Friday, March 22, 2013

 

Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen It's a known fact that a group of US Navy SEALs dropped from the night sky, raided a compound in a foreign country, and killed Osama bin Laden. How about a group of international terrorists arrives from the sky and enters from the front door during broad daylight, attacks the White House, and captures the President of the United States? Luckily, the latter scenario is pure fiction in director Antoine Fuqua's explosive action thriller "Olympus Has Fallen" (USA 2013 | 130 min.). The film tells an incredible story about a brave former secret service agent who single-handedly fights a group of Korean terrorists to save the entire nation, and the president.

The film begins on a quiet and snowy Christmas Eve. Secret service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) escorts the President (Aaron Eckhart) and his family en route to a fundraising event. Everyone can sense the air that something is going to happen. Of course it happens. The breathtakingly intense incident sets the tone for the rest of the movie. As a consequence, Mike Banning leaves the secret service.

A year and half later, when the South Korea prime minister visits the President of the United States at the White House, a heavily armed large aircraft arrives on top of the White House and showers the national mall with rain of bullets. The master mind behind the attack is a Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune). By precise coordination, Kang successfully holds the President, the Vice President (Phil Austin), and the Secretary of Defense (Melissa Leo) hostage inside the White House bunker. The National Mall becomes a sea of fire. The nuclear arsenal is under Kang's control—perhaps the US shouldn't have piled up so many nuclear war heads at the first place.

While all hell breaks loose and army's attempts for breaking into the White House fail, Mike Banning miraculously forces his way inside the White House, which is coded Olympus by the secret service. Using his knowledge about the White House as a formal secret service agent (no, the passcode has not been changed), he establishes the only communication between the House Speaker (Morgan Freeman) and the ruined White House. He becomes the only hope to avert an even more catastrophic disaster.

A scene in Olympus Has Fallen

Director Antoine Fuqua hardly gives the viewers any chance to take a break from the extravagant violence and exhilarating action sequences. The situation only gets worse by the minute. Horrific acts escalate one after another. It's surreal to see the familiar White House looked like a war zone in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film's pace is so fast that you don't have the time to pause and to question the credibility of the story.

However, once bullets stop flying, you might ponder about the motives of the attack and some implausible details during the fierce fight. The subplots regarding president's wife and son seem to be out of the place and distracting as well. Where are those Navy SEALs who kill bin Laden? It's too bad that those Blue Angels are only good for showing off during Fleet Weeks, but useless when the White House is under attack.

The commanding Morgan Freeman is more presidential than Aaron Eckhart in the film. It makes me wonder why saving the President's life is more important than the survival of an entire nation. I am sure Morgan Freeman would be a fine president.

After a vivid display of a falling Olympus, it's such a relief that the whole thing is just a movie.

"Olympus Has Fallen," a FilmDistrict release, opens on Friday, March 22, 2013 at Bay Area theaters.


Friday, March 15, 2013

 

Stoker

Stoker Acclaimed South Korean veteran director Park Chan-Wook (박찬욱) is the master mind behind his brilliant, violent, suspensive, mesmerizing, and elegant vengeance trilogy—"Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" (복수는 나의 것, 2002), "Oldboy" (복수는 나의 것, 2003), and "Lady Vengeance" (친절한 금자씨, 2005). His latest film is his English-language debut: a stylish and captivating, yet less bloody psychological thriller "Stoker" (USA/UK 2012 | 98 min.). Under his impeccable control, the film floats between dreamy fantasy and mysterious reality, with striking visuals and superb performance. Although not as exhilarating as his vengeance trilogy, this film is more engaging and thrilling than Park's previous film "Thirst" (박쥐 2009).

The film's protagonist is an ireful teenager India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). On her 18th birthday, Indian loses her beloved father Richard Stoker (Dermot Mulroney) to a car accident. At Richard's funeral, a charming and mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) shows up. Until that moment, Indian doesn't even know that she has an uncle.

With his own agenda in mind, Charlie decides to stay for a while at the gigantic desolate mansion which Indian shares with her alienated mother Evie (Nicole Kidman). An intriguing and fascinating game beings to be played by these twisted and perplexing characters.

Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode in Stoker

While the performance is uniformly solid in the film, Mia Wasikowska stands out as the introspective India, who never smiles once in the entire film. She vividly conveys Indian's complex mind and curious fantasy with little physical movement and few spoken words, but occasionally with some piano play.

Actually, the dialogue is sparse in the film. The story is often told or felt by the lush visual and the thrilling atmosphere.

Although the plot doesn't always make sense, but director Park Chan-Wook's masterful direction makes the film thoroughly engaging. He knows exactly how to make each scene to be intensely suspensive, and he guides viewer's attention to follow his frame closely. In fact, before he started shooting the film, he already completed the storyboard for the entire film—he has the film made already in his mind even before the camera starts to roll.

As a Korean director, Park Chan-Wook is not alone for coming to Hollywood to make an English-language film this year. Couple months ago, another Korean director Kim Jee-woon (김지운) just released "The Last Stand." Is this "Korean directorship" going to be a new trend? I certainly don't mind if it is, especially when more Hollywood films are made by directors like Park Chan-Wook.

"Stoker," a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, opens on Friday, March 15, 2013 at Bay Area theaters.


 

The Call

The Call "911, what's your emergency?" You probably hope that you'll never have to make a 911 call and to hear this line. But perhaps you always wonder what it's like during such a call. Sometimes, 911 calls even make to the news. Besides those prank calls, 911 calls are usually about life and death. That's definitely the case in director Brad Anderson's new thriller "The Call" (USA 2013 | 96 min.). The film is a mix bag of intensely frightening moments and laughable ludicrous plots. It's good entertainment nevertheless.

There are 240 million 911 calls each year. One of the calm voices speaking to those often hysterical callers comes from veteran LAPD 911 dispatcher Jordan Turner (Halle Berry). After she fails to save a girl from a home intruder, she feels responsible for the tragedy. To avoid taking another 911 call which reminds her about the incident, she becomes a trailer. She advises newly-hired 911 dispatchers not to get emotionally attached to the callers and not to promise anything on the line. It's safe for us to anticipate that she is unable to follow neither of her own advices.

Right in the middle of giving those advices, Jordan is drawn back on the phone line. This time the caller is a girl named Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin). Casey is kidnapped from a shopping mall by a serial killer Michael Foster (Michael Eklund). Casey calls 911 from the trunk of the car using a prepaid cellular phone which cannot be traced by the GPS system. Obviously, Jordan attaches herself both personally and emotionally to Casey. And it's safe for us to guess again, she may be Casey's only hope to survive.

Halle Berry in The Call

Director Brad Anderson deserves the credit for getting the audience engaged. There are plenty predictable as well as unexpected thrilling moments in the film. Even you foresee something bad might happen, when it happens on the big screen, you still scream. Then you might laugh for being tricked into screaming. The sharp contrast between 911 dispatchers' calmness (at least they appear to be) and callers' panic makes the story even more dramatic, especially during the first half of the film.

As if the film's creators run out of ideas about how to clean up the exciting chaos in the first half of the film, the film becomes quite sloppy after going into the second half of the film. It's no longer enough for Jordan to getting emotionally involved with Casey. The film needs her to be a brave hero to save Casey, besides looked astonishingly beautiful sitting in that 911 dispatcher chair.

Clearly, she seems losing her cool and acts without sound judgment. When people in the audience start to yell at the screen telling Jordan about what to do and about what is coming, you know Jordan's credential for being a 911 dispatcher is long gone.

Finally, I would like my phone to be able to flash the big "no signal" sign when that happens. I don't think any phone can display that except Jordan's phone.

"The Call," a TriStar Pictures release, opens on Friday, March 15, 2013 at Bay Area theaters.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

 

CAAMFest 2013

After thirty years, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) has a new identity. It becomes CAAMFest. The new name effectively promotes the institution behind the festival—Center for Asian America Media (CAAM).

The festival also has a new tagline: "Film. Music. Food."

CAAMFest 2013

For thirty years, San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has been the largest showcase in North America for Asian American independent filmmaking and current Asian cinema. However, starting from last year's SFIAAFF 30, the festival's programming has shifted to a new direction to embrace the emerging new media. One noticeable change is the reduction of the presence of contemporary Asian cinema as well as the total number of films in the programming, and the increase of CAAM's in-house productions.

This year, while continuing this trend, the festival makes even more drastic changes, besides giving itself a new name. The festival eliminates the San Jose location altogether and runs the entire ten days, March 14-24, in San Francisco and Berkeley (which I think it's a smart move). It also adds quite a few musical programs (does SXSW come to your mind?) and live-cooking events to the festival. And, for the first time, the festival presents a 3-D film—the fantastic "The Monkey King: Uproar in the Heaven" (大闹天宫 | China 2011 | in Chinese | 92 min.).

It's evident that the festival has evolved itself to be a primary platform for CAAM's productions and interactive programs that involve music and food. The changing of the festival's name seems inevitable and actually quite fitting to reflect the festival's new identity.

I love film, music, as well as food. However, I would like to focus on film aspect of the festival here. This year, the film's portion of the festival is downsizing to 21 narrative features and 19 documentary features, and many of these documentaries last less than an hour, perhaps they are tailored for PBS.

One prominent focus at this year's festival is China. Quite a few films tell heartbreaking stories about the lives of ordinary Chinese people who are left behind by the economic boom. These films bring the widening chasm between rich and poor and escalating political unrest in China to light, and understandably, none of them are upbeat.

Here are my picks in this year's program. As always, each film title is linked to the festival program, where you can find more details about the film including showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available.

The CAAMFest 2013 takes place March 14-24, 2013 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, SF Film Society Cinema, Castro Theater, and Great Star Theater, and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.


  • Linsanity (USA 2013 | 88 min.)

    In February 2012, Chinese-American NBA star Jeremy Lin's (林書豪) magical performances generated a storm called "Linsanity" that swept through the entire nation and around the world. Bay area filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong's exhilarating documentary "Linsanity" brings back that excitement to the big screen. With unprecedented access, the film eloquently depicts the high points and low bottoms in Jeremy Lin's professional basketball career. It sharply criticizes the racial and cultural bias toward Asians in professional basketball. The film presents us a talented, humble, charismatic, driven, religious, and lovable Jeremy Lin who is the center of a "Linsanity" storm.

    With Jeremy Lin's incredible energy and irresistible charm, this uplifting and inspiring documentary will surely bring down the house at the Castro Theater when the film opens the festival on March 14.

    Get ready for Linsanity, round two.

    Linsanity


  • Jiseul (지슬 | South Korea 2012 | in Korean | 108 min.)

    Beautifully shot in black and white, South Korean director O Meul's (오멸) award-winning war drama "Jiseul" tells an unforgettable story about Jeju Massacre in 1948.

    During the Korean War, the US military orders the South Korea ally to treat anybody they find in Jeju as a communist from the North and execute the person on the spot. Enduring the cold and hunger, 120 villages hide in a cave hoping to escape the soldiers' slaughter. The film masterfully unfolds their incredible and shocking ordeal with its elegant lenses.

    This sometimes hard-to-watch film reminds us the cruelty of war that destroys both humanity and lives. It is one of the best films at this year's festival.

    Jiseul


  • Beautiful 2012 (China/South Korea/Malaysia/Hong Kong 2012 | in Chinese/Korean | 90 min.)

    Serving as China's Youtube, Youku teams up with Hong Kong International Film Festival Society and assembles a short program from four acclaimed Asian directors.

    South Korean director Kim Tae-yong's (김태용) quirky "You Are More Than Beautiful" tells a simple story about a young man's visit to his dying father, along with a hired young woman pretending to be his fiancĂ©e. The unexpected turn of the plot is both funny and touching.

    Malaysia director Tsai Ming-liang's meditating "Walker" (行者) casts Tsai's career-long collaborator Lee Kang-sheng (李康生) as a bare foot monk walking around Hong Kong in his red robe. Contrary to the non-stop fast moving surroundings, the monk's movement is almost frozen in time and in motion. It's strikingly beautiful yet provokingly intriguing.

    Chinese director Gu Chang-wei's (顾长卫) philosophical "Long Tou" (龙头) follows a candid discussion among a writer, an artist, and a young woman about life, death, and reproduction, while Gu's never resting camera peeks out the window to capture mesmerizing images of a scavenger.

    Hong Kong director Ann Hui's (許鞍華) sensible "My Way" (我的路) tells a story about a middle-aged transgender woman, terrifically played by Francis Ng (吳鎮宇), who lives in Hong Kong and decides to undergo a sex change operation to pursue her true happiness. Unfortunately, this segment seems to be overshadowed by other pieces in this short program.

    A scene from Walker


  • When the Bough Breaks (危巢 | China 2011 | in Chinese | 147 min.)

    Despite the glamorous outlook of the booming economy in China, millions migrant workers struggle to survive, while clinging on their hope for a better future. In a fly-on-the-wall style, Chinese director Ji Dan's (季丹) extraordinary documentary "When the Bough Breaks" tells a poignant story of such a family living in a slum in the outskirts of Beijing.

    Over the period of several months, the film follows a migrant family from Anhui Province, living in a temporary self-made (surely looked illegal) structure inside piles of garbage with new high-rise apartment buildings in the not far away background. The father collects garbage to make a living and drinks too much sometimes. He and his wife, and their two daughters Xia and Ling, all live in this tiny garbage hole which they call home, while supporting their son Gang to attend school.

    Facing a controlling and uneducated father, even at a very young age, the stubborn elder sister Xia takes on the responsibility and is determined to send Gang to pass the exams for high school and college. She firmly believes in education and sees Gang's attending college is the only way to turn their lives around. The sisters make the ultimate sacrifice and take on the heavy burden on their fragile shoulders. Xia and Ling both quit school in order to save money for Gang, but the skyrocketing cost for Gang's education is still out of reach for the family. What to do?

    It's remarkable how director Ji Dan is able to intimately capture the daily life of this family and their complex emotions. Although the family's living condition and the challenges they face are tough and difficult to watch, the filmmaker's compassion and empathy can be felt throughout the film. We become deeply attached to the siblings and concerned about their future.

    When The Bough Breaks


  • The Mosuo Sisters (摩梭姊妹 | USA/China 2012 | in Chinese/Mosuo | 80 min.)

    In Southern China, Mosuo (摩梭) is an ethnic minority which uniquely practices a matriarchal tradition called "walking marriage." But sisters Juma and Latso, the protagonists of director Marlo Poras 's captivating documentary "The Mosuo Sisters," try to break away from this tradition and have the ambition to live a new modern life—They leave their family's farm and sing in Beijing's night clubs.

    But the recent global economic downturn crushes their dreams. They lose their jobs in Beijing and reluctantly return to their family farm in the foothills of the Himalayas. Determined to better support the family, Juma leaves home again for Chengdu to sing in night clubs, while Latso has to give up her education and work on the family's farm. While they take on separate paths for their future, the family tie continues to bond the sisters together.

    In this fascinating documentary, we experience the impact of rapid changes in China from these two sisters' dramatic ups and downs in their daily life.

    The Mosuo Sisters


  • Touch of the Light (逆光飛翔 | Taiwan/Hong Kong/China 2012 | in Chinese | 110 min.)

    Twenty six years ago, Huang Yu-Siang (黃裕翔) was born blind in a rural area of Taiwan. But that doesn't stop him from developing his extraordinary talent and becoming an outstanding pianist. After turning Huang's story into an award-winning short film "The End of the Tunnel" (天黑), two years later, with the support from Wong Kar Wai (王家衛), director Chang Rong-ji (張榮吉) expands the story into this award-winning feature debut "Touch of the Light." The film is selected as Taiwan's submission for this year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.

    In the film, Huang Yu-Siang plays himself as a blind pianist. He meets a beautiful girl Jie (Sandrine Pinna) who sells cold drinks while dreaming to become a dancer. They turn to each other for support and inspiration in pursuing their dreams.

    This is one of the films I have yet to see at the festival and I am looking forward to.

    Touch of the Light


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