Sunday, April 20, 2014
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival
For the fourth consecutive year, the San Francisco Film Society gets
a new executive director. However, year after year, the
society's terrific programming team has been consistent in
curating excellent world and independent cinema and in
presenting the "crown jewel of the
society"—the San Francisco International
Film Festival (SFIFF), the longest running film festival
The highly anticipated 57th San Francisco International Film Festival will surely delight its audience with a grand showcase of extraordinary films in 40 languages that representing 56 countries. During two weeks period, the festival exhibits 73 narrative features, 28 documentary features, and 7 shorts programs.
The festival opens on April 28 with a thriller "The Two Faces of January" (UK/USA/France 2014 | 97 min.). Two weeks later on May 8, the festival concludes with a drama "Alex of Venice" (USA 2014 | 87 min).
Here is a list of my recommendations. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program which has the showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order (and more titles may be added):
The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 24 - May 8, 2014 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, New People Cinema, and Castro Theater, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.
Friday, April 18, 2014
The Railway Man
It's no surprise that soldiers may suffer from post
traumatic disorder upon coming home from a war. That's true
for veterans returned from recent Iraq war and Afghanistan
War; it's also true for those fought in Vietnam War and
World War II decades ago, especially if one is tortured by
the enemy. World War II veteran Eric
Lomax, a railway enthusiast who passed away in 2012,
was one of these soldiers. He was captured and tortured by
the Japanese army and was tormented by the horrific
experience even years later. Based on Eric
of the same name,
Man" (Australia/UK 2013 | 116 min.) tells the
story about his imprisonment by the Japanese Army, its
lasting effect on him, and his confrontation with his
torturer decades later. Despite an impressive ensemble cast,
the film fails to fulfill its ambition to deliver this
extraordinary story to the big screen.
During World War II in 1942, when Singapore falls under Japanese's attack, 25,800 British and 18,000 Australian servicemen are captured and imprisoned by the Japanese. A young British telecommunication officer Eric Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is one of the prisoners of war. The Japanese put them into hard labor under horrific conditions to build the Burma Railway, also called the Death Railway. With a few electronic parts they salvaged, Eric builds a radio to get news about the war from home.
After the Japanese discover the radio, they suspect that Eric is sending out information about the railway construction, although Eric is simply fascinated by the railway which is built in a remote hazardous area. They brutally torture Eric and his fellow soldiers including using water boarding. One of Eric's torturers is a young Japanese interpreter Nagase (Tanroh Ishida).
More than forty years later, Eric (Colin Firth) and his buddy Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) are still haunted by the imprisonment episode and unable to move on. But they keep the misery to themselves, and remain silent even to Eric's new wife Patti (Nicole Kidman), who Eric met during a train ride. When they discover that Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is still alive and works as a tour guide in Thailand, Eric decides to confront the past and his enemy.
By any measure, this is an incredible story. Each of the three parts of Eric's life experience can be explored deeper. Yet, the director Jonathan Teplitzky seems unable to decide what part of the story he wants to focus on. He constantly switches back and forth in time and chops the film into pieces without getting the characters fully developed and integrated. As a result, the film creates two physically and mentally distinct characters even for the same person. That would be fine if the film created a transition process to show a person's transformation or established a viable connection between the young and old. What makes Jeremy Irvine and Colin Firth to be the same Eric Lomax forty years apart? Hardly anything. It's even more so for Nagase—how does a cruel war criminal played by Tanroh Ishida evolve into a gentle old man played by Hiroyuki Sanada?
When it comes to Nicole Kidman's character Patti, it gets worse. She is treated like a visual aid or a prop, simply serving the function of the plot and asking dumb questions like what happened during Eric's imprisonment. Is it really that hard to figure out that Eric was tortured like almost everyone in the hand of the barbaric Japanese army during World War II?
Both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman must have been given a difficult task which they carry out well in the film. They often appear with teary eyes while the camera slowly circling around them, although it's hard to tell what those tears are for. Perhaps they are simply given the direction to be emotional, so being fine actors, there they are.
When the film rushes into its inconceivable conclusion, regardless how the story played out in the real life, we are left puzzled and surprised. But one thing we can sigh with relief is that Eric Lomax's suffering is finally over.
Friday, March 21, 2014
If you ever take a personality
test, most likely it's for your amusement or
entertainment (unless it's a test by Scientology). But
what if that test result is similar to a genetic profiling
which determines your path for the rest of your life? That
test not only doesn't sound fun anymore, it actually becomes
terrifying, especially if the result can also mean life and
death. That's the scenario in director Neil Burger's
(USA 2012 | 142 min.) about a ludicrous survival story in
dystopian Chicago. The film is the first installment of a
scheduled new sci-fi trilogy that is based
Roth's young adult novel. Despite
a solid lead performance by Shailene
Woodley, the film falls short of its expectation. It
remains to be seen if this franchise can repeat the magic as
Hunger Games" does when its sequel
catches fire at the box office.
The setup of the plot may seem like the beginning of a bedtime story for a five-year-old which sounds like this: in a postwar era in Chicago, the society is divided into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Each teenager take a personality test at the age of sixteen and the test result indicates which faction he or she fits the best. Once one joins a faction, the decision is final and no refund or exchange. If the test result is inconclusive, however, the person is called a Divergent who is regarded as a threat to the harmony of the society and must be eliminated.
The film's heroine, a likable girl Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley), is about to take this life shaking personality test. Dressing like Amish people, Beatrice and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) have been living with his parents Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn) in the Abnegation faction, but deep inside she always dreams of becoming one of the Dauntless. If you are young, the Dauntless do seem to have their appeal when they dress in black and roaming the streets like a bunch drunk fraternity guys after bars are closed on a Saturday night.
Regardless her troublesome test result, Beatrice joins the Dauntless and begins her new life under a new name—Tris. Led by the inked and pierced mean Eric (Jai Courtney), the brutal training process seems like a never ending hazing cycle for the new recruits in a fraternity. Besides enduring the harsh competitions among the new Dauntless members, Tris must conceal her Divergent identity in order to survive. Even her environment has no privacy, compassion, or humanity in sight, sensitive Tris manages to connect with her handsome commander Four (Theo James) and develops a romantic relationship.
That relationship is proven to be crucial later in the film because it becomes the life line for her survival, as well as for winning the battle over an evil conspiracy by Erudite leader Jeanine Matthews (Kate Winslet).
Although the film belongs to a sci-fi genre in the post-apocalyptic future, the director Neil Burger adds little imagination to the implausible original plot. The film is indeed thrilling, if you are acrophobia, like the bravery Four is. But after repeated shots looking down from a railroad track, the film runs out of tricks. Thus, it let Tris and Four climb to an abandoned roller coaster ride, so they can see further and feel more thrilling by looking down. No kidding. The chair for Tris to sit in to take a test is no different from a dental office. Is it the best the film's production can do?
Like the five factions, many things in the film don't make any sense. For example, when chemical induced personality test takes place and a test person is wired to a computer, unlike the NSA, the computer doesn't collect crucial personal data such as the test result. Even the test finds a potential threat like a Divergent, unlike the TSA, it doesn't alert the authority. Really?
Despite all the flaws in the film, the film stays afloat, thanks to Shailene Woodley, who always has a convincing presence and sympathetic persona on the screen. She can easily become the next Jennifer Lawrence, if she is given a better script and direction. Perhaps her next personality test will take her to a different faction—the one that makes sense.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Featuring film, music, and food, it's the second year
Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
(SFIAAFF) evolved into a new
presented by the Center for Asian America
Media (CAAM). With a leaner
program, CAAMFest continues
to provide a platform for exhibiting CAAM's productions,
new works by Asian American filmmakers, and contemporary
Same as last year, the festival only contains 40 feature-length films. The festival also includes 8 shorts programs, as well as a few musical and foodie events.
While several films from China made big headlines at last month's Berlinale by winning several top prizes, surprisingly, there is only one documentary comes from China at this year's festival—"The Road to Fame" (成名之路), which is terrific and you do not want to miss.
CAAMFest 2014 takes place March 13-23, 2014 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, New People Cinema, Castro Theater, and Great Star Theater, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.
Here are my picks in this year's program. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program, where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order :