Wednesday, October 7, 2015
The 38th Mill Valley Film Festival
As always, this year's MVFF opens with two films on its opening night: director Tom Hooper's "The Danish Girl" (UK/USA 2015 | 120 min.) portraying a Dutch transgender pioneer in the '30s and director Brian Percival's "Spotlight" (USA 2015 | 128 min.) about the investigation of the Catholic Archdiocese's child abuse scandal by journalists at Boston Globe.
This year's centerpiece film is Swiss director Barbet Schroeder's drama "Amnesia" (Switzerland/France | in German/Spanish/English | 96 min) about a young musician's encounter with a mysterious older lady.
In between, the festival pays tribute to distinguished Sir Ian McKellen and legendary German documentarian Marcel Ophüls for their extraordinary filmmaking career. The festival also pays tribute to filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke for her achievement.
Every year "Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi" (USA 1983 | 134 min.) makes a come back at the MVFF, and there is no exception this year. On October 12, the film returns with a costume parade and post-screen Q&A with special guests. On the anniversary of "Over the Rainbow" recording, there is a free screening of "The Wizard of Oz" (USA 1939 | 101 min.) during the festival as well.
The programming at the MVFF has a track record of favoring films from the Cannes Film Festival. The 38th MVFF apparently cherry-picks the award-winners at this year's Cannes. While the immigration crisis in Europe unfolds in real time, director Jacques Audiard's captivating "Dheepan" (France 2015 | Tamil/French/English | 109 min.), this year's Palme d'Or winner, timely tells a survival story of Sri Lankan immigrants in France. Another survival story is told in László Nemes's critically acclaimed "Son of Saul" (Saul fia | Hungary 2015 | in Hungarian | 107 min.), this year's Grand Prix winner, about a Jewish prisoner in Auschwitz who works on burning corpses.
Other major winners from Cannes at this year's festival include the Un Certain Regard recipient—director Grímur Hákonarson's touching drama "Rams" (Hrútar | Iceland 2015 | in Icelandic | 90 min.) about two estranged brothers coming together to save their sheep; and director Todd Haynes's highly praised lesbian drama "Carol" (USA 2015 | 118 min.) which earned Rooney Mara the Best Actress award at Cannes.
However, it's rather surprising that very few Asian films are selected by this year's festival. There is no feature film from Japan or mainland China, and Chinese director Jia Zhangke's (贾樟柯) new film is noticeably absent. The only film from South Korea is director Jang Hyeong-yoon's (장형윤) animation "The Satellite Girl and Milk Cow" (우리별 일호와 얼룩소 | South Korea 2014 | in Korean | 81 min.) for children.
But two visually lush films make up the deficit of Asian films at this year's festival.
One is Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien's (侯孝賢) martial-art film "The Assassin" (刺客聶隱娘 | China 2015 | in Mandarin | 107 min.), for which the legendary filmmaker was awarded the Best Director title at this year's Cannes Film Festival. With his signature long takes and not many shots, the legendary auteur spends eight years attending to the details in order to tell a story about a skilled assassin Nie Yinniang (Shu Qi 舒淇) during the Tang Dynasty (唐朝).
The other is "Big Father, Small Father and Other Stories" (Cha và con và | Vietnam 2015 | in Vietnamese | 102 min.) by talented Vietnamese director Phan Dang Di. Through the eyes of a shy photography student Vu (Le Cong Hoang) who is embracing his coming-of-age and sexuality, the film slowly unfolds a loose narrative surrounding a few unsettling youths. This is the director's second feature after his lyrical directorial debut "Bi, Don't Be Afraid!" (Bi, đừng sợ! | 2010). Continuing his poetic style, this mesmerizing film impeccably composes each frame with aesthetic cinematography.
Other worth-noting films at the festival include:
- Steven Spielberg's old-school filmmaking in Bridge of Spies (USA 2015 | 135 min.) satisfyingly tells a spy exchange story during the Cold War and the terrific Mark Rylance deserves an Oscar nod as the Soviet spy.
- Cary Joji Fukunaga's "Beasts of No Nation" (USA 2015 | 133 min.) tells a chilling story about child soldiers in Africa.
- James Vanderbilt's "Truth" (USA 2015 | 121 min.) recounts how a CBS 60 Minutes story about President George W. Bush's military service brings down the career of the anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and the producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett).
- Winning the Golden Bear, the top award at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, the Iranian director Jafar Panahi's "Taxi" (تاکسی | Iran 2015 | in Farsi | 82 min.) makes another statement about his banned filmmaking by driving a taxi himself in Tehran.
- Following his Oscar-winning "The Great Beauty" (La grande bellezza | 2014), the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino offers another cinematic delight with his new film "Youth" (La giovinezza | Italy/France/Switzerland/UK | in English/Spanish/German | 123 min.).
- Winning the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, Chilean director Pablo Larraín tells a stunning story in "The Club" (El Club | Chile 2014 | in Spanish | 98 min.) about how four Catholic priests' sin is interrupted by the arrival of the fifth priest.
The 38th MVFF takes place October 8-18, 2015 at Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, CinéArts@Sequoia, 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley, Lark Theater and Century Larkspur 4 in Larkspur, and Century Cinema in Corte Madera. Click on each film's image for information about showtimes and locations.
Friday, October 2, 2015
In 2035, on the vast red planet, the only human presence is at an artificial habitat (Hab). The astronauts are brought in by NASA's exploration space-ship called Hermes Flight, led by Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). During a severe dust storm on Mars, the botanist Dr. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is injured by a broken antenna and is presumably dead. Melissa has to leave Mark behind and exit Mars with the rest of the crew: the pilot Major Rick Martinez (Michael Peña), the flight surgeon Dr. Chris Beck (Sebastian Stan), the German chemist Alex Vogel (Aksel Hennie), and the system operator Beth Johanssen (Kate Mara).
But Mark is still alive and all alone on the empty red planet. Even if NASA finds out that he is alive and sends another space-ship to rescue him, it's going to be four years away, and he is going to run out of food long before then. Facing the bleak circumstance, Mark not only keeps his sense of humor intact, but also is in good spirit and speaks to his video journal that he is "gonna have to science the shit out of this."
Yes, he does just that indeed! He rations remaining food; he generates water; he grows potatoes; and most importantly, he ingeniously reestablishes his communication with NASA. As soon as NASA finds out that Mark is still alive, NASA Director Teddy Sanders (Jeff Daniels) works with Mars Mission Director Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Hermes Flight Director Mitch Henderson (Sean Bean) to come up a rescue mission. With the help from China's space program, an impeccably orchestrated homecoming plan is carried out to bring Mark home.
Diligently detailed and easily accessible for the mass audience, the director Ridley Scott terrifically adapts Andy Wire's best-selling novel into an entertaining film. Even though there are plenty of stunning imageries about the red planet and the beautiful space-ship in 3D, the film successfully wins us over with its engrossing narrative, likable characters, humorous tone, uplifting spirit, and scientific accuracy.
Unlike many sci-fi films involving outer space, there is no alien or evil people in this film. Everyone acts based on solid science and good-natured conscious. Their bravery and selflessness are both admirable and inspiring. That's very welcoming and refreshing for a film in the crowded sci-fi genre.
Along with many other fine actors in the film, the convincing Matt Damon gives a superb performance as the cool headed scientist. As if in a classroom, he magically shows us how he tackles one problem after another while cracking jokes about things that seem devastating. Despite the eerie situation he endures, he doesn't panic or even hardly complains, except about the commander's horrible disco music taste.
Wednesday, September 30, 2015
With the twin towers and the skyline of New York City as the backdrop, the film opens at a pretty high spot—next to the torch of the Statue of Liberty where the young Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrates the film and explains to us why he thinks walking on a high-wire is art. It all begins when he was a child in Paris. With carefully arranged colors, the film shuffles through charming imageries of Philippe as a street artist, where he meets a street musician Annie Allix (Charlotte Le Bon) who becomes his love interest and his first partner-in-crime later. Coached by a Czech circus master Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), Philippe quickly masters the high-wire walking technique.
It doesn't take too long for Philippe to walk between Notre Dame de Paris's two towers without permission. But as soon as he learns that the World Trade Center is being built in the New York City, he sets his incredible goal up high. In order to accomplish his dream, he practices English and recruits more accomplices including a young photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibony) and an acrophobic mathematician Jean-François (César Domboy).
Once these French adventurers come to the Big Apple, a few Americans join the gang. As if they are about to rob a bank, the crew painstakingly plan the infiltration inside the twin towers. Not only do they bring all the equipment to the roof which is 101 floors above the ground, but they also successfully install the steel wire while sneaking around the security guards.
When the sun rises up, the fog fades away. Philippe stands on the wire, realizes an once-in-a-lifetime dream, and creates an elegant piece of performance art.
This well-known extraordinary act is the subject in an Academy-award winning documentary "Man on Wire" (2008). Obviously, the director Robert Zemeckis is not going to retell the story in this new film. Instead, with astonishing 3D visual, he literally takes us to the high-wire and guides us into the mind of an outstanding artist. Philippe Petit may be the only human being who walks between the twin towers, but this film allows us to feel the thrill without the danger.
The first half of the film tells Philippe's past in a typical fashion as in the director's previous films such as "Back to the Future" (1985). The dramatic element is watchable but nothing too exciting, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's funny French accent is somewhat distracting due to his familiarity to us. However, when the story moves to New York City, all excitement breaks loose. By the time Joseph Gordon-Levitt stops talking with an accent and walks on the wire, the film literally lifts us into the sky and immerses us into the Philippe's tranquil mind. Overlooking the magnificent view of New York City under the rising sun, we begin to understand why Philippe Petit risked his life to fulfill his dream.
Looking at computer generated twin towers in the film, it's hard not to think about the 9/11 attack. By reenacting Philippe Petit's glorious walk, the film pays lovely tribute to the twin towers where Philippe Petit showed his intimate and passionate affection in person 41 years ago.
Friday, September 18, 2015
Back in 1975, Whitey Bulger (Johnny Depp) is the leader of Winter Hill Gang in Boston. He isn't the mean-jerk-on-the-block type of gangster. Quite the contrary, he shows respect to the elderly in the neighborhood. He spends time with his cheerful mother and his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). He expresses his genuine affection toward his young son. He speaks softly but precisely to his fellow gang members. But make no mistake, he is anything but weak and soft. He is calculated, intelligent, cruel, and ambitious. He doesn't blink his eyes when he brutally destroys any obstacle that blocks his way to achieve his goal.
When a childhood friend John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), who works for the FBI, approaches Whitey and offers him a deal to be an informant, Whitey sees a golden opportunity to expand his territory by using the feds to get rid of the Italian mafia on his turf. He regards the arrangement as strict business and he insists that he is not a rat. In fact, the corrupt FBI agent John Connolly is the one who effectively helps Whitey to rise to immense power in Boston's organized crime world.
But the con-artist's scheme can only go so far being unnoticed. When the FBI zooms in on John Connolly, Whitey's kingdom collapses and he finally falls after winning the game for decades.
Although the director Scott Cooper superbly tells an arresting story about Whitey and brings together terrific performances by a large group of fine actors, this film doesn't reach to the greatness level of mafia films such as Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" (1972) and Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas" (1990). However, the film does have plenty of mesmerizing moments that pay tributes to those great films. For example, when Whitney expresses his disgust about his man's poor hygiene manner while eating peanuts in a bar, the image reminds us of the garlic slicing scene in "Goodfellas." When Whitney asks about a secret recipe at the dining table, the scene nods to Joe Pesci's "funny how" question in "Goodfellas" as well. Unfortunately, the film doesn't seem to have much that is new to add to the gangster movies, other than exhibiting graphic violence like other typical movies about organized crimes.
That being said, you are in for a delightful treat to see an exhilarating performance by the almost unrecognizable Johnny Depp. Shaking off his cartoonish image as a pirate, he marvelously transcend Whitney's complex persona through his soft-spoken tone, his fierce gaze, and his subtle body language. I won't be surprised if he finally wins an Oscar after being nominated three times.
The film appears to make Whitey Bulger even more mysterious. It won't be long before another movie unveils his life in California as a fugitive for more than a decade.