Friday, January 6, 2017

 

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls official site Grieving is never easy. It's even more difficult if you are an introverted teenager boy. In that case, drifting into a fantasy world seems to be a reasonable escape. However, to reveal that world in a coherent fashion may not be an easy task. Based on Patrick Ness's novel, the director J. A. Bayona tries to do just that in "A Monster Calls" (Spain/UK/USA/Canada 2016 | 108 min.). Unless you are a big fan of the book or in a stage of mind similar to the film's protagonist, you will probably have a hard time comprehending that world and resonating with the film's characters.

That unlucky British boy is 12-year-old Conor O'Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who spends most of his time drawing, quite beautifully. He has no friends and is bullied at school constantly. At home, his loving mom (Felicity Jones) is battling with cancer, his divorced dad (Toby Kebbell) is moving away to America, and he hates the outlook that he might have to live with his grandma (Sigourney Weaver). His world is falling apart and he is angry.

He begins to have recurring nightmares, and the big old yew tree outside his window comes to life as a giant monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). The monster shows up at 12:07 every night. The monster proposes to tell Conor three stories. After the three stories, Conor needs to tell a story in return. What's the point of these story exchanges and what if Conor doesn't have a story to tell? Who knows.

So the storytelling proceeds while Conor has to cope with the devastating reality. Remarkably, he seems to learn something from the monster about grieving which he could have learned from reading books or talking to a counselor.

A Monster Calls Official Site

At the beginning of the film, the voice-over describes Conor as too old to be a kid, yet too young to be a man. That could also be said about the film as well. The director J. A. Bayona seems unsure about what kind of story he wants to tell and to whom. The subject matter about dealing with grief is too complex for a young teenager of Conor's age, and its monster tale is plain silly to an adult. That leaves only the fans of the book as the people who might be touched by the screaming and yelling between Conor and the monster.

Although the tree monster isn't as destructive and evil as the monsters in many other films, it is by no means friendly or likable. That creates a visual barrier between the characters and the audience, especially for the skeptical ones. We wait for the monster's transformation from the terrifying looking giant to a gentle soul that can comfort the poor boy, but it never materializes. Conor remains in his fantasy world while we observe his misery at arm's length.

The real world is not always fine. However, living in a fantasy world isn't an ideal way to deal with it. Tree hugging may have therapeutic effects, but only if the tree is the right size with green leaves, unlike the monster in the film.

"A Monster Calls," a Focus Features release, opens on Friday, January 6, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Saturday, December 31, 2016

 

Top Ten Films of 2016

More than ever, we need an escape from reality by watching movies. In a cinematic world, we can be touched, educated, enchanted, entertained, thrilled, and enraged, as well as deceived, fooled, and annoyed. That's why we love to go to the movies. Once again, it's the time to compose a top-ten list of feature films I saw in 2016. Because it's almost impossible to define the term "a film in 2016," as always, I stick with my own plain and simple rule: I select ten (no more, no less) best films from the 265 feature films (including documentaries) that I saw during the calendar year of 2016, no matter when and if a film is released in the US in 2016.

Here are the top ten best feature films during 2016. (Note that the Internet Explore browser doesn't support the reversed list as 10, 9, ..., 1, so you have to mentally reverse the list below, which shows the #1 film on the very bottom.)

  1. A War (Krigen | Denmark 2015 | in Danish | 115 min. | My review)

    Danish writer-director Tobias Lindholm's intelligent and thought-provoking third feature vividly depicts how the so-called collateral damage continues to have a profound impact on everyone both physically and mentally, abroad and at home.

    A War Official Site


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

    Chinese writer-director Zhang Yang's (张扬) stunning docudrama tells a pilgrimage story of a group of faithfuls who are determined to complete an inconceivable journey.

    Paths of the Soul Official Site


  3. Home Care (Domácí péče | Czech Republic 2015 | in Czech | 92 min. | My review)

    In this hilarious directional debut, the Czech writer-director Slávek Horák creates a wonderful home-care nurse character who is amiable, competent, dedicated, hard-working, humorous, and efficient.

    Home Care Official Site


  4. Spa Night (USA 2016 | in Korean | 93 min. | My capsule review)

    The writer-director Andrew Ahn's superb feature directorial debut tells an engaging story about an introvert Korean American teenager David (Joe Seo) in Los Angeles who struggles with his sexuality while fulfilling his obligation to help out his parents.

    Spa Night Official Site


  5. Please Remember Me (我祗認識你 | China 2015 | in Shanghainese | 78 min. | Documentary | My review)

    This gripping documentary, by Chinese director Zhao Qing (赵青), doesn't only bring the "unprecedented, pervasive, and enduring" aging issue to the front and center, but also affectionately tells an endearing love story between an elderly couple.

    Please Remember Me Official Site


  6. The Look of Silence (Denmark/Indonesia/Finland/Norway/UK/Israel/France/USA/Germany/Netherlands 2014 | in Indonesian | 103 min. | Documentary)

    In this powerful documentary, the director Joshua Oppenheimer follows an optometrist Adi whose brother was among the victims of the Indonesian Genocide half a century ago. While performing in-home eye-exams, the soft-spoken Adi interviews his brother's killers who are still in power and remain silent about their hideous actions.

    The Look of Silence Official Site


  7. The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta? | Brazil 2015 | in Portuguese | 121 min.)

    When a lifelong maid's daughter comes to the city to take an exam, the seemingly routine life turns up-side-down. This terrific film fantastically captures the subtle exchange of emotions among a few superbly crafted and marvelously performed characters.

    The Second Mother Official Site


  8. Thirst (жажда | Bulgaria 2015 | in Bulgarian | 90 min. | My review)

    This Bulgarian director Svetla Tsotsorkova's wonderful directorial debut is more of a character study than storytelling, portraying a few nameless characters who are thirsty for water, love, and a new life beyond a deserted hill.

    Thirst Official Site


  9. The Demons (Les démons | Canada 2015 | in French | 118 min.) | My review)

    The sensible and complex emotion of a 10-year-old boy is beautifully captured in this writer-director Philippe Lesage's spellbinding film.

    The Demons Official Site


  10. Manchester by the Sea (USA 2016 | 135 min. | My review)

    In this deeply affecting film, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan masterfully creates a touching drama about love, grief, guilt, redemption, hope, and living.

    Manchester by the Sea Official Site


Until next year...

Friday, December 9, 2016

 

Jackie

Jackie official site Even before any image appears on the dark screen, the eerily unsettling first note of the score by the composer Mica Levi sets the tone for "Jackie" (Chile/France/USA 2016 | 99 min.), an unconventional film that depicts former first lady Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy's excruciating days right after the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy (JFK) on November 22, 1963. This powerful film is the first English-language feature from acclaimed Chilean director Pablo Larraín and an arresting showcase for Academy Award-winner Natalie Portman's tour de force performance as the grief-stricken young widow.

Days after the assassination of JFK (Caspar Phillipson), Jackie (Natalie Portman) grants an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) at her family estate. Even though she is overwhelmed by sorrow and anger, she is composed and maintains her control and dignity. She lays down the ground-rule about the interview—she will have the final say before the article goes into print in case she doesn't say exactly what she means. As soon as she sits down and lights a cigarette, the film takes us straight back to the most devastating moment in her life.

In flash backs, Jackie recalls her joyful efforts in renovating and decorating the White House. She is ambitious about making lasting contribution to the historic residency. However, her work is abruptly cut short when JFK was shot dead into her laps, with blood splashed all over her and staining her famous pink suit that she insists on allowing the American people to see.

With her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and her childhood friend Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) by her side, Jackie grapples with the chaotic aftermath while comforting young Caroline and John. She uses JFK's funeral arrangement as the last stroke in preserving the legacy of her husband, as well as her own.

Jackie Official Site

The director Pablo Larraín is no stranger in telling stories about politics and politicians such as in "No" (2012) and "Neruda" (2016). But he is not making this movie a political film. Actually, the style of this film is so different from his previous works that you wouldn't think it comes from the same director. He skillfully brings us deep into Jackie's earth-shattering world, and gives us an intimate and unsentimental account of the tragic ordeal from Jackie's point of view. No matter how many times you have heard the story about JFK's assassination, this film powerfully tells it again in a completely new perspective.

Despite the fact that Jackie was surrounded by politicians, she is not a politician and the film isn't primarily about politics. However, that doesn't mean she can't play the game of politics when she needs to. Some of her actions and verbal exchanges toward other political figures are both fierce and ingenious, thanks to an impressive script penned by Noah Oppenheim. The extraordinary performance by Natalie Portman lets us re-live one of the most tragic moments in recent history. Throughout the film, the somber and despair atmosphere of a mourning nation is painfully familiar echoing the nation's mood after the most recent election.

Life goes on after tragedy. But what about legacy? Unfinished work? Future? Hope? Jackie can teach us a lesson or two in this film.

"Jackie," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, opens on Friday, December 9, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Friday, November 25, 2016

 

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea official site If you have seen writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's previous films "You Can Count on Me" (2000) and "Margaret" (2011), you must have been eagerly waiting for his new work. The wait is handsomely rewarded by his third film "Manchester by the Sea" (USA 2016 | 135 min.). In this deeply affecting film, he marvelously crafted a touching drama about love, grief, guilt, redemption, hope, and living. It's nothing short of a masterpiece and is the best film of the year hands down.

In a typical gloomy cold winter day in Boston, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a reticent hard-working handyman living in an apartment building, receives a phone call and learns that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) just died. He rushes back to his brother's home in Manchester, where he grew up in a tight-knit small community.

Soon he learns that he is the sole guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is yet to settle in with the reality. Lee isn't thrilled by the sudden grave responsibility, but he is not going to run away from it either because he loves his brother and Patrick. Little by little in flashback, we learn that he also deeply loved his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and why he tries to live in Boston and to stay away from his familiar hometown folks.

By designating Patrick's guardianship to Lee in the will, Joe cleverly pulls Lee back to this town by the sea, and hopefully to life as well, even if that means Lee has to come out of his grief-stricken solitude and confront the scars of his past.

Manchester by the Sea Official Site

The writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is a brilliant storyteller. He knows how to convincingly construct his characters little by little, and get you hopelessly attached to them. He makes them persuasive, real, and down to earth as if they are somebody around our daily lives. He meticulously arranges every detail such that everything makes perfect sense and falls into place for each character. In the end, you simply marvel at his artistic ingenuity and appreciate his story that touches your heart.

Kenneth Lonergan is also extremely efficient. His use of flashback in this film is both clever and effective. While you learn what's going on in the head of the character, you are also told about their past. He also makes a brave and mesmerizing move by playing the entire Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor" in the background during a film's pivotal scene. It's remarkably haunting and heartbreaking.

Gradually, these characters grow closer to you and their emotions are deeply felt. Long after the film is over, you'll find yourself continuing to think about them while tearing up. Indeed, some scenes in the film are gut-wrenching. But just like life in general is usually filled with both ups and downs, this film also contains plenty of humor and it isn't a sappy movie.

The film's accomplishment must also be greatly attributed to the powerful performance by its actors. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams definitely deserve to be nominated for the Academy Award. Lee is a career defining role for Casey Affleck, and Michelle Williams has never been better.

Kenneth Lonergan closely observes how life truly is, and eloquently depicts it with enormous compassion in this incredible film.

"Manchester by the Sea," a Roadside Attractions release, opens on Friday, November 25, 2016 in San Francisco Bay Area.



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