that film yet, those funny moments in “Woman at War” show that he is a good filmmaker who knows how to amuse and entertain us, and it will be interesting to see what will come next from him. In short, this is one of funnier films I saw during this year, and I wholeheartedly recommend you to give it a chance someday.

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Rafiki (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A lesbian coming-of-age drama from Kenya

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Kenya film “Rafiki”, which means ‘Friend’, is interesting to watch for several good reasons. While it drew lots of attention for dealing with a subject quite sensitive in Kenya (It was banned by the Kenya Film Classification Board (KFCB) before eventually being allowed by the Kenyan High Court to be screened for several days in the country, for example), the movie is a tender and charming coming-of-age drama packed with vivid cultural elements to be appreciated, and I was alternatively amused and touched even though I recognized its weak aspects from time to time.

At the beginning, we are introduced to Kena (Samantha Mugatsia), an adolescent tomboy girl living with her divorced mother in some neighborhood area of Nairobi. Like many other young women around her, she is expected to be a good wife someday, but she is not particularly interested in boys even though frequently hanging around with neighborhood lads, and she has hoped for something better for her life as aspiring to be a nurse in the future.

On one day, Kena comes across Ziki (Sheila Munyiva), the teenage daughter of a local politician against whom Kena’s father, who is currently living with his new wife, is competing in the upcoming election. Although their first direct encounter is not very pleasant, they soon become close to each other once Ziki apologizes to Kena, and we subsequently see them going around here and there in the city for having more fun together.

In the meantime, their friendship comes to be developed into something deeper than expected. At one point, they happen to be together inside an abandoned ban for avoiding sudden rain, and that is when Kena finds herself more aware of her growing sexual attraction to Ziki, who responds to Kena’s yearning stare with some caress. Although nothing much is done between them, they eventually move on the next logical step when they meet each other again in the abandoned ban, and the movie accordingly gives us a restrained but sensual moment as they hurl themselves into their mutual feelings.

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Once they get romantically involved with each other, Kena and Ziki are constantly reminded of how difficult and complicated their situation is. Their ‘friendship’ has already been the talk of their neighborhood, and Kena’s father is not so pleased when he happens to witness what has been going on between his daughter and Ziki. While naturally concerned about how his campaign can be jeopardized because of that, he is not that angry about his daughter’s homosexuality at least, and he sensibly tries to persuade his daughter to stop meeting Ziki, though Kena only becomes more determined to follow what her heart wants than before.

In addition, Kena and Ziki has to deal with homophobia, which is pretty common around them. While they often see a young gay man insulted and ridiculed by some of Kena’s friends, they also have to endure the blatant anti-gay summon from a local preacher. Even at this moment, homosexuals can be heavily punished for having a sex in Kenya, and that was why the movie sparked lots of controversy in the country even though having the honor of being the first Kenyan film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

While the story later becomes darker and gloomier as expected, the movie is still filled with vibrant spirit and energy, director/co-writer Wanuri Kahiu, who adapted Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story “Jambula Tree” along with Jena Cato Bass, did a commendable job of filling the screen with palpable local atmosphere and details to be savored. While immersed in its plain mundane urban backgrounds, the movie often draws our attention with its striking utilization of colors, and I also like how it conveys to us the class gap between its two main characters via a number of notable details shown from their respective family residences. While Ziki lives in a luxurious apartment where she has her own place, Kena resides in a stuffy place where she is often stuck with her mother, and we come to understand more of her desire for a better life.

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As the center of the movie, Samantha Mugatsia and Sheila Munyiva are believable in the dramatic development of their characters’ relationship, and they ably carry the film together as effortlessly complementing each other. While Mugatsia is terrific in her unadorned expression of the thoughts and feelings churning behind her character’s tentative attitude, Munyiva brings considerable pluck and sweetness to her more outgoing character, and it is always engaging to watch how these two wonderful actresses push or pull each other on the screen.

In case of the supporting performers in the film, they fill their broad caricature roles as much as demanded, and some of them contribute much to the colorful personality of the movie. While Jimmy Gathu is solid as Kena’s flawed but decent father, Neville Misati is also fine as an amiable lad who shows more kindness and generosity to Kena than expected, and Muthoni Gathecha is amusingly salty as a local gossipmonger.

Although it occasionally feels rough and heavy-handed in terms of storytelling and characterization, “Rafiki” will probably be remembered as an important milestone in the African movie history. Yes, it is pretty modest in its small forward step, but it is a big achievement nonetheless, and I sincerely hope it may lead to more African queer films in the future.

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Fast Color (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): The superpower running in her family

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“Fast Color” is a little film which tries something different with its familiar premise. Revolving around the dynamic interactions among its three main characters who are connected with each other via not only blood and but also their inherited superhuman abilities, the movie comes to us as a modest but engaging mix between family drama and SF thriller, and there are several wonderful moments which touch us more than expected.

The movie is set in a near future world which has been suffering from a long period of inexplicable draught. Although the human civilization is not entirely collapsed yet, water has become a far more precious commodity than before while many other things also became pretty scarce, and one of amusing details in the film is nearly empty stores which do not have many commodities on shelves.

At the beginning, we observe the desperate ongoing situation of a young woman named Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has been running away for years due to her superhuman ability. There was a time when she tried to suppress her power via drugs, but she has been sober during recent months, and she has struggled a lot to keep her power under control, though she still cannot help herself whenever she happens to have a seizure. Her seizure always causes a big earthquake around her no matter how much she tries, and she has no choice but to leave as soon as possible because there are some government agents tracking down her for her power.

Realizing that she really needs help more than ever from someone who understands her power, Ruth goes back to her mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint) although they have been estranged to each other for years since Ruth left their family house many years ago due to her personal conflict with her mother. Bo, who also has her own superhuman ability, believes that they should stay away from others for hiding their power just like their female ancestors, and she has stuck to her solitary lifestyle in her family house, which is located far away from a nearby desert town.

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Bo is not alone because she has been taking care of Ruth’s little daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney). While Lila was the reason why Ruth decided to be clean and sober, she was understandably afraid of her possibility of inadvertently harming her baby daughter, so she gave Lila to Bo not long after Lila’s birth. Like her grandmother, Lila has a sort of telekinesis ability, and we later see her confidently demonstrating her ability in front of Bo and Ruth.

As days go by, Ruth becomes more comfortable than before at her family house, and the movie tenderly observes the relationship development between her and her two family members. Although they are often reminded of how much they hurt each other in the past, Ruth and Bo still feel the strong bond between them as a daughter and a mother, and it looks like they can mend their damaged relationship despite Bo’s reservation (“If it’s broken, it stays broken”). Although they understandably feel awkward with each other at first, Ruth and Lila become closer to each other bit by bit, and there is a small intimate moment when Ruth shares her childhood past with her daughter.

Of course, the situation eventually becomes a little more tense as those government agents come quite close to locating Ruth. After noticing something serious is happening around his town, Ellis (David Strathairn), the sheriff of the town, becomes quite concerned for a personal reason to be revealed later in the story, and that subsequently leads to his secret meeting at a certain spot which means a lot to him.

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While the screenplay by director Julia Hart and her co-writer Jordan Horowitz, who is also the co-producer of the movie, takes an expected plot development during its last act, the movie keeps holding our attention as firmly focusing on the personal drama among its three main characters. Through her growing relationship with her daughter, Ruth gradually finds a way to embrace and control herself as well as her power, and there is an awe-inspiring moment when she finally experiences something akin to a big breakthrough. As beholding how much her daughter is changed around the end of the story, Bo comes to see what should be done for her daughter and granddaughter’s future, and there is considerable poignancy in her following decision.

Hart draws the solid performances from her main cast members. While Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a talented British actress who has been more notable since “Belle” (2013) and “Beyond the Lights” (2014), is convincing in her character’s gradual personal transformation along the story, Lorraine Toussaint and David Strathairn are dependable as usual in their respective supporting roles, and young performer Saniyya Sidney ably holds her own place between Mbatha-Raw and Toussaint. Whenever Mbatha-Raw, Toussaint, and Sidney are together on the screen, their chemistry on the screen is palpable to say the least, and that is exemplified well during one particular scene where their characters silently move around each other in the kitchen. Nothing seems to be conveyed to us at first, but we sense the growing tension beneath the surface nonetheless, and we come to wonder what will happen next among them.

On the whole, “Fast Color” is an admirable genre piece supported well by its good mood, storytelling, and performance, and Hart, who previously debuted with “Miss Stevens” (2016), shows here that she is another interesting filmmaker to watch. At this point, she has already moved onto making two movies to be released in the next year, and I will certainly have some expectation on them.

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Annabelle Comes Home (2019) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): A creepy and perilous night for babysitting

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“Annabelle Comes Home”, the seventh installment in the Conjuring Universe franchise, delivers exactly what its target audiences want although it is not wholly satisfying in my trivial opinion. While it is surely packed with enough creepy atmosphere and a number of scary moments to jolt or thrill you, but it is sometimes hampered by its weak narrative and characterization, and, as discerning more of its flawed aspects during my viewing, I often found myself feeling distant to whatever was going on the screen.

After the prologue part showing how Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), a decent couple who are also well-known experts on paranormal activities including spiritual possession as shown in “The Conjuring” (2013) and its 2016 sequel, manage to bring an evil doll named Annabelle to the safe storage room in their cozy suburban house, the movie moves to one year later, and then we meet their little daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace), who has been going through a rather difficult time at her Catholic school. While often ridiculed by other students for her parents’ growing reputation, she has also been disturbed by a certain ghost hanging around the school, and there is a creepy scene where she comes to senses the presence of that ghost even while not looking behind her.

When Mr. and Mrs. Warren are going to be absent for some business to be taken care of, a teenager girl named Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) is brought as a babysitter to take care of Judy during the upcoming weekend. While Mary Ellen is supposed to be alone with Judy, her friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) soon comes to the house mainly because of her personal curiosity about what Mr. and Mrs. Warren have dealt with for years, and it does not take much time for her to become quite interested in whatever is behind the heavily locked door of that safety storage room in the house.

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If you watched “The Conjuring”, you remember well that Mr. and Mrs. Warren’s safety storage room are full of potentially dangerous objects besides Annabelle, which has been safely contained inside a sacred glass case. Everything in the room looks ominous enough to alarm anyone, but Daniela ignores those numerous bad signs around her, and she is not even disturbed much by the big warning sign attached to that sacred glass case containing Annabelle.

Anyway, it turns out that Daniela has been desperately wishing to contact with her recently diseased father, so she casually attempts to summon her father’s soul in front of Annabelle, but, of course, she only comes to unleash the evil influence of Annabelle instead. Although nothing seems to happen on the surface at first, it is pretty apparent to us that Annabelle is back in her action now, and the mood around the house accordingly becomes more malevolent – especially when night comes.

Gradually increasing the level of tension and creepiness on the screen with a series of small disturbing moments, the movie amuses us a bit from time to time. While we get some small laughs via an adolescent boy willing to go further for impressing Mary Ellen, there is a sweet moment when Mary Ellen and Daniela surprise Judy with a little early birthday party for her, and we later get a warm, intimate moment between Judy and Mary Ellen as Judy is about to sleep under Mary Ellen’s care.

Around the third act of the movie, all the hell breaks loose as expected. Besides a murderous ghost associated with a shabby wedding dress, Annabelle also releases other evil spirits including 1) the one called ‘The Ferryman’, 2) the one lurking inside a seemingly harmless board game, 3) the one associated with an imposing Samurai armor, and 4) the one which is a sort of werewolf ghost. Director/co-writer Gary Dauberman, who wrote the story with co-producer James Wan, serves us several scary scenes peppered with creaks and bangs as demanded, and we certainly get some fun and thrill as our three young main characters are cornered more and more by the dark forces surrounding them.

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However, the movie is often superficial in terms of story and characters. It is acceptable that Judy, Mary Ellen, and Daniela are broad archetype characters, but they are still more or less than mere plot elements to function as planned, and that aspect is especially evident in case of Daniela, whose personal matter involved with her dead father is not particularly depicted well without any substantial emotional depth.

The main cast members did a fairly good job of filling their respective roles as much as possible. While Mckenna Grace, who previously drew our attention for her good performances in “Gifted” (2017) and “I, Tonya” (2017), brings pluckiness to her part while often looking worried and daunted as required, her co-performers Madison Iseman and Katie Sarife imbue their supporting roles with some spirit and personality, and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are reliable as usual although their characters are disappointingly under-utilized in the film.

In conclusion, “Annabelle Comes Home” is a competent genre product, but it is less satisfying than “Annabelle: Creation” (2017) due to its several distracting flaws. I give it 2.5 stars for this reason, but, considering what I observed from other audiences around me, I think you may be more generous to it, so I will not stop you if you simply want to spend some free time on it.

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Plus One (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): As they go through weddings

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“Plus One” did not surprise me much, but it did not bore me at least. Yes, this is another typical romantic comedy film about two different young people who gradually come to realize that they are really in love with each other, and we can see their predictable narrative arc right from the beginning, but it is still fun to watch thanks to a number of witty moments supported well by its two likable lead performers.

Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid play Alice and Ben, two longtime friends who have known each other since their college years, and the movie opens with their characters preparing for another wedding ceremony where they are going to attend. As Alice and Ben become over 30, many of their friends and family members around them frequently marry, but both of them have not still married yet, and Alice feels quite awkward as her boyfriend recently left her for some other girl. After all, it is pretty lousy for anyone in her situation to attend a wedding alone and to be reminded of the status of still being single, isn’t it?

Not long after that point, Alice comes to have a pretty good idea for her and Ben. She suggests that they should attend together a series of upcoming wedding ceremonies to be attended by him or her, and it looks like a win-win deal for both of them. While Alice will not be uncomfortable anymore as being accompanied with Ben, Ben will not look that awkward while more casually looking for any girl who may want to be in a serious relationship with him.

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Once they make a deal with each other, we see them hopping from one wedding from another, and there accordingly come a number of small comic moments. At one point, they are horrified to find that they are going to stay in a rather cheap motel room, but the mood becomes less disagreeable when Ben later happens to draw the attention of two ladies at the motel pool. In case of some other wedding, they let themselves swept by the joyous mood at that wedding, and then they find themselves left alone with each other while everyone else has already left by a shuttle bus, so they have no choice but to walk back to their staying place for a while.

Meantime, something mutual is slowly developed between Alice and Ben, though they are understandably oblivious to that while mostly occupied with each other’s personal matter. When Ben’s father announces to Ben that he is going to marry again, Ben is certainly baffled a lot, and then he becomes more conflicted when his father asks him whether he can be the best man for the upcoming wedding. While playfully pushing Ben toward any possibility of romance, Alice is not prepared much for another romantic relationship in her life, and then it looks like her ex-boyfriend wants to have a new start with her.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Alice and Ben eventually come to feel more of their growing affection between them, but the movie keeps engaging us as they frequently pull and push each other throughout the story. There is an amusingly self-conscious scene where they mention a certain well-known genre convention, and we later get a hilarious moment when they find themselves in a rather embarrassing position in the morning after a wedding.

Of course, the mood becomes less spirited as our two main characters come to have some doubt on their relationship during the third act, but the movie thankfully maintains its wit and humor even during the point while efficiently moving to the expected ending. Yes, there are several clichéd moments which feel a bit too blatant in my humble opinion, but they are presented well at least, and directors/writers Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer did a competent job of handling their story and characters with considerable care and affection.

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Above all, it helps that the movie is constantly buoyed by the amiable chemistry between its two lead performers who may advance further in the future considering the presence and talent presented by them. While Maya Erskine, who previously played supporting roles in “6 Balloons” (2018) and “Wine Country” (2019), is brimming with genuine quirky charm, Jack Quaid, who is, yes, the son of Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, is an effective counterpart to his co-performer, and they delight us with their effortless comic timing whenever they share the screen together.

In case of the supporting performers surrounding them in the film, they are mostly stuck with underdeveloped roles, and that is one of a few glaring weak aspects in the film. While Perrey Reeves, who previously played Ari Gold’s long-suffering wife in HBO TV series “Entourage”, does not have many things to do as the future wife of Ben’s father, Ed Begley Jr., a dependable veteran actor who drew my attention for the first time in “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), manages to hold his own small place as Ben’s father, and he brings some honesty and sincerity to the scene where his character and Ben come to have a heart-to-heart talk in private later in the story.

Overall, “Plus One”, which received the Narrative Audience Award when it was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival early in this year, does not break any new ground in its genre territory, but it is a fairly entertaining romantic comedy equipped with enough fun and charm, and I recommend it to you despite some mild reservation. It is not particularly fresh, but it did its job as well as required, so I will not complain for now.

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