Friday, September 29, 2017
The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival
In this 40th edition, the festival showcases 204 films representing 52 countries, including 73 narrative features, 26 documentary features, 89 shorts, and 6 music programs.
Located just north of San Francisco, the 40th MVFF takes place October 5-15, 2017 at Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CinéArts@Sequoia in Mill Valley, Lark Theater and Century Larkspur 4 in Larkspur, and Century Cinema in Corte Madera.
(You may click on each still image for showtime and venue information.)
One of the dual opening night films is director Joe Wright's heroic portrait of Winston Churchill, "Darkest Hour" (UK 2017 | 114 min.). Featuring a passionate delivery of Churchill's famous speech, Gary Oldman's performance positions him as a front runner in the Oscar race in the Best Actor category.
The other opening night film is director Jason Wise's documentary about 94-year-old entertainer Rose Marie's extraordinary career, "Wait for Your Laugh" (USA 2017 | 85 min.), an unusual choice for a festival's opening night film.
In the middle of the festival, the centerpiece presentation is director Richard Linklater's new film "Last Flag Flying" (USA 2017 | 119 min.) about three estranged veteran friends reconnecting after the son of one of them died in the Iraq War.
On October 15, the festival closes with two films. One is Greta Gerwig's critically acclaimed directorial debut "Lady Bird" (USA 2017 | 93 min.), a coming-of-age comedy about a girl from Sacramento, California. The other closing night film is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's drama "The Current War" (USA 2017 | 105 min.), a dramatic account about the competitions among inventors Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and Nikola Tesla.
The festival also shines spotlights this year on Academy Award-nominated actor Andrew Garfield, Golden Globe-nominated indie darling Greta Gerwig, and Emmy-nominated Dee Rees for their accomplishments. Each celebration features an on-stage conversation and celebratory reception with the artist following a special screening of Andy Serkis's "Breathe" (UK 2017 | 117 min.), Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" (USA 2017 | 93 min.), and Dee Rees's "Mudbound" (USA 2017 | 134 min.) respectively.
This year, the festival pays tribute to acclaimed director Todd Haynes, Academy Award-winning actors Holly Hunter and Sean Penn, and the brilliant Kristin Scott Thomas. Each tribute program contains an on-stage conversation with the artist and a celebratory reception thereafter.
Although the festival exclude several high-profile Oscar contenders from these big nights, it offers the moviegoers a sneak peak for those who cannot wait for these films' theatrical releases:
- The Golden Lion winner at this year's Venice International Film Festival, the director Guillermo del Toro's "The Shape of Water" (USA 2017 | 119 min.) tells a love story between an amphibious creature and a janitor played by the splendid Sally Hawkins.
- The top-award winner at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, the director Martin McDonagh's "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" (USA 2017 | 115 min.) tells a mother's quest for justice after her daughter was murdered. Will Frances McDormand get another Oscar for her portrait of an enraged mother?
- The Palme d'Or winner at this year's Cannes Film Festival, director Ruben Östlund's "The Square" (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark 2017 | in English/Swedish/Danish | 142 min.) satirically tells a story surrounding an art installation in a museum.
MVFF's favorite Japanese auteur Hirokazu Koreeda has been a regular at the festival in the past. It's a little surprise that his latest film is not included in this year's program. However, it's a little surprise that a regular at the San Francisco International Film Festival in each spring, the Korean writer-director Hong Sang-soo (홍상수) comes to the Bay Area earlier than usual with "On the Beach at Night Alone" (밤의 해변에서 혼자 | South Korea/Germany | in Korean/German | 101 min.). That's perhaps because he has completed three films this year so he has the luxury to spread his films around in different festivals. It's remarkable that by slightly tweaking the flavors and textures, he can robustly stew a pot of soup (three for this year!) about man-woman relationship each year, and his loyal fans never fail to dig in then ask for more.
It's also a disappointment that Chinese blockbuster director Feng Xiaogang's touchy new film "Youth" (芳华 | China 2017) is absent from this year's festival. Instead, the Chinese writer-director Song Chuan (宋川) brings his sophomore feature "Ciao Ciao" (巧巧 | China/France 2017 | in Chinese | 83 min.) to the festival. The film is about a young woman's return to her hometown, a small village in Yunnan Province. She must choose between two very different men who represent two different classes in modern China.
After collecting couple awards at this year's Venice International Film Festival, the celebrity Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's (艾未未) timely documentary "Human Flow" (Germany/USA 2017 | 140 min.) powerfully visualizes the headlines about refugees and human migration. This impressive documentary vividly captures the unprecedented refugee crisis around the globe in more than 23 countries, and displays its massive scale and devastation.
Another related documentary at the festival is veteran filmmaker Barbet Schroeder's chilling "The Venerable W." (Le Vénérable W | France/Switzerland 2017 | in Burmese/English | 107 min.). The film's titular subject is Ashin Wirathu (ဝီရသူ), a 49-year-old Burmese Buddhist monk who is the prominent leader of anti-Muslim campaign in Myanmar. He candidly speaks his mind to the camera and preaches to his huge followers about his hatred toward the Rohingya people in his country. The film offers extraordinary insights about the crisis in Myanmar and serves as a snapshot about the growing intolerance and Islamophobic sentiment around the world. The film also provokes you to ponder about how many wars and conflicts around the world are not rooted in people's disagreements in religions.
There are two films featuring terrific performances by child actors.
"The Florida Project" (USA 2017 | 115 min.), directed by Sean Baker, unflinchingly reveals the life in poverty just outside the Disney World. With humor and compassion, the film skillfully unfolds a heartbreaking story about the daily life of a single mom Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her 6-year-old daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who live in a shabby motel. The irresistible Moonee is too young to understand the hardship of being poor. Instead, she enjoys the summer with her friends roaming around the marginalized world.
Cuban director Jonal Cosculluela's feature directorial debut "Esteban" (Cuba/Spain 2016 | in Spanish | 90 min.) tells a story about 9-year-old Esteban (Reynaldo Guanche) who wants to play piano. Like Moonee, Esteban is also from a poor family but he falls in love with piano and is determined to take lessons from an old piano teacher. Although the film sometimes falls into the trap of clichés, especially during the latter half of the film, Reynaldo Guanche's natural performance will touch your heart.
A dozen films in this year's program are selected as candidates for nomination in the Academy Awards foreign-language category. If you plan to pick one film to watch at the festival from these countries, here is the cheat sheet for each country's Oscar submission at the festival (again, you may click on each still image for showtime and venue information):
- France — "Beats Per Minute" (120 battements par minute | France 2017 | in French | 143 min. | dir. Robin Campillo) about France's AIDS epidemic in '90s.
- Switzerland — "The Divine Order" (Die göttliche Ordnung | in German/English/Italian | 96 min. | dir. Petra Biondina Volpe) about women's suffrage struggle in the '70s in Switzerland.
- Chile — "A Fantastic Woman" (Una mujer fantástica | Chile 2017 | in Spanish | 93 min. | dir. Sebastián Lelio) about the aftermath after a transgender woman's partner passes away.
- Germany — "In the Fade" (Aus dem Nichts | Germany 2017 | in German | 106 min. | dir. Fatih Akin) about a woman's revenge after she loses her loved ones in a bombing attack.
- Lebanon — "The Insult" (قضية رقم ٢٣ | France/Lebanon 2017 | in Arabic | 113 min. | dir. Ziad Doueiri) about a court battle escalated from an argument between a Lebanese Christian man and a Palestinian refugee.
- Russia — "Loveless" (Нелюбовь | Russia/France 2017 | in Russian | 127 min. | dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev) about a divorcing couple comes together to look for their missing son.
- Ireland — "Song of Granite" (Ireland/Canada 2017 | in Irish | 104 min. | dir. Pat Collins) about the life and music of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney.
- Poland — "Spoor" (Pokot | Poland/Czech Republic 2017 | in Polish | 128 min. | dir. Agnieszka Holland) about a murder mystery in a remote region.
- Sweden — "The Square" (Sweden/Germany/France/Denmark 2017 | in English/Swedish/Danish | 142 min. | dir. Ruben Östlund) about an art installation in a museum.
- Spain — "Summer 1993" (Estiu 1993 | Spain 2017 | in Catalan | 97 min. | dir. Carla Simón) about a 6-year-old girl's transition to live with her uncle's family after her parents died.
- Norway — "Thelma" (Norway 2017 | in Norwegian | 116 min. | dir. Joachim Trier) about a girl's discovery about her superpower after she falls in love with another girl.
- Nepal — "White Sun" (सेतो सुर्य | Nepal/USA/Qatar/Netherlands 2016 | in Nepali | 89 min. | dir. Deepak Rauniyar) about an anti-regime soldier returning home to bury his dead father while trying to resolve the grudge with his brother.
Friday, September 15, 2017
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!)
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.
Friday, August 18, 2017
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.
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.
Friday, July 21, 2017
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.
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.