Friday, October 14, 2016
As if putting a puzzle together, the film keeps adding pieces that seem random and unrelated at first, but are supposed to fall into places once the puzzle gets resolved.
As its first puzzle piece, the film opens with a murder scene of a multiple victims. Then immediately it cuts into another puzzle piece with a child with Asperger's syndrome, while his brother looking over quietly.
That child was Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck ), now an accountant and a loner that executes his daily routines with impeccable precision, including how he parks his car into his garage every day. But that appears to be just on the surface. He is under government surveillance for on suspicion of money laundering in connection with terrorists and the mafia. Raymond King (J. K. Simmons), a director of the Financial Crime Unit in the Treasury Department, asks one of his staff Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) to hunt him down.
Meanwhile, following tips from a whistleblower Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) at a robotics company, Christian is hired by the company's CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow) to look for irregularity of the company's finance. What he discovers triggers a series of events that spin out of control.
The exercise of putting pieces together for a puzzle is often exhausting and time consuming, certainly challenging. It requires a lot of patience and great attention to details. The director Gavin O'Connor certainly has plenty of both. But what if some of the pieces are missing? He might still be able to put together something with a vague image that looks impressive, but that image won't look right if you come closer. That's what the director is dealing with—an implausible plot that is full of preposterous puzzle pieces.
Doesn't background check count for anything for federal employment? How can Marybeth Medina lie about her arrest record? Furthermore, how in the world can her boss use that to blackmail her into doing some legitimate work? If Christian is labeled as being inept in communicating with others, his warmth toward some characters says otherwise. The film's references to mathematicians regarding accounting practice are plain laughable. The violence in the film is purely for the sake of marketing this movie as an action thriller. And casting of pitchy voiced Anna Kendrick is perhaps the funniest joke in the film.
Notwithstanding all that, Gavin O'Connor is a competent filmmaker who is known for creating mesmerizing characters such as those in "Warrior" (2011). With what he has got, including a fine performance by Ben Affleck, he is able to pull off a reasonably entertaining film, and it's definitely not an endorsement to the accounting profession.
Sunday, October 2, 2016
The 39th Mill Valley Film Festival
(Click on each image for showtime and venue information. )
Once again, the festival opens with two highly anticipated films that are already having plenty of Oscar buzz: director Damien Chazelle's musical "La La Land" (USA 2016 | 126 min.) about the love story between a jazz pianist and an actress in Los Angeles, and director Denis Villeneuve's "Arrival" (USA 2016 | 116 min.) about communicating with aliens.
On October 16, the festival closes with director Jeff Nichols's "Loving" (USA 2016 | 123 min.) based on a true story in 1958 in which Richard and Mildred Loving challenged the laws banning interracial marriages.
In between, the festival pays tribute to Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman with a screening of director Garth Davis's "Lion" (Australia/UK/USA 2016 | 129 min.) as well as to groundbreaking director Julie Dash by screening her film "Daughters of the Dust" (USA 1991 | 112 min.).
After shinning spotlights on three female actresses last year, as if the festival wishes to strike a balance on gender, this year's festival celebrates three prominent actors for their accomplishments: Ewan McGregor, Aaron Eckhart, and Gael García Bernal with special screenings of Ewan McGregor's "American Pastoral" (USA 2016 | 126 min.), Ben Younger's "Bleed for This" (USA 2016 | 134 min.), and Pablo Larraín's "Neruda" (Chile/France/Spain/Argentina | 107 min.) respectively.
Every year "Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (USA 1983 | 134 min.) makes a comeback at the festival. This year on Saturday (October 8, 2016), it is presented within the Star Wars trilogy preceded by "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (USA 1977 | 121 min.) and "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" (USA 1980 | 124 min.).
Although the MVFF is excellent on selecting European and American films, it often contains a few great titles from Asia as well. At this year's festival, one of MVFF's favorite auteur Hirokazu Koreeda (是枝 裕和) returns with his latest family drama "After the Storm" (海よりもまだ深く | Japan 2016 | in Japanese | 117 min.) which tells a story about a flawed father-husband-son figure, played by Hiroshi Abe (寛 阿部). He continues his singular style of filmmaking by quietly observing the fabric of daily family life. Even though the film is not as profound and affecting as his previous films such as the masterpiece "Still Walking" (歩いても 歩いても 2008), he doesn't disappoint us with his likable characters and skillful storytelling.
In complete contrast to Koreeda's film, South Korean director E J-yong (이재용) unfolds the most poignant tale in "The Bacchus Lady" (죽여주는 여자 | South Korea 2016 | in Korea | 110 min.). The film centers on So-young (a terrific Yoon Yeo-jeong 윤여정), an elderly prostitute—called a bacchus lady (박카스 할머니)—who solicits sex among elder clients in public places in South Korea. While the film exposes a little known aspect of Korean life, it's the complicated relationship between So-young and her clients that makes the character both mesmerizing and heartbreaking to watch.
Known for "Oldboy" (올드보이 2003), South Korean director Park Chan-wook (박찬욱) brings to the festival another psychological thriller "The Handmaiden" (아가씨 | South Korea 2016 | in Korean | 145 min.), involving a thief hired as a maid who then gets involved with the lady she serves.
The only Chinese feature film at this year's festival is Chinese director Wang Yichun's (王一淳) impressive directorial debut "What's in the Darkness" (黑处有什么 | China 2015 | in Mandarin | 98 min.). Set in the '90s, with a murder mystery in rural Henan province in China as the backdrop, the film sensibly tells a teenage girl's coming-of-age story.
Two intriguing films at the festival are similar in the sense that both have tightly constructed mysterious plots while examining their protagonists' evolving moral compasses. Both are selected as the entry for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar to represent each respective country.
One is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi's engrossing drama "The Salesman" (فروشنده | Iran/France 2016 | in Persian | 125 min.) about a couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), who play "Death of a Salesman" in a local theater together. Shortly after they move into a new apartment, Rana is assaulted and Emad goes out his way to find the attacker and the pursuit strains their marriage.
The other is Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar's colorful "Julieta" (Spain 2016 | in Spanish | 96 min.) about Julieta, played by Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez, who copes with the loss of loved ones—first her husband then her daughter. Pedro Almodóvar is no stranger for crafting fantastic female characters with striking beauty in colorful dresses. In this film, he finely mixes that signature filmmaking with plenty of drama and sentiment.
The most unforgettable and talked about scenes from this year's festival may come from German director Maren Ade's quirky comedy "Toni Erdmann" Germany/Austria 2016 | in German/Romanian | 162 min.), which is Germany's entry for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek) is the pseudonym that Ines's (Sandra Hüller) eccentric father uses to pull off numerous pranks in order to reconnect with her. Ines lives a lonely life in Bucharest, Romania climbing the corporate ladder. Toni's unexpected visit to Ines not only turns her life upside down, but also allows her to reflect upon herself and to grow closer to her father.
France's entry for next year's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is director Paul Verhoeven's bewildering and sexually charged psychological thriller "Elle" (France/Germany 2016 | in French | 130 min.). The protagonist is the bossy Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) who has a troubled family history. After she was brutally raped at her home, instead of reporting to the police, she begins her own dangerous quest searching for the attacker. The film reminds me about the annual Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, because they both share certain non-mainstream spirit, sexually in particular.
After watching director Sue Williams's alarming documentary "Death by Design" (USA 2016 | 73 min. | Documentary) which paints an eerie picture of the social and environmental damage caused by the digital revolution during the past decades, you might want to pause and give it some thought before you upgrade to your next smart phone or computer. The film takes a closer look at the often ignored devastating impact, especially to the developing countries, by the technology advancement and the boom of digital devices.
Another documentary that investigates the social, economic, and political changes due to the so-called Tech Boom 2.0 is "Company Town" (USA 2016 | 78 min. | Documentary), co-directed by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow. Narrated by San Francisco Examiner's columnist Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, the film follows the heated race last year for District 3 supervisor between the mayor appointed moderate Julie Christensen and the progressive former supervisor president Aaron Peskin. It gives us an in-depth look at the struggle of local residents who are pushed out of the City by deep-pocket corporations that operate lawlessly and irresponsibly. It captures the spirit of the politicians such as Aaron Peskin (to whom I proudly casted my vote in that election) and residents who fight for the City's future to prevent the greedy corporation from recklessly destroying the culture of this great city.
The writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's profoundly touching "Manchester by the Sea" (USA 2016 | 135 min.) easily takes the trophy as the best film of the year. He crafts a masterpiece by telling a mesmerizing story about love, grief, guilt, redemption, hope, and living. You will find you continue to tear up long after the film is finished and you will continue to care about the characters in the film, including the ones powerfully performed by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, both of whom should be shoo-ins to be nominees for the Academy Award.
Another powerful film is writer-director Barry Jenkins's intimate and poetic "Moonlight" (USA 2016 | 110 min.). Divided in three chapters, it tells the story of Chiron, from a mute black boy living in a housing project and bullied at school, then to a reticent teenager in the process of discovering himself, and to an almost unrecognizable black man choosing his own destiny. It's a thought-provoking and intelligent film as well as a terrific character study.
Friday, September 16, 2016
The film opens in Hong Kong, when Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) releases classified NSA documents to journalist Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), and later joined by journalist Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson). In flashbacks, the film chronicles Snowden's short-lived career in the army, his rigorous training mentored by Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) and Hank Forrester (Nicolas Cage) at the CIA, his unsettling discovery at the NSA, his up-and-down relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), and his courageous actions that prevent him from living in the country he loves.
The film doesn't really add any new story to what we already know, except that being a dramatic recount of those events, it does convincingly expand the subplot between Snowden and his girlfriend and adds some thrilling elements in the storytelling. The director Oliver Stone skillfully unfolds the narrative and keeps us captivated even though we are familiar with the subject. There is no question that he regards Snowden as a hero instead of a traitor, but he never makes Snowden look anything more than a grounded patriot. By making this film, he makes a sound argument against the government's illegal secret surveillance program. It's hard to imagine anybody else telling Snowden's story better than Oliver Stone.
Speaking in a deep voice from his throat, the terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt remarkably resembles Edward Snowden's demeanor. Equally fine is Shailene Woodley who strikingly resonates with us even though her character is essentially unknown before this film.
After watching the film, you may think twice when you make a phone call or send a message. Yes, the government is watching even when you think you have nothing to hide. But in the name of better security, will you surrender your civil liberty to the government? The film says a resounding no, in an inspiring voice from Edward Snowden.
Friday, September 9, 2016
But that doesn't mean watching this movie is a smooth and easy ride. After all, it's about an aviation accident when an airplane is struck by geese and loses both engines in the air. Despite the fact that we all already know the outcome, Clint Eastwood's skillful recount of those terrifying moments is nothing short of a thrilling experience.
The film is set during the days right after Sully successfully landed the airplane on the Hudson River. Capitan Sullenberger (Tom Hanks), a.k.a. Sully, and First Officer Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are kept in a hotel in New York City while the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) conducts the mandatory investigation about the incident. Although Sully calmly took swift and wise actions after his plane was struck, now he appears to be shaken and frequently has nightmares. Yet, he continues to be the most good-natured guy you can ever encounter and never loses his temper even though the officials from NTSB seem to be unreasonable or even hostile.
In flashbacks, the film vividly recreates each hair-raising moment when the plane is in the air and in the water. The actions taken by Sully and his crew illustrate the high-bar of their professionalism and the profound heroism that is both inspiring and moving. The great compassion and kindness from New Yorkers is also on full display when they rush to the rescue after the incident. The director Clint Eastwood clearly salutes not only to the flight crew, but also to the New Yorkers.
What can possibly go wrong when America's most liked actor Tom Hanks plays the kindest hero Sully in a Clint Eastwood film? Hardly anything, except that the protagonist gets all the spotlight and leaves almost nothing to the rest of the characters. Playing Sully's wife Lorraine, Laura Linney only gets to answer a few phone calls to express her concerns and we know little about her character.
Featuring a nice-guy hero, with such a happy ending of a great story, the film has all the best ingredients to make a delicious product. The film is almost impossible not to be embraced, especially when it gives you such a positive vibe while so many negative stories flood the media. Sully might get a lot votes if he were put on November's presidential ballot because we all dream of taking a ride with a competent and trustworthy Capitan like Sully, be it an airplane or a nation.