Friday, June 14, 2019

 

The Dead Don't Die

The Dead Don't Die official site Whether or not you accept the scientific findings about climate change, our planet is in deep trouble. In case you still haven't noticed the dire consequences of global warming in the daily news, the write-director Jim Jarmusch tells you that "this isn't going to end well" in his latest film "The Dead Don't Die" (USA/Sweden 2019 | 103 min.), which opened this year's Festival de Cannes. Even though climate change is deadly serious and nothing is funny about it, this zombie film is rather funny than scary when its deadpan characters face off with zombies' killing spree, which is triggered by the humans' "polar fracking" activities that alter the Earth's axis.

The story takes place in Centerville, population 738. Two low-key cops Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) and Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) are cruising on empty streets in perhaps the only police car in town, while playing a country song "The Dead Don't Die" (music and lyrics by Sturgill Simpson). They stop at perhaps the only diner in town where farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi), wearing a red MAWA (Make America White Again) cap, complaining to Hank Thompson (Danny Glover) that living-in-the-woods Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) has been eating his chickens. Of course, Miller's accusation is fact based, in fact, his cows are also running away due to the irregular solar activities.

The cops also notice that the daylight strangely doesn't fade away, then they get a report that two women in the diner are murdered with their guts eaten. As if the horrific scene is easy to forget, after it has been shown twice (for Ronnie and Cliff to check it out separately), it's shown for a third time when the third cop in town Mindy Morrison (Chloë Sevigny) arrives.

It turns out that this is just the beginning of a zombie uprising due to "polar fracking." Everybody is terrified by the zombies except for a white-haired mortician Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) who masters her sword like a true samurai.

The Dead Don't Die Official Site
Bill Murray, Chloë Sevigny, and Adam Driver in writer/director Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die, a Focus Features release. Photo Credit : Abbot Genser / Focus Features © 2019 Image Eleven Productions, Inc.

With straight faces and calm voices, Adam Driver and Bill Murray perfectly deliver their comic moments and make us chuckle during the first half of the film. But once the zombies start flooding the streets, not only do these slow-moving ugly creatures kill the film's human characters one by one, but they also ruin the comedy. The scenes become repetitive and hardly anything new is added to these characters. The only exception is that the fabulous Tilda Swinton continues to surprise us with her every move of an eccentric character.

While the film's comedy aspect is very much welcomed and appreciated, this really should have been a horror film as well, especially because dealing with climate change cannot be more urgent and not to be taken lightheartedly. If Jim Jarmusch incorporated the horror of "Train to Busan" (부산행 | South Korea 2016) into the latter half of this film, it would be a much different and better film.

Let's hope something effective will be done soon to save our planet. Otherwise, there will be no one left to chop off the zombies' heads and that indeed won't end well.

"The Dead Don't Die" opens on Friday, June 14, 2019.


Friday, June 7, 2019

 

Dark Phoenix

Dark Phoenix official site It is harder and harder for the audience to keep track of who is who in the Marvel Comics superhero universe, but that is actually an advantage for making new blockbuster films about these characters, because each new film will have more freedom to tell their stories. The first time director Simon Kinberg proves that no matter how many other X-man movies already exist, he can make a new installment, "Dark Phoenix" (USA 2019 | 113 min.), that is just as fresh and entertaining as one may expect. Based on a comic book, he wrote the script and made his characters both powerful and human. You don't need any prior knowledge about these superheroes in order to be entertained.

We first learn the gifted 8-year-old Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) is able to use her mind to switch radio stations while traveling in a car with her parents in 1975. A tragic accident leaves her under Professor Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) care at a magnificent mansion that houses many other mutants. Then the film swiftly leaps to 1992 when NASA launches a space shuttle Endeavor and the mission is in serious trouble when the shuttle encounters a cosmic entity.

The President calls Charles for help, and Charles sends a team consisting of the adult Jean Grey, a.k.a. Phoenix (Sophie Turner), the commander Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), the doctor Hunk/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Jean's boyfriend Scott/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). In a blink of an eye, they are in outer space to rescue the astronauts in the space shuttle. (Wait, why does NASA bother to send a space shuttle when mutants can easily get there instantly?)

During the rescue, Jean collides with the cosmic entity and absorbs its power. But the power becomes so extreme that she can no longer control it. She becomes a threat to the entire mutant family. After discovering secrets of her past, she becomes enraged at Charles and seeks help from a self-exiled mutant Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to contain her anger, because deep down she still cares about her adopted family.

But before they can sort things out, an army of aliens led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain) arrives to seek Jean's power. A war for survival breaks out on the ground in New York City.

Dark Phoenix Official Site
Sophie Turner in Dark Phoenix / Twentieth Century Fox

The bar for special effects is higher and higher for a superhero movie, and there is no exception for this latest X-man addition. The writer-director Simon Kinberg and his enormous CGI team do not disappoint the audience in that aspect. Action sequences are clean and exciting, whether in space or on a train. The nice thing about a superhero movie is that it doesn't have to be convincing, and with mutants anything can happen! That gives the director a free pass on his imagination and let the characters run wild.

However, what's remarkable about the film is when the mutants are not in fighting, they are a quite emotional bunch that very human. They seem to genuinely care about each other and devote themselves to the family. Even though the director didn't even bother to convince us about these superheroes' abilities, he did take extra effort to convey their feelings.

I don't know if I would feel the same way about this film if I had read the comic book or remembered these X-men (or X-women) characters, but standing alone, this film certainly serves up a fine piece of entertainment with its dazzling visual effects and reasonable story-line. Plus, how can you resist the amusement of seeing how New York subway trains coming out the ground, in a completely different way as those subway trains in San Francisco.

"Dark Phoenix" opens on Friday, June 7, 2019.


Friday, May 31, 2019

 

Rocketman

Rocketman official site Without any doubt, Elton John is one of the most iconic pop superstars, especially known for his extravagant costumes and eye-wears. The director Dexter Fletcher's energetic musical "Rocketman" (USA 2019 | 121 min.) showcases Elton John's songs and wardrobes while depicting his father issue and addiction during the '70s and the '80s. The film serves as a perfect pitch for Elton John's farewell tour that marks his retirement.

The film begins with Elton John (Taron Egerton), wearing a feather-wing costume and the devil's horns, storming into a rehab support group. Tears in his eyes, he admits right away that he is an addict to alcohol, drug, food, and sex. He cries for help. As a musical number brings on the flashback to his childhood, the diagnosis seems clear-cut—all his troubles are rooted in his unloving father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh). Since he was a child known as Kenneth Dwight (Matthew Illesley and Kit Connor), his mom Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his granny Ivy (Gemma Jones) have embraced his talent on piano, but his stone-cold father Stanley has no interest in showing any fatherly love toward him.

During another scene with Bollywood style dancing and singing, Reggie grows up and begins to collaborate with lyrics writer Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) to write songs under the new identity Elton John.

When Elton John meets the handsome John Reid (Richard Madden), he falls for him immediately. They become lovers and sail into the world of sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. But after John Reid becomes Elton John's manager, their relationship deteriorates while Elton John's music career takes off.

Despite the wealth and success, Elton John is not happy and continues to search for his father's love that he has never experienced.

Rocketman Official Site
Taron Egerton plays Elton John, Richard Madden plays John Reid and Bryce Dallas Howard plays Sheila in Rocketman from Paramount Pictures. Photo Credit: David Appleby / © 2018 PARAMOUNT PICTURES. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The film's director Dexter Fletcher is responsible for rescuing the biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" (UK/USA 2018) last year when its original director was fired. That film was an electrifying portrait of another pop icon—Freddie Mercury, Queen's lead singer. It might be unfair to compare these two movies because they are the stories of two distinct artists. Yet, it seems inevitable because the director worked on both films that share incredible similarities: each film tells stories about a British gay rock 'n roll superstar during roughly the same period; each film uses an artist's hit song as the title; each film displays the artist's flamboyant on-stage and off-stage personas; and each film has plenty of hit songs.

Despite the high energy and exorbitant costumes and eye-wears, the Elton John character in this film lacks the exhilarating visual appearance compared to Freddie Mercury; even though Taron Egerton is terrific playing Elton John, he doesn't reach to the same intensity as Rami Malek's Freddie Mercury; although this film doesn't whitewash Elton John's homosexuality, it doesn't really explore the theme any deeper than Freddie's either.

The fact that Elton John is one of the executive producers and his husband David Furnish is one of the producers makes us wonder whether the film can be reasonably objective about which stories should be told in the film about Elton John. It may also explain why the father-son relationship ends up dominating the film's storytelling and almost appears to be the sole driving force for Elton John's success and miseries.

The film may be a paean to Elton John's achievements and a prelude to his farewell tour, but it's overly subdued and cautious to be a compelling biopic.

"Rocketman" opens on Friday, May 31, 2019.


Friday, May 24, 2019

 

The Souvenir

The Souvenir official site Since its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival and winning the Grand Jury Prize in the Dramatic World Cinema category, writer-director Joanna Hogg's auto-biographical fourth feature "The Souvenir" (UK/USA 2019 | 119 min.) has received rave reviews. The film tells a love story between a naive young film-school student and her repugnant lover in the '80s. But whether you can be captivated by the story and join the chorus of praise for this arthouse darling might depend on if you find the filmmaker's intensely personal memory interesting and if you can get used to her unconventional storytelling style.

The aspiring film-school student is Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) who enjoys hanging out with her classmates and talking about filmmaking and music in her apartment. Then the mysterious Anthony (Tom Burke) appears in the film for the first time in a fancy hotel lobby next to a chilled bottle of champagne. With his back facing us for quite a while and a cigarette between his fingers all the time, he offers advice and makes commentaries about art while Julie listens with rapt attention and admiration. From that moment on, Anthony becomes an influential figure in Julie's life.

Anthony claims that he works for a Foreign Office, whatever that is. But strangely, he asks to stay at Julie's place for a few days not long after they met. Of course, Julie agrees and their relationship deepens into a love affair. Despite having become lovers, Anthony remains enigmatic about who he is and what he does. He often asks Julie for money on his way out of the apartment, even though Julie has to ask her mother Rosalind (Tilda Swinton, who is actually the mother of Honor Swinton Byrne in real life) for money to get by. As the story unfolds, it becomes more and more clear that Anthony is the type of guy any woman should stay away from. Yet, for reasons unexplained, Julie is incomprehensibly and emotionally attached to Anthony and yields to all of his demands.

The Souvenir Official Site
Honor Swinton Byrne and Tom Burke in The Souvenir / A24

This film is based on Joanna Hogg's memory from her younger years. Using her signature style of long takes and letting her casts improvise the conversations, the director strikingly recreates her intimate experiences in the '80s. Like dreams floating in and out of consciousness, the film's scenes don't have a conventional sequential flow of events, nor do they provide any prior knowledge to explain the happenings. Thus, it's quite challenging to figure out what's going on, if it can be figured out at all.

Before shooting each scene, Honor Swinton Byrne was reportedly to arrive on the set without knowing what's coming, but she is absolutely fantastic playing the vulnerable yet aspiring young woman. Meanwhile, in the film, Tom Burke never stops smoking and irritating us, except Julie, as the arrogant Anthony.

The film's title refers to the French painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard's oil painting titled "The Souvenir," which played a role in the relationship between Julie and Anthony. But it is also fitting to characterize each scene of the film as a souvenir that the filmmaker acquires when she travels down her memory lane. Every piece of collected souvenirs must be extremely important and personal to her. But instead of holding them dear at a special private place, they are shared with us strangers who have no background knowledge about them or why they changed her life. Perhaps for some of us, the best we can do is to nod at the filmmaker politely—thanks for sharing.

"The Souvenir" opens on Friday, May 24, 2019 in San Francisco Bay Area.



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