Friday, September 15, 2017


American Assassin

American Assassin official site When terrorist attacks and nuclear threats become almost daily headlines, it is no surprise to see Hollywood trying to blend them into a thriller featuring a Jason Bourne-type CIA spy trolling the globe and taking off the bad guys. That motif is quite obvious in the director Michael Cuesta's inconceivable and formulaic "American Assassin" (USA 2017 | 111 min.), based on Vince Flynn's novel. As expected, there are numerous explosions and endless gunfire in the film. Other than that, there is hardly anything new in this movie compared to the many spy movies you have seen before. The terrorist attack and nuclear threat are used merely as artificial garnishing added to a microwave-heated leftover dish—no matter how it looks, it still doesn't taste good.

At a beach resort in Spain, twenty-something Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) is happily recording himself proposing to his girlfriend. That's the only time you will see Mitch smiling in this movie. Seconds after she said yes, several terrorists open fire indiscriminately at anyone in sight. Mitch survives the attack with injuries, but his fiancé is killed.

That traumatic event transforms Mitch into a revenge seeking beast. Within eighteen months, he not only trains himself into a navy seal's physique, but also teaches himself Arabic and infiltrates inside a terrorist cell in Libya. He wants to be a one-man warrior and take out the terrorists in the world one at a time.

That noble mission short-lives when the CIA steps in and recruits him. Mitch's activities have been under CIA's surveillance the entire time and on every monitor in a control room that looks like it was directly borrowed from another movie set. In the center of the room is a stone faced CIA officer Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) who is also forbidden to smile in the entire movie. She believes Mitch is a perfect candidate for being a CIA operative and sends him to a cold-war era spy Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) for training.

Before long, they are deployed to Istanbul and Rome to team up with another local CIA operative Annika (Shiva Negar). Their daunting task is to track down a nuclear bomb built in the basement of a housing project in Rome. (No kidding!)

American Assassin Official Site

The director Michael Cuesta may have a tougher job to do than these CIA operatives. He has to navigate these mindless characters and try to fit them into a preposterous plot. We don't know what motivates Mitch to be a forceful fighter for the CIA, besides the photo of him and his fiancé which he keeps in the wallet at all times. Each one on the team seems to be fighting for their own ego instead of their country.

They often look like ruthless gangsters instead of professional spies. Mitch has to throw himself into a windshield in order to stop and hijack a car. Brilliant! He holds up his iPhone to take pictures of people coming out a bank in order to search for the suspect. Seriously? When you lose sight of your targets, just look around. If you see any thug looking guy passing by, just follow them and bingo! Apparently a CIA spy's job isn't that hard!

This film has nothing new to offer except to start a new spy thriller series. If a nuclear weapon were what's shown in the film, then you would probably think it is not a big deal for North Korea to set off one—because you'll need just a helicopter to escape. If there is a sequel for Mitch's next mission, you can safely ignore it because he has already disqualified himself in this film as a CIA officer.

"American Assassin," opens on Friday, September 15, 2017.

Friday, August 18, 2017


Good Time

Good Time official site I often feel apathetic toward drug addicts and their stories in films. However, the new film from the writer-director brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, "Good Time" (USA 2017 | 100 min.), proves to be a rare exception which intensely captured my attention. It's a wild ride that is fueled not by drugs or greed, but by brotherly love. In the end, you may question the film's protagonist's judgment, but you won't have any doubts about his dedication to his brother.

Nick (Benny Safdie) is a hearing impaired and intellectuality challenged young man. When he is getting evaluated by a psychologist (Peter Verby), his protective brother Connie (Robert Pattinson) storms in and drags him out. Where to? To rob a bank!

We are not told why they need to rob a bank besides the fact that they are obviously poor. But during the process, it appears that perhaps bank robbery is the only act Connie can come up with in order to let Nick participate and feel validated about his normality and ability. Surprisingly, they are able to pull the gig off without a glitch, until the glitch kicks in. The two amateur bank robbers begin to run on foot and eventually Nick ends up in jail. Now Connie's mission is try to do anything imaginable to get his brother out while the police's dragnet is closing in on him.

During the eventful night, a few colorful and terrifically acted characters cross paths with Connie, including his intoxicated girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a drug head teen-aged girl Crystal (Taliah Webster), and a newly paroled drunk Ray (Buddy Duress). They are all manipulated by Connie's street smarts into helping him free his brother Nick.

It's a very long and thrilling night in the Big Apple but nothing deters Connie's determination.

Good Time Official Site

By no means is Connie a decent guy in the eyes of a civilized society, but his caring for his brother Nick is vividly on display in the chaotic night. Everything he does, no matter how ridiculous it looks, works toward a simple goal—to get his brother out of jail. That's at the core of the Safdie brothers' storytelling. Connie is a guy who can be easily dismissed as a junkie criminal, but his effort to protect and save his brother is both heroic and admirable. The filmmaker brothers superbly capture Connie's spirit in a breathlessly fast pace and electrifying fashion.

But why do these characters have to be losers like drug addicts? Can't a story about a brother's dedication be told without having to look into New York City's drug subculture? The audience may have a better time if they don't have to look at these victims of illegal substances.

"Good Time," an A24 release, opens on Friday, August 18, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

Friday, July 21, 2017



Dunkirk official site No one seems to be able to forget how brutal the bloody Normandy Beach Operation was during World War II in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" (USA 1998), and everyone knows the name Normandy and its significance to the victory in fighting the Nazis. But perhaps few have heard about Dunkirk, a beach town in France that also bears its significance during World War II for the Allied forces. Thanks to the blockbuster director Christopher Nolan's intense "Dunkirk" (Netherlands/UK/France/USA 2017 | 106 min.), the name Dunkirk might soon become as familiar as Normandy. This triumphant film brings you right inside a war zone like never before. It easily becomes one of the greatest war movies ever made. It also firmly establishes Christopher Nolan's status as a singular filmmaker in addition to being a money maker for the Hollywood studios, especially when the film marches into the fall Oscar season with a full chest of cash from the box office.

Christopher Nolan is well-known for his nonlinear storytelling, as demonstrated in his time and mind bending "Interstellar" (USA/UK/Canada/Iceland 2014). In this film, he continues that style but tends to be much more conventional. He masterfully crafts an immersive war story by simultaneously yet seamlessly focusing on the combats on land, at sea, as well as in the air. The film breathlessly displays the battle ground up-close as if you were soaked in the hellish blood-bath witnessing the horror.

During May-June of 1940, almost 400,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were cornered by the German army to the Dunkirk beach, only 26 miles across the English Channel from the UK. The water was too shallow for the British war-ships to reach the shore in order to rescue the soldiers back to the UK. Meanwhile, the troops were exposed to the constant German bombing from the air while waiting for their evacuation. This film reenacts the survival struggles from the perspective of these soldiers facing death every second.

On land, the story is centered on a frightened British lad Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) who desperately wants to find a way to get on a ship, along with tens of thousands of troops queuing up on the beach waiting to evacuate, commanded by naval Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Col. Winnant (James D'Arcy) from the army. In the air, two Royal Air Force pilots Collins (Jack Lowden) and Farrier (Tom Hardy) courageously disrupt German bombers that have been quite successful in sinking British ships. And at sea, a British civilian Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) sails out to the sea toward Dunkirk with his teen-aged son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan). Together with thousands of other heroic civilians, they roll out their fishing boats or yachts and risk their lives to bring the soldiers back to the UK.

The British only hoped to bring back 30,000 soldiers back alive. Instead, the majority of the troops were miraculously evacuated and the miracle had a lasting impact on the outcome of World War II.

Dunkirk Official Site

Unlike other war movies, this fast-paced World War II thriller contains no inspiring speeches, complex politics, tear-jerking sentiment, or even a single image of the enemy. There is no time for any of those. The director Christopher Nolan terrifically assembles every top-notch creative force together and delivers an exhilarating experience about what it's like to be caught in the middle of a war. He superbly composes vivid visuals to tell his story, accompanied by a soundtrack which is so effective that it is often indistinguishable from the horrifying sounds of war. When bombs stop exploding, the ticking watch sound reminds you that danger can still appear any second. You never get a break from the tension throughout the film. Christopher Nolan completely takes control of your attention with his cinematic tricks.

Very few lines are spoken by the characters. Even when they do have time to speak, the heavy accent and the surrounding noise make them hard to understand. But that's exactly what it would be like in such a chaotic setting, and you won't have time to figure out what has been said. Every second is a battle between life and death.

You will be glad that you're just having a realistic war experience in a movie theater lasting only less than two hours, rather than in reality.

"Dunkirk," a Warner Bros. Pictures release, opens on Friday, July 21, 2017.


Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth official site How far would you go to pursue your freedom and love and to gain control of your own destiny? Perhaps not far enough compared to the courageous heroine in William Oldroyd's impressive feature directional debut "Lady Macbeth" (UK 2017 | 89 min.). The film is based on an 1865 Russian novel, but it moves the setting to the UK during the Victoria era and unfolds its captivating story as if it's a twisted Korean drama series. On top of that, 19-year-old Florence Pugh's marvelous performance should pave her way to become the most sought-after talent for years to come.

In the film's opening scene, a vulnerable teenager Katherine (Florence Pugh) gets married to a middle-aged Alexander (Paul Hilton). This isn't a typical union that involves love and attraction. It's far from it. Katherine is bought by Alexander's cruel father Boris (Christopher Fairbank) with a small piece of land. She is told to stay indoors in those dark rooms inside a lifeless huge estate. She gets no affection from Alexander, or anyone else around. Even Katherine's black maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) acts resentfully to her and shows no gentleness when serving her. She feels suffocated and all alone.

When Alexander and Boris all leave the house to attend to business, she finds her break. She steps out the house and tastes the freedom and fresh air for the first time. When she meets an energetic and handsome farmhand Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), her emotional and physical desire is also unleashed for the first time. She grows stronger both internally and externally. She gains confidence and control, she finds her love and passion. She lights up the hope to happily live with Sebastian in the future.

That hope quickly runs into obstacles when Boris returns to the estate and finds out about the affair. However, Katherine is no longer the intimidated girl when she first arrived at the mansion. She takes control against anything that stands in her path of pursuing happiness and refuses to settle for the fate that she has been designated.

Lady Macbeth Official Site

The film's plot bears the gravity of a grand opera and its shocking development resembles Korean drama. Yet, the first time director William Oldroyd confidently controls his storytelling and effortlessly crafts it into an accessible episode of PBS's Masterpiece Theater. The cinematography and the art design is absolutely arresting and even the lighting becomes a noticeably essential element echoing Katherine's mood.

But the most mesmerizing aspect of the film is Florence Pugh's excellent performance to convey Katherine's complex emotions. Often without a word, her facial expression speaks volume about her commiserable character and the process in her mind. Katherine might appear to be weak and helpless at first, but her evolvement is both shocking and liberating.

Since the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, it has traveled around the world in the festival circle, including the San Francisco International Film Festival. Finally it's time for Florence Pugh's terrific performance to be seen by a wider audience.

"Lady Macbeth," a Roadside Attractions release, opens on Friday, July 21, 2017 in San Francisco Bay Area.

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