Friday, January 25, 2019

 

Serenity

Serenity official site If you have seen the writer-director Steven Knight's "Locke" (USA/UK 2013), you must be enthralled by his exceptional craftsmanship in building tension and suspense, and looking forward to his next film "Serenity" (USA 2019 | 106 min.). The trailer of this new film certainly reinforces the expectation for another thrilling experience. However, even though the film is engaging and beautiful to watch at first, its implausible story eventually wreaked havoc on its enigmatic atmosphere.

The film is set on a small tropical island called Plymouth surrounded by tranquil clear ocean water and warm sandy beaches baked in the sun. (If you want to book your next vacation there, the film's location is actually Mauritius.) Chain-smoking veteran Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) comes and goes from this scenic island into the sea looking for big tuna, and he occasionally takes paid tourists on his boat to go fishing.

Out of the blue, his estranged ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) shows up. Since Karen left Dill with their son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) for her wealthy but abusive new husband Frank (Jason Clarke), Dill has cut off all contact with them even though Dill misses his son terribly. But Karen did not come to get back together with Dill, instead she is here to offer Dill a large sum of cash to kill Frank.

Given that Dill struggles with money and cares about his son's well-being, is he going to take up Karen's offer and get rid of the violent and obnoxious Frank?

Serenity Official Site

With a deep voice and an elusive demeanor, Matthew McConaughey finely plays a mysterious character that the director Steven Knight envisioned. The tension and secretive atmosphere is nicely staged at the beginning of the film.

Then comes the problem: the story. The plot becomes more and more ludicrous and the story line has to be held together with a bandage. All the tension and mystery boil down to a simple question: will Dill feed Frank to the sharks today? No matter how Matthew McConaughey stares at you with his sad eyes, he can no longer hold your interest. And who is that kid that popped up from nowhere toward the end of the movie? For what?

You may feel like you have been tricked by the film's trailer which promises all the excitement and enigma, as if you've taken a vacation after being lured by a website about a fantastic destination, only to be disappointed upon arrival by the lack of substance the destination has to offer.

Even though the story ruined the movie, you might still want to book a vacation to Mauritius, where Dill is nowhere to be seen, so you can enjoy the tranquil scenery instead.

"Serenity," opens on Friday, January 25, 2019.


Friday, December 28, 2018

 

Top Ten Films in 2018

It's time for the annual top-ten list again. Here are the ten best films among the 307 feature-length narrative and documentary films I watched during the calendar year of 2018, no matter when and if a film was released in the US during 2018.

  1. "Happy as Lazzaro" (Lazzaro felice | Italy/Switzerland/France/Germany 2018 | in Italian | 125 min.)

    "Happy as Lazzaro" superbly mixes a mysterious fable with social reality and creates a timeless character.

    Happy as Lazzaro Official Site


  2. 1945 (Hungary 2017 | in Hungarian | 91 min.)

    Gorgeously shot in black and white, "1945" grippingly unfolds when two mysterious men arrive at a village in Hungary after World War II has just ended.

    1945 Official Site


  3. Blindspotting (USA 2018 | 95 min.)

    Shot in the Bay Area, "Blindspotting" unflinchingly yet eloquently tackles racial issues without cliché.

    Blindspotting Official Site


  4. People's Republic of Desire ((China/USA 2018 | in Mandarin | 94 min. | Documentary | My capsule review)

    Hao Wu's "People's Republic of Desire" captures the phenomenon represented by a group of fame seekers in the digital age.

    People's Republic of Desire Official Site


  5. Leave No Trace (USA 2018 | 109 min.)

    "Leave No Trace" intimately tells an arresting story about a pair of father and daughter who choose to live off the grid in a forest in Oregon.

    Leave No Trace Official Site


  6. Three Identical Strangers (UK 2018 | 96 min. | Documentary)

    A jaw-dropping, entertaining, heartbreaking, thought-provoking, and fascinating story is incredibly unfolded in "Three Identical Strangers."

    Three Identical Strangers Official Site


  7. Us and Them (后来的我们 | China 2018 | in Mandarin | 120 min.)

    Chinese singer-actress Rene Liu (劉若英)'s directorial debut "Us and Them" is a profoundly moving and irresistibly nostalgic portrait of a young couple's relationship impacted by China's economic boom.

    Us and Them on Netflix


  8. Phantom Thread (USA 2017 | 129 min. | My review)

    Paul Thomas Anderson impeccably composes a compelling story in "Phantom Thread" with a triumphant performance from the cast.

    Phantom Thread Official Site


  9. The Summer Is Gone (八月 | China 2016| in Mandarin | 106 min. )

    With an eloquent storytelling style quite similar to Edward Yang, the new Chinese director Zhang Dalei's (张大磊) "The Summer Is Gone" beautifully captures a 12-year-old boy's idle summer against the backdrop of China's social and economic transformation in the '90s.

    The Summer Is Gone


  10. Shoplifters ((万引き家族 | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 121 min. | My review)

    The family in Koreeda's "Shoplifters" might be short on money, but they never lack love and affection.

    Shoplifters Official Site


Until next year...

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

 

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk official site After "Moonlight" (USA 2016) won the Academy Award for Best Picture, it's understandable for us to have high expectations for its writer-director Barry Jenkins's next work "If Beale Street Could Talk" (USA 2018 | 117 min.). It's adapted from the novel of the same title by James Baldwin. Although his new film is not as lyrical and potent as his previous Oscar winner, Barry Jenkins nevertheless tells a love story that is devastated by social and racial injustice.

The film is set in New York City in the '70s. Childhood friends 22-year-old Fonny (Stephan James) and 19-year-old Tish (KiKi Layne) are deeply in love and looking forward to building their young family together. However, their peaceful life is turned up-side-down after Fonny is wrongfully accused of raping a Puerto Rico woman and put in jail. Behind a glass wall during a jail visit, Tish brings the news to Fonny that she is pregnant, and promises him that she will get him out soon.

But how? Besides her very limited income from her job at a department store, she can only rely on her supportive family. Her dad Joseph (Colman Domingo), mom Sharon (Regina King), and sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) all come together desperately trying to get Fonny out of jail before the baby is born.

If Beale Street Could Talk Official Site

The writer-director Barry Jenkins unfolds his story following two threads. One is the dreamy flow of the love story between the young couple, the other is the cry for Fonny's unjust incarceration due to racial discrimination. If the two threads were less intertwined by flashbacks, the slow-burn film would be more engaging with a steadier pace.

The constant flashbacks not only disrupt the film's rhythm, but also force us to shift our emotional engagement frequently. Just when we become furious about what the protagonists encountered, we are switched to a warm-colored moody setting occupied by two beautiful people as if Wong Kar-wai is sitting in the director's chair for "In the Mood for Love" (花样年华 2000).

However, the film's political message is as loud and clear as the legacy of James Baldwin's activism. It puts social injustice and racism on vivid display. The love story between Fonny and Tish is also probably one of the most poetic and mesmerizing African American couples on screen.

Perhaps that's precisely the point the filmmaker is trying to make by knitting these two threads together to illustrate how social injustice can destroy people's wonderful lives. While that intention might be logical, it works less effectively in the film.

"If Beale Street Could Talk," opens on Tuesday, December 25, 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area.


Friday, December 21, 2018

 

Bumblebee

Bumblebee official site Can a bulky and clumsy robot be cute and cuddly, and also communicate with humans about its feelings like the alien in Steven Spielberg's "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" (1982)? That may sound impossible if you have seen previous Transformers films directed by Michael Bay. However, under the direction of Travis Knight, that miracle actually happened in the latest Transformer installment "Bumblebee" (USA 2018 | 113 min.), with Michael Bay on board as a producer, and Steven Spielberg as an executive producer. This new film doesn't merely treat robots as metal pieces that can fight and transform. Instead, it crafts a robot into a mesmerizing character that's funny, touching, and likable. Yet, the robot doesn't overshadow the center stage where the film's teenager heroine stands. The film is a delightful entertainment adding to holiday cheers.

The story begins with a fierce battle between Decepticons and Autobots on a planet called Cybertron. Facing defeat, a young Autobot B-127 is sent to Earth to protect mankind from destruction by Decepticons while waiting for other Autobots to arrive.

B-127 crash-lands into a military training led by Jack Burns (John Cena), and is badly hurt by Decepticons that are following him. But these robots never die, and B-127 transforms himself into a Volkswagen Beetle hiding in a junkyard.

Living in the Bay Area, free-spirit Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) has been moaning her father's death. She spends most of her free time in her garage trying to fix his father's old car and staying away from her mom (Pamela Adlon), her step-dad (Stephen Schneider), and her little brother (Jason Drucker). On her 18-th birthday, she discovers B-127 in the junk yard and gets the non-working car as a birthday gift. The next thing we see is that she brings the Beetle back to life and drives him home with a big smile.

Bumblebee Official Site

Of course, B-127 is not a car. After he surprises Charlie by standing up in her garage, Charlie gives him a new name called Bumblebee. The amusing and tender bond between them begins to develop. But the garage is too small to keep Bumblebee as a secret. First Charlie's next door neighbor Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) finds out about Bumblebee, then the military commander Jack Burns and Decepticons track him down. To save humankind from total destruction, Charlie bravely helps Bumblebee to fight back the enemies.

The director Travis Knight never loses his focus on telling the story between Charlie and Bumblebee, despite all the noise from the fighting robots surrounding them. Not only did he make Bumblebee cute, charming, and lively, but he also depicts the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee as both heartwarming and delightful. By the end of the film, you won't view Bumblebee as simply a robot, but an unforgettable character.

Besides the storytelling, the film also brings out chuckles with its light-hearted humor, such as the brilliant and hilarious use of '80s music throughout the film. In addition, I enjoyed this film even more because many of the filming locations are in Marin Headlands where I frequently hike on weekends.

This is a perfect holiday entertainment for us to escape from the reality and politics, and marvel at the majestic beauty of Marin Headlands.

"Bumblebee," opens on Friday, December 21, 2018.



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