Friday, May 20, 2016

 

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys official site The gloomy faced Russell Crowe and the handsome but serious looking Ryan Gosling are two of the best known actors in Hollywood, but not for playing comic characters. If they are cast together in a buddy film, are they going to be funny for a change? Apparently not, judging from the director Shane Black's comedy "The Nice Guys" (USA 2016 | 116 min.). The two fine actors awkwardly execute a dull script that tries to tell a murky story. They work hard to be funny yet misfire most of the time. It makes you wonder if the real reason for this year's Cannes Film Festival to show this film last Sunday is because they just want to see the duo in person, which may be more fun.

When the film's title appears in a similar typeface as the one used in "Boogie Nights" (1997), you are clued in that the story is set in 1977, and the location is in Los Angeles which is blanketed with smog, pornography, and celebrities. Scruffy Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) gets paid by his clients for beating up people. When he first meets the alcoholic and not-so-bright private detective Holland March (Ryan Gosling), he mercilessly breaks Holland's arm.

Then after the spectacular death of a porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio), for far-fetched reasons, Jackson teams up with Holland to search for a missing young woman named Amelia (Margaret Qualley), who is the daughter of the impeccably pampered Head of the California Department of Justice (Kim Basinger). Jackson and Holland certainly don't appear to have the chemistry to get along, especially after they had a pretty bad start. But it doesn't matter. The movie must go on regardless of how preposterous the story becomes. Unfunny jokes must be delivered even though they are poorly written and provide little dividend to the film's entertaining value. And Jackson and Holland must become buddies no matter how ridiculous the motivation might be.

Why do they have to run amok between bullets to find Amelia? Good luck in figuring that out.

The Nice Guys Official Site

The director Shane Black seems to be aware of the difficulty in making sense of the over-stretched story, as well as the challenge in turning the two big-name actors into a reasonably convincing and likable couple. In order to distract the audience, he adds irrelevant jokes or lame physical comedies that often feel out of the place. When jokes fail to be amusing, he throws in the towel and begins to turn the film into an action flick—people start to be smashed against windshields toward to the end of the film.

Individually, Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling have played many (often melancholy) characters terrifically, such as the ones in in "A Beautiful Mind" (2001) and "Blue Valentine" (2010). So the idea of bringing them together to make a comedy is definitely intriguing. However, this film takes no time to convince you that it's actually a bad idea. The two should not have made this farce.

Oh, no sequel please.

"The Nice Guys," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, opens on Friday, May 20, 2016.


Friday, May 6, 2016

 

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War official site The summer is fast approaching. You know what that means to the big screens in the multiplex—they will be jammed with more monsters, disasters, aliens, as well as those superheroes from Marvel Comics. Normally the bar for these summer blockbusters is set quite low despite their super expensive productions, and we expect more spectacles than compelling storytelling when going to one of these movies. Therefore, when one such movie gathers many familiar characters together and still tells a coherent story, it becomes both refreshing and exciting, as if you suddenly hear a complete sentence from a young toddler who usually just mumbles and smashes things. That's the pleasant surprise and satisfying feeling you might get when you watch "Captain America: Civil War" (USA 2016 | 146 min.) in 3-D on a gigantic IMAX screen. This star-packed entertaining film is directed by the brother team of Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, who have already started to work on their next superhero movies about the Avengers, a bunch superheroes who have special abilities that normal human beings don't posses.

The film's story begins in 1991 when the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), is woken up in a Russian (where else?) bunker and is sent into an operation. Meanwhile, like those US drones flying in foreign air space and dropping bombs, globe-trotting avengers are busy combating the bad guys to make the world a better place. But similar to those deadly drone attacks, many innocent people become collateral damage each time when avengers show off their incredibly powerful abilities.

The US Secretary of State (William Hurt) leads an effort to change the status quo and let the United Nation supervise the activities of avengers. While Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka the Iron Man, supports the notion, some others led by Captain America (Chris Evans) resent the idea. Once a unified and prestigious club suddenly is divided and begins to fight among themselves. A civil war breaks out.

The Iron Man side includes Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Vision (Paul Bettany), and later joined by the scene-stealing Spider-Man (Tom Holland). The Captain America side includes Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). A one-of-a-kind civil war rages on.

Captain America: Civil War Official Site

It's quite remarkable for the film to stay focused on the morality and responsibility behind these dazzling fights. That focus also sets this film apart from most recent superhero movies in which they fight for apparently no reason. But even though their fighting is fierce, it's still more like a wrestling match on a court compared to the current war zone in Syria. After all, we all know that this civil war is going to end and all these avengers will remain friends and colleagues. But before that, they surely put on an entertaining exhibition when they fight each other.

Perhaps you cannot keep track of all the superhero characters and what they are capable of, but you would still be entertained and kept engaged by the story in this film. That's not a trivial achievement for a superhero film, or have we set the bar too low?

"Captain America: Civil War," a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release, opens on Friday, May 6, 2016.


Friday, April 15, 2016

 

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFiFF59)

The longest running film festival in America, the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFiFF), is going stronger than ever into its 59th edition during April 21 - May 5, 2016. In this year's excellent lineup of 173 films, the festival showcases 56 narrative features, 34 documentary features, 74 shorts in 39 languages representing 46 countries and regions.

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival

The festival opens on April 21 with writer-director Whit Stillman's period comedy "Love & Friendship" (USA 2016 | 92 min.), an adaption of Jane Austen's novella about a social climber who finds a way to marry her daughter off. In the middle of the festival on April 30, the festival's centerpiece presentation, James Schamus's directorial debut "Indignation" (USA 2016 | 110 min), tells the struggle of a Jewish young man from New Jersey who attends a small college in the Midwest to avoid being drafted to the Korean War. Finally on May 5, the festival closes with Jesse Moss's documentary "The Bandit" (USA 2016 | 84 min. | Documentary) about the friendship and collaboration between actor Burt Reynolds and stuntman Hal Needham who together created a series of films starting with "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977).

Opening Night: Love & Friendship Centerpiece: Indignation Closing Night: The Bandit

Besides these Big Nights, continuing with the great idea proposed since last year, the SFiFF59 groups its films into the following sections:

Throughout the SFiFF59, besides film screenings, there are also awards and special tributes, live on stage, as well as three Master Classes.

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 21 - May 5, 2016 in San Francisco at Castro Theater, the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission neighborhood with Roxie Theater and Victoria Theatre, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.

Here are a few films I have watched through the festival. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program which has the showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order (more titles may be added):

  • Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다 | South Korea 2015 | in Korean | 121 min.)
  • Paths of the Soul (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ | China 2015 | in Tibetan | 115 min.)
  • A Young Patriot (少年*小赵 | China 2015 | in Mandarin | 105 min. | Documentary)
  • Thithi (ತಿಥಿ | India/USA 2015 | in Kannada | 123 min.)
  • Under the Sun (Russia/Germany/Latvia/Czech Republic/North Korea 2015 | in Korean | 105 min. | Documentary)
  • The Demons (Les démons | Canada 2015 | in French | 118 min.)
  • Thirst (жажда | Bulgaria 2015 | in Bulgarian | 90 min.)
  • Home Care (Domácí péče | Czech Republic 2015 | in Czech | 92 min.)

  • Right Now, Wrong Then (지금은맞고그때는틀리다 | South Korea 2015 | in Korean | 121 min.)

    The characters in South Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo's (홍상수) films are like the hundred-year-old yeast culture starter used by the Boudin to bake their sourdough bread. He just massages them into his films every other year, if not annually. He lets his characters slowly ferment and develop, through boozing, smoking, and chatting. Then he brings freshly baked goods back to SFiFF year after year. If you are loyal to the director, even though you have seen his finished products numerous times, you might continue to be marveled by each round of his labor, just like some people can never quit Boudin's tasty sourdough bread, while some others can't care less.

    Right Now, Wrong Then Official Site

    His latest film "Right Now, Wrong Then" definitely looks familiar to those who have seen the director's work. Again, in the film, a film director meets a painter, then they go out to drink and eat, often in one single long take. Just when you think nothing really happens, he pulls the rug from under your feet and surprises you by letting them meet again and give them a second chance. No, it's not the projectionist hitting the replay button. Apparently, it's the director's buy-one-get-one-free special for today's special.

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  • Paths of the Soul (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ | China 2015 | in Tibetan | 115 min.)

    You clap your two hands together above your head, in front of your chest, and a third time in a lower position. Then you throw yourself to the ground with your head touching the ground—so called kowtow (叩头). Repeat after you get up and walk a few steps, until you reach Lasha in Tibet. You complete the 750-mile journey regardless of the weather condition and no matter how tough or dangerous the roads are, if there actually is a road, that is. That's the pilgrimage story told in Chinese writer-director Zhang Yang's (张扬) stunning docudrama "Paths of the Soul."

    Paths of the Soul Official Site

    The film's Chinese (冈仁波齐) and Tibetan (གངས་རིན་པོ་ཆེ) titles simply refer to the name of Mount Kailash, while its English title reflects the spiritual ritual portrayed in the film more closely. Following the incredible odyssey of a group of Tibetan villagers, the film not only captures the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, but also reveals the devotion of these believers. No matter their physical conditions—old or young (one girl is simply a child!), weak or strong—they are determined to complete the inconceivable journey. They do this with one single goal in mind: to pray for the happiness and longevity of others. Whether you are religious or not, their dedication will profoundly touch and inspire your soul.

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  • A Young Patriot (少年*小赵 | China 2015 | in Mandarin | 105 min. | Documentary)

    No matter where you look in China, it's hard to find a 19-year-old as passionate as Zhao Changtong (赵昶通) at being a zealous patriot. He dresses in uniforms you may only see during the notorious Cultural Revolution; he waves a giant national flag on the streets of his hometown Pingyao (平遥); he cheerfully sings traditional communist tunes; and he shouts patriotic slogans as if he is at a protest rally. And what is more remarkable is that the expression of his patriotism is completely genuine and sincere. After he is spotted by Chinese documentarian Du Haibin (杜海滨) in 2009, he agreed to be filmed for five years, and the process of him evolving and growing-up is nicely packed in Du's captivating new film "A Young Patriot."

    It's not uncommon for young people to be idealistic and full of dreams. However, the extrovert Zhao seems a little extreme. He is determined to become a soldier to protect the motherland. After he failed the college entrance exam, he repeated his senior year in high school. On his second try, he passed the exam and was admitted to Southwest University for Nationalities (西南民族大学) in Chengdu (成都).

    A Young Patriot Official Site

    During his college years, the change in Zhao becomes apparent, both physically and mentally. Gradually, his patriotic rhetoric begins to tone down. His dreams begin to be more realistic. His view of the government and the communist party begins to shatter, especially after the confrontation with the local authority regarding the demolition of the house where he grew up. He transforms into a new person.

    Zhao never appears to be camera-shy, and the director Du Haibin takes full advantage of that and let him candidly talk into the camera whenever he feels like doing so. It's surprising how frank and open Zhao is at expressing himself, without any trace of acting.

    The younger generation in China may hardly resemble Zhao in personality and ideology, but they all undergo the profound transformation as Zhao exhibited in the film, which reflects the rapid and dramatic changes in China.

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  • Thithi (ತಿಥಿ | India/USA 2015 | in Kannada | 123 min.)

    Even though people in a small village in southern India have begun to use cellular phones, their simple way of living, their deeply rooted tradition, and their harsh living environment are hardly changed in anyway. The lives of that part of often unseen world is vividly on display in director Raam Reddy's impressive directorial debut "Thithi." He straightforwardly tells a simple story by using non-professional actors with plenty charm.

    Thithi Official Site

    After the sudden death of Gowda who was over 100 years old, his elder son Gadappa inherits the land. But Gadappa has no interest in tending to it. Like a long haired '60s hippie, Gadappa hilariously roams around with booze in hand. Gadappa's son Thamanna is eager to own the land, but he feels helpless when his father Gadappa stands in his way on paper. The drama reaches its grand finale during Gowda's thithi ceremony when the entire village gathers together.

    The lives in the village may look different, but the human spirit captured in the film is universal.

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  • Under the Sun (Russia/Germany/Latvia/Czech Republic/North Korea 2015 | in Korean | 105 min. | Documentary)

    Acting like a double agent that pleases handlers on both sides during the cold war era, the Russian documentarian Vitaly Mansky's (Вита́лий Ма́нский) fascinating documentary "Under the Sun" provides an undercurrent social commentary about the North Korean government while pleasing its propaganda agenda.

    Flashed quickly at the beginning of the film with hardly readable capitalized letters, the film explains its background—the filmmaker was given a script by the North Korean government to shoot a documentary about a perfect ordinary family in the best country in the world—North Korea. The film crew is escorted during the filming and film's footage is thoroughly examined by the government. However, the end product may not be what it appears to the North Korea authority.

    Under the Sun Official Site

    The "Sun" refers to the great leader Kim Il-sung (김일성), and his birthday is regard as the moment when the sun rises. To celebrate his birthday, a young girl Zin-mi joins the Children's Union to mark the first step to become a faithful patriot. The documentary is supposed to capture the exciting moment and the reaction in her family and community.

    In terms of how it gets made, this film is certainly quite different from a terrific documentary "A State of Mind" (UK 2004), but it nevertheless gives us a rare opportunity to peek into a mysterious closed society dictated by an unpredictable and dangerous authoritarian.

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  • The Demons (Les démons | Canada 2015 | in French | 118 min.)

    What might be inside a 10-year-old boy's head? Probably a whole lot more than you may expect. It's an age when factual knowledge mixes with imagination or even fantasy that can stir all kinds of emotion, including intense fear. That sensible and complex emotion is beautifully captured in the writer-director Philippe Lesage's spellbinding "The Demons" through the excellent performance by a newcomer Édouard Tremblay-Grenier.

    Set in the '80s in the suburb of Montréal, 10-year-old Félix (Édouard Tremblay-Grenier) is an observant and sensitive young boy. Like a sponge, he quietly and eagerly absorbs every piece of information, but then he often feels bloated and unable to probe or to make sense of it. He worries about so many things even at such a young age. However, he is not baseless—he picks up clues like a true detective. He inquisitively gazes at everything that comes into his view.

    He worries about his parents' marriage after he spots his dad's (Laurent Lucas) affair with his best friend Mathieu's (Yannick Gobeil-Dugas) mom. He is scared of the dark after hearing his brother François (Vassili Schneider) casually talk about kidnapping stories around the neighborhood. He is afraid that his love for his beautiful teacher Rébecca (Victoria Diamond) may be found out. He is terrified by believing that he has AIDS after hearing a classmate's presentation in class.

    The Demons Official Site

    Despite the love by his family and friends, Félix feels isolated. He is not always nice to others either. On more than one occasion, he bullies an eager-to-please Patrick (Mathis Thomas), but not without remorse.

    Lest you think the film is an easy viewing into a child's fragile mind, the unsettling sound track and the slow moving camera should cue you that something else is going to happen, sooner or later.

    This is the second narrative feature from the write-director Philippe Lesage who has made four documentaries before. He demonstrated his superb skill of storytelling by gazing into his subjects just like how Félix stares back. He meticulously constructs each frame and patiently lets the story play out inside that frame. It brilliantly creates an intimate and thrilling atmosphere, with many mesmerizing shots, such as when the camera glides along the swimming pool and then comes back again.

    This is one of the best films I have seen so far this year, and definitely not to be missed at the festival, especially because it hasn't been set to release in the US yet.

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  • Thirst (жажда | Bulgaria 2015 | in Bulgarian | 90 min.)

    One of the best films at this year's festival is Bulgarian director Svetla Tsotsorkova's (Светла Цоцоркова) wonderful directorial debut "Thirst" which is more of a character study than merely telling a story.

    The story is rather simple. On the top of the hill in a drought-stricken village, lives a family of three. The mother (Svetla Yancheva) and their 16-year-old son (Alexander Benev) wash sheets for local hotels for a living. But the shortage of water supply poses a serious threat to their survival. Although the father (Ivaylo Hristov) is an able handyman, he can't fix the water problem.

    So they hire a well-driller (Vassil Mihajlov) and his teen daughter (Monika Naydenova) to dig a well. The family's seemingly quiet and idle life is suddenly disturbed not just by the noise of well drilling, but by the two strangers.

    Thirst Official Site

    Although these characters have no names, you have no trouble remembering who they are and getting to know them extremely well. The director Svetla Tsotsorkova brilliantly composes each scene to show how these characters are constantly observing each other carefully with inquisitive eyes. Even though they don't say much, their desires and emotions are hard to hide. It's a delightful and mesmerizing experience to watch how the director skillfully developed her characters in such a simple story.

    In the end, there is no question that these characters are not just thirsty for water, but for love and a new life beyond that deserted hill.

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  • Home Care (Domácí péče | Czech Republic 2015 | in Czech | 92 min.)

    No matter where you look, you probably won't find a home care nurse as wonderful as Vlasta (Alena Mihulová), the mesmerizing protagonist in the Czech writer-director Slávek Horák's splendid directional debut "Home Care." Vlasta is amiable, competent, dedicated, hard-working, humorous, and efficient. You know you will be in good hands if she is in your house with two big duffel bags.

    In the wine country in South Moravian, Vlasta lives with her husband Láda (Bolek Polívka) who is insensitive and complaints that Vlasta has devoted too much of herself to her patients. Every morning, Vlasta cheerfully takes a shot of vodka with Láda, washes the cups (because Láda is not going to do that), and then heads out the door to see her patients by bus or on foot. She diligently performs her duty both at home and at work, but never thinks about herself. On the other hand, even though his deep love for Vlasta is quite obvious, Láda is unable to express it in words. He can only subtly show it by doing little things in the house such as making a folding bed. After an accident, Vlasta is forced to confront her own health and rediscover herself, with help from an alternative healing advocate Hanácková (Tatiana Vilhelmová). But that doesn't mean she would compromise her duty to her husband and her patients. She wants to live the life she has and continues the work she loves.

    Home Care Official Site

    The film's hilarious opening may give you the impression that this is going to be a light-hearted comedy. However, the director Slávek Horák takes no time to switch the course. He lets you ride the emotional roller-coaster with his delicately crafted characters that are fantastically performed by a superb ensemble cast. The film is both funny and poignant, sometimes even thought-provoking, and always life-affirming. Speaking perfectly written lines that are both refreshing and original, each character is lively and often eccentric.

    The delightful film was selected as Czech Republic's entry for the best foreign-language film at the Oscars last year, it certainly deserves the honor. Much of the credit should also goes to Alena Mihulová's graceful and dignifying portrayal of Vlasta's profound warmth and humanity.

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Friday, April 8, 2016

 

My Golden Days (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse)

My Golden Days official site No matter what the outcome might be, the first love is hard to forget. It is often overwhelmingly filled with excitement, curiosity, desire, anxiety, and even heartbreak. The French auteur Arnaud Desplechin vividly captures that complex and mesmerizing experience in his award-winning "My Golden Days" (Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse | France 2015 | in French | 120 min.). The film engrossingly depicts how an attractive coming-of-age couple fall in love and grow out of it during the era without cellular-phones.

The film's French title "Trois souvenirs de ma jeunesse" (Three memories of my youth) seems more appropriate to summarize the film's narrative structure. The three memories are "Childhood," "Russia," and "Esther" from an anthropologist Paul Dédalus (Mathieu Amalric) who has been living in Tajikistan. In "Childhood," the film briefly flashes back to Paul's turbulent childhood dealing with his estranged mother. In "Russia," like telling an espionage tale during the cold war, the film recalls an episode where a teenage Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) helps a Jewish teenager escape the Soviet Union by using Paul's identity. Although it's slightly longer, it only qualifies as the second course of a multi-course meal and merely introduces the flavor of its young characters that will be served in the main course.

The delicious main course is "Esther" which reflects the time period in the film's English title. It spellbindingly unfolds Paul's first love affair with Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), a seductive, beautiful, and immature 16-year-old who enjoys being the center of attention of other boys at school. Although handsome and charming Paul is no match physically to Esther's other boyfriends, he is determined to impress her and win her over. After he left his hometown Roubaix for Paris to study in a University, they write letters to each other daily to keep the love alive. But how long can that first love survive?

My Golden Days Official Site

The first two memories quickly disappear to give way to the love story between the attractive Paul and Esther, superbly performed by the two new comers. Their passionate pursuit of love is both fascinating and appealing to watch. I can't help but wonder what it would look like if their story is set in today's digital age. Will their story still be as romantic and nostalgic as the scene where Paul reads out loud his hand written letters? Or perhaps a facetime call will end all the longing and desire that inspired those words on paper.

The screen time of the adult Paul isn't as compelling as the teenage Paul. Being a regular collaborator in Arnaud Desplechin's films, Mathieu Amalric seems to be a must-have condiment in the director's each exquisite offering. Let's hope that the terrific Quentin Dolmaire becomes the director's newly found must-have ingredient in crafting his future delights in French cinema.

"My Golden Days," a Magnolia Pictures release, opens on Friday, April 8, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.



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