Friday, February 23, 2018


Loveless (Нелюбовь)

Loveless official site Just like he did in his previous films, the acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Андре́й Звя́гинцев) continues his portrayal of human suffering in his fifth feature "Loveless" (Нелюбовь | Russia 2017 | in Russian | 127 min.), and for the second time has been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film. The film also takes another jab at Russia's bureaucracy and paints a pessimistic outlook of Russian society. It bluntly puts two selfish characters who you want to hate on vivid display. Not only are these characters loveless toward each other, but they also get no love at all from the director.

Perhaps the one who suffers the most from being loveless is the 12-year-old boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). He silently cries behind a door while listening to his divorcing parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), arguing about why the other party should take the boy. It's not that Shenya and Boris lack the ability of showing affection. They are quite busy spending time with their own respective lovers when they are not checking their smart phones. They just have nothing nice to share with each other, or with the unwanted boy.

The two selfish adults pay no attention to Alyosha and they have not noticed that the kid has not been home for two days. They blame on each other for the boy's disappearance and begin a frenetic search all over the places including the home of Zhenya's grumbling mother, who wants to have nothing to do with either her daughter Zhenya or her missing grandson.

The search for the missing boy by Shenya and Boris is not motivated by their remorse or new-found love, but only out of concern about how they will be perceived in Russian society and in their own social network. Since the bureaucratic police can offer little help to the search, they turn to an incredibly well-organized volunteer team for help. As snow falls on the icy-cold landscape, the search for Alyosha continues.

Loveless Official Site

From the haunting music score to the stunning cinematography (Mikhail Krichman), the director Andrey Zvyagintsev utilizes every resource in his unsentimental story-telling. He slowly unfolds a devastating yet captivating story that serves as a metaphor for the increasingly apathetic Russian society. He is not subtle about this intention, letting Zhenya run on a treadmill wearing a jacket with the giant RUSSIA printed on the front, even though the connection feels a little bit forced.

However, there is no question about what the protagonists represent—many of today's middle class who are glued to their smart phones, lack human connections, and have little love to give in today's society. You wonder why there are people who still fall for people like Shenya and Boris.

But the film is not completely without hope. There are still good people such as those volunteers who let you keep on having faith in kindness and humanity.

Although this film is not as pointy as the director's "Leviathan" (Левиафан | Russia 2014), it jolts us alarmingly just as the striking music does at the film's opening. It is time to wake up.

"Loveless," opens on Friday, February 23, 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, January 12, 2018


Phantom Thread

Phantom Thread official site Will a control freak learn to compromise and be transformed by genuine love? Maybe, according to "Phantom Thread" (USA 2017 | 129 min.), an exquisitely crafted masterpiece by the acclaimed writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson about a couturier in the '50s. This absorbing film magically pulls you into the protagonist's fashion world whether or not you give a damn about fashion. Paul Thomas Anderson impeccably composes a compelling story with a triumphant performance from the cast.

That control freak is the dress maker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) who is worshiped by his wealthy clients. He lives in a stylish town house in London with his business manager and sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) by his side almost all the time. He starts his day by sketching at his breakfast table, which requires absolutely no distraction. He takes immense pride in his work which he regards as art. His absolute authority is not to be challenged and his routine is not to be interrupted. He dismisses anyone whom he deems as an obstruction, such as a young woman who demands his attention at the beginning of the film.

But his disciplined life is intercepted when he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress who waits on him during breakfast in a country inn. Falling in love at first sight, Reynolds adores Alma's beauty and charmingly invites her for dinner, and then makes her a dress. Overwhelmed by his affection, Alma moves into Reynolds's house and becomes his newly found muse.

However, Alma is not like other women that have come and gone in Reynolds's house. When she senses that the spark between the two is dying out, she refuses to pack up and go. She defies the controlling Reynolds and claims her equal status in the house. Will these two strong-minded people from different backgrounds and classes ever relive that most romantic moment when they first met?

Phantom Thread Official Site

As if he is making a stunning evening gown stitch by stitch, the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson meticulously constructs this elegant film frame by frame. Serving as his own cinematographer, he gracefully moves the camera like a sewing machine and seamlessly connects from upstairs to downstairs, from room to room, and from closeups to grand views. Like other mesmerizing characters he created in his previous films such as "The Master" (2012) and "There Will Be Blood" (2007), by no means is the eccentric Reynolds an admirable or a decent individual. Yet, Reynolds is spellbindingly enigmatic and toxically fascinating.

Of course, the outstanding performance plays a vital role in creating this character. It's impossible to imagine what Reynolds might be like without the exhilarating portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, the only actor who has ever won three Oscars for best actor. It is incomprehensible to learn that this is the last film he will appear in, ever. Daniel Day-Lewis completely dissolved into the character, and you would not have the slightest second thoughts about how Reynolds would speak and behave other than the way Daniel Day-Lewis did in the film. He is the fabric of the gorgeous evening gown that the director Paul Thomas Anderson painstakingly crafted.

While Alma has to stand up for herself against the control freak for equal status, Vicky Krieps's outstanding performance naturally claims her equal status next to the Oscar king in the film. She shines beautifully in the film by taking the center stage which Reynolds has no intention to share.

"Phantom Thread," opens on Friday, January 12, 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Top Ten Films of 2017

This crazy 2017 is almost over. But with a twitter troll still sitting in the White House doing damage to the nation and humanity, the nightmare is far from over. Watching movies can serve as both therapy and an escape. Luckily there are plenty of great films to watch. Once again, it's time to compose a top-ten list of feature films I saw in 2017. Because it's almost impossible to define the term "a film in 2017," as always, I stick with my own plain and simple rule: I select ten (no more, no less) best films from the 262 feature narrative and documentary films which I saw during the calendar year of 2017, no matter when and if a film is released in the US during 2017.

Here are the top ten best feature films during 2017. (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 of 2017 on the very bottom.)

  1. The Square (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark 2017 | in English/Swedish/Danish | 142 min. | My review)

    The acclaimed Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's thought provoking "The Square" makes fierce social commentaries through an art project at a museum. If nothing else, the film makes you think about what you will do when you are stopped on the street and asked: "Would you like to save a life today?"

    The Square Official Site

  2. Plastic China (China 2016 | in Chinese | 82 min. | Documentary | My review)

    Chinese director Wang Jiuliang takes us to a place that's usually invisible in his heart-wrenching documentary "Plastic China." On a very micro level, this terrific documentary tackles the devastating environmental problem due to massive usage of plastic that impacts the lives of future generations.

    Plastic China Official Site

  3. The Coffin in the Mountain (心迷宫/殡棺 | China 2014 | in Chinese | 119 min.)

    Xin Yukun's impressive feature directorial debut "The Coffin in the Mountain" cleverly constructs its chain-reacted and twisted plot set in a rural Chinese village after a person is dead.

    The Coffin in the Mountain

  4. Motherland (USA/Philippines 2016 | in Tagalog | 94 min. | Documentary | My capsule review)

    With compassion and empathy, documentarian Ramona S. Diaz's "Motherland" gives us a jaw-dropping and intimate look at the operation behind the walls of the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, nicknamed "Baby Factory."

    Motherland Official Site

  5. Departure (UK/France 2016 | in French/English | 109 min.)

    Andrew Steggall's feature directorial debut "Departure" poetically conveys a teenager's complex feeling toward a local boy during his visit to Southern-France with his mom.

    Departure Official Site

  6. The Student (Ученик | Russia 2016 | in Russian | 118 min. | My capsule review)

    From start to finish, the Russian writer-director Kirill Serebrennikov unflinchingly confronts the issue of religious fanaticism in his captivating "The Student," and tells an extraordinary story about a high school student who starts a religious war in his high school.

    The Student Official Site

  7. Indignation (USA 2016 | 110 min.)

    The writer-director James Schamus's beautifully composed intelligent drama "Indignation" tells a rich and compelling story about a young Jewish boy who attends a conservative college in Ohio in the '50s.

    Indignation Official Site

  8. Land of Mine (Under sandet | Denmark/Germany 2016 | in Danish/German | 101 min. | My review)

    Danish writer-director Martin Zandvliet's thrillingly captivating and profoundly emotional World War II drama "Land of Mine" terrifically demonstrates that war does not only destroy lives and infrastructure, but it also provokes hatred and wipes out empathy. But despite the amount of demons wars might bring out from people, there is still hope for humanity to sustain.

    Land of Mine Official Site

  9. Dunkirk (Netherlands/UK/France/USA 2017 | 106 min. | My review)

    The director Christopher Nolan's intense "Dunkirk" brings you right into a war zone like never before.

    Dunkirk Official Site

  10. Call Me by Your Name (Italy/France/Brazil/USA 2017 | in English/Italian/French | 132 min. | My review)

    The Italian director Luca Guadagnino's splendid "Call Me by Your Name" offers us a perfect nostalgic escape from the dreadful reality and brings us back to the sensual first love experience and to an alluring Italy.

    Call Me by Your Name Official Site

Until next year...

Friday, December 15, 2017


Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name official site That exhilarating and overwhelming feeling of first love can hardly fade away from anyone's memory. But in case you need a reminder, the Italian director Luca Guadagnino's "Call Me by Your Name" (Italy/France/Brazil/USA 2017 | in English/Italian/French | 132 min.) is vividly reminiscent of that intense sensation. This splendid film is an instant classic about first love and coming-of-age set in an idyllic countryside, and Timothée Chalamet's triumphant performance as the teenager in love is right at the center of this masterpiece.

The story is set in 1983 somewhere in northern Italy. Talented 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) leisurely spends his sun-kissed summer with his books and music in his family's villa with his father Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg), an American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture, and his mother Annella (Amira Casar), an Italian translator. The harmonic rhythm is disrupted when the 24-year-old American graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives at the villa for a six-week retreat to help with Mr. Perlman's research. The handsome Oliver not only takes over Elio's bedroom, but also occupies Elio's young heart—Oliver instantly becomes Elio's object of affection.

Despite being extremely gifted in music and literature, Elio is quite a novice in the game of courting. Like every teenager, he yearns for the attention yet he is insecure about himself. On the other hand, Oliver is confident with playing with Elio just as he is confident with his academic work. The tango between the two beautifully plays out under the warm sun and idle town where pretty much everyone has gone on holiday.

Being a family of intellectuals, Elio's parents are not blind to what is going on around the villa and under the dining table. They are both close enough to offer Elio the most earnest advices and comfort any teenager can get and distant enough for Elio to follow his own emotional compass. Regardless of the outcome, Elio's first romantic journey forever leaves a print in his heart.

Call Me by Your Name Official Site

The film is a perfect piece of art in every aspect. It is scripted by veteran writer-director James Ivory based on André Aciman's novel that provides some of the best lines for Elio's amiable and wise father. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's cinematography perfectly captures characters' moods and the charm of the picturesque location. It invites you to pack your bags and spend a summer with these beautiful and smart people. The director Luca Guadagnino utilizes all the talents and masterfully crafts a classic. Every scene of the film appears to be succulent like the ripe fruits on the tree or besides Elio's bed. Even the film's pace perfectly matches that of life in Italy's countryside. He never rushes and allows us to be captivated by his arresting characters. He poetically paints the beauty of life on the big screen.

But none of these would work without the outstanding performance by a terrific ensemble cast, especially the mesmerizing Timothée Chalamet who deserves an Academy-Award nomination. His every move and expression reveals the vulnerable and impetuous nature of a sensitive teenager. The final long shot of him tearing up in silence speaks volume and is profoundly touching.

"Call Me by Your Name" offers us a perfect nostalgic escape from the dreadful reality and brings us back to the sensual first love experience and to an alluring Italy. It is the best film of the year, period.

"Call Me by Your Name" opens on Friday, December 15, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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