If I were to describe an independent film starring an actor known for his comedic roles who encounters and engages in a flirtatious friendship with a much younger woman while on a job in a foreign country, it would be easy to mistake my description for the 2003 hit, Lost in Translation. This just goes to prove that independent films, for all of their claims of creative originality, can also be guilty of formulaic plotting and derivative content, because the exact same description works for 2019’s Olympic Dreams. While it is a likable enough film, the only original element of this newer independent dramedy about two lonely souls meeting in an unfamiliar city is the setting. And while being the first film to be shot inside of the actual Olympic Village is a certain claim of originality, the filmmakers seem far more preoccupied with this element of the storytelling than the character development or dialogue.
Four legendary British actresses from stage and screen, all of which have been given an honorary Dame status, have been friends for over 50 years. Apparently Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, and Joan Plowright all keep in touch by spending weekends together reminiscing in a country getaway one of them owns, and allowed a film crew to intrude on one of these sessions for the documentary, Tea with the Dames. The title was originally Nothing Like a Dame, which can still be seen several times in the film itself, as the production becomes a part of the film. The change wasn’t made because the beverage they drink (they have champagne, but no tea), but because of the direction of the conversation, which contains some gossip from their classic days of stage and screen.
Narratively speaking, there is nothing particularly original about the themes and structure of the Chinese melodrama, Better Days. In terms of being a story taking place in high school, involving bullying that leads to both suicide and a murder, which is presented as something of a mystery, Better Days often feels like a feature-film variation on the Netflix series, “13 Reasons Why.” However, it is in the differences of the narratives that Better Days finds its distinct voice, and the film may have been more successful had those elements been favored more.
The Ip Man franchise has long been dedicated to themes of Chinese pride, as displayed by the telling of the Wing Chun master’s story. In the first film, it was the Japanese occupying force that our Chinese hero dispelled, and in a later entry it was the British. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the film in which Ip Man takes on America would prove to be the most transparently nationalistic in the franchise, once again allowing him to take on another nation’s military. Depiction of the United States is often so negative that the film flirts with full on nationalistic propaganda, but fortunately the fight choreography is still pretty good.
There is something to be said about filmmaking that is bold, but choices also need to work for the audience. The Song of Names offers up a predictably emotional narrative which is not so much about the Holocaust as it is about the aftermath. While this is far from original, the decision to center the story on an extremely flawed character is a new addition to an otherwise obligatory tragic tale. This decision alone could have made for an interesting character study, but the film refuses to give insight into the most questionable decisions made by the characters, particularly the one at the center. Our protagonist is a round character, fully formed, but unfortunately he is not the center of the narrative, and simply the one attempting to understand the enigmatic character that is.
The brilliance of 1917 works on multiple levels. Simple as it may be, the film tells an effectively gripping story of fortitude during wartime. The manner in which this story is told may not leave much room for expansive plot or historical background information, but it makes up for that by giving the audience a gripping experience in which it is impossible not to feel the urgency. Staying tied to a single character for the run-time also creates empathetic involvement unlike any war film I have ever experienced. But as brutally horrific as the film makes war appear, this is also a remarkably beautiful film. Beyond the poetry of the wartime themes of sacrifice and loss, 1917 is a technical marvel. Three times in my life I have been brought to tears by filmmaking, separate from the story being told, and this is the second time this experience has come from a Sam Mendes film.
Abigail is clearly an attempt by Russian filmmakers to create a film with transnational appeal, which makes sense considering the production company, KinoDanz (KD Studios), cast Antonio Banderas in a previous release. In making Abigail, they seem to have had the actors say their lines in English, which must not have sounded good enough for North American distribution on its own, because there is English dubbing laid over the English-speaking Russian actors’ voices. The result is a film that looks like a major Hollywood studio release (the film is distributed by 20th Century Fox CIS), but comes off as poor imitation once the characters begin speaking. Unfortunately, good special effects with sloppy character/plot development are fast becoming the trademark of Hollywood, and in that sense, Abigail isn’t a terrible imitation.
Although missing from the home entertainment releases, the IMDB title for this film is The Witch: Part 1 - The Subversion, implying a continuation of the story. In fact, the film is rumored to be a part of a trilogy which makes a great deal of sense considering that this two-hour film feels mostly like set-up. It is somewhat like watching an extended pilot to a television series, which only finally establishes what the ongoing narrative will be by the end. Unfortunately, this works much better when there is the guarantee of a season of additional episodes to continue the story, which this film does not have. As a result, the experience is somewhat disappointing, and the reveal in the final act is not exciting enough to make up for the first 2/3 of the narrative, which feels inconsequential by the end. It ends up feeling a lot like the filmmaker wasted time trying to fool the audience, and seems unlikely that an audience treated like fools will be excited to come back for more, should a sequel ever be made.
I don’t have extremely high expectations from animated children/family films. Even the titans of American animation, Pixar, have been hit-or miss in recent years, often making films that feel more designed for success than creative risks (which was not always the case). Add to that my growing impatience with the manner in which Chinese cinema has been dumbed down in the past decade, while the industry has steadily been rewarded for this behavior in the same manner as Hollywood has with their endless stream of brainless sequels and reboots (and the fact that I used their nonsense word rather than ‘remake’ shows the influence of their idiocy), and you will understand why I feel hesitant to praise the mild artistic success of Ne Zha. While it is certainly admirable that China has entered into the world of internationally viewed animated films, the result feels more like something I would have expected from a children’s TV network than a narrative I felt obliged to see in theaters. Like much of the entertainment fed to younger audiences these days, the message feels obvious and the execution unimpressive.
The process of reviewing recent Chinese releases (particularly blockbusters) is becoming somewhat redundant. With each film, I find myself criticizing the same two points; bad effects and worse nationalism. And with their industry quickly surpassing Hollywood as the most profitable, there are absolutely no incentives for them alter the formula I am just as quickly tiring of. Even with the dramatic retelling of historical events, it is not uncommon for there to be an overreliance on poorly executed CGI. The Climbers insists on making its characters inhumanly heroic in their abilities, which is almost as ridiculous as the transparent Chinese nationalism that runs through every scene of dialogue. It almost seems as though the absurd abilities the CGI gives the heroic characters is meant to solidify this idea that Chinese patriotism is paired with superhuman abilities. In a genre film, this could be forgiven as escapism, but in The Climbers, it is only in service of bad melodrama.
Queen & Slim is one of those films that seems like a dream project, featuring the visuals of a Grammy-winning director and a screenplay from an Emmy-winning writer. And at times it meets the expectations of such talent, even boasting a cast that is more than capable of making the material (and the moments in-between) come alive. Other times, it feels like a wasted opportunity, not because the dialogue, acting, or visuals fail, but because some of the base story points lack the same subtlety. If you are able to look past the contrivances of the plot, there is a great movie here. At the same time, it also feels like a lot of talent was wasted on a project that never feels fully cohesive.
Watching Frankie gave me feelings of déjà vu, proving that there are most definitely formulaic elements to many independent films. It is not enough that there are countless of them in beautifully historic European settings, or countless more that deal with the intricacies of family melodrama, and even more still that have a terminal illness at the center of the storyline; Frankie combines all of these cliché independent elements into one film, somehow doing justice to none. This is not to say that Frankie is a poorly made film, but it is most certainly a slight and forgettable one.
Takashi Miike is the type of director whose reputation and past films have me automatically bracing myself when I see his name before the credits of a film. You never know what you may get from Miike, from the unexpected brutal second half of Audition, which most definitely affected the entire torture porn movement in horror, to his batshit crazy yakuza films like Ichi the Killer and Gozu, and even the less violent but equally absurd zombie-musical-comedy, The Happiness of the Katakuris. Even though many of Miike’s recent releases that have found their way overseas have been rather restrained samurai classics adapted with respect, First Love strikes the balance between that tone and his familiarly insane earlier films. Although it may not be as expertly made as some of his dramatic turns, and not as crazily memorable (not always in a good way) as some of his earlier exploitation films, First Love finds a balance that is more than watchable. This may be Miike’s most enjoyable/crowd-pleasing film in some time.
With movie theaters offering a variety of premium formats, audiences often now have choices beyond what film to watch. In the recent years, we have seen rise in online debates over whether to see a film in IMAX or Dolby Digital, 2D or 3D, dine-in or not, recliner or regular seats. CJ 4DPLEX has made the decision-making even more difficult, offering two additional premium formats to choose from. While their 4DX has been around longer and is more well-known, ScreenX is an even more recent innovation in the efforts toward a more immersive cinematic experience. ScreenX is similar to IMAX in some ways, but with the image being wider instead of taller. However, this description alone doesn’t do the experience justice. While IMAX may give you additional screen/image look at, ScreenX is more about utilizing peripheral vision in order to feel as though you are inside the film. I think a more apt description would be to compare it to 3D, without the need for glasses or the use of cheap gimmicks.
The war film has become increasingly popular in South Korean cinema in recent years, and the Korean War is often an easy starting point for many of the narratives. With American involvement in that war, it also opens up the opportunity for cross-cultural casting and the occasional co-production between nations. Operation Chromite (2016) dealt with General MacArthur’s Incheon Landing Operation, and it cast Liam Neeson to play the role. Battle of Jangsari is about a battle used as a diversionary tactic to help MacArthur’s mission succeed, and while Neeson does not return, this time we have George Eads, who left his role on “MacGyver” to play General Stevens. As a bonus, Battle of Jangsari also has Megan Fox as a tenacious reporter advocating for the lives of the minimally trained students sent into battle.
Often an audience’s disappointment with a film has little to do with quality, and much more to do with unfulfilled expectations. Sometimes these expectations come from the audience member’s past experiences, including watching similar films. And then there are the times, like The Siren, when the expectations are established by a faulty marketing/advertising campaign. From the artwork alone, one could not be faulted for making the assumption that The Siren belongs in the horror genre, when in reality it is an emo-romance with threats of horror that never truly develop. While I give credit to low budget filmmaking, the budget seems to have affected the direction of this narrative in a rather dull way.
Prior to North American release, Weathering with You was one of the Japan’s most successful films of last year, garnering so much critical and audience appreciation that plans to export it quickly followed. On top of being the first anime to be released in India, a North American release seemed inevitable, especially after the success of the filmmaker’s last film, Your Name (2016). But it was also so successful that there was a demand in Japan to release the film in the 4DX format, and because of that, there is a limited opportunity for American audiences to experience this film in the most immersive way possible. Exclusively at select Regal 4DX theaters for a limited time starting this Friday, January 31st, Weathering with You will be available in this premium format.
Too often when American audiences think of foreign film, they imagine the kind of stuffy films that critics tend to praise, the types that end up on best-of lists despite the average audience’s inability appreciate the artistry. Britt-Marie Was Here is not that kind of film, instead resembling the kind of crowd-pleasing, feel-good films that tend to do well in the American independent film industry. Quirky films with heart may not surpass the blockbusters in the box office, but they have an audience that translates across borders. All it would take for this film to translate to English-speaking audiences is the willingness to read subtitles.
While somewhat confusing prior to seeing the film, it makes sense that The Knight of Shadows Blu-ray release has two contrasting characters portrayed on the cover. Along with Jackie Chan smiling in a white outfit, Ethan Juan is scowling in all black, representing the two sides of this film. Chan’s character provides most of the lighthearted humor and slapstick action, while Juan takes up the melodramatic role of tragic hero. Unfortunately, this mash-up is often as poorly planned and as jarringly inconsistent as the cover art for the Blu-ray.