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Zinnia Flower (2015) [New York Asian Film Festival 2016]

ZinniaFlowerDirector Tom Lin made the Taiwanese “Zinnia Flower” following the death of his wife in 2012 as part of his grieving process.  The film follows Ming who lost her fiancé and Wei who lost his wife and unborn child both in a major car accident.  Their loves ones get Buddhist funerals in which the departed’s loves ones come to the temple every 7 days for 49 days and are supposed to let go at the end of the grieving period of 100 days.  Ming and Wei’s paths cross a few times during this process but each goes through their grief their own way.

The film is co-written by its director Tom Lin and writer Wei-Jan Liu.  They craft a highly personal film about grieving, letting go, moving on, and remembering.  Lin puts all of his feelings and hope in this film which is filled with sadness and love.  The two mourners the story follows are complex and layered characters, each showing two very different ways of grieving with the victims’ families each taking different approaches to how to include them in the funeral process.  The film explores many angles to grief, none of them being better or worse than the other.  It also never judges or becomes schmaltzy; it’s a good study in its subject.  The director’s closeness to the subject, the fact that he has clearly battled with this, shows throughout the film.  He works with a hard subject delicately and gets his audience to share in the worse experience (most likely worse) of his life.

With a subject so close to his heart, the casting of the characters he created is so important.  The actors needed to be perfect for their parts.  In the part of Ming, the young woman who lost her fiancé in the accident, Karena Lam offers a subdued performance that hits all the right notes.  One of her scenes in particular should have every eye watching tearing up.  Her character goes through the grieving process without much support but how she decides to go through it on her own shows strength and courage.  She not only shows that her character is sad and mad, but you can also see the moment when she takes her life in her own hands, the moment her sadness changes , all of this through the actress’ soft, yet strong performance.  In the part of Wei, actor Shih Chintlang, a guitarist from the band Mayday, portrays a man in the worse possible period of his life, having lost both his wife and unborn child.

His performance embodies grief in a more classical way, with anger and the other steps up until acceptance.  His feelings are more expressed than Ming’s, thus the actor’s performance bounces back and forth between stronger feelings.  He makes the viewers feel with him in a more visceral way. For those who do not know much about Buddhism and its funeral ceremonies, the way grieving is handled is very interesting.  Over 49 days, the mourner goes to the temple to remember the dead and grieve.  After 49 days, there is also an important point at day 100 where the mourner is supposed to stop crying and learn to go on.

The way the religion is handled in the film doesn’t hit the viewer in the head; it makes sense and actually shows an angle to things that non-Buddhists may not know may not know very well. The temple scenes are shot in a very serene manner and are beautiful.  The rest of the film has a serious tone as well, but the temple scenes catch the eye in particular.  The scenes in Okinawa also do, but they are more comforting than serene.  This film is shot with such attention to details that it makes its runtime go faster and helps get the feelings through without becoming too heavy which is not an easy balance to achieve especially with such a subject.

Zinnia Flower is a film about death and the grieving process that works.  It’s not too heavy but shows the feelings and makes the viewer empathize with the characters.  It’s a beautiful and sad film, beautifully sad.  The title flower, the Zinnia, and what it represents is explained close to the end.  The story is touching and should make quite a few viewers cry.

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Zootopia (2016) [Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital]

zootopia-dvdDisney’s newest “Zootopia” is a very heavy and complex movie that can be appreciated by a broader audience. Sure, it has a lot of ideas about heroism, courage, and features a slew of really charming cute animals, but it’s also a tale about prejudice and stereotypes. It’s an inverted exploration of biases and conclusions we draw with others that can be dissected and analyzed by virtually anyone. I don’t think “Zootopia” is about a specific issue in the modern social and political climate, but it does hold an interesting function in helping us to take a second look at racism and the ideas of stereotyping a specific sub-set of individuals and how damaging it can be to us as a society and personally.

Ginnifer Goodwin is fantastic as Judy Hopps, a rabbit who has been told all of her life that she’s incapable of being anything but a farmer. When she beats all the odds and tries for her role as a police officer, she eventually proves everyone wrong and ends up earning a job as an officer in Zootopia. Zootopia is a series of small communities and cities made up animals, most of which are prey. The predators are reserved for more side roles in the society that are influential but not totally intimidating. Judy is underestimated mainly for her size and gender, and is sadly relegated to being a Meter Maid.

After stopping a theft from a local flower shop, she begs her commander Chief Bogo (Idris Elba) for a chance, and volunteers to find a missing Otter. With only forty eight hours given by Bogo, Judy begins cracking the case and blackmails local con artist, Nick Wilde, a sly Fox who may be able to help her. With their uneasy pact, Hopps learns about a grander scheme involving other missing animals, and the unnerving idea that local predators may begin hunting prey and ruining the harmony of Zootopia. Goodwin is charming and fun as heroine Hopps, who manages to disprove a lot of assumptions about her from her department and fox Nick Wilde, who sees her as literally nothing more than a dumb bunny who’s bitten off more than she can chew.

With courage and old fashioned determination, Hoops paves her way in to the annals of Disney heroines with ease. The voice work is fantastic with folks like Idris Elba and JK Simmons lending their voice talents, while Jason Bateman is a wonderful foil to Hopps. With his calm and smug deliver, Bateman turns Wilde in to a complex anti-hero, who garners his own ideas about stereotypes and the often inescapable pigeonholes society can put us in to. Wile just accepts his fate as a lower class predator, while Hopps is eager to prove she’s so much more than prey destined to reproduce and farm. Like the former Disney smash “Frozen,” the writers take its audience seriously and offer complex and very adult overtones that will allow them to give second and third thoughts about what “Zootopia” is trying to convey.

Along the way there are some genuinely funny moments, including the visit to the DMV run by Sloths, the fun jabs at previous Disney films, and shockingly compelling dynamic between Nick and Judy. “Zootopia” is another stellar Disney film that begs for a second look thanks to its evocative overtones and commentary.

The Disney release of “Zootopia” comes with a DVD and Digital Copy alongside the Blu-Ray. Among the features, there’s “Research: A True-Life Adventure,” a ten minute look at how the filmmakers dropped themselves in to the animal kingdom to research wildlife and bring them to life for the film. “The Origin of an Animal Tale” is a nine minute look at filmmakers discussing ideas for the movie during development, along with inspirations, themes, and whatnot.

“Zoology: The Roundtable” is a three part feature clocking in at almost a half hour, covering various facets of the film. There’s “Characters” about the film’s primary characters, “Environments” about the bigger and more minute details that comprise the film, and “Animation” revolving around the film’s fantastic animated sequences. “Scoretopia” is a look at the film’s fun score, “Z.P.D. Forensic Files” is a three minute look a the Disney East Eggs throughout the movie. There’s a music video by Shakira, a look at the characters removed from the final film, and a slew of deleted scenes and an alternate opening with an optional commentary by Byron Howard and Rich Moore.

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Zapped! (1982) (DVD)

ZappedDVDIt’s pretty fun to see Scott Baio and Willie Aames team up in what would be one of their many endeavors in “Zapped!” Baio was fresh off of “Happy Days,” Aames was off of “Eight is Enough,” they were a few years away from the comedy gold of “Charles in Charges” and decades away from being the douche bags we know today. It was an interesting time where Baio and pal Aames delved in to the sex comedy. “Zapped!” attempts to be as outrageous as silly as possible, but only really ends as a somewhat mediocre comedic effort that doesn’t do much with the premise it hands us.

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Zombie Fight Club (2014) [Blu-ray]

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While I’d say “Zombie Fight Club” is not the worst zombie movie ever made, it’s definitely up there in the top five. Joe Chien’s zombie, comedy, action… horror movie (?) is so painfully written and poorly directed, it watches like an amateur production from a failed film student. The script watches like it was put together in five minutes with a bunch of concepts that never ever mix together in to a coherent or remotely entertaining movie. Explaining the premise would be like listening to a child with ADD talk as if they’re trying to cram a whole hour’s worth of nonsense in to two minutes. There’s Singapore, and a high rise where a gang of drug abusers are living. The leader of the gang gets a bag of bath salts; said bath salts mysteriously turn the users in to flesh eating zombies.

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Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973)

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There was different energy behind David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust that ensured you were in for a whole other wild experience unlike any before it. Director D.A. Pennebaker keeps the mystique and wild tone of Ziggy Stardust alive from the opening title and then is quick to jump right in to the line outside Ziggy Stardust’s concert zooming in on the type of lovable oddities and weird wonders that worshiped Bowie and his adored his music, bringing us in to the full arena of the kind of minds and hearts David Bowie touched.

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Zombeavers (2014)

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Absurd as it may sound, it takes a special kind of talent to pull off a movie like “Zombeavers.” A movie with this premise could either be a flat affair, or so terrible it loses sight of its punch line. Thankfully, the crew behind the production has it in the bag. “Zombeavers” is a bonafide new kind of zombie movie, but one that pays tribute to a ton of classic movies from “Creepshow 2,” and “The Thing,” right down to “Die Hard.” And the good part is, if you hate the movie, you can at least count how many beaver jokes writers Al Kaplan, Jordan Rubin, and Jon Kaplan squeezes in to ninety minutes run time. “Zombeavers” may not be for everyone, but I had a blast. It’s clever, witty, and over the top horror comedy that mixes nature run amok movies with the zombie sub-genre.

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Zugzwang (2015)

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One of the bigger problems in “Zugzwang” is the intent behind the premise and concept. I was never sure if this short film was supposed to be a whimsically sweet tale of an underdog pursuing love, or a disturbing tale of a young boy out of touch with human dynamics who can’t take a hint. I found the ultimate resolution a bit uncomfortable and unsatisfying, but thankfully those caveats don’t bog down “Zugzwang,” completely. True it sounds like I’m down on the short film but despite its hazy intentions director Yolanda Centeno’s short film is charming and inventive.

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Zone Troopers (1985)

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One thing I can say about “Zone Troopers,” is that it definitely wasn’t what I expected. Judging from the film’s poster, you’d probably go in thinking you’re going to see another “Bad Taste.” In reality, “Zone Troopers” is very much like “ET” except with soldiers in place of children. And it’s also directed like a television mini-series, with goofy fade outs, very limited violence, and colorful characters that paint this PG rated story about a group of American soldiers that befriend an abandoned alien.

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