Friday, December 9, 2016
Days after the assassination of JFK (Caspar Phillipson), Jackie (Natalie Portman) grants an interview with a journalist (Billy Crudup) at her family estate. Even though she is overwhelmed by sorrow and anger, she is composed and maintains her control and dignity. She lays down the ground-rule about the interview—she will have the final say before the article goes into print in case she doesn't say exactly what she means. As soon as she sits down and lights a cigarette, the film takes us straight back to the most devastating moment in her life.
In flash backs, Jackie recalls her joyful efforts in renovating and decorating the White House. She is ambitious about making lasting contribution to the historic residency. However, her work is abruptly cut short when JFK was shot dead into her laps, with blood splashed all over her and staining her famous pink suit that she insists on allowing the American people to see.
With her brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard) and her childhood friend Social Secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig) by her side, Jackie grapples with the chaotic aftermath while comforting young Caroline and John. She uses JFK's funeral arrangement as the last stroke in preserving the legacy of her husband, as well as her own.
The director Pablo Larraín is no stranger in telling stories about politics and politicians such as in "No" (2012) and "Neruda" (2016). But he is not making this movie a political film. Actually, the style of this film is so different from his previous works that you wouldn't think it comes from the same director. He skillfully brings us deep into Jackie's earth-shattering world, and gives us an intimate and unsentimental account of the tragic ordeal from Jackie's point of view. No matter how many times you have heard the story about JFK's assassination, this film powerfully tells it again in a completely new perspective.
Despite the fact that Jackie was surrounded by politicians, she is not a politician and the film isn't primarily about politics. However, that doesn't mean she can't play the game of politics when she needs to. Some of her actions and verbal exchanges toward other political figures are both fierce and ingenious, thanks to an impressive script penned by Noah Oppenheim. The extraordinary performance by Natalie Portman lets us re-live one of the most tragic moments in recent history. Throughout the film, the somber and despair atmosphere of a mourning nation is painfully familiar echoing the nation's mood after the most recent election.
Life goes on after tragedy. But what about legacy? Unfinished work? Future? Hope? Jackie can teach us a lesson or two in this film.
Friday, November 25, 2016
Manchester by the Sea
In a typical gloomy cold winter day in Boston, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a reticent hard-working handyman living in an apartment building, receives a phone call and learns that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) just died. He rushes back to his brother's home in Manchester, where he grew up in a tight-knit small community.
Soon he learns that he is the sole guardian of his 16-year-old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is yet to settle in with the reality. Lee isn't thrilled by the sudden grave responsibility, but he is not going to run away from it either because he loves his brother and Patrick. Little by little in flashback, we learn that he also deeply loved his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), and why he tries to live in Boston and to stay away from his familiar hometown folks.
By designating Patrick's guardianship to Lee in the will, Joe cleverly pulls Lee back to this town by the sea, and hopefully to life as well, even if that means Lee has to come out of his grief-stricken solitude and confront the scars of his past.
The writer-director Kenneth Lonergan is a brilliant storyteller. He knows how to convincingly construct his characters little by little, and get you hopelessly attached to them. He makes them persuasive, real, and down to earth as if they are somebody around our daily lives. He meticulously arranges every detail such that everything makes perfect sense and falls into place for each character. In the end, you simply marvel at his artistic ingenuity and appreciate his story that touches your heart.
Kenneth Lonergan is also extremely efficient. His use of flashback in this film is both clever and effective. While you learn what's going on in the head of the character, you are also told about their past. He also makes a brave and mesmerizing move by playing the entire Albinoni's "Adagio in G minor" in the background during a film's pivotal scene. It's remarkably haunting and heartbreaking.
Gradually, these characters grow closer to you and their emotions are deeply felt. Long after the film is over, you'll find yourself continuing to think about them while tearing up. Indeed, some scenes in the film are gut-wrenching. But just like life in general is usually filled with both ups and downs, this film also contains plenty of humor and it isn't a sappy movie.
The film's accomplishment must also be greatly attributed to the powerful performance by its actors. Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams definitely deserve to be nominated for the Academy Award. Lee is a career defining role for Casey Affleck, and Michelle Williams has never been better.
Kenneth Lonergan closely observes how life truly is, and eloquently depicts it with enormous compassion in this incredible film.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
The film opens in 1942, when Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is air-dropped into Casablanca for an operation to assassinate Nazi's ambassador. It's unclear what the significance of such an action would be to the war, except letting Max meet his teammate Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), an ebullient member of French Resistance posing as Max's wife.
The duo not only easily pull-off the operation like they are playing a card-game trick, but they also fall in love in just a few days. After Max returned to London (why not Canada?), Marianne follows thereafter and they get married and have a daughter.
Despite frequent air-raids, life seems rosy when Max relaxes on the grass in a park as if he is posing for a fashion magazine. But that relatively beautiful life takes a sudden turn when Marianne is accused of being a Nazi spy. Max goes on a mission to prove otherwise in order to save his family.
No matter on the front line or behind it, we all know how brutal and dangerous World War II was. Yet, every operation portrayed in this film makes fighting behind the enemy line look like trivial computer games. As if Max is a skilled gamer, he simply crushes the enemy and succeeds at his every move, in addtion to speaking impressive French to fool Marianne's friends. The film's trivialization of the story takes away the potential thrill of a promising plot. After watching the film, you feel like you have walked into a fancy restaurant expecting an impressive meal, but all you get was a tasteless burger before going out of the door.
Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard are two fantastic actors. But they have little room to maneuver in playing these unconvincingly written characters. We don't know why they fall in love, besides the fact that they are both beautiful. It's preposterous to see how easy they can get away from the enemy in an environment where even their neighbor is monitoring their every move. Despite the intense security, Max can take an airplane for a joy ride whenever he needs. Really?
Perhaps due to the lack of engagement in the story, Brad Pitt's presence can be hardly registered as Max. When you see his sad face on the screen, you might wonder how he will handle his divorce drama with Angelina Jolie rather than how he will clear Marianne's name. You may drift out of these characters constantly because the film gives you little reason to care about the identity of Marianne.
What would be Brad Pitt's pick if he were asked to choose between his family and his country? With Angelina Jolie leaving him and an indecent human being moving into the White House, I think he might rather be Max when he can just do whatever the director tells him no matter if that makes sense. What a mess.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
Based on a novel by Ben Fountain, the film is about a soldier's extraordinary experience in an Iraq war zone and how he deals with the reactions from folks back home. That story sounds unlikely to be the subject of such a technical experiment. Yet, the director wants to give you a virtual-reality experience by making images look intensely real, and allow you to feel the characters as if they were right next to you.
Alas, I saw the film in old-fashioned regular resolution, and most of you will probably also see the film without this much-hyped technical advance, because only two theaters in the US (in NYC and LA) are equipped to show the film as the director intended for you to see it. Putting this much-talked about aspect aside, is this drama about homecoming still worth seeing? Absolutely! This is an emotionally charged absorbing film that will help you truly experience the profound impact the war has upon the soldiers.
Despite all the patriotic rhetoric portrayed in motion pictures and literature, that was not the reason that 19-year-old Specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn) joined the army and got deployed to Iraq. He joined the army as part of the plea agreement after he wrecked the car of his sister Kathryn's (Kristen Stewart) ex-boyfriend.
Once in the army, he is transformed into a fighter and forms a solid bond with his fellow soldiers, an eight-men unit called Bravo Squad, led by Shroom (Vin Diesel) and Sergeant David Dime (Garrett Hedlund). During a fierce fight, Billy risks his own life to help Shroom and kills a Taliban fighter. He is hailed as a hero and is awarded a Silver Star. Now Hollywood wants to turn his story into a movie.
During Thanksgiving holiday, Billy and his Bravo Squad return home for a victory tour and are invited to appear in Beyoncé's performance during the halftime show at the Dallas Cowboy's home game. Meanwhile, Hollywood producer Albert Ratner (Chris Tucker) tries to get the Cowboy's owner Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) to finance a film based on Billy's story.
Still suffering from PTSD, Billy is dazzled and confused by all the fame and pressure, and has to make a choice between his commitment to his fellow soldiers and the plea from his anti-war sister who asks him to stay.
The director Ang Lee is a superb cinematic storyteller. Even without the ultra-sharp visual he envisioned for this film, he terrifically puts the characters' internal conflicts on vivid visual display. The often teary-eyed Joe Alwyn fantastically exhibits the vulnerability and sensitivity underneath the military uniform. He superbly portrays the tremendous burden, both physically and mentally, after returning home from war. Regardless of whether they go to war willingly or opportunistically, those who do will never be the same, and some of them lose themselves forever in the fog of war even when their bodies are still intact. Sometimes the trauma is within and is not always visible. Through the brutality of the war, Billy loses his innocence but also ironically finds his destiny.
The line between ideologies becomes blurred, and the patriotic slogans fade to the background, and the perspective about war evolves. Ang Lee eloquently decodes that complexity about war by telling Billy's story with sensitivity, precision, compassion, and humor. In the end, we find ourselves being torn about what Billy should do and overwhelmed by whatever decision he makes.
Forget about the super-high definition at the speed of 120 frame-per-second. Even with the plain old 24-frame-per-second projection, you will be deeply touched by Billy's every step during his long walk before, during, and after the halftime show.