Wednesday, November 22, 2017



Coco official site It's expected that a Pixar movie offers dazzling visuals, charming characters, children-friendly themes, and imaginative experiences. Its 19th feature "Coco" (USA 2017 | 109 min.) checks all those boxes, even though it is less rich and inspiring than some of the previous films such as "Inside Out" (2015). At a sophistication level that even a toddler can understand, the film reiterates the importance of family bonds. However, it is a strange move for the filmmakers to tell a story set in Mexico and featuring all Mexican characters who surprisingly speak American English. It undermines the story's authenticity to say the least.

Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguía) is the ailing great-grandmother of 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez). Miguel dreams to become a musician and worships a folk music legend Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt) like many other Mexicans. However, since Coco's musician father left home without a trace a long time ago, music has been forbidden in the family for generations. On the eve of the Day of the Dead (Día de los Muertos) festival, Miguel's musical dream is crushed when his self-made guitar is destroyed by his grandma (Renee Victor).

The Day of the Dead is the time when the dead come back to their loved ones if they are remembered and their pictures are presented on an altar at home by their family. But before Miguel's ancestors have a chance to make their way back to visit the music-less family, Miguel magically travels to the Land of the Dead instead. That place actually looks like an extension of the living world, except they are populated by skeletons with expressive eyes and colorful outfits. One of the skeletons is Hector (Gael García Bernal) who asks for Miguel's help to come back to visit his family during the Day of the Dead before he is forgotten forever by the living souls.

Not surprisingly, Miguel's adventurous journey teaches him that family is what he should cherish the most, even more than music. And of course, in the end, how can the family not embrace Miguel's passion for music?

Coco Official Site

Despite the fact that most parts of the film feature skeleton figures, the film is pleasant to watch with minimum intellectual requirement, although it may stimulate some conversation with younger viewers about death.

The film is set entirely in Mexico, yet Mexican heritage is merely used as decoration and these Mexican characters have little Mexican in them other than their costumes. They can be easily replaced by white Americans if they change their clothes, especially since they already speak perfect American English. Dropping a few Spanish words such as "gracias" is not enough to make them Mexican. While it is a bold move for the film's story to unfold in Mexico, it is a missed opportunity when the film only presents Mexican culture as a colorful float inside a parade.

Nevertheless, this is still a Pixar production. If nothing else, its splendid visual is delightful, its upbeat music is cheerful, and its happy-ever-after tale is reassuring. The film may also change people's perception about a skeleton.

"Coco" opens on Wednesday, November 22, 2017.

Friday, November 17, 2017


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri official site The power of advertising can never be underestimated, just take a look at how companies like Google and Facebook generate revenue, and how the 2016 election was meddled by the Russians. Even in Ebbing, Missouri—a fictional replica of an average small town in America— portrayed in writer-director Martin McDonagh's third feature "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (USA/UK 2017 | 115 min.)—an enraged grieving mother knows how to effectively use advertising power. The mother, finely played by Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, surely illustrates how her billboard messages can turn a sleepy town upside down.

Despite being slow and quiet in the middle of nowhere, Ebbing is not immune from crime and injustice. Eight months ago, Mildred Hayes's (Frances McDormand) teenager daughter was raped and murdered. As the case gets cold, the angry Mildred decides to take the matter into her own hands by provoking the town's Police Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). She walks in an advertising company, conveniently sitting across from the police department, and rents three billboards along a country road. In all capital letters on bright red background, she puts up messages asking the Police Chief why there is still no arrest for her daughter's murder.

That unorthodox move immediately gets Bill's attention, alienates other folks in town, and infuriates the racist cop Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell). But just when you think this movie may be about a war between Mildred and the Police Chief, it quickly turns and assures you it is anything but. The movie constantly twists and turns around this murder case and gradually evolves the relationship among its characters.

The film also isn't about unveiling the murderer as in "Murder on the Orient Express," but about how these characters react to each other as a consequence of these three giant billboards inquiring about the murder case. Everyone seems to have flaws, but no one is as bad as the others might have projected them to be. Mildred's billboards force them to change and come together.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Official Site

Coming from his background as a playwriter, the writer-director Martin McDonagh is no stranger to composing colorful and sharp dialogues. His entertaining feature directorial debut "In Bruges" (UK/Belgium 2008) is full of amusing and mesmerizing lines. That quality is fully on display in this film. However, he might have gone overboard given the subject matter of this film. The film is about a grieving mother, and many comical lines seem to be out of sync with the undertone in the air. You can't help but laugh with his smart writing, but then you feel awkward and a little guilty for giggling.

The best aspect of the film is its character development and the terrific ensemble performance. We not only get to know these characters, but we gradually understand them and are intrigued by them. They might not be our everyday encounters, but they are certainly rooted in a typical American small town.

Martin McDonagh perfectly crafts his foul-mouthed no-nonsense protagonist, precisely delivered by Frances McDormand. Mildred is by no means a perfect mother, and her actions may just be the result of feeling guilty and a desire to seek redemption. But no one can question Mildred's stubbornness and even recklessness. The film provides a great platform for Frances McDormand to showcase her exceptional talent as a character actress.

Another terrifically written character is the outrageously bad cop Jason Dixon, fantastically played by Sam Rockwell who deserves an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. Jason is ignorant, brutal, racist, and not very intelligent. But that's how he presents himself on the surface, and you may be surprised when you stop brushing him aside as a scumbag cop and look deeper inside his soul.

The film took the top-award at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, and surely it will collect more when it marches towards the red carpets of this award season—of course with some help from advertising campaigns.

"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," opens on Friday, November 17, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, November 10, 2017


The Square

The Square official site Take a pause and look around, there is a good chance that a gloomy society in turmoil is on display—widened inequality, intensified immigration crisis, disappearing human compassion and trust, growing prejudice and hatred, commercialized art, explosive-content-driven social media, apathetic bystanders, to name just a few. And the acclaimed Sweden writer-director Ruben Östlund aims to address all of these issues in his provoking and arresting new film "The Square" (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark 2017 | in English/Swedish/Danish | 142 min.). While his ambition is admirable and his social commentary is fierce, he doesn't offer much inspiration or resolution about what to do, except making the viewers feel guilty about being part of the status quo.

The film won Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It is Sweden's entry in the upcoming Oscar race for best foreign language film, and there is a good chance of it winning again.

The film's title refers to the name of the fictional modern art installation at a prestigious art museum in Stockholm, curated by the museum director Christian (Claes Bang). The illuminated square represents "a sanctuary of trust and caring" and "within it we all share equal rights and obligations." No matter how noble the intention of the artwork might be, Christian needs to raise money from patrons and hire a PR firm to publicize the exhibition.

While the artwork symbolizes an ideal society, almost every frame of the film reveals a reality that is contrary to what people want to believe and practice. As if the film is a collage of short stories that touch various social and psychological issues, Christian is the link at the center of every story that connects and captures every social phenomenon that the film plans to tackle.

That's a tall order to fill, which explains why the story line that links these short stories seems a bit stretched at times. For example, after Christian is robbed, his employee Michael (Christopher Læssø) uses the "Find My iPhone" app to locate his stolen phone which is at a high-rise housing project. Instead of reporting to the police, Christian and Michael nervously go there to get their phone back. In another instance, a grounded kid is able to find Christian's home by himself and start a shouting match with him. Why this setup? So the director Ruben Östlund can show how Christian interacts with people outside of his comfort zone and class.

However, these are minor flaws that you don't have time to ponder. That's because the film never stops provoking and entertaining the audience with scenarios that reflect the director's forceful social commentaries, such as when Christian tries to get his phone back, when he helps the homeless, when he interprets contemporary art, when he hooks up with American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), when he seeks help from strangers, and when he communicates with museum patrons and fellow museum staff members.

The Square Official Site

The director Ruben Östlund certainly has a lot of points to make in this film. He brilliantly implies what the square might look like in our society, but he has little advice on how to get people to step into that square. That is not necessarily a failure though, and is far from the disaster produced by the PR firm's social media campaign for the square on the ground. The film's greatest achievement is to stimulate the audience to think about what they might do in the situations portrayed in the film. For instance, would you get up and interrupt Oleg (Terry Notary) at a black-tie gala if you think his performance art gig as an ape is out of control?

The film has plenty of humor, and often pokes fun at pretentious high art concepts. In one scene, after the museum's cleaning crew accidentally vacuumed some gravel that are displayed on the gallery's floor in a cone shape, Christian instructs the museum staff not to call the insurance company to report the damage, but he will "fix" it himself. That reminds me of a similar incident during a recent exhibition at Legion of Honor—the cigarette that was stuck in a statue's vagina went missing from time to time. As a solution, the museum staff kept a pack of cigarettes as a backup and put one back (wearing gloves, no less) when the vagina needs a refill.

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?" It might depend on if you are standing inside the square, perhaps?

"The Square," opens on Friday, November 10, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, October 27, 2017


The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer official site If you ever had a nightmare, you would probably just be glad to wake up and sigh with relief that it was just a dream. But if the nightmare is powerful and disturbing enough, it might stick in your head and provoke you to try to make sense of it. The Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos tells a terrifying yet captivating story that resembles such a nightmare in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" (UK/Ireland 2017 | 121 min.). You might not comprehend everything that happens in the film, but you won't forget the spooky moments in a strange story, with striking visuals accompanied by a daunting soundtrack.

With majestic chorus blasting, the film opens with an open beating heart on an operation table. The surgeon is Dr. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who always speaks in monotone and short sentences. In a matter of fact fashion and for no apparent reason, he discusses with his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) about the depths of their water resistance watches while walking down a long narrow corridor.

Immediately and effectively, that seemingly random small talk creates an uneasy atmosphere in the air. It also sets the tone and mood of the film. When we meet the rest of the characters, they all talk strangely in such a deadpan manner and the creepiness exacerbates as the story unfolds.

Before Steven goes home to his family, he meets an innocent looking and polite 16-year-old boy Martin (Barry Keoghan) at a cafe. Later we learned that Martin is the son of one of Steven's patients who died on Steven's operation table. Steven genuinely cares about Martin, or at least he appears to be, but it also appears that Martin has control over Steven somehow.

At Steven's beautiful suburban home, he lives with his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, 14-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and 12-year-old Bob (Sunny Suljic). Although they look like a typical family, they certainly talk in a peculiar way similar to those in the director's previous film "The Lobster." After Martin meets the family, the bizarre interactions among them becomes more frightening and erratic. Eventually, it reaches the climax that resembles a story in the Greek mythology referenced by the film's title.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer Official Site

The writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos is known for telling unconventional stories that defy logic but have plenty of eccentric characters. In "Dogtooth" (Κυνόδοντας | Greece 2009), three late-teens are house-bound by their overprotective parents and learn new meanings of vocabularies their parents invented. In "The Lobster" (Greece/Ireland/Netherlands/UK/France 2015), single people need to find a lover in 45 days or they will be turned into animals. In comparison, the story in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" almost seems normal. However, the story is a spooky nightmare without much logic.

Why do these characters speak sentences in monotone as if a robot is reading a fortune cookie? Only the director knows. But does it freak you out, especially when the unnerving Martin says those words? Absolutely. The dialogue strangely creates a foreign environment that challenges your comfort zone. You are scared but you don't know what scares you. The fantastic ensemble cast, especially the brilliant Barry Keoghan who plays Martin, terrifically delivers the director's intention.

While it's frightening, the film is also funny at time. The humor mostly comes from the shock value of the dialogue, especially when they were spoken as if overheard from a mentally ill person who speaks to himself on streets. When Steven plainly states "our daughter started menstruating last week," how can you hold back chuckles while wondering what is wrong with him?

Even by the end of the film, you probably won't know what's wrong with Steven or with any other character in the film. Logic is not the interest of the storyteller. All he wants is to show you a nightmare that won't leave you even after you wake up.

"The Killing of a Sacred Deer," opens on Friday, October 27, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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