Friday, February 20, 2015


Leviathan (Левиафан)

Leviathan official site Depicting human suffering often results great cinema. If the suffering is not due to a nature disaster, a war, or a religion, but due to government corruption and bureaucracy, it provokes more anger and despair with the audience and more irritation with the authority. That doesn't explain the irony about acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's (Андре́й Звя́гинцев) latest gripping film "Leviathan" (Левиафан | Russia 2014 | in Russian | 141 min.). Its bleak story about a working family's struggle to hang on with their livelihood is a sharp critique to the status quo of Russia's corrupted local government system. Yet, the film is partially financed by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and it's selected as the Russia's entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The film opens with impeccably framed seashore of Barents Sea in Northern Russia, while Philip Glass's unsettling music score is played in the background. When the music stops, we see a modest home overlooking the sea where abandoned shipwrecks lying around. This is the home of hot-tempered mechanics Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov Алексей Серебряков) who lives with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova Елена Лядова) and his teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev Сергей Походаев) from his first wife. This piece of property also becomes the prey of the corrupted Mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madianov Роман Мадянов) who wants to build a mansion for himself at this prime location.

In order to fight with the Mayor, Kolya seeks help from his childhood friend Dmitri (Dmitriy Seleznyov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков) who is a lawyer from Moscow. But during a comical court proceeding, Kolya learns the inevitable that he is no match in combating the unfair system. To make the matter worse, not only he is going to lose the house that his family calls home for generations, but also he is going to face more tragedy in his life.

Leviathan Official Site

In his forth feature, Andrey Zvyagintsev straightforwardly tells a sad story with plenty black humor. It's a sharp contrast to his previous films because this film makes a clear social commentary jabbing at the current Russian society while his previous films kept certain distance from Russia's reality. It pokes fun at flawed justice system and vents the outrage at the grim outlook for ordinary citizens.

I was completely awestruck by Andrey Zvyagintsev's amazing directional debut "The Return" (Возвращение 2003) and I was captivated by his engrossing story in "Elena" (2011). Although I am less overwhelmed by "Leviathan," I am both surprised and impressed when the film unflinchingly zooms in people's lives in today's Russia. Its social relevance and sarcastic tone makes me wonder if Andrey Zvyagintsev was drinking vodka with Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) all night long before he made this film. The difference is that Andrey Zvyagintsev's film gets selected to represent Russia in the Oscar race, while Jia's "A Touch of Sin" (天注定 2013) cannot be shown in China.

Speaking of vodka, that transparent liquor appears almost in every scene in the film and it is drunk by almost every character, heavily and absurdly. While the vodka creates plenty comic moments, it has less effect on the storytelling than on the bodies of those characters. If I were Russian I would be offended by the stereotype portrait of the heavy drinking tradition in Russia. The subplot about Dmitri is also unfortunate and unconvincing.

Despite the minor flaws, the film achievement is remarkable and its story is devastating. Its striking imagery will linger in your head long than the whale bones on the seashore.

"Leviathan," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 20, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area, and it will win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday, January 22, 2015.

(Well, I was wrong, it didn't win.)

Friday, February 6, 2015


Red Army

Red Army official site The mix of sports and politics is hardly new in history. Arguably called China's national sport in the '70s, ping-pong thawed the U.S.-China relation. In the formal Soviet Union, ice-hokey is more than a national sport, it's a national pride and a magnet for patriotism, and it's at the center of the directory Gabe Polsky's fascinating and entertaining documentary "Red Army" (USA 2014 | in Russian/English | 85 min.). However, the film's true subject is not about the sport, but about its players—the legendary Red Army Team, and the politics surrounding them. Just like a fast moving ice-hockey game, the filmmaker sleekly presents a remarkable story told by the charismatic team captain Viacheslav "Slava" Fetisov ( Вячеслав "Слава" Фетисов).

Confident, intelligent, cocky, tough, articulate, and funny Slava is more than just a gifted hockey player, he is a national hero. After years of intense training by Viktor Tikhonov, he led his five-member Red Army Team to become the National Team and won numerous titles around the world. The fluid harmony and impeccable coordination they exhibited on ice earned them the reputation as the best hockey team ever existed. The harsh training they received not only intended to build their skill and strength, but also to eliminate their individuality and to melt them into one unbeatable unit.

But that was during the Soviet era while the team's medals were regarded as a vindication of socialist's superiority. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, the team also fell apart. The team's players became hot commodity sought by the National Hockey League (NHL) in the US and Canada. Would they shine their glory like when they were together before?

Red Army Official Site

Born in the US to his Soviet immigrant parents, the filmmaker Gabe Polsky apparently knows his material comprehensively. He seamlessly blends amusing animation with a vast amount of historical footage to clearly and rapidly present the story behind the legendary hockey team. Despite the beautiful and nostalgia melodies (including the most familiar "Подмосковные вечера") in the background, the film isn't about recalling the old time when the Red Army Team ruled on ice. It's a compelling study about the relationship between sport and politics, individualism and collectivism, socialism and capitalism, patriotism and opportunism, loyalty and apostasy. Although the subject matter is ambitions, the film doesn't contain a single dull moment regardless you are a fan of hockey or not, and it has plenty delightful humor, high drama, and surprising excitement.

Slava's candid interviews also greatly contribute to the film's success. His strong personality, his enormous sacrifice, his remarkable talent, and his political instinct made himself a mesmerizing and fascinating character. This film offers a rare opportunity for him to tell his side's story, which is not to be missed.

"Red Army," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, February 6, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.


The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water official site If First Lady Michelle Obama's campaign to fight the epidemic of childhood obesity made any progress in children's mind during the past few years, it might all evaporate when these kids flock to theaters with salt and butter soaked popcorn in hand watching "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water" (USA 2015 | 93 min.). This time-travel 3D adventure is about how sugar brained SpongeBob and his ice-cream addicted pals try hard to get back a stolen recipe for making heart-attack friendly but delicious burgers. The film is probably more effective to advertise burgers to the kids than anything Michelle Obama has been preaching.

The burger is called Krabby Patty, named after a restaurant owner Mr. Krabs (Clancy Brown). Although it sounds like crappy patty, it's a fond delicacy to residents living in Bikini Bottom, an undersea utopia. Krabby Patty's success is due to its secret recipe which is closely guarded by SpongeBob (Tom Kenny).

When Mr. Krabs's rival Plankton (Mr. Lawrence) attempts to steal the secret recipe, SpongeBob fights back, but soon they realize that the recipe is missing. Without Krabby Paddy, the entire Bikini Bottom enters a stage of apocalypse. To save the "world," joined by a starfish Patrick (Bill Fagerbakke), an octopus Squidward (Rodger Bumpass), a squirrel Sandy (Carolyn Lawrence), and Mr. Krabs, SpongeBob comes out the sea into human's world to recover the recipe. To do so, they have to fight a pirate Burger Beard (Antonio Banderas) who may be responsible to the recipe's disappearance.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water Official Site

I admit that I have not done my homework, because I have never seen anything about SpongeBob prior to this film. Thus, I certainly don't qualify as a fan of director Paul Tibbitt's bizarre creation of a square faced yellow block, and I can't recognize other strange looking characters either. Yet, the film's humor is amusing, its charm is undeniable, and its animation is dazzling. Obviously, not all jokes is geared toward young children. For example, how many children would smile at a food truck that sells burgers made from the Krabby Patty recipe for $6.99? Things like that distinguish the film from being a 3D version of TV's Saturday-morning cartoon program, so the film can be enjoyed by adults who take the kids to a theater as well.

However, this is still a children's film no matter how many subtle adult jokes are sneaked in. Therefore, its overly structured plot has more layers than a Krabby Patty for a child to consume. Luckily, most kids couldn't care less about it because they are certain to be enchanted by the kindergarten cuteness and lovely animation. It's like a Krabby Patty, even it's loaded with many strange ingredients, kids are going to love it.

That makes me wonder why the First Lady didn't think of making a cartoon film like this to spread her idea about healthy diet. Now it's too late—like the residents living in Bikini Bottom, kids who watch this film might think that a burger is the most delicious food in the world because they believe in SpongeBob more easily than the First Lady. Ops.

"The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water," a Paramount Pictures release, opens on Friday, February 6, 2015.

Friday, January 30, 2015



Mommy official site Although he is only 25-year-old, Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan already made five impressive feature films, and his latest film "Mommy" (Canada 2014 | in French | 139 min.) was selected as Canada's foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards after sharing the Prix du Jury at last year's Cannes Film Festival. This heartbreaking and energetic film depicts an emotional roller-coaster that an eccentric mother and her unresting son are riding.

The film's protagonist is an often violent and unstable but also charming and naughty 15-year-old Steve Després (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), who might be every parent's nightmare. His attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes him unpredictable and difficult to control. That doesn't discourage his widowed eccentric mother Diane "Die" Després (Anne Dorval) to take him back home from a juvenile care facility after he set fire in the cafeteria. Although the chain-smoking, alcoholic, fiery Die is tough and determined to take on the challenge of taking care of Steve, she is facing an uphill battle. Her being broke and jobless doesn't help either.

Luckily, a kind neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément) with a speech impediment walks into the chaos between the mother and son and gradually opens up to them. The trio form a bond that brings them joy and hope. However, like Steve's temperament, things are not always predictable and hardly go as they have hoped.

Mommy Official Site

Xavier Dolan's semi-autobiographical directorial debut "I Killed My Mother" (2009) is also about the rocky relationship between a misunderstood mother and son. But he is hardly repeating himself in this film. He is a filmmaker who is often fierce and unconventional, just like many characters he created in his films. He constantly reinvents himself and gives his audience refreshing surprises, even not necessarily always pleasant—I didn't care about "Laurence Anyways" (2012).

Throughout the film, the image is blocked into a 1:1 square on the screen, which forces us to focus on whatever is left in the frame. It serves as a metaphor that what Die and everyone else in the film can see. They are cornered into a limited cluster and can hardly deal with anything else. They are completely overwhelmed, and so are the viewers. There are only two brief moments in the film when the frame opens up widely. One is when Steve is gliding on the street as free as he can ever be under a blue sky. The other is when Die is daydreaming about a possible bright future for Steve. But sadly, they both live shortly and we are confined right back into the small square. As one of his signatures, Xavier Dolan's unapologetic usage of loud songs and music in this film is both effective and unforgettable.

The performances by the three main characters are both powerful and poignant. They all constantly face difficult decisions they would rather avoid. Certainly Die and Steve love each other, but love is simply not enough for living in reality. As for Kyla, it's even more complicated.

When you can't handle someone you love, what can you do to keep your hope alive? Xavier Dolan unflinchingly shows you just that in this film.

"Mommy," a Roadside Attractions release, opens on Friday, January 30, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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