Movie Review: The Lovers and the Despot (2016)
Imagine if Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, or maybe Blake Edwards and Julie Andrews, went missing in the 1970s, then turned up in the Soviet Union making movies for the Kremlin. Helluva story, right? This is the Korean version of that.
In 1978, Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean movie star past her prime, visited Hong Kong and disappeared. Her estranged husband, famed director Shin Sang-ok, went looking for her and also went missing. Years later, they turned up in North Korea, seeming happy, directing movies for Kim Jong-il. Traitors? Victims?
Documentarians Robert Cannan and Ross Adam argue for the latter, but vaguely. “The Lovers and the Despot” is a slow-moving, opaque documentary that raises more questions than it answers. Shin died in 2006, so for talking heads it’s mostly Choi, her kids, a few South Korean film critics, and a few U.S. State Department folks. Not enough light is shed.
Apparently Kim, a solitary child who fancied himself artistic, lamented the state of North Korean moviemaking and asked who in South Korea was good. Shin’s name came up, but it’s Choi who’s drugged and kidnapped first. She wakes up in Pyongyang, where she meets the dictator, is given communist tracts to read, fears for her life; but at least she’s living in a home and sleeping in a bed. Shin is imprisoned, tries to escape, is caught. Years go by. If Kim wanted the artists for their art, why are they not working? We get audio of Kim later explaining to the couple that his orders were misinterpreted. Choi says she kept a tape recorder in her purse, which is how we get the audio, but how did she get the tape recorder? And why is it never found on her? And how does the couple smuggle out all of their audiotapes?
Eventually, in just a few years, the two make dozens of movies in North Korea. Shin elevates its cinema the way he did in the South. Not hard, I suppose.
But we don’t get nearly enough on his background. Most of this information from Shin’s New York Times obit is news to me even after seeing the doc:
In South Korea, however, he was a major figure of that nation's film industry in the 1950's and 60's, leading some to call him the Orson Welles of South Korea. He directed at least 60 movies in 20 years, introducing techniques like the zoom lens and themes like the plight of women in Korean history. The South Korean government eventually took away his license because he refused to toe its line.
Even part of his plight in North Korea is news:
After eating grass and bark in prison for five years, he was suddenly released by Mr. Kim, who told him he could make any movies he liked.
Here’s irony: In South Korea, Shin went overbudget on movies, his studio went bankrupt, his family was kicked out of their home. In North Korea, one of the poorest, most repressive countries in the world, Shin suddenly had the budgets he never had in a capitalist society, as well as (within limits) free rein. Shin and Choi wound up living better than almost anyone else in North Korea, but were, by her account, fearful and miserable. So in 1986, in Vienna for a film festival, they escaped to the U.S. embassy. I'd give anything to know Kim’s reaction to their “defection." The history that’s waiting to get out there. The horrors.
In the doc, the best sense we get of these horrors doesn’t come from Choi but from official footage. During the funeral processions of Kim Il-sung in 1994, we witness the absurdly over-the-top lamentations of the people. It feels fake and awful, and in voiceover we’re told that those who didn’t mourn properly simply disappeared. Entire families disappeared. Everyone, in other words, is trying to outdo one another simply to stay alive. It’s a horrible tableau. It’s people competing to show the most sadness for the death of their worst oppressor.
“Lovers/Despot” is a little over 90 minutes long but feels longer. All of the areas of interest the documentarians could’ve delved into—South/North Korean cinema, in particular—and we wind up on this slow, meandering path.
The best thing I've read that explains the rise of Donald Trump—a cottage industry now—comes from George Packer in The New Yorker, who doesn't pull punches (calling Trump, among other things, “a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control”) but is measured while discussing how we got here; how Trump is both the same and different:
Republican Presidential candidates received majorities of the white vote in every election after 1964. In 2012, Barack Obama won about forty per cent of it, average for Democrats in the past half century. But no Republican candidate—not even Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan—made as specific an appeal to the economic anxieties and social resentments of white Americans as Trump has. When he vows to “make America great again,” he is talking about and to white America, especially the less well off.
More, Packer doesn't dismiss these Trump supporters:
White male privilege remains alive in America, but the phrase would seem odd, if not infuriating, to a sixty-year-old man working as a Walmart greeter in southern Ohio. The growing strain of identity politics on the left is pushing working-class whites, chastised for various types of bigotry (and sometimes justifiably), all the more decisively toward Trump.
This is probably the key line:
Trump has seized the Republican nomination by finding scapegoats for the economic hardships and disintegrating lives of working-class whites, while giving these voters a reassuring but false promise of their restoration to the center of American life.
I keep going back to these four words:
During my lifetime (b. 1963), we've had social progress (Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, Title IX, Lawrence, Obergefell) but economic regress (rich richer, etc.). More groups of people now have the chance to be part of the dwindling middle class.
Worse, GOP candidates have appealed to those suffering from economic regress by blaming social progress. It's mostly veiled—Goldwater's states' rights, Nixon's law and order, Reagan welfare queen, H.W.'s prison turnstiles—but it's there. And once in power, their policies wind up increasing economic regress while continuing to blame social progress.
Trump, as Packer says, is simply more blatant in his scapegoating. It's a formula will keep working until Americans wise up.
Movie Review: Weiner (2016)
The truest, funniest, most necessary line in “Weiner” is spoken by documentarian Josh Kriegman near the end.
It’s the night of the New York City mayoral primary, Sept. 13, 2013, and as the returns come in, it’s apparent that candidate Anthony Weiner, who in an early poll led with 25 percent of the vote, has gotten crushed: He finishes with less than 5 percent. Meaning all of the work he and his staff and his wife (and his wife!) have gone through during the previous months has been for naught: the ramping up, the fundraising, the endless ethnic parades and shaking of hands; the newspaper and magazine and television interviews; the attempts to overcome Weiner’s idiotic 2010 sexting scandal only to be immersed in the wider, more egregious, and more punchline-worthy “Carlos Danger” scandal of 2013, all of it for nothing. And after the concession speech, with its own farcical elements, and after friends and staff have left, it’s just Weiner and his lovely wife, Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton, in the silence of their Manhattan apartment. Oh, and Kriegman and his camera. And it’s Kriegman who breaks the silence with the question we’ve wondered throughout this painful, absurd, all-too-human exposé:
“Why are you letting me film this?”
You deserve a break today
I’d forgotten about the second scandal, by the way. Or I guess I thought the second scandal was simply a rehash of the first instead of its own new thing. I tend to turn away from public accidents like this. I don’t rubberneck on the freeway, either. So why did I go see this documentary about a carwreck of a political career? Two reasons: I heard it was good, and I was curious what it could tell me about Anthony Weiner that I didn’t know.
Give him this: He’s a man who doesn’t back down from a fight—any fight. The floor of the U.S. House, a political dais, a bakery in Brooklyn: It’s all the same to him. “I don’t like bullies,” he says, but it only makes sense if the fight is worth it, and in the doc his fights are increasingly not worth it. Not after “Carlos Danger.”
He’s articulate and quick-witted, too. He has a great line when he’s riding in the back of his towncar to another whatever—event, interview—and Kriegman asks him something, and Weiner responds with a query of his own: Is there a species of fly on the wall that talks? He’d like to know about that. He thinks that would be interesting to see: a fly on the wall that talks. It’s one of the wittier ways of saying “Shut the fuck up.”
There’s tragedy in this. You look at Weiner’s attacks on Republicans in 2009, 2010, his sticking up for the common man, and you think about what might have been. You look at his wife, so beautiful and poised, and how important this image of the two of them, the Jew and the Muslim, could’ve been for the world.
Instead, the image is of bulging gray underwear. The movie opens with a great quote from Marshall McLuhan, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers,” but Weiner manages to come up with a worse name than his own: Carlos Danger. And the woman he’s sexting has an equally ridiculous name: Sydney Leathers. The press goes crazy over all of this; Huma is even drawn into it. The New York Post, with maybe an eye toward Hillary, attacks her for sticking by her husband. Truly, the press comes off awful here. We’re a moralizing culture that craves dirt. We keep throwing the first stone but it’s a tomato.
Election night is the worst. Leathers goes on Howard Stern’s show, and he convinces her to stalk Weiner, to wait outside his campaign headquarters to confront the losing candidate. To kick a man when he’s down? For shits and giggles? It’s never stated why. But off she goes, happy for another day in the spotlight, and he’s forced to dash through a nearby McDonald’s to avoid her. Even in losing, he’s not allowed a moment of grace. Every element of his life is turned into farce.
The role of women in these scandals generally goes unexplored. We get why men are attracted to beautiful women but why are women attracted to famous men? One wonders, too, what our history would be like if we assumed the same sexual restraint on the part of political leaders as we do from a Mick Jagger or a Warren Beatty. Is the scandal that we like the scandal? That we need the scandal? But there’s an obvious lesson: Women who will fuck you because you’re famous will most assuredly eliminate the middle man given the chance.
So get up and get away
You know what stunned me? Huma and Anthony are still together. I watched everything he dragged her through and assumed the marriage was kaput. It’s not. Not officially. How did he salvage it? What did he say to her in private? In the private more private than the private we see.
As for the question Kriegman asks? Why let him film this? I guess it’s all we’ve mentioned: Weiner’s inability to not fight; his desire for the last word. Or maybe he needs the spotlight as much as Leathers. Maybe it’s the same reason for the sexting that brought down his career: He can’t help himself.
One of the best scenes in the doc, one that will stick with me as indicative of our times, is Weiner’s post-Carlos Danger interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC—an interview that takes place via satellite. O’Donnell, both high-handed and exasperated, is in the studio, while Weiner, increasingly desperate and combative, with a look in his eyes that asks “It’s him, right?” when he knows it’s himself, is ... I don’t even know where Weiner is here. A big empty room. But he’s got the earpiece in, and the lights and camera are on, and Kriegman and co-director Elyse Steinberg cut to footage of that combative, split-screen exchange as it appears on TV. But they also pull back and show us what it’s like to be where they are. And from that perspective, Anthony Weiner is simply a man talking to himself in the midst of a big empty.
Lancelot Links Gets Bun Cha in Hanoi
- My president. Obama wins hearts and minds in Hanoi with bun cha—at a restaurant we maybe visited, or certainly passed by, during our visit in 2010. Next up? Cha ca la vong. Or human rights.
- Is the mainstream media helping Donald Trump? Feeding him questions that lead toward more reasonable ground? The Washington Post ponders this. The Scarborough example is particularly damning.
- Related: George Packer's “Talk of the Town” piece is the best thing I've read on the Trump nomination.
- Related: Adam Gopnik lets loose with a terse, angry piece: The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump. “One by one, people who had not merely resisted him before but called him by his proper name—who, until a month ago, were determined to oppose a man they rightly described as a con artist and a pathological liar—are suddenly getting on board.”
- Related: Stephen Colbert on the 2000 dangers of Ralph Nader.
- Related: John Oliver takes down the various idiocies of our primary process. Washington, my state, doesn't come off well. I wondered why I filled out that ballot two months after the caucus.
- Related: The Daily Kos on the 11 reasons Bernie lost fair and square. It's 11 reasons his supporters will howl to the heavens about. Often with CAPS.
- Missed this the first time around: Samantha Bee on the five Seattle City Councilwoman who voted against another publicly funded stadium in downtown Seattle (for a basketball team this time), and who had the usual online misogynistic abuse heaped upon them as a result. Bee makes comedy (edged with anger) out of it. The intros/nicknames are my favorite.
- Why were the Astros called “Houston” on so many 1960s-era baseball cards? Why did the '68 and '69 cards often use the same photo? What does any of this have to do with the hiring of Marvin Miller to head up the then-toothless Major League Baseball Players Association? It's all right here.
- Team #GiveElsaAGirlfriend or Team #CharmingPrinceForElsa? I think the latter's been done before.
- David Schoenfield's “Five things we learned Sunday” about MLB. Loved #4. Could do without #1.
- ESPN's 30-for-30, a great source of sports documentaries, takes on the hapless Cleveland team—er, teams. No championships there in any major sport since '64. Joe Posnanski, himself from Cleveland, laments.
- Someone took Bartolo Colon's homerun, the first and only in the 20-year career by the suddenly beloved, rotund pitcher, and turned it into the final homerun in “The Natural.” Something about his homerun trot, in slow-mo, reminds me of that old Steven Wright joke: “Put some Minute Rice in the microwave; went back in time.”
- James O'Keefe stings himself, via Jane Mayer. Couldn't happen to a nastier guy.
- I always loved Morley Safer, an even-tempered true journalist with a twinkle in his eye. Rest in peace.
Quote of the Day
“He's not Hitler, as his wife recently said? Well, of course he isn't. But then Hitler wasn't Hitler—until he was. At each step of the way, the shock was tempered by acceptance. It depended on conservatives pretending he wasn't so bad, compared with the Communists, while at the same time the militant left decided that their real enemies were the moderate leftists, who were really indistinguishable from the Nazis. The radical progressives decided that there was no difference between the democratic left and the totalitarian right and that an explosion of institutions was exactly the most thrilling thing imaginable.”
-- Adam Gopnik, “The Dangerous Acceptance of Donald Trump,” in The New Yorker, May 20, 2016
Movie Review: Indignation (2016)
He's driving the car, she's driving everything else.
“Indignation” is the most lyrical movie about a blowjob ever.
It’s an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, but first-time director James Schamus, who wrote some of Ang Lee’s best films (“Eat Drink Man Woman,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), left out most of the indignation. He softens the characters and makes them reasonable. Roth’s story is hysterical comedy while Schamus’ is lyric tragedy with a dry absurdist centerpiece.
In some ways, Schamus actually improves upon the book. For one, he makes us care about the characters. But without Roth’s indignation, the story doesn’t quite cohere.
This one goes out to Bertrand Russell
Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is the son of a Newark butcher who winds up attending the very goyishe, not to mention very English 101, Winesburg College in Ohio in the fall of 1951. In the novel, he goes because his father has become unreasonably concerned for his safety in the midst of the Korean War, and Marcus can’t deal. In the movie, he just goes. His father is a little meshuge, sure, but it’s long-distance meshuge. He’s hardly in the picture.
While taking on problematic roommates, weekly chapel, and invitations to the one Jewish fraternity on campus, Marcus must also deal with his libido. In the library, he spies a girl with her leg dangling over the arm of her chair, and he has to stay up until 2 a.m. to finish what he should’ve been studying when he was studying that leg. That's a good bit. It recalls another Roth scene—I forget which book—in which his Newark protagonist, also in a library, also enamored of a nearby girl, rewrites Shakespeare/Romeo: Rather than wishing to be the glove that touches the cheek, he wishes to be the bra that touches the breast.
The girl here is Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon, quite good), a lovely blonde in his American Studies class, whom Marcus takes to dinner one evening, then to the nearby cemetery to “park.” He’s driving the car but she’s driving everything else. He’s too nice to ask, too innocent to know. And it’s there, amid the quiet of the dead, that she does the deed that in a roundabout way leads to his death.
See, his roommates, one gay and in love with Marcus, the other straight and a doofus, mock him, and disparage her, and after a quick fight he moves into a room of his own: a third-floor garret that any college student would kill for, and which is treated here as if it were hardly worth the climb. The move also pricks the ears of uber-upright Dean Caudwell (playwright Tracy Letts), who summons Marcus to his office, where the two engage in a debate with raised hackles barely concealed beneath confusion (on Marcus’ side) and beneficent smiles (for the Dean).
Is Caudwell anti-Semitic? Is Marcus too sensitive? Whatever the reason, the debate goes on and on. At one point, Bertrand Russell is called upon, dismissed, defended. God and man are engaged. It’s semi-absurdist in its pointlessness, and it ends with Marcus, suffering acute appendicitis, vomiting over the Dean’s rug.
In the hospital, he’s visited by the no-longer estranged Olivia, who gives him a post-op hand or two beneath the sheets, and then by his mother, Esther (Tony nominee Linda Emond), who bears bad news: She wants a divorce from Marcus’ father. But she takes one look at Olivia, who has a scar on her left wrist from a previous suicide attempt, and whose father may be sexually abusing her, and cuts a deal: no divorce from the father (which Marcus doesn’t want) in exchange for no Olivia (whom Marcus does). Marcus accedes but is heartbroken. And it leads to his death.
How? Post-op, he can’t climb the stairs to his garret, so he stays at the Jewish fraternity, where its president, Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), tells him he doesn’t need to go to chapel: He can pay someone else to go for him. But the ruse is discovered, Marcus is kicked out of college, and, with no deferment, he’s sent to Korea, where he’s KIA. The end.
Causation is big in novel and movie, and it goes: blowjob —> roommate fight —> garret —> post-op Jewish frat —> scheme —> expulsion —> Korea.
So don’t get blowjobs. Sincerely, Philip Roth.
Look homeward, angel, and melt with Roth
In his novel, Roth lets us know fairly early that our first-person narrator is stuck in a limbo/purgatory he can’t comprehend:
... perhaps this perpetual remembering is merely the anteroom to oblivion. As a nonbeliever, I assumed that the afterlife was without a clock, a body, a brain, a soul, a god—without anything of any shape, form, or substance, decomposition absolute. I did not know that it was not only not without remembering but that remembering would be the everything.
But we eventually comprehend it. The first chapter, which lasts for 224 of the novel’s 233 pages, is called “On Morphine,” while the second-to-last chapter, “Out from Under” (just seven pages), informs us that Pvt. Messner, after having his intestines and genitals hacked to bits in Korea, is doped before dying. That’s the book. It’s death throes: a howl of protest against Jewish parents, sexual mores, and self-satisfied Christian puritanism that led, or is leading to, his death. It also feels like Roth’s own protest against his hugely successful career: the writing life, that scribbling limbo, that took over from the life as lived, and during which he’s forced, as Marcus says, to “remember each moment of life down to its tiniest component.” As Marcus recreates Winesburg, so Roth recreates Weequahic, Newark, on page after page, in book after book, down to its tiniest detail. No wonder he retired a few years back.
The final chapter, “Historical Note,” is just two pages long, and adds irony to what’s passed. We’re informed that, two decades later, in 1971, after a week-long protest, the chapel requirement at Winesburg was abolished. So what caused Marcus to die is ended by the next generation with hardly a whimper, and with, one assumes, much celebratory oral sex. Roth once wrote (again, I forget which book) that in the sexual revolution his generation was like the first wave at Normandy, over which the hippies of the ’60s stepped on their way to easy sexual bliss, and this is the literal version of that. Even into 2008, Roth is still indignant about it. Portnoy still has his complaint.
But that’s not for Schamus, who goes with his own, softer framing device. 1971 isn’t mentioned. Hacked genitals certainly aren’t mentioned. Instead, what begins and ends the film is an old woman at a nursing home being given her daily meds. Then she looks at the wallpaper in the home—little bouquets of roses in a quaint, 1950s pattern—and memories flood back into her. It’s Olivia, and the wallpaper makes her recall the flowers she brought to Marcus in the hospital; and she recalls that long-lost love.
Three things: 1) It's very sweet; 2) shouldn’t Olivia’s thoughts lead to Olivia’s story rather than Marcus’?; 3) for good or ill, it’s not exactly Rothian.
Movie Review: Cafe Society (2016)
He's hardly a schmoozing nightclub owner; she plays love like it's a stubbed toe.
“Love fades” the old woman tells Alvy Singer after his first break-up with Annie in “Annie Hall,” and it’s a kind of horror for him: that even this greatest of human feelings is temporary; that nothing lasts.
“Could it be that love doesn’t end?” Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) wonders three-quarters of the way through Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” and it’s a kind of horror for him, since he loves a woman, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), who loves him (kinda sorta), but who’s married to his uncle Phil (Steve Carell). Must he carry this hurt through the rest of his life?
Bobby: Call Alvy. Or that old woman on the street. You’ll feel better.
“Café Society” opened both the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and, a week later, the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival (we’re sloppy seconds), but mostly for reasons of pedigree. It’s Woody, it’s got a great cast ... and that’s it.
It contains echoes of his earlier, better films. A New York Jew goes to Los Angeles, finds he misses New York, returns. But there’s no wit to it. Bobby doesn’t skewer Hollywood as Alvy did; it’s more of a shrug. The movie is a shrug. Like most latter-day Woody, it’s got a tinny, inauthentic quality to it. It’s propelled by narration (by Woody, as in “Radio Days”) that moves the characters around like chess pieces but delivers no emotional impact.
So: Bobby, a New York Jew, goes to find work with his uncle, a Hollywood agent, who avoids him for several weeks, then gives the kid a job as a go-fer. Then he has his assistant, Vonnie, show Bobby around town. She does, he falls, but she’s got a boyfriend: a journalist who travels a lot. The boyfriend is a bit of a mystery. Watching, you think, “Who could it be? Who shouldn’t it be? Phil, right?” Yes, it’s Uncle Phil.
But then Phil breaks it off with Vonnie, she’s distraught, finds comfort with Bobby. They’re about to move to New York and get married.
Then Phil changes his mind and takes her back. So, heartbroken, Bobby returns to New York, where, inexplicably, and with the help of his gangster brother, Ben (Corey Stoll), he runs a high-end, hugely successful nightclub. Life goes on. He meets and marries Veronica (Blake Lively). Phil and Vonnie show up, with friends, and Vonnie is now like the name-dropping Hollywoodites he and she used to make fun of. Yet she isn’t. She’s still her (whoever that is). And she still loves him (whoever he is). And she tells him this when they go for a walk in Central Park. But life goes on.
Some problems, beyond the above:
- Jesse Eisenberg makes a good stuttering neophyte but hardly a smooth, schmoozing nightclub owner. Too much nervous energy.
- Kristen Stewart, so good with Olivier Assayas, is so so-so here: good as the woman you fall in love with, not-so-good as the woman who supposedly loves. Stewart plays love like it’s a stubbed toe.
- Blake Lively is Bobby’s fallback position. Blake Lively. Only in the movies.
One good line
Stoll is the best thing in “Café Society,” but his mob killings are treated as a kind of shrugging joke; and when he’s finally caught and sentenced to death, that, too, feels like a shrug. Our main characters are all stunned that their son/brother was a killer but don’t seem to care that he gets the chair.
Here’s a good bit: On death row, he converts to Christianity, since it has an afterlife and why take chances? His mother’s reaction—unsure which is worse: the chair or the conversion—is also good.
And one line made me laugh out loud. Bobby’s uncle is that classic, thin, New York Communist Jew of the 1930s who overthinks everything, and near the end, pontificating, he tells the table, “As Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’” Then he adds, “But the examined one … is no bargain.”
That’s classic Woody. Which makes you realize how inconsequential the rest of the movie is.
SIFF-List 2016: from 'Weiner' to 'Wiener-Dog'
Yes, Diane Kruger made it easier to choose “Disorder” (orig. title: “Maryland”).
Today the Seattle International Film Festival opens with Woody Allen's “Cafe Society.” Should be fun barring protests from Frank Sinatra lookalikes.
It's always both fun (and time-consuming) figuring out which movies to see at SIFF. I usually get a 20-pack in the fall and in the spring I figure out how to use them. This year I rolled the dice with the list below:
- Weiner: USA, documentary
- The Lovers and the Despot: USA, documentary
- Chimes at Midnight (1965): a good print of Orson Welles' little-seen classic
- Welcome to Norway!: Norway, Comedy/drama
- The People vs. Fritz Bauer: Germany, drama
- Disorder: France/Belgium, thriller (“Maryland,” the original, is a better title)
- A Man Called Ove: Sweden, comedy
- Wiener-Dog, USA, comedy
- Truman: Spain, comedy-drama
- Whistleblower: Philippines, drama
- Tower, USA, animated/drama/documentary
- The Brand New Testament, Belgium, comedy
- Women He's Undressed: Australia, documentary
- Dragon Inn (1967): Taiwan, action-drama
- NUTS!: USA, documentary
- The General (1927): USA, comedy, Buster Keaton
If you hear anything good (or bad), let me know.