The Handmaiden
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Nudity, sex and graphic violence. In subtitled Korean and Japanese.
Theater: Lagoon

 

Here’s something for the Halloween mood, provided you enjoy gothic erotic fiction and perverse psychosexual thrillers stocked with gorgeous cinematography and laugh-out-loud violence.

Korean director Park Chan-wook (of such interesting, visually engaging shockers as “Stocker,” “Oldboy” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”) creates a wildly complicated story of love and death, captivity and freedom, seduction and betrayal, honesty and make-believe. Each theme evolves across unpredictable dimensions, leading from humor-flaked decadence to a surprisingly happy ending.

During Japan’s 1930s occupation of Korea, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), a fetching female pickpocket, is recruited by a handsome con man (Ha Jung-woo). She is ordered to become a servant to Japanese debutante Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) and help convince the mentally fragile heiress to marry him. Then he expects to commit her to a madhouse and take her inheritance. The trio’s interlocked relationships in Hideko’s mansion become increasingly complex. Exactly who is whose suitor, and who is manipulating whom, takes three intricate chapters to decode.

Inspired by Sarah Waters’ world of petty thieves, asylums and surprising passions in her throbbingly sexy Victorian throwback “Fingersmith,” the film riffles that 400-page bestseller into a long, dark, twisted and mesmerizing 144 minutes. Echoing the sociopolitical meme of the moment, it shows that naughty, nasty women are a potent force all their own.
Colin Covert

 

Aquarius
⋆⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Unrated: Nudity and sex.
In subtitled Portuguese.
Theater: Edina

 

Out with the old and in with the new? This excellent Brazilian character study isn’t quite ready for that. Even its 1980s retro opening, with a good-times soundtrack of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” arrives with a “Says who?” confidence. Veteran star Sonia Braga plays Clara, a 65-year-old force of nature who enjoys living every day in her lovely, old beachfront condominium, located next to bland new high-rises. Never mind that she’s a widow, a cancer survivor, largely separated from her two nice sons and one annoying daughter, a retired music journalist with a library-sized collection of vintage vinyl and the last holdout resident in her nearly vacant housing complex. Clara’s beautiful building is being cleared for a knockdown, with the predatory developer, former neighbors expecting their final payment for moving out and her own children all wanting Clara to pocket the builder’s cash and step aside. Says who?

Braga’s screen magnetism is irresistible as she goes to war against the people and community issues pushing her toward the exit. Her sly detective work reveals layer upon layer of moral misdeeds and economic corruption. But while she can outthink her rivals, can she outlast them? Writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho uses views from her balcony, the sound of the nearby surf and the placement of physical heirlooms to keep us near her unstoppable beating heart, and her close to ours. In an era when movies about and for older viewers tend to be insipid comedies, this is a welcome change of pace.
C.C.

Do Not Resist
⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Unrated: Contains disturbing images and profanity
Theater: St. Anthony Main

 

It’s no secret that U.S. police departments have turned into mini militias, armed with the most destructive devices taxpayer money can buy. This documentary examines the phenomenon through seemingly unrelated vignettes, many of which are unexpectedly quiet.

It would be hard to choose which of these scenes is the most indelible, but a top contender is when a SWAT team in Richland County, S.C., swarms a house to execute a search warrant. They do as much damage as they can on the way in — as a “distractionary tactic,” one explains — then handcuff everyone they find. The ensuing search uncovers a small amount of marijuana. The young black man charged with possession is a college kid doing landscaping on the side, He asks a seemingly friendly officer to deliver the $876 in his pocket to his boss, but the officer blithely decides to seize the cash instead.

A troubling portrait emerges, which is all the more interesting considering that first-time documentarian Craig Atkinson (the cinematographer from “Detropia”) is the son of a police officer who served on a SWAT team for more than a decade. Even without the guidance of narration or a single story arc, it becomes clear that the war on terror has unwittingly spawned another war between police officers trained to fight like soldiers and the people they’ve sworn to protect.
Stephanie merry, Washington Post

Certain Women
⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: R for profanity
Theater: Edina

 

Over her 20-year career, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt has carved out a singular, determinedly off-center space in the cinematic landscape, working in sometimes epic scale (“Meek’s Cutoff”) and in intimate chamber pieces (“Old Joy”), but always with a quietly observant, compassionate eye on human-scale foibles and dynamics. For her newest film, Reichardt took on writing duties, adapting the short stories of Maile Meloy into a typically Reichardt-ian portrait of ambivalence and solitude.

A triptych of subtly interlocking stories, it features some of the year’s best performances: Laura Dern plays Laura, a lawyer living in a tiny Montana town where nothing much happens outside your random, everyday hostage situation; Michelle Williams plays Gina, who is building a home on a scenic patch of land outside town; and Kristen Stewart plays Elizabeth, a young lawyer in training who has agreed to teach a weekly night course on educational law.

Just how their lives intersect (or don’t) gives the movie an intriguing, if wispy, whiff of mystery. But mostly Reichardt is interested in portraiture and how character is revealed through the small, sometimes extraordinary, actions each woman takes to cope with her own sense of stifling limitation. We instinctively crave some kind of cathartic confrontation or union toward the end. Instead, Reichardt lets her flawed, enigmatic heroines be, allowing them to keep struggling, persevering and relishing what can sometimes pass for tiny victories.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post