Wednesday, September 15, 2021
There have been plenty of devastating stories in the news about people being deported to their birth countries despite the USA being the only home they have lived in since a very young age. To add one dramatic account to these stories, the acclaimed writer-director Justin Chon superbly unfolds a heartbreaking immigration drama in "Blue Bayou" (USA/Canada 2021 | 119 min.), premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival. The film will surely raise more awareness about the inhumane and unjust US immigration policy toward many immigrants who were adopted as young children.
Set in New Orleans, the film opens with a scene in which Antonio LeBlanc (Justin Chon) is asked where he was from during a job interview. In the eyes of many, Antonio doesn't belong to the US even though he has lived in this country for almost all of his life, since he was adopted from South Korea at the age of three by his white adoptive parents. Within just a few minutes into the movie, we see without any doubt that Antonio is the best dad to his adorable step-daughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske), from his wife Kathy's (Alicia Vikander) previous marriage to a cop Ace (Mark O'Brien).
Being a tattoo artist, this loving husband and dad Antonio cannot earn enough to support his upcoming child with Kathy. But because of his previous arrest record for stealing motorcycles, Antonio fails to get a second job. Things turn worse when he is arrested after an alteration with Ace and his nasty partner. It turns out that Antonio's adoptive parents never obtained the necessary legal document for Antonio to become a US citizen. With his arrest history, Antonio is turned into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation despite the fact that he has been living, legally, in the USA for over 30 years.
Antonio's world is turned upside down. He must figure out how to keep his family together and stay at the only place he calls home.
Justin Chon is no stranger to telling Asian American experiences in his works such as "Gook" (2017) about the 1992 Los Angeles Riot. In this beautifully shot film, with fierce rage and genuine compassion, he creates these characters reflecting those real-life horrendous adoptees' stories that destroy families in the name of immigration law. The wonderful performances from the trio of Justin Chon, Alicia Vikander, and Sydney Kowalske make the family so convincing that the audience will pour profound sympathy toward them. In case you have not been deeply moved enough, at the end of the film, Chon throws in a scene that is nothing short of a Korean drama tear-jerker.
One interesting subplot is Antonio's encounter with a Vietnamese woman Parker (Linh Dan Pham). When Parker asks Antonio to ink a water lily tattoo, Justin Chon uses this character to eloquently characterize the immigration experience by describing water lilies: "they look like they have no roots, but they do, they cannot survive without them."
It would have been better if the film had cut some of the over-the-top behaviors of the bad cop, as if Antonio's misery is due to his bad luck for encountering some bad apples in the law enforcement. It's also rather coincidental for Ace to run into Kathy and Antonio so often in public. But you probably easily forgive those minor flaws when you are captivated by such a gripping story and terrific performance.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Whether you are a Christian or not, you probably have heard about Tammy Faye and remembered her gigantic eyelashes. She had a phenomenal personality and was one of the best known televangelists. Based on the 2000 documentary, the director Michael Showalter crafted an engrossing biopic "The Eyes of Tammy Faye" (Canada/USA 2020 | 126 min.) that captures the rise and fall of her career, and Jessica Chastain should receive her third Academy Award nomination for her tour de force performance as the flamboyant Tammy Faye spanning over decades in time.
As if born to be a performer, in her early teenage years, Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) is already eager to be in the spotlight at church despite her divorced mother Rachel's (Cherry Jones) discouragement. During her studies at North Central Bible College in Minneapolis, Tammy Faye (Jessica Chastain) falls in love with Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) and they get married soon after.
Together, they begin their ministry career in the '70s and start to travel around with their puppet show. As their audience grows bigger, so do their ambitions. They begin to get into television, and build the Praise the Lord (PTL) network empire. Their lifestyle begins to change; they collect more pledges from their shows; they move into fancy houses; and Tammy Faye's appearance begins to be more extravagant. But one thing is unchanged, Tammy Faye continues to be a great performer, if not better. Regardless of what might have just happened off camera, when the light shines on her, she can sing a song and put on a show with a snap of fingers.
In addition to being a great performer, she is also a strong woman with unwavering conviction and determination. She never retreats to the sideline nor is content to be in a supporting role. She wants to be in the spotlight and make important decisions and business deals. She is the star.
After Jim Bakker's adultery scandal was unveiled in 1989, and subsequently, was convicted and imprisoned for fraud, Tammy Faye's life also falls to the bottom. She must adjust to her new lifestyle and faces rejections for her new shows, but her eyelashes always remain as big as her personality and ambition.
Even if you already know everything about Tammy Faye, you will want to see this film to appreciate the exhilarating performance by Jessica Chastain. She terrifically captures the demeanor and spirit of Tammy Faye, and subtly conveys Tammy Faye's inner struggle that hides underneath the over-the-top appearance in front of a TV camera.
It's interesting that the film left out the two children of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker, as if they don't even live in the big fancy houses, while Tammy Faye's lovely no-nonsense mother Rachel has a constant presence throughout the film. The film also doesn't cover Tammy Faye's second marriage after her divorce with Jim Bakker. It seems the material in the film is confined by the scope of the 2000 documentary. It creates a glamorous stage for Jessica Chastain to shine.
Friday, September 10, 2021
The Card Counter
The write-director Paul Schrader's somber new drama "The Card Counter" (UK/China/USA 2021 | 109 min.) depicts a mysterious veteran's psychological struggle, which actually has little to do with a poker game, despite its title. Oscar Isaac gives a reserved and precise performance as the titular character who bears a heavy soul in torment.
If you are not a mathematician or do not play poker games in a casino, you might not quite get William Tell's (Oscar Isaac) voice-over explanation about a winning hand. You might be even more puzzled by why he wraps the furniture every time he checks into a motel room. But you will quickly know that William is a former solider at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and he was trained by Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe) to torture prisoners. After the prisoner mistreatment scandal was revealed, William took the fall and went to a military prison for eight and a half years, where he learned how to count cards in poker games. After he is released, he manages to win many games in modest amounts to avoid attention. He travels city to city alone, and quietly suffers the heavy burden from his past.
During one of his poker game gigs, William is recognized by a young man named Cirk (Tye Sheridan), the son of William's fellow soldier who also took the fall for prisoner abuse. Cirk blames Major John Gordo for his father's tragedy, and wants William's help to take revenge. But William sees Cirk as his opportunity for redemption. He teams up with a gambling agent La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) to win more money for Cirk's college education fund and takes a gamble on Cirk's potential future.
Will real life play out as predictably as counting the deck of cards?
Even though the write-director Paul Schrader doesn't fully explain some of the protagonist's actions, he clearly conveys William's dreary mental struggle and the traumatic impact of the Abu Ghraib experience, with a restrained performance by Oscar Isaac. As a not-so-subtle metaphor, the film constantly features a poker player wearing an American flag tank top while his buddies cheer "USA!" "USA!" besides him, as if to remind us who William has been playing against both on and off a poker table.
William is a loner, seemingly without any friends or family. His only intimate relationship is the awkward romantic relationship with La Linda, which is both inept and coerced on screen, and Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish appear to have little chemistry together.
This film is a good character study by the filmmaker, but its slow-burn pacing and tormented character is definitely not as entertaining as watching a poker game.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
Based on a true story in Jennifer Vogel's 2005 memoir "Flim-Flam Man," the slow burn "Flag Day" (USA 2021 | 107 min.) portrays a father-daughter relationship in a dysfunctional Midwest family, directed and acted by Sean Penn, with his two adult children Dylan Penn and Hopper Penn. Despite a satisfying performance, we leave the movie knowing little about these characters and even less about why they behaved the way they did.
The film opens with a police chase after the bail-jumping John Vogel (Sean Penn), who masterfully produced nearly $20 million in counterfeit US currency. With a sleepy voice-over, narrated by John's daughter Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn), the film flashes back to the '70s when Jennifer was a child (Addison Tymec) and filmed by John who obviously is fond of super 8 camera and classical music.
But John, who was born on Flag Day (June 14), is far from a cultured or sophisticated father living in the Midwest. Instead, he is rather a reckless con man and leaves Jennifer and her little brother to their alcoholic mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick). Always with a bad haircut and a cigarette in hand, John was a bank robber and an arsonist before he became a banknote counterfeiter.
When Jennifer becomes a teenager in high school, she starts doing drugs and her future seems to be doomed like the rest of her family. But remarkably, not only does she sober herself up, but she also attends the University of Minnesota studying journalism and lands a job at a local newspaper after her graduation.
Along the way, she struggles to navigate the relationship with her father, until she sees the police chase on TV.
On any account, John is an enigmatic con artist that we want to ask so many questions about. How did he produce that much fake money by himself? Why is he setting buildings on fire? How can he rob a bank in such a comical fashion as if he wants to get caught on purpose, yet he can be so discrete and masterfully pull off other schemes?
But the story is told from Jennifer's perspective and it appears she still has no idea who his father is, because none of these questions is answered in the film. When Jennifer's hypnotic voice-over takes a break, the film is often filled with songs to make you wonder if you are tuning into a radio station.
So we didn't get to know much about John, even though he is an unlikable but an interesting character. How about Jennifer? What made Jennifer get her acts together, and transformed herself overnight from a junkie to an investigative journalist? The director Sean Penn didn't address that either. We are just watching a father and a daughter drifting around without knowing what's going on with them, especially in their heads.
Thursday, August 5, 2021
If you don't play video games, you probably cannot stand the loud and absurd "Free Guy" (USA/Canada/Japan 2021 | 115 min.) about a video game. The movie is full of ridiculous CGI generated violence to feed the hungry appetite from video game players, and its never-shut-up characters don't really have anything coherent or interesting to say. But if you are a video game player, this movie might be just the fantasy you have been indulging yourself in.
Similar to Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day" (1993), a banker named Guy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up every morning at the same time to the same buzzer, says the same hello to his fish, eats the same breakfast, orders the same coffee, walks through the same streets in a war zone, and goes to the same bank which is going to be robbed with slightly different robbers each day. That's because Guy is not an actual human, soon we all learn. He is a non-player-character (NPC) generated by the artificial intelligence (AI) built into a video game called Free City, designed by gamer Millie (Jodie Comer) and Keys (Joe Keery), but now controlled by Antoine (Taika Waititi).
Guy has been dutifully behaving as an ordinary background character until he sees the kick-ass Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer), played by the real life gamer Millie. Off the game script, Guy takes his own initiative to win Molotov Girl over. This is not supposed to be happening because Guy is an NPC and should not have acted on his own toward another character in the video game. This off script behavior proves that the AI algorithm Millie and Keys buried inside the game has a breakthrough. But Antoine plans to destroy Free City and launch a sequel game for more profit. The fight to save the game and its characters begins and the line between the game and reality blurs even further.
The director Shawn Levy seems unsure of what kind of movie he wants to make. A feature length commercial for a game? Or a drama between gamer rivals? Or a preachy public service announcement to educate people that ordinary people in the background should dream big? No matter what's in his mind, it is not sensibly transferred to the screen. He obviously wants his characters to be funny, but the direction given to the actors only makes them look like cardboard puppets, anything but funny.
The scriptwriters Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn may have played video games before, but they probably know little about computer technology based on what they wrote. For example, contrary to what Keys says in the movie, computer programmers never code with 0s and 1s. It's also laughable to see Antoine chopping with an ax on a few units at a farm of servers in order to get rid of Guy in the video game that is streaming, as if Guy physically exists on a particular computer unit.
This ridiculous film is nothing but an attempt to show off a boring video game created by amateurs.
Wednesday, August 4, 2021
The Suicide Squad
Just a few minutes into the movie, the film already handsomely pulls off its first joke on the audience. I won't reveal what the joke is about, but that basically sets the movie's playful and humorous tone, with plenty of quirky dialogues that are often hilarious.
The characters in this movie are unlike those typical superhero movies, which are usually grand and showy and ready to be made into toy action figures. Instead, they are mostly expendable criminals and underdogs: the cheerful Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the brutal Bloodsport (Idris Elba), the muscular Peacemaker (John Cena), the hardcore soldier Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), the mentally damaged Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), the mouse-commanding Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), the powerful King Shark (Sylvester Stallone), among many others.
They make a deal with the stone-faced Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) to form a suicide squad, aka Task Force X, in return for reducing their prison sentences. Their mission is to go to an island nation called Corto Maltese in South America to retrieve and destroy evidence that the United States sponsored the human experiments led by the super villain The Thinker (Peter Capaldi). The Thinker has created a giant alien-looking starfish, which has become a threat to the world.
Will these lowlifes save the world from the monstrous starfish?
The director James Gunn's imagination runs wild with his colorful characters. He crafts many spectacles as grand as any other superhero movies, plus a creepy mice scene which might give you nightmares. But the most entertaining part of the movie is when he lets these characters deliver hilarious one-liners with straight faces while taking a break from slashing flesh or blowing up bodies. You may also have a hard time trying to stop giggling when you see how he composes his zombie scenes with each baby starfish attached to a human host's face.
Although quite superficial and preachy, the movie takes a few stabs at America's foreign policy and the gun culture. But obviously that's not the movie's focus anyway. It just wants to have some bloody fun and generates some laughter. Well, it succeeds in providing some much-need comic relief when there is still no end to Covid in sight.
Let's hope the next movie won't bring back the scary looking Weasel (Sean Gunn). Like those mice, he freaks me out.
Thursday, July 29, 2021
If you expect the Oscar-winning writer/director Tom McCarthy's new film "Stillwater" (USA 2021 | in English/French | 140 min.) to be a crime thriller, you will be pleasantly surprised to find out that it is actually a captivating character study. The film unfolds the daunting effort by a simple-minded father from Oklahoma trying to exonerate his daughter in a foreign land, and beautifully captures the profound impact on him during his journey. Matt Damon's subtle performance alone is worth the five minutes standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this month.
That father is Bill Baker (Matt Damon) who is working as temporary labor after being laid-off as an oil-rigger in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Bearded, rugged, and almost always with a cap on, Bill looks like a typical southerner. He is deeply religious, has a brush with the law, and is short on cash. Yet, Bill takes regular trips to a port town Marseille in France, not as a tourist, but to visit his estranged daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) who has been in prison for four years after being convicted for murder of her Arabic-French lover.
During one prison visit, Allison slips a note to Bill to ask her lawyer to investigate new evidence that might exonerate her conviction. After the lawyer refuses, despite the language barrier, Bill decides to take the matter into his own hand. He extends his stay by doing handyman's jobs while conducting his own investigation.
Luckily, he gets help from Virginie (Camille Cottin), a theater actress who is a single mom to the 9-year-old Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). Not only does Virginie grow closer to Bill, but she also gives him a healthy dose of French culture. Meanwhile, Bill gets to redeem himself by being a father figure to Maya which he neglected to do earlier for Allison.
However, whether Bill's transcending experience is able to save Allison and to leave his moral compass in peace remains in question.
With a straight-forward style and sequential timeline, the director Tom McCarthy's immersive storytelling crafts a few mesmerizing characters across a wide range of cultural spectra. He also pointedly, sometimes humorously, makes some social commentaries about the American society and culture. Despite the sharp contrast between the backgrounds of Bill and Virginie, the smart script never feels out of step when their relationship progresses. They are still true to themselves, and they find a French connection regardless of their differences.
Bill's internal struggle is always at the center of the film. Matt Damon terrifically portrays Bill as a sensitive soul with a rugged demeanor. Bill might not be eloquent in expressing himself, but we feel his regret as a father and his desire for redemption. His bond with the little Maya is earnest and sincere, as if through Maya he wants to make up for all the time he has lost with Allison. The adorable Lilou Siauvaud adds more enjoyable moments as Maya to the movie.
When Bill finally returns to Stillwater, reflecting on the ordeal in France, he seems to be at a loss about where he truly belongs in this strange world.
Thursday, July 22, 2021
Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins
To elaborate on the origin of G.I. Joe, the film begins with a father-son outing in a cabin in Washington. In the middle of the night, the father (Steven Allerick) wakes up the son (Max Archibald) and tells him they need to leave right way. But it's too late because armed people are already standing at the front door. So the father tells the son to hide in the closet and don't move no matter what. Seconds later, the son jumps out to fight. Yet, the son is somehow able to escape from the group of heavily armed men, and the father is killed. So there, that's the preposterous origin of G. I. Joe, and the kid grows up to become the revengeful Snake Eyes (Henry Golding) twenty years later.
While fighting in an underground pit in Los Angeles, Snake Eyes is spotted by Kenta (Takehiro Hira), a Japanese gangster (Yakuza). Kenta recruits Snake Eyes to gain access to the Jewel of the Sun, a powerful gem stored in the heavily protected compound of the 600-year-old Arashikage clan. In return, Kenta will track down the killer of Snake Eyes' father.
During a brawl between gangsters, Snake Eyes saves the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji, aka Storm Shadow), who is the grandson of the head of the Arashikage clan Sen (Eri Ishida). Tommy took Snake Eyes back to the clan's compound, ignoring the objection from the clan's security officer Akiko (Haruka Abe).
Despite Snake Eyes' poor performance in the three tests to join the clan, he is admitted anyway and secretly plots his access to the Jewel. His brotherly bond with Tommy is put to the test.
The film's script is as messy as a junkyard. The plot is incoherent and perplexing. Can you imagine that Snake Eyes can just freely walk into the chamber where the sacred Jewel is kept, without any lock or guards' interception? How come the compound is as neat and beautiful as usual after fires broke out everywhere the previous night? Why doesn't the security chief Akiko pursue her suspicions about Snake Eyes? Why do two fighting characters become allies in split seconds for no reason?
The film's dialogues are often corny and bizarre as well. Even though most of the Japanese characters speak English with a heavy accent, some non-Japanese characters spill some Japanese words once a while. Besides the random usage of the Japanese language, the film's Japan location is also superficial; it provides some forced exotic flavor, but serves no purpose in enhancing the characters or storytelling. That treatment extends to the casting of Henry Golding for the leading role—he is used for his star power, not for playing a strong character.
The film's visuals look more like manga than cinema. The film's martial arts scenes are more like an exhibition on stage than a real fight. The auto-chasing sequences seem to be a copycat from a Fast and Furious franchise.
One thing for sure is that Henry Golding must have taken plenty of good-looking photos while posing as a ninja toy. He should have been given more to show what he can do.
Monday, July 12, 2021
Sitting in a dark room with a wall of TV monitors, Will (Winston Duke) meticulously takes notes about each individual's life on earth shot from their respective point of views, and he also records some moments of their lives on VHS tapes (remember those?). Will has a helper Kyo (Benedict Wong) who has never lived on earth. The seemingly dull and endless process is carried out inside an outpost in the middle of a dessert, which is not on earth.
When one young musician suddenly dies on one of the monitors, several souls come to Will's door to apply for the newly opened opportunity to be born on earth. As if a psychotherapist going through a series of sessions with patients, Will meets with each candidate and constantly asks intriguing and sometimes challenging questions. We don't know what quality Will is looking for from these souls or why he has the power to decide who should be the one to be born on earth, but the decision is going to be made within nine days, and some souls may be eliminated even sooner.
If a soul fails to be selected, perhaps taking a cue from Hirokazu Koreeda's "After Life" (ワンダフルライフ | Japan 1998), Will offers such unsuitable soul to pick one moment from the life on earth documented in his VHS tapes. Will and Kyo will then try their best to recreate the selected moment for the soul to experience, before sending it off to oblivion.
When interacting with a variety of souls with different psychological profiles, Will appears to have the authority and commanding power over the souls. But his power is challenged when one soul named Emma (Zazie Beetz) forces Will to reevaluate his perspective about life on earth and the meaning of his own existence.
With a high concept and a philosophical mindset, the director Edson Oda made a brilliant and refreshing sci-fi film that has no high-tech CGI (actually involving quite low-tech VHS) but plenty of mesmerizing visuals. He asks many hard questions that we should ask ourselves and invites the audience to be one of the souls to take a look at human lives from a different perspective.
What should one see in a living person? What does it mean to be alive? What's in humanity? Who should decide if a soul deserves to be reborn, if that can actually happen?
Edson Oda doesn't quite answer all of these questions in his film, but he repeatedly lets his characters confront these intriguing thoughts. Gradually, he builds the story into a climax, in which Winston Duke delivers an exhilarating performance that is nothing short of operatic with a Shakespearean gravity.
Thursday, July 1, 2021
I Carry You with Me
In 1994 Puebla, Mexico, despite having a culinary diploma, Iván (Armando Espitia) works in a restaurant washing dishes and struggles to support his young son who lives with his separated wife. Afraid of not being able to see his son again if his wife finds out, he has to keep his gay identity a secret.
During a night out with his childhood friend Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez) at an underground gay bar, Iván met Gerardo (Christian Vázquez) who is a teacher at a local university. They quickly fall in love, but only secretly, in the shadow of a homophobic environment.
Unable to find a job as a chef and to provide for his family, Iván decides to cross the border illegally to the US with Sandra, leaving his family and Gerardo behind. But when he arrives in NYC, his American dream is in "slow motion" and far from becoming a reality. He can only make ends meet by washing cars or delivering food.
Eventually, Iván is able to get a job in the kitchen and works up the ladder. Failing to obtain a US visa to reunite with Iván, Gerardo gives up his teaching career and also crosses the border illegally to join Iván. Even though they become successful in creating a restaurant business, now they are on the other side of the border longing for their families and have to continue living under a different shadow as undocumented immigrants.
Gorgeously shot by the cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramírez, the film captures the tender romance between two young men, terrifically performed by Michelle Rodríguez and Christian Vázquez. The chemistry between the two actors makes you believe in their solid bond that reaches beyond the distance and time. It's quite impressive for the director Heidi Ewing to depict that epic love story on the screen.
You would have hoped that profound love is at the center of the film till the end. Yet, the director abruptly changes course and goes back to her documentarian instinct toward the end of the film. She turns her camera to the real life Iván and Gerardo and documents their restaurant modeling, their frustration with the undocumented immigrant status, and their desire to reunite with their family after 20 years of separation. It doesn't blend well with the early narrative portion of the film. It should have been another documentary film about immigration policy entirely.
However, the film does raise pointed questions from the gay couple's incredible journey. Are their sacrifices for the American dream too costly? Is their success in business in the US worth the emotional suffering of being separated from their families back home? Will Iván realize his Mexican dream by going back to Mexico to see his son who has already grown up without his presence?
Before those questions are answered, one thing that Iván and Gerardo are certain about is: "You and me, together."