Friday, November 23, 2018


Shoplifters (万引き家族)

Shoplifters official site With more than a dozen films over two decades, the renowned Japanese auteur Koreeda Hirokazu (是枝 裕和) has told many compelling stories about family bonds and created mesmerizing and adoring characters that touched our hearts. He has the extraordinary ability of communicating with us in a quiet and humble manner, yet he ingeniously utilizes his splendid storytelling style and reaches us in the form of humanity that is beyond the scope of language and culture. One film after another, we are profoundly moved and completely awestruck by his marvelous craft. He is definitely one of the best writer-directors of our time.

It's no surprise that his latest film "Shoplifters" (万引き家族 | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 121 min.) won the well-deserved Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and was selected as Japan's submission for foreign-language Oscar. It is easily the best film I have seen this year and I am pretty sure it is on its way to collect the Oscar.

At the beginning of the film, after stealing a bag of groceries, Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) and his son Shota (Jō Kairi) finds a 5-year-old girl Yuri (Sasaki Miyu) is outside alone in the cold. When Osamu takes Yuri back to the cramped little home, Osamu's wife Nobuyo (Andô Sakura) complains to him about taking in another mouth to feed. However, once they see the burn mark and bruises on Yuri's arms, Yuri is immediately accepted as the youngest addition to this three-generation family, despite any potential kidnapping concern. They give Yuri a new name Lin. Meanwhile, Yuri's parents seem happy to get rid of her and don't even bother to report her missing to the police.

Besides the limited pension from grandma Hatsue (Kiki Kirin), all the adults in the family actually have jobs. Osamu works at a construction site, Nobuyo does shifts at a dry cleaning shop, and Hatsue's granddaughter Aki (Matsuoka Mayu) strips behind a glass. Although their earnings are not enough to get by, they are together as a happy family.

When Yuri (Lin) is discovered by the authorities, the family's harmony is interrupted and more secrets come to light which shake the core of this family.

Shoplifters Official Site

Similar to the heart-wrenching "Nobody Knows" (誰も知らない 2004), the writer-director Koreeda Hirokazu is a master of bringing out the best performance by children. He makes your heart melt with their happiness and makes your heart weep with their unbearable suffering. The two innocent children in this film superbly convey the poignant tale.

In addition to the two young actors, the entire cast is fantastic in the film. Andô Sakura delivers one the most unforgettable and heartbreaking scenes in the film when she is questioned by the police. The director's longtime collaborator, beloved actress Kirin Kiki (樹木 希林) played her last role in this film before her recent death to cancer. It's hard to imagine that she won't be the grandma figure when Koreeda Hirokazu tells his next story about another family.

Although the film is once again about a family, unlike other families in the director's previous films, this family is an atypical one. As the film's title indicates, the marginalized family members are petty thieves in a society where the Japanese value honesty with high regards. However, regardless of their flaws, they are the most likable and loving characters that capture our hearts and make us cry.

As a follow up to "Like Father, Like Son" (そして父になる 2013), Koreeda Hirokazu continues to raise the question of what constitutes parents. If one could choose, Yuri obviously would prefer the love from her kidnapper family vs. her abusive birth parents.

Even though living in poverty, these characters remarkably enjoy their happiness in their little space and their joy is contagious. They might be short on money, but they never lack love and affection. That's what a family should be.

"Shoplifters," opens on Friday, November 23, 2018 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, November 2, 2018


Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody official site Whether you are old enough to remember the days when the legendary band Queen rocked the music world, or you grew up glued to an iPad and have no idea who Freddie Mercury is, you will appreciate Rami Malek's exhilarating and electrifying portrait of Freddie Mercury, Queen's lead singer, in the biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" (UK/USA 2018 | 134 min.). Rami Malek is the reason you will want to see this energetic film, featuring many of Queen's great hits. His extraordinary performance will surely earn him an Oscar nomination.

The film chronicles Freddie Mercury's (Rami Malek) ebbs and flows as the lead singer and the pianist of Queen in the '70s and '80s, and it eventually reaches its climax—the invigorating performance by Freddy at the Live Aid concert in 1985.

When Freddie is a flamboyant teenager, he self-promotes himself to a band called Smile after its lead singer quits. His incredible vocal range and his natural performer persona are immediately noticed. Not long after, with the guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee), the drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), and the bass guitarist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) on board, they form a new rock band called Queen. Their music takes the music world by storm and the band becomes one of the most influential rock 'n roll bands in history.

Before Freddy comes to terms with his homosexual identity, he is married to his life-long love Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) who offers him constant support throughout his career until his death due to AIDS at the age of 45 in 1991. Although Freddy's relationship with Mary takes up lengthy screen time in the film, his death is absent and the film leaves the audience with an uplifting rendition of We Are the Champions.

Bohemian Rhapsody Official Site

Rock 'n roll has been associated with sex and drugs more than just in catchy phrases. Yet drugs and sex are almost unseen in this film. The film chooses not to tell that part of the story in Freddy's life. His gay life in the film is merely more than just a few stares. Instead, it lets Queen's tunes soar, and lets Rami Malek disappear in Freddy's skin.

With some help from a set of fake teeth and mustaches, Rami Malek plays his heart out as Freddy. Even though you may not learn more about Freddy from this film than you would like to, you won't forget Rami Malek's tour de force performance. He certainly brings Freddy back to the screen physically, if not emotionally.

"Bohemian Rhapsody," opens on Friday, November 2, 2018.

Friday, September 21, 2018


The 41st Mill Valley Film Festival

If you have been paying attention to the latest Oscar buzz or to fresh cheers in the film festival circle, you will be very excited about the film selections of the 41st Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), presented by the California Film Institute. Even though it's not unusual for MVFF to snatch top films from other festivals, this year's program seems to be more successful in cherry-picking the award winners from major European film festivals and composing an impressive lineup for the Bay Area's cinephiles.

From much-anticipated award season contenders, to exquisite new works around the globe, and to the local Bay Area filmmaking, the 41st edition offers a variety of independent films that tell compelling stories. The festival showcases 204 films, including 94 narrative features, 24 documentary features, and 96 shorts that represent 46 countries and regions.

(You may click on each still image for showtime and theater information.)

The 41st Mill Valley Film Festival

As usual, two films will open the festival, and both are biographical this year. One is the documentarian Matthew Heineman's narrative feature debut "A Private War" (USA 2018 | 106 min.) about one of the most celebrated war correspondents Marie Colvin, played by Rosamund Pike.

The other opening night film is director Peter Farrelly's period drama "Green Book" (USA 2018 | 130 min.) telling a story between jazz pianist Don Shirley, played by Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali, and his chauffeur Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen.

Opening Night: A Private War Opening Night: Green Book

Midway into the festival on October 8, the centerpiece presentation takes place with the Golden Lion winner at this year's Venice International Film Festival, the director Alfonso Cuarón's visually striking "Roma" (USA/Mexico 2018 | in Spanish | 135 min.) about a maid working for a middle-class family in Mexico City in the '70s.

On October 14, the festival closes with the "Moonlight" director Barry Jenkins's new film "If Beale Street Could Talk" (USA 2018 | 117 min.) about a 19-year-old pregnant girl fighting for her wrongly incarcerated husband's release in Harlem during the 1970s.

Centerpiece: Roma Closing Night: If Beale Street Could Talk

This year, the festival pays tribute to the acclaimed Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski featuring an on-stage conversation with the director followed by a screening of his "Cold War" (Zimna wojna | Poland/France UK | in Polish | 88 min.), a love story set during the Cold War era. The film won him the Best Director Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is selected as Poland's submission for foreign-language Oscar.

The charismatic Timothée Chalamet returns to the festival with an Oscar buzzed performance as a drug-addicted teenage boy in the director Felix Van Groeningen's drama "Beautiful Boy" (USA 2018 | 112 min.), which is shot in San Francisco. He will join the director and other cast members in attending the festival's special presentation program.

Cold War: Tribute to Paweł Pawlikowski Beautiful Boy: Special Presentation

By showing their most recent works in six spotlight programs, the festival honors seven accomplished artists: actress Amandla Stenberg, actor-director-writer-producer Joel Edgerton, actor-writer-director Richard E. Grant, actress-producer Maggie Gyllenhaal, writer-director-producer Karyn Kusama, actress-producer Carey Mulligan, and actor-writer-director-producer Paul Dano.

spotlight on Amandla Stenberg spotlight on Joel Edgerton spotlight on Richard E. Grant spotlight on Maggie Gyllenhaal spotlight on Karyn Kusama spotlight on Carey Mulligan spotlight on Paul Dano

The Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as Japan's submission for foreign-language Oscar, "Shoplifters" (万引き家族 | Japan 2018 | in Japanese | 121 min.) is the latest work from the renowned Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和). He compassionately tells another family tale. This time, he focuses on a family which survives by stealing and lives below the poverty line. It also features the last performance by the director's long time collaborator, beloved actress Kirin Kiki (樹木 希林) who died of cancer recently.

The winner of the International Federation of Film Critics Award (FIPRESCI) at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as South Korea's entry for foreign language Oscar, "Burning" (버닝 | South Korea 2018 | in Korean | 148 min.) unfolds a love triangle masterfully crafted by the acclaimed director Lee Chang-dong (이창동).

Shoplifters Burning

Two Chinese language films in this edition of MVFF come from each side of the Taiwan Strait. Once again, the Chinese director Jia Zhangke's (贾樟柯) "Ash Is Purest White" (江湖儿女 | China 2018 | in Mandarin | 150 min.) tells a violent story involving gangsters in modern China. As usual, he casts his wife Zhao Tao (赵涛) playing the main character.

Perhaps the first film from Taiwan featuring a transgender protagonist, "Alifu, the Prince/ss" (阿莉芙 | Taiwan 2017 | in Mandarin/Paiwan | 97 min.) from the director Wang Yu-lin (王育麟) timely echoes the progress in LGBT rights in Taiwan such as the expected legalization of same-sex marriage. Alifu (Utjung Tjakivalid ) works as a hairdresser in Taipei hoping to complete her sex-reassignment surgery someday. But back home, her Paiwan tribe chief father is hoping to pass the throne to his only son. Surrounded by a supportive LGBT community, Alifu navigates her way in finding herself and happiness.

Ash Is Purest White Alifu, the Prince/ss

The works by two prominent Iranian directors are also shown at the festival. Asghar Farhadi's first non-Persian language film "Everybody Knows" (Todos lo saben | Spain/France/Italy 2017 | in Spanish/English/Catalan | 132 min.) is a mystery thriller performed by an ensemble of fine cast.

The winner of the Best Screenplay Award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "3 Faces" ( سه رخ | Iran 2018 | in Persian/Azeri | 100 min.) enables the director Jafar Panahi to be in front of the camera again driving a car as in his previous film. In this slow burn drama, he drives a famous Iranian actress to a remote village to investigate a suicide video sent by a young girl who wants to attend a drama conservatory but is forbidden by her family. The setup and some of their behavior might be hard to comprehend beyond the Iranian culture, but the director's social commentary is quite pointed.

Everybody Knows 3 Faces

Coincidentally, there are also two films by Greek directors but only one of them is in Greek. The winner of Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress Award at this year's Venice International Film Festival, "The Favourite" (Ireland/UK/USA 2018 | 121 min.), by the Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos, takes the audience back to England's Royal court in the early 18th century where a fascinating power play among three women takes place.

The other Greek director Babis Makridis offers an intriguing character study in his offbeat "Pity" (ΟΙΚΤΟΣ | Greece/Poland 2018 | in Greek | 97 min.). His unhappy protagonist (Yannis Drakopoulos) can only be content when others express pity toward him. He surely gets a lot of pity at first when his wife lies in a coma after an accident. But when that situation changes, he desperately seeks new ways to obtain pity. If the character seems too out of ordinary, perhaps that is because the script is co-written by Efthymis Filippou, who is also the writer of other eccentric films by Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos such as "The Lobster" (2015) and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" (2017). No matter how much you might be disturbed by the character, you won't forget him any time soon, with pity or not.

The Favourite Pity

Oscar-nominated actor Lucas Hedges plays leading roles in two films at MVFF41. In the director Joel Edgerton's sophomore feature "Boy Erased" (USA 2018 | 114 min.), he plays a gay teenage boy who is send to a gay conversion camp by his father (Russell Crowe).

In the other film "Ben Is Back" (USA 2018 | 103 min.), written and directed by his father Peter Hedges, Lucas Hedges plays a young boy who is suffering from drug addiction. When he is back home on Christmas Eve, his mother (Julia Roberts) goes fanatic in trying to save him.

Boy Erased Ben Is Back

Academy award-winning actress Nicole Kidman also comes to the festival with two outstanding performances. Besides playing the mother in "Boy Erased," she is almost unrecognizable in Karyn Kusama's "Destroyer" (USA 2018 | 123 min.), in which she plays an unlikable LAPD detective who is battered both mentally and physically by a dark past. Despite the film's implausible story line and sleepy pace, her performance stands out in her long and extraordinary filmography.

If Nicole Kidman looks too grim in that film, you can find some antidote in director Steve McQueen's entertaining "Widows" (UK/USA 2018 | 128 min.). It tells a story about a group of widows who must come up with $2 millions cash after their crock husbands got killed during a heist job.

Destroyer Widows

Based on the horrific massacre in Norway on July 22, 2011 that killed 77 people, the director Paul Greengrass depicts the heinous crime and its aftermath in "22 July" (Iceland/Norway/UK 2018 | 137 min.). It powerfully shows how and why Norway deals with such national tragedy so differently.

Winning the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and selected as Lebanon's submission for foreign-language Oscar, "Capernaum" (کفرناحوم | Lebanon 2018 | in Arabic/Amharic | 121 min.) zooms in at the humanitarian crises we face today. The director Nadine Labaki uses non-professional actors to tell the story of a 12-year-old boy suing his parents for bringing him into this miserable world.

22 July Capernaum

The 41st MVFF will take place October 4-14, 2018, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge at Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CinéArts Sequoia in Mill Valley, and Lark Theater and Century Larkspur in Larkspur.

Friday, September 7, 2018



Peppermint official site It should be quite easy for us to root for vengeance against injustice. When the heroine in "Peppermint" (USA 2018 | 102 min.) is played by the capable Jennifer Garner, it's even harder for us not to cheer for her actions, even though the movie fails to avenge her loss despite plenty of blood.

The only time when the film's protagonist Riley North (Jennifer Garner) smiles is five years ago, when she is celebrating her 10-year-old daughter's birthday. Her smile is gone forever after her daughter and her husband are gunned-down by a drug cartel. After the corrupt legal system sets the gun men free, Riley goes hysterical and takes the matter into her own hands.

She disappears from her bank teller job and trains herself to become a gun-toting, kick-boxing, tough-looking assassin. On the fifth anniversary of her family's deaths, she comes back to hunt down those who are responsible and single-handedly takes them out one by one.

The FBI and the LAPD are no match to Riley in terms of efficiency and accuracy. She runs around better than a CIA operative, solely fueled by her grief and anger. No matter how inconceivable the scenario on screen might be, you still find yourself rooting for her without questions and wanting to believe in her every move.

Peppermint Official Site

With the film's setup, you may expect the director Pierre Morel to showcase a fast-paced action thriller. Instead, the film seems to be muffled by an attached silencer and the energy level is subdued most of the time. Watching Riley pacing through the nest of the drug cartel is like watching someone playing a virtual computer game. She robotically points and shoots, then changes weapons and repeats. She looks like an action figure in a computer game without much personality to speak with, and her targets are merely pop-up figures on a computer screen.

To avoid losing your attention in watching this computer game, the film constantly brings back the images of Riley's daughter to remind you the noble justification for Riley's revenge and hoping that your empathy would cloud your logic. Well, that certainly works for Riley as her daughter inspires her to carry on with the mission with great success over and over.

When the game is over, you'll feel pretty good having watched Jennifer Garner seriously kicks some ass, as if she is the character you picked for yourself in a computer game.

"Peppermint" opens on Friday, September 7, 2018.

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