erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2010 posts

Friday June 25, 2010

Review: "Get Him to the Greek" (2010)


The sadness that permeates the comedy “Get Him to the Greek” has less to do with the polite desperation of record flak Aaron Green (Jonah Hill), who has 72 hours to get notorious rocker Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) from England to the eponymous theater in Los Angeles, nor with the ultimate emptiness of Snow’s dissolute, rock n’ roll life; it has to do with the state of rock n’ roll itself.

In each of the cities we visit in the movie, we get a quick spin through the musical landmarks—Whiskey A Go Go in L.A., Abbey Road in London, Roseland in N.Y.—and each feels less homage than memorial. Ah yes, I remember a time when music was central to our culture instead of whatever it is now: a sometimey, YouTube-y thing where real musicians fight for attention with your Mileys and Jonases, your “Britain’s Got Talent” and your “David After Dentist.” And lose. I remember when we listened, really listened to music, lying on the living room floor and reading the liner notes while the entire album played, instead of whatever it is we do now: downloading an MP3 file and playing it on shuffle in the background while we do busy work in the foreground. Oh, this is a good song. Love this song. Who is it by again?

At least “Greek” doesn’t pretend, the way “Be Cool” pretended, that the current music industry isn’t dying. It knows it’s dying. That’s why the president of Pinnacle Records in L.A., Sergio Roma (Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs), gathers his troops to hear their ideas. It’s also why they don’t have any. Some dude mentions a new discovery, the Next Big Thing, but this is a guy who always sees the Next Big Thing and his idea is dimissed with a flick of the wrist. That’s when Aaron Green pipes up about Aldous Snow. It’s the 10th anniversary of his show at the Greek Theater in L.A. Why not bring him back for an anniversary show—which can have all of these ancillary ways of making dough: PPVs and marketing tie-ins and what have you? Wouldn’t it be cool? It would. But Green, too, is dismissed. His idea is looking backward rather than forward.

Snow, whose character first appeared in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” is one of those thin-hipped, bad-boy, British rockers, and the movie opens in the late ’90s with him at his peak: shooting a video in Africa called “African Child,” with his girlfriend, model Jackie Q (Rose Byrne). But he’s an idiot and this is his moment of excess. He wants to be political, he wants to be relevant, and even mumbles something about the war in Darfour, and how “That isn’t right, is it?,” before singing an insane song about a white African Christ from space. Played by him. It’s “We are the World” meets David Bowie meets ick. The song bombs, his career is in shambles, while Jackie Q’s new music career takes off. She’s sexy and sings absurd, hilarious songs about sex (“Supertight”; “Ring ‘Round (My Rosie)”). She’s her own Pussycat Doll. She is what we have now instead of musicians: canned voices flouting sex.

Of course Roma comes around to the 10th anniversary concert and sends Green to England to bring back Snow. No small task. Green is polite, provincial, and in awe of the rock star. He’s a non-celebrity who has no leverage against a celebrity other than his honesty, which, initially, he refuses to use. Snow sizes him up and immediately finds him wanting.

Jonah Hill made his name as the street-smart half of duos—to Michael Cera’s fumbling geek in “Superbad” and Seth Rogen’s starstruck geek in “Funny People”—so this is really new ground for him. He’s drawing comedy not from telling us uncomfortable truths about ourselves but showing us an uncomfortable version of ourselves: the American abroad who doesn’t know foreign (even British) customs; the non-celebrity in the celebrity world. He’s good at it. His line-reading of “Europe,” after he kisses a Brit on both cheeks, French-style, still makes me smile.

Brand is in another orbit. He’s perfect. He plays Snow complex: both unaware and superaware; both dissolute and frightened. There’s something about Brit comedians, the lack of the wink, that’s almost scary, and Brand has that quality.

Given all this, the movie should be funnier. It’s funny, I laughed many times, and along with “African Child” we get great parodies of punk (“The Clap”), soaring rock ballads (“Bangers, Beans and Mash”) and gangster rap (“F**k Your S**t Up”), but I expected more. Maybe the film’s need to get warm and fuzzy tempered the humor. Maybe it got bogged down in Snow’s troubles with his father (Colm Meany). Maybe P Diddy’s suddenly psychotic record executive comes out of left field, or the menage a trois between Snow, Green, and Green’s girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss of “Mad Men”), a resident doctor, pushes the envelope without pulling along the humor, or maybe Snow finally performing the Greek concert with a bone sticking out of his forearm is more unnecessary envelope-pushing that distracted from the proceedings.

Or maybe the movie just can’t overcome the sadness of its premise. A rock legend has to rush to get on the freakin’ “Today Show”? To do a lame 10th anniversary concert? It’s all look back. The dying music world still belongs to the Jackie Qs:

Ride Me
Inside Me
Super tight
Boom Boom
Shake A Room
Like It's Dynamite

That’s funny and it isn’t.

Posted at 06:41 AM on Jun 25, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Sunday June 20, 2010

Review: “Toy Story 3” (2010)


“When I was a child I spake as a child,” 1 Corinthians 13:11 begins, “I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.” Sound advice. But what if you are the childish thing? That’s the dilemma of “Toy Story 3.”

Pixar’s “Toy Story” is essentially “The Godfather” of children’s movies—critically and popularly acclaimed, redefining the genre, with a lot of time between second and third installments—so one holds one’s breath with this third installment. No one wants another “Godfather III.”

We don’t get it. We get a fun and funny adventure movie with bittersweet moments, but also moments when the people at Pixar had to choose between the daring thing and the safe thing, and, despite their daring over the last few years with “WALL-E” and “Up," chose the safe thing. It’s hard to fault them. The daring thing is almost too daring for adults, let alone kids.

The movie opens in the insane world of a child’s imagination. A train robbery is being foiled by Sheriff Woody (voice: Tom Hanks) and his gal Jessie (Joan Cusack), but the train robbers, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), blow up the bridge, leaving the train full of screaming orphans (troll dolls) on a collision course with disaster! So Woody rides his horse next to the train, hops on, and applies the brakes. Too late! The train plummets into the chasm... only to be lifted up by, ta da!, Buzz Lightyear! (Tim Allen) The bad guys are about to be brought to justice but instead bring out their attack dog with force field. Ah, but the good guys have a dinosaur (Wallace Shawn) who eats force fields! Ha! But then the baddest guy of all, Hamm the Pig (John Ratzenberger), arrives in his giant pig spaceship and unleashes the monkeys, the barrels of monkeys, and the monkeys grab our heroes and hold them and stretch them every which way until... we’re out of Andy’s imagination and into his world, where his mom is filming his playtime adventures with a camcorder. It turns out, too, that this particular playtime was a long time ago. The toys are now sitting in the dark of the toy chest, where they haven’t been played with for a while, and Andy’s about to leave for college.

(A quick aside: I know this is a kid’s movie but you do have to wonder about Andy. Dude’s 18 and he still has a chest full of toys? In his room? And he’s taking Woody, his oldest, bestest toy, to college? That’s a guy who’s never getting laid. Or a guy who will eventually work at Pixar.)

His mom wants him to divide his things into one of four possible destinations—college, attic, daycare center, and trash—and she suggests the daycare center for the toys. Andy, affronted, unable to throw away what was once precious but is no longer relevant (we’ve all been there), sets Woody aside and puts everyone else into a trash bag for the attic. But it’s mistaken for trash-trash and taken to the curb. The toys affect a breathless escape, but, affronted by Andy’s treachery, and over the protestations of Woody, who saw all and remains loyal, happily get into the box destined for daycare. They want to be played with again.

I love that idea, by the way: Toys desperate to be played with. (We’ve all been there.)

The place is called the Sunnyside Daycare Center, with a sign outside featuring both sun and rainbow. Inside, our friends are greeted by friendly toys, including Lotso (Ned Beatty), a purple bear whose fur is worse for wear, and who walks with a cane, but who still smells like strawberries. He shows them the sights and takes them to another room, the Caterpillar Room, guarded by Big Baby, a plastic doll with one eye creepily half-closed. “Here’s where you folks will be staying!” Lotso says. But it’s a trap. They’ve been put in the toddler room and when the toddlers arrive, they do what toddlers do. They destroy. This is survival of the craftiest. Lotso and the others want to live as long as they can, and someone has to be sacrificed to the toddlers. For Buzz and the others, escape becomes necessary.

It’s a familiar scenario. Too familiar? It’s reminiscent of both “Toy Story 2” (the escape from the clutches of Al, the toy collector), and that great “Simpsons” episode where Maggie and the other babies in the daycare center devise a “Great Escape”-like plan to get their binkies back. But it works here because the director (Lee Unkrich), and the writers (Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Unkrich), get all of the details right. The initial escape attempt, through the inevitable slanted window above the doorway, is a veritable Rube Goldberg contraption, while the movie allusions—including the “night in the box” schtick from “Cool Hand Luke”—are subtle enough to not get in the way. Plus the dialogue is great. “Let's see how much we're going for on eBay,” a dejected Hamm says at one point.

But I particularly like the way they use familiar, sometimes generic toys for specific jobs. Thus the warning system for the bad guys, their eye-in-the-sky manning the security cameras, is one of those screaming monkeys with clanging cymbals. On the periphery you have a Fisher-Price chatter telephone, delivering cryptic warnings to Woody, or giving up the good guys at just the wrong moment. (Dude can’t stop chattering.) Lotso and company use the instruction manual for Buzz Lightyear to essentially reboot him back to his factory-model personality, while Ken (Michael Keaton), all ‘60s lingo and fashion, insists, in late-night poker games with the more manly toys, “I’m not a girl’s toy! I’m not! Why do you guys keep saying that?”

But the most brilliant use is Big Baby. Huge and lumbering, with a lazy eye like Forest Whitaker, Baby is the silent enforcer, a terrifying figure. Until she opens her mouth. Then out comes the gurgle or sigh of an infant. Big Baby really is just a baby.

The escape plan is a team effort, full of betrayals and counter-betrayals (is that a “Star Wars” homage with Lotso and Big Baby?), and our guys wind up riding the garbage truck with Lotso to the landfill, where they are put on a mechanized path to incineration but are saved at the last minute by the most unlikely of deus ex machinas.

It’s here, particularly here, with its echoes of “WALL-E,” that I wondered if “Toy Story 3” might not say something deep and meaningful about our consumerist society, our throwaway culture. Doesn’t happen. The lesson is there for anyone who wants it, but it remains in the background, while in the foreground we get more palatable lessons about loyalty and teamwork and going home.

Except what’s home for these guys? That’s the dilemma their adventures obfuscate for 90 minutes. In many stories, we start out in a safe place, we go off on a dangerous adventure, we get back to the safe place a little wiser. But these guys don’t have a safe place anymore. Or they don’t have a place where they are both safe and useful. They’re safe but no longer useful at Andy’s, and they’re useful but not nearly safe enough at Sunnyside. The toys go back home, in essence, so Andy can make the decision he should’ve made at the beginning: where their new home is going to be.

(One wonders what resolutions Pixar toyed with. Leaving our friends in the landfill? Incinerating them? Imagine Woody’s plastic face melting off like the Nazis at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A moment of trauma for the kids in the audience but a lesson for a lifetime about what happens when we throw things away.)

Can we watch these movies and not think about our own toys? I used to have an army of stuffed animals to whom I gave names and personalities. Pooh Bear was the small but tough leader. Old Snoopy, the first stuffed Snoopy I owned, was big and dull—his parts couldn’t move well—and he tended to stay on the periphery, his tongue hanging out. New Snoopy, his replacement, was cute and playable—his parts moved, he could dance—but he eventually lost an ear or an arm (or an ear and an arm?) in a fight with a sibling. The most memorable, in his own way, was King Kong (Real name: Chester O’Chimp, 1964, Mattel), the stuffed monkey with the plastic face and the felt hands, who had a pull string and voice box, and said things like “Let’s go the zoo and see all of the wild people!” and “I’m just a little chimp! Duddly duddly dum.” He, too, eventually lost an arm. Whatever happened to them? What landfill did they wind up in? It’s sad just thinking about.

Can we watch these movies and not think about ourselves? What happens when we are no longer useful? What the toys go through in “3” is essentially what we will all go through. First we’re useful; then we’re not; then we’re taken to a home where we may be abused. We live in a throwaway culture where we’re the last thing thrown away.

“Toy Story 3” doesn’t want us to think about this too much, of course, so it gives us its bittersweet ending, where Andy finally, reluctantly, takes his childish things and gives them to Bonnie, shy Bonnie forever hiding behind her mother’s legs, where they will be both useful and safe. It takes a long time to get there. In Andy’s reluctance to let go, one sees the reluctance of Pixar itself, which began its empire with Woody and Buzz and Hamm and Rex (my personal favorite: always so excited; always so wrong), and finally has to put away its childish things.

This ending is both mature (in letting go of childish things), and not (the implication that the childish things, now with Bonnie, carry on to infinity and beyond). It’s a kind of a lie, but it’s a forgivable lie since it’s the same lie we tell ourselves every day. Yes, experience is fleeting. Yes, kids grow up and go out into the world. But we live forever.

Posted at 10:09 AM on Jun 20, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Pixar
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Friday June 18, 2010

Review: “Nanjing! Nanjing!” or “The City of Life and Death” (2010)

WARNING: 100,000-300,000 SPOILERS

Lu Chuan’s “Nanjing! Nanjing!” (international title: “City of Life and Death”) is to the Rape of Nanjing what Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” is to the Holocaust: a beautifully photographed, black-and-white epic about an unspeakable horror, with a leading, sympathetic role for a man on the side committing the atrocities.

Comparing a movie to “Schindler’s List” is generally a compliment but not here. Like “Schindler’s,” “Nanjing!” also reduces the unfathomable to the understandable. It allows itself melodrama. It tries to draw emotion out of us, all of us sitting in our safe theater seats, by showing us tragedy that can be comprehended (one baby tossed out a window) rather than horror that can’t (dozens of babies skewered on bayonets). It milks scenes for emotion when, given actual events, we should be drained of it.

When I lived in Taiwan 20 years ago I wondered why the Rape of Nanjing wasn’t better known in the West. Iris Chang, in her book, “The Rape of Nanking,” calls it “the forgotten holocaust of World War II,” and that seems accurate. It’s forgotten, or glossed over, by everyone but the Chinese, on whom it was perpetrated, and the Japanese, who were the perpetrators, and some of whom deny it happened. So it goes with unspeakable horrors.

The movie begins in December 1937 with the Japanese Army, which had already taken over Manchuria in 1931, and which invaded China proper in July, on the outskirts of the then-capital, Nanjing, a walled city. China had been a divided country since the revolution of 1911, and we see some of this division within Nanjing, as the majority of the Chinese Army, probably Kuomintang, attempt to flee, while a few hardy resisters, led by Lu Jianxiong (Ye Liu), engage in a kind of giant scrum to hold them back. They are unsuccessful. Most of the first hour of the movie deals with the heroic resistance of these last remnants, with a small child, Xiaodouzi (Bin Liu), constantly looking up to and emulating Jianxiong. Then, after surrender, all of these are systematically slaughtered.

The Mayor of Nanking fled on December 7 (always an infamous date), and the government, such as it was, switched into the hands of an international committee, led by German businessman and Nazi party member John Rabe (John Paisley), who established a “safety zone,” where the Japanese were nominally circumscribed as to who they could rape and kill.

What was it like? A foreign missionary, Rev. James M. McCallum, wrote the following in his diary:

I know not where to begin nor to end. Never I have heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night, and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet ... People are hysterical ... Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.

How many Shanghai citizens were murdered? One hundred thousand? Three hundred thousand? How many women were raped? Twenty thousand? Eighty thousand? The numbers are staggering but they are only numbers, so Lu Chuan spotlights a few people to care about.

There’s Mr. Tang (Wei Fan), assistant to John Rabe, who, in the beginning, when his wife (Lan Qin) asks if Nanking is safe, replies, “I work for the Germans. We are safe.” One awaits for his rude awakening. One doesn’t wait long.

There’s Miss Jiang (Gao Yuanyuan), a pretty administrator, who also works inside the Safety Zone. Who is she? Who knows? She’s mostly pretty, and generically heroic, but of course both qualities work against her here.

Then there’s Kadokawa (Hideo Nakaizumi), the Japanese soldier who opens the film by waking up and shielding his eyes from the rising sun. Metaphor alert. His path, during the course of the film, will take him to a point where he can no longer shield his eyes from the Rising Sun and its atrocities.

Kadokawa is, like Oskar Schindler before him, both the enemy and the most finely drawn character of the bunch. There’s a not-bad, early scene with a Japanese “comfort woman,” with whom he has his first sexual encounter. He comes away thinking it means something, that she has feelings for him—even as another man takes his place—but a later scene reveals that she doesn’t even remember him. It would be slightly sad under normal circumstances but these are not normal circumstances. And yet it’s still sad. How does that work? I think, like Kadokawa, we want a touch of the humane amidst all this inhumanity. Like Kadokawa, we don’t get it.

I cared not a bit for Mr. Tang. Every move he makes is wrong. He rushes home to cut off the hair of his wife and daughter but it doesn’t help. He attempts to negotiate with the Japanese but they dismiss him. He attempts to bribe them with money and information, including the whereabouts of two Chinese soldiers in the Safe Zone, but he only gives the Japanese an excuse to enter the Safe Zone, where his wife/daughter are nearly raped, and where his baby is tossed out the window by a Japanese soldier. The camera holds on his stricken face for an eternity. I thought of “Sophie’s Choice"—that scene after the choice is made and the camera holds on Sophie's face, and she goes from horror to an even deeper horror, to a lifelong horror; and while I know it’s unfair to compare another actor with Meryl Streep (it’s like comparing another songwriter to Dylan or another novelist to Joyce), we get nothing close to that here. Tang starts out stricken and ends stricken. And the camera holding on him so long merely makes us aware that the camera is holding on him for so long.

Eventually a release is negotiated for Tang and his wife, along with a third man, and the three make their way to the exit gate, where John Rabe and a car wait on the other side of a 60-foot no-man’s land. But Ida (Ryu Kohata), the subtly sadistic Japanese commander, after a reference to Tang’s wife’s beauty, tosses in a wrinkle. Only two can leave. Ultimately the third man has to stay behind and Tang and his wife walk slowly across the no-man’s land. But halfway, Tang stops. His conscience won’t allow him to go on. He tells his wife this. She looks confused. He says he’s going back to look for May, her sister, who we know (and probably he knows) is dead, but he says this for his wife’s benefit. He knows he’s going back to an execution. Tang's gesture is supposed to be a grand gesture but it feels empty. His responsibility should be to his wife, and to the baby inside her, but instead it’s to...what? A sacrifice for this third man? A general sacrifice for the Chinese, whom Tang betrayed? Worse, when he makes his way back, his wife follows and pleads with him through the barb wire fence; and all the while, knowing Ida could change his mind on a whim, my mind screamed, “SOMEONE GET THAT UNRAPED WOMAN OUT OF HERE!!!” Then Tang is executed grandly—tied to a post, in ready-aim-fire fashion, with Ida, facing away, in the foreground—when a quick death, in which Tang is treated like the dog the Japanese saw him to be, would've been more effective. Not to mention more realistic.

The movie keeps doing this. Making grand what isn’t. Milking what has no milk. Making the naturally dramatic melodramatic.

Is there a smart Chinese character here? A heroic one after Lu Jianxiong? Near the end, the Japanese are loading men onto a truck to cart them off and kill them, but, for some reason, Ida allows each Safe Zone citizen to take one man off the truck to save them. Miss Jiang, still un-raped, still with her perfect hair, chooses Xiaodouzi, the boy who looked up to Lu Jianxiong in the beginning, and who survived the slaughter of the Chinese Army. But he survived with another man, a fat man, who begins to cry out for Miss Jiang to save him, too. He won’t shut up. He keeps saying her name, and drawing attention to himself, and to her, and in the audience I kept thinking, “Shut up. You’re a soldier, and a man, and you’re getting this woman into trouble to save your own fat ass.” Sure enough, she comes back for him. And sure enough, she’s targeted. Ida gives her the once over. He tells her Mr. Rabe can’t save her now. He says “Our people will be pleased.” Then she’s led away to become a comfort woman, to be, in essence, fucked to death. “Shoot me,” she says to a Japanese soldier. Luckily it’s our Japanese soldier, Kadokawa, and the camera cuts to his point-of-view. He’s just standing there. Then slowly he begins to move. Faster and faster. Up to the two soldiers leading Miss Jiang away. Will he or won't he? I suppose it’s something that writer/director Lu Chuan actually has us rooting for the death of a sympathetic character like Miss Jiang, but it still feels like the scene goes on too long.

As for Fatty? He and the boy get away. Kadokawa takes them outside the city to kill them but instead lets them go. “Life is more difficult than death,” he says, then chooses death for himself. Before the final credits, we find out what happened to all of the historical figures, how long they lived, etc., and for the child, Xiaodouzi, who may or may not be a historical figure, we’re told, “Xiaodouzi is still alive.” It’s a great moment, a “Fuck you” to the Japanese, but the earlier, getting-away scene doesn’t work. Kadokawa lets them go and he and Fatty smile before they even reach the woods. They smile too quickly given everything they’ve been through, how much they have to carry inside them, how cheap they now know life is. They smile as if they’re safe, when they should know, more than anyone, that there is no safe.

Posted at 06:59 AM on Jun 18, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010
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Saturday June 12, 2010

Review: “Au Revoir Taipei” (2010)


“Au Revoir Taipei” begins with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street and ends with a farewell scene next to a taxi on a wet Taipei street, and much of the movie, which is charming and funny, is how the main character, Kai (Jack Yao), switches from being the guy left standing in the street to the guy riding away in the taxi. And whether he’s happier as a result.

Kai helps his parents with their noodle shop but he’s focused on his girlfriend, who, alas, is now in Paris. (She’s the one who left by taxi to start the film.) Kai wants to impress her so he spends his free time on the floor of a bookstore learning French; then he leaves her long-distance voicemails in stilted French reminiscent of the Colorado postal carrier in “Paris, je t’aime”—“Bon jour, Faye. Sans toi, Taipei est triste, tres triste”—before lapsing back into rapid-fire Mandarin. We see him leave several such voice mails. She never picks up. Not a good sign.

There’s another girl, of course, Susie (Amber Kuo), who works at the bookstore and teases him about his floor sitting. “This isn’t a library, you know,” she says. She quickly develops a crush on him, but, though she’s cute, he can't be bothered. He’s interested in the girl who isn’t there.

Meanwhile, Kai’s friend, Gao (Chiang Kang-Che), a sweet, supertall, mouth breather, has a crush on a fellow employee, Peach, at the convenience store where they both work.

Meanwhile, a full-of-himself cop, (Chang Hsiao-chuan), takes his girlfriend for granted until she leaves him.

Meanwhile, a neighborhood gangster, Bao Ge, near retirement, and fronting a legitimate real estate business, has fallen in love and agrees to one more score before he’s done.

Meanwhile, the gangster’s nephew, Hong (Ko Yu-Luen), wearing the orange pants and vest of a real estate agent, and about to inherit his uncle’s legitimate real estate business, wants a piece of the illegitimate action, and, with his ne’er-do-well buddies, all dressed in orange suits with big blue ties, plots to rob his uncle of his last, big score.

All of these elements collide one hilarious evening.

Writer-director Arvin Chen has a good visual shorthand. When Kai finally gets through to Faye, for example, we see him in his room, pacing and talking. Then he stops pacing. “Why?” he asks. Cut to: Kai in bed, crying.

Determined to fix their relationship, he asks his parents for the money for a plane ticket to Paris but they scold him for being impractical. So he goes to Bao Ge, who, amused by this neighborhood kid, and nostalgic about his own loves—first or otherwise—loans him the money. Then he asks a favor.

Kai is supposed to take a package with him to Paris, but the exchange is handled clumsily, and watched by both the cops and the nephew’s ne’er-do-well gang. Everyone gives chase. Kai and Bao bump into Susie, but, Gao, slow and intent on food, is subsequently separated from the others and kidnapped by the orange-suit gang—although these guys come off less as gangsters than confused high school kids on a caper. “What do we do with him?” one asks. Pause. Longer pause. Finally Gao, with a vague, uncertain lilt, speaks up: “Just drop me off anywhere around here,” he says. It's a great line reading.

Tied up in a hotel room, he shares restaurant information with the gang while they give him relationship advice, such as it is, about Peach. They play mah-jong and he trumps them. “I told you guys,” he says. “I have mad mah-jong skills.” He’s like a pleasant, less-icky version of Napoleon Dynamite.

Is too much of the film derivative? Along with “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Paris je’taime,” I caught whiffs of early Woody Allen in the whimsical soundtrack and Wes Anderson in the tone, camera placement, and the uniformity of clothes (here: orange suits) as a running visual gag. One joke comes directly from “Midnight Run” while the ending is reminiscent of the ending of “Slumdog Millionaire.” Everyone dances.

Even so, I had a great time watching “Au Revoir, Taipei.” The actors who play Gao and Hong are both hilarious, while the romantic leads are cute and sweet. One could call Amber Kuo’s Susie the quintessential Taipei girl: feisty, pouty, fragile. You fall in love with her and want to smack Kai for taking so long to fall in love with her.

It’s a world full of passivity and best-laid plans but mostly it’s a very safe world: broken hearts are easily mended, young gangsters and cops are easily distracted, and the gun introduced in the first act doesn’t go off in the third.

Posted at 07:40 AM on Jun 12, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Movies - Foreign
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Monday June 07, 2010

Review: “The Tillman Story” (2010)


As someone who just lived through the 2000s I can honestly say that W.H. Auden didn’t know from low dishonest decades.

Auden used the phrase in his poem, “September 1, 1939,” about the 1930s:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade...

His low dishonest decade ended with war, ours began with it. The dishonesty of his decade was the enemy’s, masterminded by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebels, which played on our hopes for peace. The dishonesty of our decade was our own, the Bush administration’s, masterminded by Karl Rove, which played on our fears, as well as our corresponding need for heroes. The administration that couldn’t stop attacking Hollywood kept using the tropes of Hollywood to gather power and silence opposition.

Pat Tillman was a minor figure in all of this, a pawn in the Bush administration’s game, and “The Tillman Story,” a documentary written by Mark Monroe and directed by Amir Bar-Lev, is his family’s attempt to set the record straight.

Most of us are familiar with some part of the story. On Sept. 10, 2001, Pat Tillman was a an All-Pro safety with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, happily married and making millions of dollars. Eight months later he joined the U.S. Army Rangers. He served a tour in Iraq in 2003. In his second tour, in Afghanistan, on April 22, 2004, he was killed. He was posthumously promoted to corporal and awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for combat valor, because of “gallantry on the battlefield for leading his Army Rangers unit to the rescue of comrades caught in an ambush,” according to the New York Times. A memorial service was held in San Jose, Cal., and Tillman was eulogized by the Pentagon, by politicians, and throughout the media as a patriotic hero-soldier who died selflessly for his country and for his fellow soldiers.

Except it was a lie. During an ambush by enemy forces near the village of Sperah, close to the Pakistan border, yes, Tillman led several men to higher ground; but they were subsequently mistaken for the enemy and fired upon by their own troops. Tillman and a member of the Afghanistan Military Police were killed by friendly fire.

Everyone on the ground knew this. There was no mistaking it. But the lie got out quickly.

Reading the first, heroic press accounts, with details provided by the Pentagon, is to be steeped in Bush-era bullshit. From USA Today:

When the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.

As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill's crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty”...

A month later, the truth seeped out, but it wasn’t well-covered. As the saying goes: the mistake is always on page 1, the retraction on page 14. From the May 30th New York Times:

Ex-Player's Death Reviewed
Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football player, was probably killed by allied fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the Army said.

Sometimes there’s no retraction at all. The following is every USA Today news headline about Tillman from 2004. Notice how they fed on him until they didn't:

  • Tillman killed in Afghanistan (April 23, 2004)
  • Moment of silence at NFL draft (April 24, 2004)
  • Tillman's legacy of virtue (April 25, 2004)
  • Body returns to U.S. (April 26, 2004)
  • Army promotes Tillman to corporal (April 29, 2004)
  • Tillman posthumously awarded Silver Star (April 30, 2004)
  • Items related to Tillman sold on E-bay (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman mourned by hometown (May 2, 2004)
  • Tillman memorial service held in San Jose (May 3, 2004)
  • Arizona salutes Tillman (May 8, 2004)
  • Report details Tillman's last minutes (Dec. 5, 2004)

Not only did Tillman not die the way they said, he didn’t live the way they said, either. “He didn’t really fit into that box they would’ve liked,” Tillman’s mother, Mary, mentions in the doc.

He joined the Rangers to fight al Qaeda but wound up in Iraq and wasn’t happy. “This war is so fucking illegal,” one of his brothers quotes him saying. He had an open curious mind at odds with the incurious absolutism of the time. There’s hilarious footage of Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity refusing to believe that Tillman read linguist and conservative bete noire Noam Chomsky. (Because it didn’t fit into their notions of a football player? A soldier? A conservative hero? All of the above?) Fellow Ranger Bryan O’Neal, a Mormon, talks about coming across Tillman, a religious skeptic, possibly an atheist, reading “The Book of Mormon.” He wanted to see what was what.

He swore like a truck driver and loved risking his life. He jumped from high places and climbed to higher places. He was that rare tough guy who didn’t need to show how tough he was. He never hazed recruits. He didn’t yell and get into the face of men who screwed up—as is the Army way. O’Neal recounts how, when he screwed up, Tillman took him aside and told him how disappointed he was. That was it. According to O’Neal, that was enough.

This is straight out of his father’s vocabulary, by the way. In the doc, Patrick Tillman says he’s “disappointed” in Pfc. Russell Baer, Tillman’s fellow Ranger, who was the first to lie to the family about the incident. He tells the Army in 2005 that he’s “disappointed” in them, too. The mother is lauded in the doc but the father dominates it. Thinner than his son, with the same lantern jaw, he seethes with rage. Still. He wants the answer to a simple question: Who lied about his son’s death? Eventually he tells the Army, in writing, “fuck you,” and this—and a Washington Post editorial—got their attention. In August 2005, the Pentagon launched an internal investigation into the incorrect reports of Tillman’s death. In March 2007, the report pinned the blame on a lieutenant general who had already retired. They took away one of his stars. There were some congressional hearings, and joint chiefs and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied knowledge of blah blah blah, and had no recollection of yadda yadda. It all petered out.

“The Tillman Story” is a sad story but it’s not a great doc. It focuses too much attention on the Tillman family rather than on Tillman himself. Like the family, it can’t accept the military’s non-answer, and, panning up the command flowchart to Pres. George W. Bush, spends too much time insinuating who might’ve ordered the falsification of Tillman’s death. At the same time, it’s so vague in describing Tillman’s actual death that a friend, who saw the doc the same time I did, assumed Tillman had been “fragged” rather than killed by friendly fire.

For all the attempts to release Tillman from his box, too, its portrait isn’t as complete as in Jon Krakauer’s book “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” In particular it ignores an incident during his senior year of high school, when Tillman, thinking he was defending a friend from an ass-whooping, put an innocent kid into the hospital. His life was nearly derailed by this—he served jail time and came close to losing his scholarship to Arizona State—but he came out of it, according to Krakauer, more contemplative and slower to temper. He came out closer to the man he would become. The doc would’ve benefited from this story.

But it’s a good reminder. Just six years ago we were all living through this: Jessica Lynch, WMDs, smoking gun/mushroom cloud, Video News Releases (VNRs), fake White House correspondents, the firing of U.S. attorneys, the outing of Valerie Plame, “greeted with flowers,” “Mission Accomplished,” “a few bad apples,” “last throes.” And Pat Tillman. What company to keep. If I were his family, I’d be enraged, too.

Posted at 07:49 AM on Jun 07, 2010 in category Movie Reviews - 2010, Politics, Movies - Documentaries
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