Once again, finishing in the nick of time. Most of these were pleasant surprises, some of them because I hadn't heard of them, others because I expected them to be boring or mediocre, but here they are...
A freebie for the kids: AGENT F.O.X.
Started this batch with something for the kids and, boy, was it a bad one. The film is an animated Chinese production and it follows the titular spy as he is sent to retrieve a mysterious amulet from Carrot Town, which is inhabited by rabbits. But as he infiltrates the town and is mistaken for another rabbit, he realizes that the other rabbits might not be as bad as he was led to believe. That's about as much sense I can make of this. The film has almost no strengths whatsoever, the plot is nonsensical as the script keeps throwing random things on top of the other for no reason whatsoever, there is little to no thrill to how things unfold, and the English dubbing had an off timing to its delivery. If anything, I would say that the set design of the buildings in Carrot Town was cool, so I'm gonna be lenient and give them half a point for that. But parents out there, heed my advice, stay away from this. Grade: D-
A film with the number 6 (Six, Sixth, etc.) in its title: MR. SIX
This was a rather interesting watch. Another Chinese production, this one follows the titular character (Feng Xiaogang), an aging kingpin or enforcer of sorts that has had control and respect over the streets of Beijing through the years. When his teenage son ends up clashing with a young street-racing gang, Mr. Six steps up to defend him, sparking a potential fight between both groups, but most importantly highlighting his frailty and age. It's important to point this right out of the gate; this is not an action film, and this is not a crime film, or at least not in the sense that we might be used to. The film is more of an introspective drama about what it means to get old and to be out of touch, or left behind by new generations. It is about father and son relationships and about past regrets. If you come at it with those expectations, you will probably enjoy it. Xiaogang's performance is great as he conveys a combination of toughness with weariness and regret. The other performances are good/solid, but Mr. Six is the most interesting and complex. There is some of a shift towards the last act that in some ways deviates the plot from what we might have expected, and the ending is definitely anti-climatic, but in many ways, still very much in tone with the spirit of the film. Grade: B+
A film from the Philippines: MARIA
Found out that Netflix had a bunch of Filipino films available so I settled for this action vehicle. It follows the titular character (Cristine Reyes), a former assassin now living a family life away from crime. But when she is spotted by a former associate, she is forced to face her past once again. If you think that the premise sounds derivative from other action films, well, that's because it is. The film really doesn't bring anything new to the table and borrows a lot from films like John Wick. But as far as the action and the fight choreography goes, I thought they were very well executed. The direction was solid as well and the story, as derivative as it might be overall, still managed to surprise me with one or two things. If anything, the film's biggest flaw is the performances. Reyes is not great, but is competent, but the other lead performances were borderline cringey, with Maria's husband and the two main henchmen being the biggest offenders. Still, for a film I knew nothing about and had no expectations whatsoever, I enjoyed it. Grade: B
A film with the word "Summer" in its title: SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING
The film follows the life of a Buddhist monk from childhood to adulthood, while using the titular seasons to signal the passing of time and each particular phase in the life of the character. The film, which is written and directed by Kim Ki-duk, features a deliberately slow pace and sparse dialogue; actually I think there was no dialogue in all the last hour. Despite that, the film manages to grab your attention with its gorgeous scenery and direction, but moreover with the emotional, silent performances of the characters. There are no big twists or reveals, no emotional speeches, no sentimentality and no judgments. Instead the director just puts its story forward and lets it flow. Apparently there is a lot of use of Buddhist symbology, which I've read some of, but still that doesn't affect the films impact and poignancy for those that don't know about their meanings. It's quite beautiful. Grade: A-
A film about LGBTQ+ lifestyles: THE WATERMELON WOMAN
This film follows Cheryl (played by writer/director Cheryl Dunye) as a semi-fictionalized version of herself - a young, aspiring, black, Lesbian filmmaker - that is captivated by a 30s-40s black actress and decides to do a film about her, who she was and her career. As a result, this leads her to discover and explore her own identity both as a black woman and as a Lesbian. If that sounds like a lot of tags, it's intentional. The film puts a lot of emphasis in how we and the people around us create our identities and categorize those around us, whether it is for a film, a casting, or to spend our lives with. The performances here are mostly subpar and Dunye's direction is not flashy, but there is an honesty and realness she brings to the film that is endearing and makes the film work. I also admire the effort put to create the whole image and persona of the fictional "watermelon woman". You can see there was extensive care put in making those old clips and images feel real, to the point that I thought they were. This film is not necessarily a masterpiece, but I would say it's definitely worth a watch. Grade: B
A film set in Hawaii: BLUE HAWAII
This was my first Elvis Presley film and I have to admit, I braced myself for the worst. Fortunately, this wasn't as bad as I expected. The film follows Chad Gates (Presley) who returns home to Hawaii after 2 years in the Army. Upon his return, he finds himself clashing with his strict parents (Roland Winters and Angela Lansbury) who want him to follow the family business, and his girlfriend (Joan Blackman) who is encouraging him to follow his own path. Sure, the plot is very cliché and formulaic, but it is saved by Presley's charm and charisma. Most of the songs are catchy and fun to listen to, even if they are not memorable. Lansbury is also excellent as his annoying mother, and she steals every scene she's in. There are several aspects of it that feel dated, perhaps a bit racist and misogynistic, but none that I found to be particularly offensive. Finally, the film is a tad overlong as it adds an unnecessary subplot about a group of high schoolers that end up smitten with Presley as he takes them on a tour around Hawaii, which sorta deviates the plot, but other than that, I thought it was fun. Grade: C+
So that's the end of June!
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