Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Terminator Genisys

Terminator Genisys official site It has been especially chilly at the beginning of this summer in San Francisco. More often than not, the elegant Golden Gate Bridge has been hiding under the camouflage of thick fog. Perhaps the bridge knows that it's under attack by Hollywood. It has been a particularly fond target to be blown up in disaster and sci-fi blockbusters repeatedly. The act seems simply irresistible and the bridge has every reason to be afraid. Sure enough, it's spectacularly destroyed one more time in 3-D at the very beginning of "Terminator Genisys" (USA 2015 | 120 min.), the fifth film of the Terminator franchise.

The film opens in 2029, when Skynet robots control human beings. They not only bomb the Golden Gate Bridge with nuclear weapon, but also turn the world into a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The human resistance army led by heroic John Connor (Jason Clarke) fights back. John believes that the only chance they can win is to let his fighter Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) time-travel back to 1984 and to find John's mother Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke). The hope is that they can alter the judgment day (whatever that is) in 2017 so that the future can be re-written.

When Kyle is deposited back to 1984 in LA, he meets not only Sarah, but also her guardian (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a cyborg whom Sarah calls "Pops." In addition, a robot T-1000 (Lee Byung-hun 이병헌) sent by Skynet is waiting for him as well. Straight faced T-1000 is the type of familiar creature in the original "The Terminator" (1984) who can emerge from a pile of mercury looking substance and can hardly be rid of.

When these people and robots are not shooting at each other or running away from each other, they sit there and talk about who is who and from where and when, and maybe some why as well. If there is an exam when you exit the theater asking about the relationship among these people, I guarantee that you will fail miserably.

Terminator Genisys Official Site

It turns out that blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge at the beginning of the film is the highest point. The director Alan Taylor is more successful in creating awe-struck explosions than telling a coherent story. Although the characters keep their names from the original movie, they are put into a blender then poured at you as a smoothie—everything becomes cloudy and unrecognizable. If you just like the look of the special effects presented in an effective 3-D fashion, you will have a good time regardless if the storyline makes any sense. If you enjoy the sound of Arnold Schwarzenegger's "I'll be back" and his signature cyborg smirk, you won't be disappointed. But if you are expecting an intelligent addition to the Terminator franchise, this isn't one.

The amount of guns used in the film is absurdly excessive, which probably reflects the American (and Hollywood's) gun culture. Why are automatic guns always the chosen weapon to fire at a robot even though you know they are not made from flesh and blood? Is shooting machine guns how far the imagination can go when it comes to fighting in a sci-fi film? Although I enjoy seeing the spectacle of blowing up the Golden Gate Bridge, I hate to see that those bunkers under Hawk Hill (where I hike every week) are full of guns and ammunition. If Arnold Schwarzenegger's character is so powerful, how come he has to put bullets one by one into a magazine in that bunker?

Apparently, from the characters to the story except the special effects, nothing is meant to be convincing in the film. No matter how many times Hollywood destroys the magnificent bridge in a movie like this, the bridge still beautifully stands tall in the water wearing a white skirt made from fog, and no guns in the bunkers next to it. What a relief!

"Terminator Genisys," a Paramount Pictures release, opens on Wednesday, July 1, 2015.

Friday, June 26, 2015


Infinitely Polar Bear

Infinitely Polar Bear official site It seems extremely difficult to portray a mentally-ill individual in a lighthearted and humorous tone. That's because mental-illness is often associated with miserable suffering and painful experience for everybody involved. However, writer-director Maya Forbes manages to tell her semi-autobiographical story with plenty of warmth and laughter in her directorial debut "Infinitely Polar Bear" (USA 2014 | 90 min.). Although the heavy sugar coating makes the story too cheerful and less convincing, Mark Ruffalo's terrific performance keeps the film buoyant.

The film opens in 1978 in Boston when we hear 10-year-old Amelia Stuart's (Imogene Wolodarsky, the director's daughter) sharp and opinionated voice as the film's narrator. She tells us that back in 1967, despite the fact that her father Cam (Mark Ruffalo) is manic-depressive (now it's called bipolar disorder), her African American mother Maggie (Zoe Saldana) "doesn't care" and marries him anyway. But when Cam has a nervous breakdown and is sent to the hospital, Maggie separates from Cam and takes Amelia and her younger sister Faith (Ashley Aufderheide) to a less affluent apartment complex.

It turns out that Cam is from a rich family, but his relatives only help him on his rent and nothing else. Meggie and Cam struggle to make ends meet while shuffling Amelia and Faith between two places. Maggie believes the only way to make a break is to send the girls to private school for better education. In order to afford a private school, she needs more money. In order to make more money, she needs to attend Columbia University to get her MBA in 18 months. In order to go to school in New York, she needs to let Cam take care of the girls in Boston and she comes back to visit on weekends. Really? Nevertheless, the eccentric yet unstable Cam takes on the challenge. As for Amelia and Faith, the topsy-turvy experience has a tremendous impact on their coming-of-age.

Infinitely Polar Bear Official Site

There is no doubt how much Cam loves his daughters, and the great empathic Mark Ruffalo deserves all the credits for brilliantly playing a sympathetic character. But even though the writer-director Maya Forbes mostly picks cheerful and amusing stories to tell about Cam, I would still be very worried to leave two young children with him if I were Maggie. The decisions that these two adults make don't seem to always have the best interest of the children in mind. Yet, they take their actions anyway with the intention of building a better future for their children. That doesn't really make sense. Cam may have his excuse for being mentally ill and can't think straight, but Maggie should have known better.

But the moments Cam spent with Amelia and Faith make the film all fuzzy and warm. Even I don't believe all the words in Amelia's narration, the energetic performance and the cuteness of the film gloss over the flaws.

"Infinitely Polar Bear," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, June 26, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Inside Out

Inside Out official site We all enjoy the exuberant accomplishments by Pixar for creating more than dozen animation feature films during the last two decades. Even so, you are surely to be blown away by Pixar's latest triumphantly entertaining "Inside Out" (USA 2015 | 94 min.). This exquisitely crafted 3D film, co-directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen, not only charms us with dazzling visual and an intelligent and original story, but also provokes us to reflect on how our emotions and memories make us for who we are. It well deserves the rapturous reception including a 10-minute standing ovation when it was premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it seems a shoo-in to win the best feature animation for the upcoming Oscar.

It all begins with the birth of a girl named Riley. Before even she can speak, we meet her five emotions—Joy (voice by Amy Poehler) is the cheerful and restless leader who appears to be in control most of the time; Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is totally on the opposite and often to be gloomy and low energy; Anger (Lewis Black, who else?) blasts off whenever it senses injustice and unfairness; Fear (Bill Hader) is constantly on guard to keep Riley away from danger; and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) makes the judgment about what's acceptable both physically and socially for Riley.

These emotions are busy at work day and night to process Riley's memories. Each piece of her memory is stored in a ball. The important pieces are transferred to the permanent storage as core memory while others are discarded to a memory waste land. These core memory balls further power islands, such as Family Island and Friendship Island, that constitute Riley's personality. In order to ensure that Riley's memory is full of happiness, Joy makes her best effort to prevent Sadness putting a blue shadow to a piece of her core memory.

That seems to be going well, until Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) is 11-year-old. She leaves her childhood friend behind and moves to San Francisco with mom (Diane Lane) and dad (Kyle MacLachlan). It's a completely new up-side-down world and her emotions go on an extraordinary journey along with her growing up.

Inside Out Official Site

This perfectly executed film is a masterpiece, period. It brilliantly tells a complex story that both children and adults can comprehend, but at different levels and from different perspective. When it comes to visual, we expect nothing short of excellence and astonishment from a Pixar film, yet this film's impeccable details and stunning images raise the bar to a new high. On top of that, Pete Docter marvelously transforms abstract concepts into 3D objects that are even within the reach of a child. Through the genius creation of these emotion characters, the film amusingly and splendidly illustrates how Riley's personality evolves when she grows up, and what her happiness is made of, and even what it looks like in her mind when she feels empty and down.

If you are familiar with the city of San Francisco, you will appreciate the film even more due to how the film pays attention to some unique characters of the city that are in the only-in-San-Francisco category. When Riley walks on a narrow and steep street, even the curb is painted with red color (which means no parking)! Everyone is going to laugh when broccoli becomes the only topping on a slice of pizza. Will Riley eventually get a nose ring? Disgust may evolves its taste as well.

With much delight, the film shares its wisdom with us by get into Riley's head. Life isn't always a joyride. Embracing our true emotions makes our lives richer, and cherishing our memories shapes who we are.

"Inside Out," opens on Friday, June 19, 2015.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


The 39th San Francisco International LGBTG Film Festival (Frameline39)

"There is no place like here." That's an unapologetically proud yet entirely accurate tagline for this year's annual San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival—Frameline39. This 39th edition of world's oldest and largest LGBTQ film festival runs June 18-28, 2015 in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland. With 180 films (74 features) in 117 programs representing 33 countries and regions, Frameline39 showcases an exciting selection of LGBTG films and illustrates how singular this festival is in this unique city of fog.

Frameline 39 Web Site

For another year, Frameline continues its momentum of maintaining the number of films it exhibits without increasing its ticket price, while most other major film festivals in San Francisco have been downsizing number of films and increasing their admissions. Frameline39 also bravely shows a few titles that were just shown at SFIFF58 and CAAMFest2015 couple months earlier. For example, "54: The Director's Cut," "The New Girlfriend," "Sworn Virgin," "Margarita, with a Straw," and "The Royal Road." That certainly is a good news for those who didn't get to see these titles earlier and it further vindicates that "there is no place like here" in San Francisco. So, if you didn't see "54: The Director's Cut" at SFIFF58, you definitely should not miss it again this time on Friday, June 26.

Here are some highlights of the festival:

Frameline39 runs June 18-28, 2015 at Castro Theater (429 Castro Street), Roxie Theater (3117 16th Street), Victoria Theater (2961 16th Street) in San Francisco, Rialto Cinemas Elmwood (2966 College Avenue) in Berkeley, and Landmark's Piedmont Theatre (2966 College Avenue) in Oakland.

The following is my reviews of a few feature films at 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.

  • How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) (Thailand/USA/Indonesia 2015 | in Thai | 80 min.)

    Almost a decade ago, the Korean-American director Josh Kim's clever and charming shorts "The Police Box" and "The Postcard" delighted the festival goers in San Francisco and beyond. Now, festival goers are in for a treat to watch his feature directorial debut "How to Win at Checkers (Every Time)," an absorbing portrait of the bond between an innocent 11-year-old boy and his caring older brother. The film is based on the short stories "At the Café Lovely" and "Draft Day" from the book "Sightseeing" by award-winning Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and was premiered at this year's Berlin International Film Festival.

    The wide-eyed 11-year-old boy is Oat (Ingkarat Damrongsakkul) who looks up his handsome openly gay brother Ek (Thira Chutikul) and hopes that he can beats Ek over a checker game someday. After losing their parents, Oak and Ek have been living with their aunt (Vatanya Thamdee) who has a daughter to raise herself. They struggle with ends meet day by day while the streets are controlled by local thugs.

    When Ek turns 21, like all other young men in Thailand, he must participate a draft lottery. If he draws a black card at the lottery, he can spare the military service and continue to support Oat and his aunt at home. If he draws a red card, he will be drafted and leave everyone behind. In order to keep Ek at home, Oat goes out his own way to help but only finds out later that the real world is much complicated than he can imagine.

    How to Win at Checkers (Every Time) Official Site

    The core of the film lies in the close relationship between Oat and Ek. It's both heartwarming and heartbreaking, and it's beautifully illustrated by subtle and ordinary daily interactions. The director Josh Kim finely crafts his story by staying focus on this core and doesn't get sidetracked by other subplots in the film. For example, Ek's sexuality appears strikingly casual as a matter of fact, and it doesn't provoke any special dramatic plot development.

    That doesn't mean that the film's plot is perfectly convincing at every turn. Considering how young Oat is, it's surprising to see Ek takes Oat to the bar where Ek works. However, that episode also seems necessary to tell Oat's coming of age story. There must be a better way.

    Like his shorts films, Josh Kim's remarkable feature debut creates a few likable characters and tells a touching story that profoundly resonates with the audience.

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  • Baby Steps (滿月酒 | Taiwan/USA 2015 | in Mandarin/English | 103 min.)

    Tremendous progress has been made for Chinese gays and lesbians since Ang Lee made "The Wedding Banquet" 22 years ago. That becomes evident even by looking at the roles that the legendary Kuei Ya-Lei (歸亞蕾) plays—she played the mother of a closet gay son in Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet" (1993); then she portrays the mother of an openly gay son in filmmaker Barney Cheng's terrific dramedy "Baby Steps" (2015). This time, her son in the movie is trying to expand the family by having a baby with his boyfriend. One thing doesn't change over the years is that her performance is fantastic as usual.

    A successful sales professional Danny (Barney Cheng 鄭伯昱) happily lives with his loving artist boyfriend Tate (Michael Adam Hamilton) in Los Angles. On their two year anniversary of being together, Danny expresses his desire for having a baby. At first, Tate is against the idea, but soon he changes his mind and becomes supportive. The couple begin to look for a surrogate mother.

    Having a grandchild is precisely what Danny's mother Grace (Kuei Ya-Lei 歸亞蕾) has been dreaming about, but she is uncomfortable to be open about Danny's sexuality among her friends in Taiwan. When she learns Danny's plan from her maid Mickey (Love Fang), she immediately flies from Taiwan to Los Angles to assume herself the quality control role as every Chinese parent would do.

    Everyone gets on board for a bumpy and emotional journey around the globe and their hearts. The new baby not only adds fresh blood to the family, but also bonds everyone together as tight as never before.

    Baby Steps Official Site Barney Cheng is perhaps best known for his performance in Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" (2002). With this impressive feature directional debut, he establishes himself as a talented rising Chinese American filmmaker. The film not only deals with the dilemma that is unique to Chinese culture as shown in "The Wedding Banquet," it also explores the complicity in a surrogacy process.

    But the film's utmost delight comes from Kuei Ya-Lei's outstanding performance. She often can convey her character's complex emotion with only a subtle facial expression without a single word. She seamlessly brings out her character's grace, sensitivity, dignity, and love. Her heartfelt speech in the end of the film is so touching that it might just bring out your tears even this is a comedy.

    In a sense, this film is a sequel to Ang Lee's "The Wedding Banquet," with a new generation of characters. Let's imagine what the subject matter might be in a new movie after another twenty years. Indeed, it gets better.

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  • I Am Michael (USA 2015 | 98 min.)

    Always featuring erotic gay youth images, the XY magazine became very popular among gay men in the late '90s. One of the magazine's founders was a gay activist named Michael Glatze who later created another magazine called YGA (Young Gay America). Understandably what a shock it was when he suddenly denounced his homosexuality in 2007 and became a devoted Christian on a crusade to "cure" other gay men. Based on an article "My Ex-Gay Friend" in The New York Times, the writer-director Justin Kelly recaptures Michale's transition in his provocative directorial debut "I Am Michael" (USA 2015 | 98 min.).

    In the '90s, a prominent gay activist Michael Glatze (James Franco) lives in San Francisco with his boyfriend Bennett (Zachary Quinto). When Bennett takes a job in Nova Scotia, Canada, Michael reluctantly moves with him. Although Nova Scotia is definitely not San Francisco anymore, outgoing Michael continues his gay advocacy work by making a documentary and publishing YGA. Meanwhile, he and Bennett take home another young man Tyler (Charlie Carver) as their lover.

    One day, Michael feels chest pain and he is frightened by the thought that he may die from a heart attack like his father did. That scare triggers him to question about his past, his future, and himself. He turns religion for answers. Soon after, he finds his faith in Christianity. He becomes a priest in Wyoming and dedicates his passion to convince others that homosexuality is wrong.

    I Am Michael Official Site

    The director Justin Kelly certainly picks a fascinating individual's extraordinary story to tell, and it's not an easy task at all. He objectively depicts Michael's transition with neither moral support nor condemnation, as if he has no point to make. While that may be truthful to his character, it also poses challenge to its viewers. No matter you root for the Michael in San Francisco or the Michael in Wyoming, you are left perplexed about which Michael is the real one after you finish the movie. You may still wonder why he makes such a dramatic turn in his life. The film raises more questions about Michael than answering them.

    The casting of the film is a big disappointment. Even the prolific James Franco dyes his hair to blond, he doesn't looks as good as Michael back in the '90s, nor does he have Michael's magnet effect. Despite the best effort, we can hardly sense the chemistry between James Franco and Zachary Quinto, it becomes even worse when their young puppy Charlie Carver joins in.

    In the end, this opening night movie is as mystery as its protagonist—puzzling, detached, yet intriguing.

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  • Beautiful Something (USA 2015 | 92 min.)

    You are surely to find something beautiful in the writer-director Joseph Graham's striking film "Beautiful Something" (USA 2015 | 92 min.) about a few gay men's intertwined searching for love and companionship, as well as themselves.

    The story is set in one chilly night in Philadelphia. Brian (Brian Sheppard) is a poet who is broke both financially and emotionally. Facing a writer's block, he goes to a bar and hooks up with Chris (David Melissaratos) who is married but looking for a quickie. After their loud and passionate but brief encounter, Chris immediately leaves Brian and the poor Brian is devastated because he thinks he must have done something wrong.

    Brian's second hookup with preppy Jim (Zack Ryan) that night further makes Brian to believe that everyone is running away from him. But Jim is having his own turmoil with his famous sculptor boyfriend Drew (Colman Domingo). Jim is about to leave Drew and have a fresh start in New York City. On this same night, Jim meets an elderly talent agent Bob (John Lescault) who cruises around streets in a limousine looking for fresh faces. After Jim strikes a deal with Bob and goes back to Bob's place, Jim is enlightened when Bob candidly shares his wisdom about love. What a busy night!

    Beautiful Something Official Site

    Just when you think the story may be another typical guys hooks up with guys tale, the write-director Joseph Graham illustrates there are something deeper below the surface. These finely constructed and solidly performed characters has one thing in common—they all desperately search for love, yet they all constantly struggle with the meaning of love and where to find it.

    Although the story is based on a true story as claimed by the filmmaker, it's still hard to believe that these four characters can be so fortunate to be able to connect on one single night in a big city. But that coincidence becomes less important when you are immersed in each lively character's artistic expression about desire from the body and the mind.

    This immersive film is poetic and mesmerizing. It's something beautiful indeed.

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  • The Surface (USA 2015 | 79 min.)

    There is something fascinating about 8mm home movies. They often provoke nostalgia sentiment and fond personal memories despite films' quality and contents. The write-director Michael J. Saul clearly recognizes that characteristic and chooses 8mm film to be a vital instrument in his new feature "The Surface" (USA 2015 | 79 min.). It's about an orphaned young student's journey in searching for the meaning of family. However, neither the film's story nor its characters justify the vintage 8mm tape its protagonist delves.

    With long hair like a young and slender version of Fabio, Evan (Harry Hains) is a college student living with his rich boyfriend Chris (Nicholas McDonald) who is controlling and nagging. At a garage sale, Evan buys an 8mm camera from an elderly Harry (Robert E. Weiner). As a result, the camera connects Evan with Harry's middle-aged son Peter (Michael Redford Carney). To Even's surprise, Peter gives Evan some 8mm tapes of his childhood which Harry filmed. Evan edits the material and makes a short film for his school project.

    That short film not only provokes Evan to reflect on what family mean to him after drifting around many years, but also it makes a significant impact on Peter, and it further complicates the relationship between Evan and Chris.

    The Surface Official Site

    It's evident from the film that the write-director Michael J. Saul is affectionate toward both 8mm home movies and actor Harry Hains's slender body. Although the 8mm footage looks artistic and intriguing, it fails to bridge the characters. No one except Evan seems to care about those 8mm films. For no particular reason, the film constantly shows Harry Hains takes off his shirt. That repeated action serves little to the storytelling except it indicates that the filmmaker enjoys the images and cannot cut them in the editing room. However, taking off the shirt may explain why Evan becomes more than just a pool boy for Peter.

    Instead of giving it away, Peter should have kept the 8mm home movies for himself and cherishes his father's fond memory. However, it's crucial for him to give them to Evan. Otherwise, the story would go nowhere and Evan would never find the meaning of family. Poor shirtless Evan.

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