Thursday, March 6, 2014
Featuring film, music, and food, it's the second year
Francisco International Asian American Film Festival
(SFIAAFF) evolved into a new
presented by the Center for Asian America
Media (CAAM). With a leaner
program, CAAMFest continues
to provide a platform for exhibiting CAAM's productions,
new works by Asian American filmmakers, and contemporary
Same as last year, the festival only contains 40 feature-length films. The festival also includes 8 shorts programs, as well as a few musical and foodie events.
While several films from China made big headlines at last month's Berlinale by winning several top prizes, surprisingly, there is only one documentary comes from China at this year's festival—"The Road to Fame" (成名之路), which is terrific and you do not want to miss.
CAAMFest 2014 takes place March 13-23, 2014 in San Francisco at Sundance Kabuki, New People Cinema, Castro Theater, and Great Star Theater, in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive, and other venues around the Bay Area.
Here are my picks in this year's program. As always, each film's title is linked to the festival program, where you can find the film's showtime and venue information. Each film's still image is linked to a film's official Web site if it's available. In random order :
Friday, February 28, 2014
When you are in a flight, do you ever wonder who might be a
Marshal on board? Spanish director Jamume
Collet-Serra's nail-biting yet implausible
(USA/France 2014 | 106 min.) provides a tip—look for
someone who appears grumpy and serious
Neeson. But the film is more about playing the game in
figuring out who is the bad guy (or guys) who wants to bring
down the airplane than about pinning an Air Marshal. The
film is captivating and flying high at first, then it takes
a nose dive with the airplane and falls apart with it.
Bill Marks (Liam Neeson), a U.S. Air Marshal, doesn't look very good when he pours himself a drink in the parking lot before boarding a flight from New York to London. Obviously he bears more emotional baggage than his drinking problem. He holds a still face and hardly talks, until a talkative prying fellow passenger Jen (Julianne Moore) sits next to him.
After the plane is in the midair and his smoking break in a lavatory by tempering smoking detector (really?), he starts getting text messages on his secure pager. The text messages demand a transfer of $150 million into a provided bank account. Otherwise, for every 20 minutes, a passenger on the plane will be killed.
Bill realizes that this is a real threat when people indeed die one after another one. Even worse, Bill seems to be responsible to each death. With the help from Jen and a calm flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery), he tries to figure out who is sending those messages. But that effort only makes everyone looked suspicious, creating a mysterious and fascinating scenario as in "Murder on the Oriental Express."
But the fun part of the film ends when the crisis escalates out of control. The script is no longer capable of providing reasonably plausible resolutions to its setup. Therefore, the film decides to go ahead and crash landing its story with the airplane, hoping for the best.
If the director Jamume Collet-Serra held up the pace as in the beginning of the film, with the help from Liam Neeson's action hero looking figure, the film would have survived the ordeal. Unfortunately, he switches his gear in his storytelling and turns a mysterious thriller into a typical airplane disaster movie. Even worse, he ignores the viewers' intelligence and ruthlessly proceeds with his flight plan, even when all alarms have been set off.
Why bother to scan an armed Air Marshal by using the body imagining machine at the airport? How come all the in-flight TV monitors are showing CNN live news feed while flight attendants who control the programming have no clue about what's on the news? How can it be possible that no one on the airplane smells Bill's smoking in a lavatory except the one who sends the text messages (especially when the air in a pressurized cabin is recycled)? How exactly can the $150 million be retrieved? How does everyone get decent cellular signal over the Atlantic Ocean?
One of the film's most surreal moments is when Bill confesses that he is an alcoholic while waving his gun and holding his AA meeting with the panic passengers who he is supposed to protect. Under the protection by Air Marshals like Bill, no American airliner has been hijacked after 9/11. Since we have been so lucky, maybe it's time to abolish the U.S. Air Marshal program to save some seats for the bumped off passengers to save some tax payers' money.
From the alcoholic Bill to window-seat-seeking Jen, from the ruthless terrorists to the distressed passengers, the film fails to convincingly explain the motives of their actions. Perhaps it's better that way, so that you all feel safer next time when you fly. It's almost impossible to believe that anything happened during this flight could have ever happened in real life. If you watch this movie during a flight, that impression from this film becomes more important.
I don't expect I can spot a U.S. Air Marshal in a flight any time soon after this movie is released, because the troubled ones resembling Liam Neeson might already have checked into rehab, and others remain invisible while taking up valuable passenger seats.
Friday, February 21, 2014
The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ)
In spite of protests from many Asian countries that were
victims of Japan's war crime during World War II, Japan's
ruling right-wing politicians have been busy
on amending Japan's constitution in order to re-energize
Japan's military power and to rewrite World War II
history. That effort draws uproar
around the world and further worsens Japan's relations with
its neighboring countries. In the shadow of this tension,
it's quite surprising for celebrated animation
Miyazaki (宮崎 駿) tells a story
Horikoshi (堀越 二郎), a
Japanese engineer who designed Japanese fighter planes
used in the attack
on Pearl Harbor during World War II, in alleged his last
Rises" (風立ちぬ | Japan
2013 | 126 min.).
Apparently, Hayao Miyazaki is less concerned about the film's political impact and is more interested in telling a story in this last bow to his distinguished career. Like his protagonist, Hayao Miyazaki perhaps just wants to "make something beautiful." Although this Oscar-nominated film is not as exhilarating and captivating as some of Hayao Miyazaki's previous works, it certainly is a visual delight.
The film opens with Jiro Horikoshi's fascinating boyhood dream in which he flies high in his own fantasy world. As a young boy, he is inspired by an Italian aviation pioneer Giovanni Caproni, who frequently appears in his dreams throughout the film. He continues to explore his passion about aviation after he becomes a university student.
Following his childhood dream, Jiro joints Mitsubishi after his graduation and becomes an excellent engineer. With only a slider rule in hands, he is given a daunting task to design war fighters preparing for the upcoming World War II.
During a vacation, Jiro coincidently reunites with Naoko, who he first briefly met during the 1923 Great Kantō Earthquake, and now she is battling with tuberculosis. Their romance quickly blossoms, but in no way it distracts Jiro's passion about his work on designing war fighters.
Although Jiro succeeds in the end, he doesn't appear to be exiting. He gloomily gazes at the fighters disappearing into the sky and mutters: "Not a single plane came back. That's what it means to lose a war."
As shown in Hayao Miyazaki's other films such as Academy Award-winning "Spirited Away" (千と千尋の神隠し 2001), the renowned writer/director/animator is singular in creating an enchanting fantasy world that involves children. There is no exception in this film when Jiro is a young boy. However, once the film gets to the later part, especially when it unfolds a typical romance subplot with Nahoko, the film's enjoyable high energy is subdued and the story becomes less engaging as if we are forced to read the numbers on Jiro's slider rule.
Jiro knew full well that his beautifully designed airplanes are to be used for the purpose of war. There is no question about it. Yet, that doesn't deter his passion a bit at work. The film is honest about it and doesn't portray him as somebody who is single-minded in creating something beautiful in the aviation world. Jiro understands the terrible consequences of his work yet proceeds passionately. Therefore, Jiro isn't just an innocent engineer. He significantly contributes to the devastation and suffering caused by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
But none of those factors seem to stop Hayao Miyazaki from telling Jiro's story as it is in his final project. In a certain way, he shares Jiro's passion in making something beautiful, disregard the consequences. He makes this film without sending a message about war like other films such as "Grave of the Fireflies" (火垂るの墓 1988). Unfortunately, that also undermines the power the film otherwise could have delivered.
The film's theatrical release in the US is dubbed in English by American actors, which is what I saw at a press screening. I wish I had a chance to see the original Japanese language version. When I hear the voices of familiar American actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Stanley Tucci on the screen, I feel those voices somewhat discredit the characters and keep them at arm's length from me, even their voices are perfect. I am told that each theater will decide in which language the film will be shown. Check your local theaters for more information.
3 Days to Kill
is well known for secret missions involving killing and
espionage. But the C.I.A. normally carries them out
discreetly and almost never executes a mission ruthlessly in
public during bright daylight, unless, if it happens in the
preposterous action flick "3 Days to
Kill" (USA 2014 | 117 min.). It's quite obvious
which demographic of film-goers the movie is targeting when
it's filled with endless shoot-outs, grand explosions,
bloody man beating, sexy women, and fast car chasing, except
slight intelligence and credible stories.
Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), a C.I.A. agent, is the hero in the film who presents in pretty much every scene. At the opening of the film, he kills a room-full of terrorists who tried to buy a dirty bomb from a terrorist called The Wolf (Richard Sammel). But before The Wolf is killed, Ethan collapses and finds out that he has cancer. His future looks bleak because he has about only three months left to live. That prompts him to quit the C.I.A. and to spend more time with his teenage daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and his separated wife Christine (Connie Nielsen), both resent Ethan's absence in their lives during the past.
Zooey and Christine live in Paris, for no other reason than the city's scenic view provides a fantastic backdrop in the film. When Ethan comes back to his apartment in Paris, he is surprised that it has been occupied by a refugee family from Africa. A bigger surprise is that the C.I.A. sends him a new boss Vivi Delay (Amber Heard), who dresses like a Barbie doll and kills mercilessly. Vivi offers Ethan an experiment drug that can prolong his life, under the condition that Ethan continues to work for her to kill The Wolf. Basically, Vivi acts like a drug dealer who controls Ethan's addiction. She shows up whenever Ethan needs a dose of the drug and becomes hallucinating, of course, often at very crucial moments when he is engaging with a target.
Does Ethan kill The Wolf under the influence of drug and dealing with his family's melodrama? Take a guess, but not need to think too hard.
The script (by Luc Besson and Adi Hasak) bares the most blame for the film's absurdity. Hardly any of the characters is credible. Change into different Barbie outfits, Vivi seems doing nothing else but blackmailing Ethan, an outstanding C.I.A. veteran with a life-threaten disease. Seriously?
Zooney is a teenager who doesn't know how to cook, dance, or ride a bicycle. Suddenly, Ethan drops into her life and to teach her all of these, in between his busy schedule of chasing, killing, and torturing his targets. Oh yes! That surely sounds like how efficient a C.I.A. agent should be!
The director McG cares more about eye-popping action sequences than building a convincing character or attending details. The plot and its execution are sloppy to say the least. Never mind how bizarre that African refugee family appeared in the story. When the family's pregnant woman gives birth, she appears to be having twins, because even when Ethan expresses his sentiment with the newborn in hands, the woman's stomach is still bloated.
Kevin Costner is a fine actor and director, and he is not bad given the script he has to play. He must be short in cash and needs this paycheck to play Ethan. How else to explain his decision on taking on this role? Or is he forced to play Ethan in exchange for some kind of experimental drug from the producer? That certainly sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?