CAAMFest 35: SF Film Critics honor talented director Shumin Liu for ‘The Family’

Today as part of the Center for Asian American Media Festival events, I went up on stage at SF’s Gray Zone and announced an award for best international feature to a talented new filmmaker. You might not have heard of Shumin Liu and his four hour, forty-five minute epic “The Family,” which impressed Slamdance audiences and critics who saw the film at the Venice Film Festival. Hopefully, with this award that our San Francisco Film Critics Circle jury decided upon, his slow but engrossing drama about a changing China and changing family dynamics will be seen by more movie fans. It intimately chronicles the journey of an elderly couple as they visit their adult children living in various parts of China.

The running time is indeed intimidating, but rest assured there is artistry and creativity saturated in each frame. So glad that as a president of the SFFCC I could represent our group and hand out an award to a film and a director/screenwriter who are so deserving. Afterwards, Shumin spoke to  members of the SFFCC and shared how much this award so deeply means to him. (The film took four years to make). Hope you see it. IMG_2424-2

‘Chinese Exclusion Act’ shouldn’t be missed at CAAMFest

Chinese_Exclusion_Act_2.jpgThe Center for Asian American Media kicks off its 35th annual festival on Thursday, and this year’s film program is particularly strong.

One of the best titles is “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” a powerful, topical documentary that closes out the festival.  It takes a dark chapter in history — the banning of a particular race –and intelligently explores the evolution of how this law came about and how it was eventually overturned.

This is a compelling, thoroughly researched film that reminds us an invaluable lesson about learning from our past.

Here are five films you shouldn’t miss at the festival.

My picks

Sundance Film Review: The intense “Wind River”

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Jeremy Renner treks through the snow in “Wind River,” one of the better films I saw at Sundance. (Photo courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)

I managed to squeeze in quite a few movies while at the Sundance Film Festival. I’ll be posting short reviews of some of the films — along with a web series I absolutely adore — in the coming weeks.

First up, “Wind River.”

Taylor Sheridan is an upstart around Hollywood, a rugged-looking guy who got his start as an actor and has since leapt into the big leagues based on the topical, highly quotable  neo-noir scripts he writes. With just two high-profile screenplays —  2015’s bleak drug cartel thriller “Sicario” and 2016’s out-to-beat-the-system bankrobber thriller “Hell or High Water” — which earned him a most deserved Oscar nomination — Sheridan has attained a mercurial star status that few screenwriter ever attain. If his name gets attached to a film, studio bigwigs along with audiences, notice and get onboard.

So it’s not exactly a surprise that the audacious, restless-seeming Sheridan decided to try his hand at directing, a common but sometimes treacherous path actors and screenwriters take. Historically, the results have been hit or miss, with some standouts  —  Ron Howard  and the late Ida Lupino — receiving praise for their efforts  and others, including Ryan (“Lost River”) Gosling and Nicolas  (“Sonny”) Cage, greeted by bad reviews.

With his violent and intensely absorbing thriller “Wind River,” Sheridan reveals he’s a very good director indeed.

His debut, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, received a well-deserved standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival screening I attended, ushering in the arrival of a director with his own distinctive tough-guy vision.

Sheridan’s murder tale is a grabber from the start. It takes place on a Wyoming Native American reservation (Park City, Utah, subbing for it),  a setting that presents the metaphorically inclined writer/director fertile terrain to explore.

Of the cast, Renner stands out as  Cory Lambert, a Fish and Game agent  haunted by the killing of his daughter and now investigating  the murder/rape of a teen-aged Native American whose brutalized corpse he has found in the snow.. Cory joins forces with the fish-out-of-water FBI rookie Jane Banner (Olsen) as the duo and the reservation’s police chief (scene-stealer Graham Greene) unsnarl a tangled web that becomes ever more horrific as the layers get peeled back.

Sheridan expertly creates the environment, and we feel the cold.  As both writer and director, he also slowly builds  on the tension. This gradual approach is a smart move, allowing for heightened character development and an opportunity to powerfully explore the grief many are experiencing.  But don’t think the calculated pace means the film isn’t gritty; the final act is particularly brutal.

The biggest complaint I had with “Wind River” is Olsen’s conventional, rather one-note  FBI character. Her Jane is typically ill-equipped for this assignment and comes across clueless at the start. Since she’s the main female character, I wish she would have been more interesting and less obvious.

Renner’s character, though, is better defined. The versatile Renner taps knowingly into Cory’s never-ending grief along  with his unwavering resolve to mete out justice for a family grappling with a tragedy he understands too well. It’s a restrained performance, one of Renner’s best, in a thriller that further cements the actor’s reputation and Sheridan’s as well.

Sheridan makes the transition to director easily, and the result is one of the more ambitious, engrossing  thrillers in recent memory. You won’t want to miss it.

“Wind River”

3 out of 4 stars

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham

Director and writer: Taylor Sheridan

Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes

Rating: R (for strong violence, a rape, disturbing images, and language)

Sundance 2017: A star is born in ‘Beach Rats’

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Harris Dickinson (center) stars in “Beach Rats” from director Eliza Hittman. (Photo Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival)

 

You probably aren’t familiar with the name Harris Dickinson. But expect in the months ahead to be hearing a lot about this talented 20-year-old. The British actor is earning some well-deserved buzz at the Sundance Film Festival for his stunning performance in “Beach Rats,” which received its world premiere there.

The handsome Dickinson takes full command of the screen as Frankie, a sexually conflicted guy with an attractive girlfriend and a bunch of bro buddies. But Frankie isn’t satisfied with his girlfriend, and spends many nights online and then hooking up with men he meets in chatrooms.

It’s a demanding role that requires Dickinson to be both cocky and vulnerable. And he aces it, giving a performance that’s so real and unaware of the camera, it makes you feel painfully uncomfortable to watch at times as if you’re nothing but a Peeping Tom peering in at the most intimate moments of someone’s secretive life.

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Eliza Hittman is one of our best emerging filmmakers. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

“Beach Rats” keenly aware director and screenwriter Eliza Hittman deserves equal praise. She’s an observant filmmaker who puts the characters above any plot, and she’s also someone who truly grasps what independent moviemaking can accomplish  better than mainstream filmmaking. Her  first coming-of-age drama, 2014’s spot-on “It Felt Like Love,” was another honest, uncluttered portrait of a young person rustling through sexual desire and confusion. “Beach Rats” is as good, and serves as a perfect companion piece to her first, and hopefully many more insightful portraits.

“Beach Rats” is up for consideration in the best U.S. drama category, with the winner being announced Sunday. It’s one of my favorite films from the fest.

Sundance Film Festival 2017: Six movies I can’t wait to see

 

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The documentary “The Force” from director Peter Nicks takes a look at the Oakland Police Department. (Photo Courtesy of Sundance)
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“Call Me By Your Name” has already been purchased by Sony Pictures Classic. It stars Timothee Chalamet (left) and Armie Hammer. (Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival)

The annual Sundance Film Festival gusts its way into Park City, Utah, beginning Jan. 18, nudging movie lovers to bundle up and start their mornings watching movies.

The festival dominates the region, especially that first weekend when it’s hard for anyone to land a table at restaurant but easy to spot a celebrity shivering down the street.

Last year was a good year for Sundance, which gave us “The Birth of a Nation,” “Manchester By the Sea,” “Love & Friendship,” “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “Sing Street,” amongst others.

I’ll be at the festival in just over a week, taking in as many movies as I possibly can.

Throughout that time, I’ll post quick reviews, pointing you to some gems and directing you away from others.

Here are but six films, I’m psyched about seeing.

“The Force”: Filmmaker Peter Nicks turns his fly-on the-wall documentary style onto the trouble-plagued Oakland Police Department. Nicks excels at taking topical material and making it real by observing and letting people he’s following let their stories unfold organically. His riveting 2012 East Bay-focused documentary “The Waiting Room” followed doctors, nurses and patients as they navigated through the overburdened Highland Hospital ER in Oakland. “Room” took such a clear-eyed view of the health-care crisis, it deservedly got shortlisted for an Oscar. “The Force” might well indeed be with Nicks again.

“Call Me By Your Name”: How will that  so-sensual-it-makes-you-pine prose of novelist Andre Aciman translate up on the screen? We’ll find out. Aciman’s erotically charged 2007 novel about longing that was set in Italy delved into the steamy and heady relationship between a 17-year-old boy and a 24-year-old professor. Armie Hammer stars as the strapping scholar. Sony Pictures Classic knows this is one hot item, and has already snatched up the rights even before its debut. Luca Guadagnino who gave us the sexy and frisky “A Bigger Splash” directs. Can’t wait.

“An Inconvenient Truth Sequel”:  He’s back. That’s right Al Gore, the climate change crusader, returns for this urgently needed update of his pivotal mind-changer of a documentary, the Oscar-winning “Truth” from 2006.  The Bay Area wife-and-husband filmmaking team of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who last year gave us the equally urgently needed “Audrie & Daisy,” directs. It’s the opening night film, and one of the many environmentally focused movies in Sundance’s New Climate Program. I’m also looking forward to “Chasing Coral.”

“The Hero”: Sam Elliott remains one of Hollywood’s most durable, authentic and underrated actors. (Remember him in those itty-bitty red shorts in “Lifeguard” from 1976? Thought so.) The gravelly voiced star always makes acting so effortless. In “The Hero,” he plays a role that fits him like a Stetson cowboy hat — a zonked-out Western star getting a lifetime achievement award. But something in his character life forces him to reevaluate priorities.  Laura (“Orange Is the New Back”) Prepon, Nick Offerman and Katharine Ross costar.

“The Wind River”: With “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan rocketed to the upper ranks of screenwriters. He’s a neo-noir Jedi,  tailoring what could be ho-hum material and stitching in moral complexity. That’s all good, but does the part-time actor have the chops to helm a movie?  We’ll find out when this thriller set on a Native American reservation debuts. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen costar.

“Wilson”: The ideal casting of Woody Harrelson as the grousing, sad-sack, middle-aged character created by Oakland graphic novelist Daniel Clowes piqued my interest immediately. But it was noticing Laura Dern’s name attached that clinched the deal. Don’t expect any NutraSweet to this narrative about a man discovering he has a daughter. Clowes avoids the gooey, as his “Ghost World” attested to.

Tip for trying to carve out a few minutes for exercise. It’s simple, really.

Too busy to start exercising in 2017?

Here’s one way that might help you squeeze in a morning workout without adding more stress in your life.

For early risers who jump on their email and then get sucked down the social networking rabbit hole for a long time, try this: As soon as you log on in the a.m. set the alarm on your phone for 10 minutes. Then prioritize, balancing what you have to respond to with what you really want to click on. We’re human. We need to have both.

When that alarm goes off, that’s it. You’re done. Finito. 

With that spare time either hit the gym, go for a run, practice your yoga, revisit that exercise DVD you’ve got stuck around somewhere. Just move around.

Who knows? It might just turn into a daily habit.