Friday, August 28, 2015



Grandma official site Since the '60s, the distinguished comedian and actress Lily Tomlin has made outstanding contributions in film, television, and theater. Her singular footprint in American culture deserves a course to be taught in college. She has brought numerous mesmerizing characters to life and there is no sign of slowing down at the age of 75. In her latest film "Grandma" (USA 2015 | 80 min.), she gives another terrific performance in portraying a grumpy grandma, a role specifically written for her by the film's writer-director Paul Weitz. Despite a handful of unconvincing moments in the plot, the film is a fitting platform for Lily Tomlin once again to deliver a splendid performance.

In the opening scene, a retired poet Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) coldly dumps her much younger lover Olivia (Judy Greer) by labeling her as just a "footnote." Later we learn that Elle is still grieving for the recent death of her long time partner Violet, although that still doesn't make her behavior rational. She seems to be angry toward the world surrounding her. She hardly speaks to her estranged daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden). She has few friends. Even though she has very little money in the wallet, she cuts up her credit cards to be free from debt. Now she is also free from her devastated young lover.

Then Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up at Elle's door and drops a bomb—Sage is pregnant and she needs $620 to pay for an abortion in the afternoon. Elle is Sage's last resort because she cannot let her mom Judy know about this. Suddenly the forgotten feminist intellectual Elle finds her new purpose in life. But the trouble is that she can hardly find any money herself. Without wasting any time, Elle gets into her vintage car with Sage and starts their fund-raising effort, including paying a visit to Karl (Sam Elliott), whom she was married to a long time ago before she came out as a lesbian.

Grandma Official Site

The setup of the plot seems a little bit too convenient. It's hard to believe that as an accomplished scholar and poet, Elle cannot even come up with $620. It's also incomprehensible that Sage is so desperate to have the abortion done today that Elle must go as far as seeing her ex-husband Karl whom she has not spoken to for decades. However, if you can forgive the convenient setup, you will appreciate the superb performances by a fine cast and many witty one-liners by the writer-director Paul Weitz. In fact, the coerced reunion between Elle and Sam is one of the most delicious moments in the film (minus the drinking and driving), and it's already generating some Oscar buzz.

Although the film is billed as a comedy, it's often more poignant than funny. The world appears to have moved on and has left Elle behind, or maybe she chooses to be left alone as the opening scene suggests. Perhaps Elle has her reasons to be angry and it's time for her to get the anger out of her chest.

Should Lily Tomlin's extraordinary performance get an Oscar nod? You bet!

"Grandma," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, August 28, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, August 21, 2015


Mistress America

Mistress America official site Compared to San Francisco, I have never wanted to live in New York City even though it's perhaps one of the most fascinating cities in the world and it has a strange and irresistible appeal to all walks of life, especially artists. Yet, every time I see a film by the director Noah Baumbach that is set in New York City, I get this impulse of moving to New York City to experience the city's life myself. His films seductively capture the sceneries in the Big Apple and the souls of his aspiring and eccentric characters (remember "Frances Ha"?) who are often hilarious. Based on a screenplay co-written with his real-life partner and his lead actress—the talented and charming Greta Gerwig—the writer-director Noah Baumbach comically unfolds another New Yorkers' story in his latest screwball comedy "Mistress America" (USA 2015 | 84 min.).

The film begins with 18-year-old Tracy's (Lola Kirke) bumpy start of her freshman year in a college in New York City. She wants to be a writer, but she is rejected by the Mobius Literary Society at school. She has no friends to hang out with and her college life is dull and boring even though she is in the heart of the Big Apple. However, when disconsolate Tracy reaches out to her future stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig), everything suddenly changes from the moment of Brooke's grand entrance at Times Square.

The fast-talking Brooke is certainly in sync with the pace in New York City. She is constantly on the move and looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities. She has many big ideas although she seems unable to transfer any of them into reality. Immediately after Tracy meets Brooke, she is showered with Brooke's energy and is excited about Brooke's idea of opening a trendy restaurant—actually it's going to be a community center that people can come to eat or have their haircut and kids can have their homework done after school. Even better, Tracy gets inspiration from Brooke for her fiction writing.

When one of Brooke's investors backs off from the restaurant proposal, Brooke desperately needs some money to keep the deal alive. The only implausible solution Brooke comes up is this: Brooke and Tracy get in the car of Tracy's classmate Tony (Matthew Shear, who looks like Jesse Eisenberg's twin wearing glasses) and Tony's jealous girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones), and they drive to Connecticut to ask Brooke's rich ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) for rescue, but only if Dylan can override the objection from his wife Mamie Claire (Heather Lind) who stole everything from Brooke, including her man, her T-shirt idea, and her cats.

Mistress America Official Site

As always, Greta Gerwig is terrific playing the sincere Brooke who is amusing, frivolous, and vain. Her on-screen interactions with the equally superb Lola Kirke as Tracy are absolutely delightful to watch. Tracy and Brooke certainly enjoy each other's company, but they are also using each other for their own benefit. The writer-director Noah Baumbach skillfully explores the subtle relationship between the two young women, while beautifully captures the magnetic views on the streets in New York City.

But when the gang arrives at Dylan's mansion, the camera hardly goes out of the room and the entire episode looks like a stage performance in a theater. Despite the heated arguments, it looks dull and boring. Perhaps life outside of New York City is meant to be that way. It's a sharp contrast to the lively and dynamic feel when Brooke and Tracy roam around the city.

I will probably never move to New York City, but will enjoy watching more New Yorker's stories on the big screen, for better or worse. People like Brooke and Tracy are truly fascinating.

"Mistress America," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, opens on Friday, August 21, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, August 7, 2015


Ricki and the Flash

Ricki and the Flash official site Is there any role that the three-time Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep cannot play? Probably not, unless it's a half-baked character that even the director has a hard time handling. Even though she had to learn how to play a rhythm guitar in order to play live in "Ricki and the Flash" (USA 2015 | 102 min.), Meryl Streep is as convincing as any rock-star and sings beautifully. However, it's the badly-written character that leaves her screen appearance awkward and perplexing. What a pity.

Decorated with numerous jewelries on her fingers and neck, inked with an American flag on her back, and braided her hair stylishly, Ricki (Meryl Streep) is a free-spirite struggling rock musician. She works as a cashier during the day to make ends meet; at night, she sings at a local bar with her rock band called "The Flash," with Greg (Rick Springfield) on lead guitar, Buster (Rick Rosas who died shortly after the filming) on bass, Billy (Bernie Worrell) on keyboard, and Joe (Joe Vitale) on drum. Although there are fewer than a dozen of old folks on any given night, Ricki and the Flash can always count on the cheer from the scene-stealing enthusiastic bartender Daniel (Ben Platt).

Ricki is passionate about being a rock star and she has no regret for leaving her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) and their three children behind in Indianapolis and moving to Tarzana, CA in the '60s. Despite being broke, she seems content and alive whenever she plays with the Flash, but she has no connection with her abandoned family back in Indiana.

Out of the blue, Pete calls Ricki and tells her that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, the real life daughter of Meryl Streep) is having a nervous breakdown because Julie's husband is leaving her for another woman. Never mind that Ricki didn't bother to attend Julie's wedding, she flies back to Indianapolis at Pete's home to attend to Julie's well-being. Really?

During her visit, for the first time, Ricki meets Pete's new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) who raised Ricki's children into their adulthood. Ricki also reunites with her resentful gay son Adam (Nick Westrate) and her elder son Josh (Sebastian Stan) who is about to marry an environmentalist Emily (Hailey Gates). Josh and Emily have no intention to invite Ricki to their wedding. But please take a wild guess if Ricki is going to attend the wedding after all.

Ricki and the Flash Official Site

The film is directed by Academy Award-winning veteran director Jonathan Demme. However, he seems confused at how to turn a sloppy script, written by Diablo Cody, into a meaningful story. Is this a film about the reconciliation of a broken family? Or is it about the pursuit of a musician's dream? Or is it about forgiveness and love? Or is it about the reflection on a personal choice? Actually, the film is about none of the above. Yet, the film unsuccessfully tries to be all of them. After Diablo Cody won an Oscar for writing the terrific "Juno" (2007), she has not written any good script ever since. Now she flunks once again.

Whenever in Pete's mansion as a failed mother, Meryl Streep is visibly acting to be Ricki and her body language and voice become awkward, even though she is still less painful to watch than Kevin Kline's performance. That is perhaps because no one seems to know what Ricki's character is supposed to think or do. But whenever Meryl Streep gets on stage with a guitar as a musician, she soars magnificently and shows that she is capable of anything if her role is well-defined.

It would have been more enjoyable if we can simply enjoy the musical performance by Meryl Streep. Instead, we have to suffer with her together to endure dreadful family drama that no one is going to believe. No wonder Ricki ran away years ago. I don't blame her.

"Ricki and the Flash," a TriStar Pictures release, opens on Friday, August 7, 2015.

Friday, July 31, 2015


Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation official site By now, you must have seen or heard about the astonishing scene of Tom Cruise hanging on a military transport aircraft that is taking off. There is no special effect or stunt. It's a stunning and brave action that convincingly belongs to the fictional espionage character Ethan Hunt in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. That scene also sets the high bar to the franchise's fifth installment, a thrilling "Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation" (USA 2015 | 131 min.). The writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and the producer-star Tom Cruise handsomely deliver a fine summer entertainment with an intense story, exhilarating action sequences, and the familiar "Mission: Impossible" theme tune.

The impressive opening scene is simply an exciting way to reintroduce the film's protagonist Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) who is still active with his pals: the geeky wizard Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the always competent Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), and their commander William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) at the secretive espionage agency Impossible Missions Force (IMF). Even though they have just averted a disastrous situation preventing terrorists from possessing chemical weapons, the CIA director Alan Huntley (Alec Baldwin) isn't happy with them. In fact, he deems IMF's actions irresponsible. He proposes to shut down their operations and to bring Ethan back to US soil.

That seems an impossible mission because Ethan is the "living manifestation of destiny." He easily eludes the pursuit from the CIA and continues to be anywhere he needs to be. But he is not the target only of the CIA. His superb ability is also sought after by a secret terrorist group called the Syndicate, led by a ruthless Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Ethan is dragged into Lane's scheme to steal an encrypted computer file from a secured location with the help from a former MI5 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The file is crucial to the future operations of the Syndicate as well as to uncovering the past of MI5. It's in everybody's interest to gain control of it.

No mission seems impossible for Ethan Hunt and his fellow IMF agents. The game is on and you better fasten your seatbelt when you witness the journey.

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation Official Site

Winning an Oscar for writing "The Usual Suspects" (1995), the writer-director Christopher McQuarrie certainly knows how to engage his audience with a well-structured complex story. Even though it's billed as an action flick, this film's multi-layered plot never gets washed off by its superbly-choreographed actions. Each segment of the story is cleared laid out by setting up an intriguing scenario that sounds absolutely impossible. Yet, it unfolds with credibility and conviction.

The film also exhibits a smooth rhythm between the slick moves of an old-fashioned spy movie and the spectacular visuals of a modern action flick. It contains an elegantly-crafted operatic assassination during the performance of "Turandot" in Vienna. It also involves a mesmerizing chase in Casablanca that beats any commercial for "the ultimate driving machine." If those are not enough to impress you, the characters also jump on motorcycles for a serious ride.

Without any doubt, Tom Cruise affirms himself to be the legendary Ethan Hunt in the "Mission: Impossible" franchise. Although he doesn't yell "Show me the money!" in this film, movie-goers will do just that at the box office for this film and its sequels to come.

"Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation," a Paramount Pictures release, opens on Friday, July 31, 2015.

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