Monday, January 20, 2020
22nd SF INDIEFEST
Here are a few Asian flavored films at this year's festival.
Wild Goose Lake
| China/France 2019 | in Chinese | 113 min.)
Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is a gang leader who has been absent from his wife (Regina Wan) and his young son for five years. When a brawl between motorcycle theft gangs goes out of hand, Zenong is injured and on the run from police's dragnet led by Captain Liu (Liao Fan). There is a thirty-thousand-yuan reward money for Zenong's capture. After he meets a prostitute Liu Aiai (Kwei Lunmei), they team together to outsmart the gang and police by sacrificing himself for the reward money to be given to his wife.
The director Diao Yi'nan has been known for crafting crime stories in modern China in realistic form, despite the fact that there are far less violent organized crimes over there, especially with the heightened surveillance security in recent years. You have to rely on his storytelling to overcome your skepticism about the unconvincing plot. Yet, the film is irresistible to watch with the help of an exquisite cinematography by Dong Jingsong.
- Mellow (メロウ | Japan 2020 | in Japanese | 106 min.)
The artistic and polite Natsume (Kei Tanaka) is a passionate florist running a boutique flower shop called Mellow. He frequently patronizes a young woman Kiho's (Sae Okazaki) ramen shop. Surrounding their seemingly ordinary daily routines, plenty of admiration and unrequited love are floating around involving both themselves and their customers. They deal with each incident, often comical, with candid honesty and earnest grace.
Rikiya Imaizumi assembles his characters the same way as Natsume stylishly puts together a collection of lovely flowers from the shop. Each character has their unique quirkiness and persona, yet they share a common trait that is kind and likable. Together, they brighten the world and lift the spirit.
Watching this feel-good film may have the same effect as you bring home a bunch of beautiful flowers. Treat yourself.
As You Are (USA 2019 | 106 min.)
Bay Area filmmaker Richard Wong's new road-trip comedy "Come As You Are," tells an extraordinary story about three disabled young men. The film is a remake of "Hasta la Vista" (Belgium 2011) that is inspired by a true story.
In order to lose their virginity by visiting a brothel in Montreal that caters to disabled men, wheelchair-bound Scotty (Grant Rosenmeyer) and Matt (Hayden Szeto), joined by blind Mo (Ravi Patel), hire a driver Sam (a terrific and hilarious Gabourey Sidibe) to take them up north.
Good at heart, the film is enjoyable to watch despite some cliché moments.
I Do For Money (Canada 2019 | 89 min.)
Claimed to be the first Japanese-Canadian-cello-crime-heist-caper-music-movie by the writer-director Warren P. Sonoda, "Things I Do For Money" is more impressive for its wonderful music than its farcical crime story.
To audition for the Banff Conservatory, 17-year-old Eli Yaguchi (Theodor Aoki) composes a duo-cello piece that he is going to perform with his older brother Nick (Maximilian Aoki). But their rehearsals leading to the audition are constantly side-tracked by Nick's involvement with an underworld crime organization. The two become the lookout for a gangster Alexi Raduli (Dax Lough).
Before you get lost in the overstuffed plot, money exchanges hands, people get shot and kidnapped, painting is stolen, and fantastic music is performed.
Music is the best part of the film, the rest of it is actually quite dreadful. The two talented siblings Theodor Aoki and Maximilian Aoki not only give a terrific acting debut, but also write and perform the film's music. This would have been a pretty good movie if it got rid of all the implausible crime subplot nonsense and told just the interesting story about two young cellists making music and pursuing higher education as Japanese Canadians.
Of course, that wouldn't be a Japanese-Canadian-cello-crime-heist-caper-music-movie.
(Manriki | Japan 2019 | in Japanese | 78 min.)
Silly, bizarre, comical, explicit, and gory Japanese B-movies are never short in supply at the SF INDIEFEST. This year's selection is Japanese director Yasuhiko Shimizu's (清水康彦) "Vise" about a surgeon's unique solution for women's desire for a smaller face.
A young cashier (Julian Koike 小池樹里杏) at a supermarket keeps failing her audition for modeling and she blames it on her face for being too big. She comes to a cosmetic surgeon (Takumi Saitoh 齊藤工) for help to make her face smaller. But the surgeon's method for doing it is nothing you can imagine.
The film might be a social commentary toward Japanese' culture, but the language used in expressing its view might also be lost in translation. The over the top horror-comedy scenes perhaps can only be appreciated by the faithful fans of Japanese B-movies.
Saturday, December 28, 2019
Top Ten Films in 2019
Guilty (Den skyldige | Denmark 2018 | in
Danish | 85 min.)
The writer-director Gustav Möller astonishingly composes a thriller set entirely inside a room where an emergency dispatcher receives a call from a kidnapped woman.
- We the
Animals (USA 2018 | 94 min.)
The director Jeremiah Zagar crafts a lyrical and dreamy movie about three siblings living in poverty.
(USA 2019 | 122 min.)
(생일 | South Korea 2019 | in Korean | 120
With powerful performances by the lead actors, the director Lee Jong-eon's (이종언) unapologetic tearjerker depicts the unbearable grief from the parents of the victims of the horrific Sewol ferry disaster (世越號沈沒事故) on 16 April 2014.
Story (USA 2019 | 136 min.)
The writer-director Noah Baumbach's outstanding divorce drama features a few of this year's best performances.
- A Dog
Barking at the Moon
| China/Spain 2019 | in Mandarin | 107 min.)
Loosely based on her own experience, the writer-director Lisa Zi Xiang (相梓) strikingly unwraps an engrossing family saga.
Harvesters (Die Stropers | France/South
Africa/Greece/Poland 2018 | in Afrikaans | 104 min.)
Etienne Kallos's beautiful directorial debut explores a boy's struggle with masculinity in South African culture after a street boy joins his family.
(기생충 | South Korea 2019 | in Korean
| 132 min.)
The Korean auteur Bong Joon Ho's (봉준호) Palme d'Or winner brilliantly injects social commentary into an arresting and sometimes amusing story.
- So Long, My
Son (地久天长 |
China 2019 | in Mandarin | 185 min.)
The sixth generation Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai's (王小帅) epic unfolds a heart-wrenching tragic tale in a couple's life that reflects the decades of social and economic changes in China since the '80s.
(UK 2019/USA | 110 min.)
Wednesday, December 25, 2019
The film is inspired by stories told by the director Sam Mendes's grandfather Alfred Mendes, a World War I veteran. On April 6, 1917 in Northern France, the Germans suddenly abandon their trenches and retreat from the Western front. Col. Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) is going to lead 1600 British soldiers to attack the fleeing enemy in the next morning. But General Erinmore (Colin Firth) obtains intelligence showing that the retreat is a trap. But because telecommunications are cut off, he needs urgently to deliver a letter to order Col. Mackenzie to cancel the attack.
Two messengers Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the daunting task to deliver the letter across a few miles of no-man's land. They understand the danger lying ahead; they are terrified; yet, they are determined to save the lives of their fellow soldiers, including Blake's older brother (Richard Madden), by delivering the letter before the attack which starts in the morning.
The seemingly simple plot thrillingly unfolds on screen, superbly performed by two lead actors and aided by the triumphant accomplishment from every technical aspects under the extraordinary direction from Sam Mendes. He and his cinematographer Roger Deakins astonishingly compose the entire movie as if it is just one continuous take from start to finish. Even though it's not a single take, you can hardly notice, thanks to the editor Lee Smith.
The one single take effect is not merely a technical exercise, it enhances the storytelling dramatically. As if you have put on virtual reality goggles at the beginning of the film, you are completely immersed into a cold, muddy, and dangerous place where Blake and Schofield must pass through. You are up close and personal to the protagonist during every moment of the film without missing one heartbeat. The experience is both exhilarating and terrifying. Yet, you will hardly notice the painstakingly orchestrated techniques because you will be entirely captivated by what's happening on the screen.
The harrowing war zone in the film is vividly recreated as if you are watching a scene from Peter Jackson's remarkable documentary "They Shall Not Grow Old" (UK/New Zealand 2018). Thomas Newman's brilliant score adds more gravity to each frame.
As if a timeless painting hanging in a museum, with extraordinary realism and stunning visuals, this film illustrates the brutality of World War I and the great sacrifice by the soldiers. These war heroes are all gone by now, but they will not be forgotten.
Friday, December 13, 2019
If just judging from the appearance, the overweight Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) may be regarded as an oddball. He still lives with his mom Bobi (Kathy Bates) even though he is 34 years old in 1996; he cannot hold on to a job for very long; he is fascinated with firearms; and he is overzealous about becoming part of the law enforcement.
During the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Richard works as a security guard for the Olympic venue, and he takes his job very seriously. During a concert at the Centennial Olympic Park in the evening of July 27, 1996, he spots an unattended backpack under a bench. He alerts security and begins to evacuate the crowd. His diligence significantly reduces the casualties after the explosion of the bomb in the backpack.
From yesterday's nobody, Richard instantly becomes a hero, and Bobi is immensely proud of him. But that fame is cut short when an unethical and ambitious reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution exposes that Richard is a prime bombing suspect and he is under FBI's investigation, led by Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm).
Considering himself a lawman, Richard initially is eager to help the FBI by volunteering information. But he is not as dumb as the FBI thinks. When he realizes that he is falsely targeted by the FBI, he calls the only lawyer he knows—Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), an acquaintance from his previous job.
Despite the fact that the FBI doesn't have any evidence against Richard, Richard and Bobi's lives are turned into a living hell by the investigation and the news media. But with conviction and determination, they fight back the prejudicial and unjust treatment that Richard faces.
The director Clint Eastwood certainly knows his subject as good as his craftsmanship. He doesn't floss over the flawed protagonist and presents Richard Jewell as truthfully as possible. By doing so, he makes us more sympathetic toward Richard Jewell, and angrier toward the overreaching government and the corrupt FBI agents. He clearly demonstrates how dangerous the government and the news media can be, and how they can destroy an ordinary citizen. He superbly creates an arresting character that deserves to be seen beyond the news cycle decades ago and to be remembered as a hero, not a bombing suspect.
The director's vision is perfectly materialized by Paul Walter Hauser's terrific performance. He not only physically resembles Richard Jewell, but also brilliantly illustrates Richard's mindset through his demeanor. He is the key in telling Richard's story.
Now we live in an age of disinformation and artificial intelligence. What if we face false information spread by social media to the public, in addition to profiling by the government? Will there be more victims like Richard Jewell? You bet.
Friday, November 22, 2019
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Even though the film opens with a scene in which Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks) changes his shoes and puts on his signature red sweater, while amiably singing and talking to the television camera, Fred isn't the film's protagonist. Fred comes to the story to help another man named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a fictional version of the writer Tom Junod, who has many issues including his anger toward his estranged father (Chris Cooper).
Lloyd is an award-winning writer for the magazine Esquire. He is given an assignment to write a profile of Fred Rogers, who makes the popular children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Despite the fact that he and his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) are raising an infant child, Lloyd isn't too excited about interviewing a TV host who talks to children in a slow and compassionate voice with plain and comprehensible words. But soon after he meets Fred, Lloyd is fascinated by Fred's charisma and demeanor, and he begins to open up to Fred. Between the two, the table is turned and Lloyd becomes the subject of the interview. He starts to reflect on his life and deal with his issues with Fred's unassuming yet potent help.
In the end, a 400-word assignment is turned into a 9,000-word cover story: Can You Say...Hero?
Kindness, acceptance, and compassion is the hallmark of Fred Rogers's personality on and off camera. He dedicated himself to help children while making himself approachable. He was a master of communication and made everyone feel that they are at the center of the conversation, regardless of how difficult the subject matter might be. The director Marielle Heller wonderfully captures that spirit and made Lloyd at the center of the film's story. She skillfully showed us how Mr. Rogers's irresistible affection can profoundly impact not only a child, but just about anyone.
Besides wearing the colorful sweaters and slowing down his speeches, Tom Hanks probably doesn't need to do much else to become Mr. Rogers. They share plenty of common traits as decent human beings. That can be both a blessing and a curse because sometimes it becomes hard to distinguish which one we are watching on the screen: Mr. Rogers or Mr. Hank. No matter who that might be, he is probably the nicest person you have ever known.
Even though there was only one Mr. Rogers, there could certainly be more kindness in this world. That would make it a beautiful day no matter in which neighborhood you are.
Thursday, October 31, 2019
Terminator: Dark Fate
The film starts in Mexico City, where Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes) and her brother Diego (Diego Boneta) live like every ordinary happy family. Dani has no idea that she is the target of the deadly robots, a.k.a. Terminators, created by humans in the future. In fact, there is no time to reason why she has become the target after a Terminator named Rev-9 (Gabriel Luna) drops from the sky and zooms in on her. Rev-9 is able to transform himself into the appearance of anyone he touches. He also swiftly eliminates anyone in his way, stylishly and terrifyingly.
Also dropped from the sky is Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an enhanced super-soldier from the future who is determined to protect Dani, and never mind the rationale behind Grance's action either. Immediately, you will be dragged into the eye-popping chase sequences, joined by a vengeful Terminator-hunter Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).
During the cat and mouse pursuit, Sarah encounters her enemy, the Terminator named T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who is gruff and aged (apparently AI cannot solve the aging problem). Even though T-800 has decided to be more human and claims himself to be extremely funny, this isn't really a happy reunion. However, unlike the US government, Sarah is able to put her grudges aside and gets on with the mission of saving Dani, as well as the human race.
Of course, the story is not entirely making sense, but that's beside the point of this film. It can get away from logic or physics as long as it creates imaginary sci-fi characters involving time-travel. Instead, the film focuses on actions and CGI spectacles. The director Tim Miller knows exactly how to clearly orchestrate action sequences and cut off the mellow portions in between. He is able to pack the film with action sequences that are entertaining regardless of whether they are convincing.
What's even more delightful is the film's humorous references to our current paralyzed political environment, especially regarding immigration. It's also refreshing for this new installment to focus on its three female fighters in the battle with the robots.
But despite its CGI achievement and nostalgic sentiment toward Sarah and T-800, this is just another forgettable reboot of this aging franchise without much to be remembered. Do you recall what happened on Judgement Day and who killed whom in previous installments? That's okay. You won't remember much in this film either after all the noise fades away.
Friday, September 20, 2019
That son is the focused, confident, and intelligent astronaut Maj. Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) whose pulse rate never exceeds 80 beats per minute no matter under what stressful situations. His unattended father is Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a devoted astronaut who leads an exploration mission named Lima Project near Neptune to search for other intelligent lives in the Universe. But the project went dark sixteen years ago when Roy was only 16 years old, and Roy believes his father is dead.
After a series of dangerous electrical surges that cause catastrophic damages on earth, Roy is summoned to go on a top-secret mission to go to Neptune. That's because the U.S. intelligence believes the source of the electrical bursts are coming from the Lima Project and Clifford is still alive and responsible for it. After a stop-over on the moon, Roy is deployed to a military base on Mars where he attempts to make contact with his dad Clifford. If he can establish communications with Clifford, he will travel to Neptune and destroy the Lima Project in order to save the earth and the solar system.
That's a tall order to fill, even for the gifted Roy. When he realizes that his father Clifford is actually alive and he has to persuade him to give up on the Lima Project to save the earth, his heart beat starts to quicken, his assertive voice begins to tremble, his psychological screening begins to flunk, and his emotions toward his dad begin to bubble up.
Even though the setting is not quite convincing (you can open a door when a spacecraft begins to launch, really?) and sometimes rather confusing (what planet are we looking at?), the human story always takes the center stage in the story and the director James Gray patiently let Roy's emotion build up, often in a solitary environment. He also paints a grim picture for the colonized Moon and Mars. Will humans mess with other planets after the Earth is torched up?
To watch Brad Pitt play Roy is pure pleasure. Even though he has two more decades' worth of wrinkles than a 32-year-old, his demeanor and expression perfectly convey taciturn Roy's mind—a strong and wounded soul that both admires and resents his absent father. His deep voice-over resonates as if he is reciting Sir Arthur C. Clark.
Apparently, daddy issue is a more urgent matter to resolve before we figure out if we are alone in the Universe.
Friday, September 13, 2019
The film's title refers to a painting with the same name painted by Carel Fabritius in 1654. Even though the painting is hanging in the Mauritshuis in real life, for the sake of this story it's displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Met) in New York City.
When 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) and his mom visit the Met, a terrorist sets off a bomb and Theo's mom is killed along with many others. Covered in white ash and disoriented, Theo arrives at his classmate Andy's (Ryan Foust) home. Appearing in a perfectly tailored and gorgeous, but always different, outfit in every scene, Andy's mom Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) takes Theo in as part of the family. Gradually, Theo seems to be getting back to normal hanging out with Andy in their daily routines, but he is hiding his grief for losing his mother. Something else he is hiding is the masterpiece The Goldfinch which he walked out of the Met with in the immediate aftermath of the bombing.
But Theo's life takes another sharp turn when his absent father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) show up. Larry decides to take Theo to the outskirts of Las Vegas where they live in a home surrounded by foreclosed houses. Theo soon forms a bond with a Russian-born Ukrainian boy Boris (Finn Wolfhard) who lives with his abusive father and is probably the only other kid around the neighborhood. The street-smart Boris teaches Theo things ranging from smoking and drinking to sniffing crushed pills. The painting seems to have been forgotten while hidden under Theo's bed.
Before long, this neglected and idle desert life takes another turn for Theo and he comes back to New York City and finds a safe harbor in Hobie's (Jeffrey Wright) antique shop. Years later, under Hobie's mentorship, and adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) becomes a sleek sales-person for Hobie and reconnects with the Barbour family. But his grief and guilt from that fatal day at the Met never goes away. That long forgotten painting which reminds him of his mom's death also comes back to haunt him.
The teenage and adult Theo's odyssey is intertwined by constant flashbacks. But despite the voiceover confession, how the guilt and grief shaped his mental state and his actions never becomes clear. Even more cloudy is how the painting plays a significant role in his coming-of-age, because the painting could have been easily replaced by a piece of his mom's belongings. It's also puzzling that even though the film uses the painting as its title, it never gives the masterpiece a close-up, nor does it explains why Theo decides to hide it instead of returning it to the Met after he became an adult.
The performance from the fine ensemble cast, however, is quite pleasant to watch throughout the film. Jeffrey Wright is particularly impressive as the knowledgeable and philosophical guardian for Theo. Finn Wolfhard is equally impressive, and even amusing, as the eccentric and resourceful bad boy Boris.
Even though the film may not be a perfect adaptation of the novel, it might serve as a two-and-a-half-hour trailer, so you can go back and read Donna Tartt's best-selling book to fill in the blanks left by the film.
Friday, September 6, 2019
It Chapter Two
In the first movie "It," seven outcast teenagers in Derry, Maine band together as the "Losers Club" to fend off a monstrous clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) in 1989. They take an oath to reunite again if they need to defend themselves against Pennywise in the future.
The calling comes upon them in 2016 when a horrific homophobic attack takes place at a carnival fair and Pennywise resurfaces. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), who is the only one still staying in Derry after 27 years, begins to summon each of the members of the Losers Club back to town.
Now around their 40s, they have not been in contact with each other for 27 years. Yet, as soon as they get the call from Mike, they keep their promises and come back to Derry, except Stanley (Andy Bean) who is the only one that fails to return. Those who returned, gathering at a Chinese restaurant, are a Hollywood writer Bill (James McAvoy), a fast-talking comedian Richie (Bill Hader), a domestic violence survivor Beverley (Jessica Chastain), a no longer chubby Ben (Jay Ryan), and a risk analyst Eddie (James Ransone).
The reunion isn't a fun time for catching-up or a nostalgic remembrance of their friendship in Chapter One. They must fight back the attacks from the evil clown Pennywise and many other creatures in Derry where people don't really die.
Like most horror films which tell Stephen King's stories, jump-scare tactics is a given like ketchup at a burger joint. But its frequent usage in this film is a bit too excessive. After a few times, the effect of a monstrous figure's sudden appearance on screen begins to wear off, as if you are revisiting a haunted house in which you already know where something will jump out to you.
It's disappointing that the director Andy Muschietti seems to run out of tricks to use to scare us. So, he starts to take another route by creating a grisly environment that often involves sticky yucky looking fluid to gross us out.
He also failed to establish the bond among these adult characters besides flashing back to their younger days. If they still cherish their old time, how come they haven't had any contact with each other in the past 27 years, and if they are no longer close, home come they suddenly risk their lives in front of the monsters for one another? The repetitive nightmares drag on for almost three hours while we can all predict how the story is going to end.
Like all the characters in the film, you will be glad when it's finally over.
Friday, August 16, 2019
Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Used to be a rising star, architect Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett) now lives in a big mansion in disrepair in Seattle with his husband Elgie (Billy Crudup) and their 15-year-old daughter Bee (Emma Nelson). You don't need psychotherapy training to notice her issues. She constantly dictates to her phone in order to send super long text messages to her online assistance (wait, why doesn't she send voice messages instead?); she compulsively shops online; she gets nervous around people; she hoards prescription drugs; she despises her neighbor Audrey (Kristen Wiig); and she is jealous of Elgie's assistance Soo-Lin (Zoe Chao). In other words, She is a mess.
Bee persuades her parents to go on a family trip to Antarctica, but Bernadette is anxious about it because she dreads being surrounded by hundreds of people in a clustered environment. Slowly, Elgie begins to realize that his work at Microsoft has been keeping him away from his family, especially from helping Bernadette to deal with her issues.
Elgie decides to help Bernadette by bringing in a psychologist, but soon Bernadette disappears from the bathroom window. Elgie and Bee go on a quest to find Bernadette who is actually on a journey of self-discovery, without telling her family.
The unconvincing humdrum story drags through the entire movie one cliché after another. Bernadette is a character that is hard for us to sympathize with, because the film never successfully elaborates the reasons for her behavior. Despite the capable Cate Blanchett who put on her best effort playing the unappreciated architect, it's quite clear on screen that she doesn't believe in her character either.
Almost all the characters in the film love to talk. They indeed talk a lot and there is hardly a quiet moment during the entire film. But no matter how much they talk, even during the psychotherapy sessions, they cannot plausibly explain themselves. Sometimes, the film just quits trying. For example, the reconciliation between Bernadette and her neighbor Audrey after their falling-out is simply preposterous. It might be a typical scene on TV, but it's hard to believe it's under the direction of Richard Linklater.
So, where'd Bernadette go? The movie didn't give us a reason to care.